Friday, April 14, 2017

Household Religion (Part 1)

Rev. James Wood, D.D.

When Joshua, the renowned leader of the Israelites in the con quest of Canaan, was drawing near the close of his long and eventful life, he "gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and called for the elders of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God." Joshua recounted in their hearing the many instances of God's kindness towards them and their ancestors, from the calling of Abraham to their exodus from Egypt; the numerous miracles wrought in the wilderness for their benefit; and the extraordinary victories which he had enabled them to achieve in taking possession of their ancient inheritance.

This historical notice of God's mercies Joshua employs as the basis of an earnest exhortation to them to serve the Lord. "Now, therefore, fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord." They had seen enough of Jehovah's power and majesty, to prove him to be infinitely superior to the gods of the heathen; and they had experienced in their own history, such manifestations of his kindness and mercy, as to place them under the strongest obligations to love and serve him.

But if after all their minds were vacillating between the true and the false; if they were still undetermined whether they would worship God alone, or would blend therewith the idolatrous worship of their heathen neighbours, he desired them distinctly to understand that his own mind was fully made up; that irrespective of the course which they might choose to pursue, he and his household would ad here to the service of the true God. "If it be evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom you will serve; whether the gods whom your fathers served, that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land ye dwell: but AS FOR ME AND MT HOUSE, WE WILL SERVE THE LORD."

This resolution of Joshua contains what we properly denominate household religion. Let us notice
  1. The constituent elements of household religion, as expressed or implied in Joshua's resolution to serve the Lord; and
  1. Some motives to influence parents and heads of families to adopt this resolution as their own, and to carry it into practical effect.
1. Household religion involves the possession of personal piety by the head of the family. Joshua expressly mentions himself as well as his house; and if he had not, his resolution to influence them to be religious, implies a sense of moral obligation with regard to their principles and practice, never found in parents who are not truly pious. The forms of religion had better be maintained in our families by chaplains, or other proxies, than to live as many house holds do, without any visible recognition of the Divine being. But the employment of chaplains is seldom practicable, and other per sons willing to officiate arc not always at hand. Hence it is often an alternative, either for the head of the family to lead in their devotions, and perform other duties belonging to household religion, or to have them neglected altogether. Even if it were otherwise, parents are the constituted guardians and overseers of their families; and they are required to provide for their spiritual wants, as much as for their temporal; for their daily religious training, no less than for their daily bread. But how can they fulfil the Scripture direction, to bring up their children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord," unless they first devote themselves to the Lord's service? The experiment, if made, would be a failure. It follows, therefore, that a resolution to maintain household religion requires of parents and heads of families a serious attention to their own souls; such an attention as shall secure for themselves a saving interest in Christ.

In Joshua's determination to serve the Lord, he was doubtless influenced in part by personal considerations, irrespective of its effect upon others. He regarded his own duty as clear, whatever course his household or the people generally might choose to pursue. Even though his endeavours to influence and control the decision of those under his immediate care might be unsuccessful, he would still say "as for me." "Though all Israel, not excepting my own family, should turn away to idolatry, I will stand alone in the reasonable and glorious service of the true God." And so ought each of us to feel now, whatever may be our relations to society. Especially should it be so with partners in organizing the family relation. Their marriage contract should be accompanied by a solemn covenant to serve the Lord, — a covenant made first individually and alone between each of them and his God, and then conjointly with each other, as the most sacred tie of their nuptial bond; thus be coming "heirs together of the grace of life." 
But though Joshua was so decided with regard to his own personal duty and purpose, no matter what others might think or do, yet he evidently hoped by announcing his decision, to influence his hearers to do likewise; and he was not disappointed. Particularly did he design and expect to influence his household, and to caution others net to tempt them to idolatry; thus placing around them a cordon sanitaire, to secure their safety and protection against the moral malaria to which they were exposed. It is in this light that we now consider his pious resolution; and it sustains our position, that piety in parents and heads of families, is the first requisite for qualifying them to perform, in a successful manner, the duties of household religion.

2. The maintenance of household religion implies a public religious profession. Secret piety stands first on the list of religious duties. "When thou prayest, enter into thy closet." In this re tired sanctuary we should offer our daily devotions, like Nathaniel under the fig-tree, who, though unseen by mortal eye, was noticed and approved by our divine, omniscient Lord. But though secret devotion is enjoined as a necessary Christian duty, our piety must not be confined to the closet. Ostentation in religion is indeed rebuked by Christ; and yet he teaches that he also disapproves of concealment. Our being ashamed to confess him before men, involves the fearful consequence of his being ashamed of us in the presence of the angels of God. Household religion relates especially to duties of a social character; and hence those heads of families who are resolved to maintain it, must necessarily express in some visible form their faith in Christ, and their purpose to obey and serve him.

By a public profession of religion, we mean to include a union with the visible Church, which is a duty incumbent on all who love the Redeemer. But we intend more than this, viz., such a course of conversation and conduct as proceed from a pious heart, and evince the sincerity and genuineness of a religious profession. Zacharias and Elizabeth "were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blame less." They were not only pious in the sight of God, but also in the sight of men. They were conscientious in the discharge of all the duties enjoined, both in the moral and ceremonial law. They were, in short, worthy members of the Church; and the spirit of their religious profession was carried into their households, and gave tone and character to their family devotions. Similar re marks may be made concerning Joshua. He publicly declared his veneration for Jehovah, the only true God, and he habitually practised those personal and relative duties which had been revealed to him as a servant of the Most High. True, he was a public man — a military leader, and a civil judge. But though this circumstance gave greater publicity and notoriety to his words and actions than would have been done if he had moved in a more humble sphere, yet his religious profession was substantially the same as was made by every pious father in Israel; the same, likewise, as is virtually made now by every pious father who erects the domestic altar, and offers upon it, in the presence of his household, the sacrifice of prayer and praise.

Joshua's high social position ought to render his example especially forcible with public men. Let them not entertain the thought that experimental piety, or its profession before the world, or its maintenance in their households, is unimportant to them, or un- worthy of their elevated positions. The chief reason for the appointment of Joshua to succeed Moses in the government of Israel was, that he was a man having within him "the Spirit" of God; and the most honourable testimony made concerning him at his decease was, that he was " the servant of the Lord," — a memorial which was divinely indited for his epitaph; not General Joshua, nor Judge Joshua, nor Prince Joshua, but "Joshua, the servant of the Lord."

3. Household religion involves the daily performance of family worship. The first instance of religious devotion after the fall occurred in the family of Adam, when Cain and Abel brought their offerings to the Lord, and Adam officiated as their priest. The first altar erected after the flood was built by Noah, for him self and his household. Wherever Abraham sojourned, he no sooner pitched his tent to shelter his family from the noonday sun and the evening dews, than he "built an altar, and called on the name of the Lord." Job "rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings, according to the number of his sons and daughters." "Thus did Job continually." When David had re moved the ark from the house of Obededom, and placed it in a tabernacle which he had prepared for it in Jerusalem, he "returned to bless his household;" i. e., says Henry, "to pray with them and for them, and to offer up his family-thanksgiving for this national mercy." These several examples may be justly regarded as a true exposition of the import of Joshua's resolution, with respect to its devotional character. And the duty thus implied in it is virtually inculcated and solemnly enforced in the inspired imprecation of Jeremiah, "Pour out thy fury upon the heathen that know thee not, and upon the families that call not on thy name."

Prayer and praise are expressly enjoined in the New Testament. "I would that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting." "Speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing, and making melody in your hearts to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the father, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." These directions are general; but we have good authority for asserting that they were understood by the early Christians as including daily religious worship in the family. In those palmy days of Christianity, we are informed that, "at an early hour in the morning, the family was assembled, when a portion of Scripture was read, which was followed by a hymn and prayer." "In the evening, before retiring to rest, the family again assembled, when the same form of worship was observed as in the morning, with this difference, that the service was considerably protracted beyond the time which could be conveniently allotted to it in the commencement of the day." Much more to the same effect might be quoted from reliable authorities, with interesting and instructive details, including the practice of asking a blessing and returning thanks at their meals. The habitual neglect of religious worship in the household would have been considered as being little short of a practical renunciation of Christianity.

The excellent Directory for Worship which forms a part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, ought to receive more attention than we fear is given to it by many in our communion. That which pertains to family worship is as follows: "Family worship, which ought to be performed by every family, ordinarily, morning and evening, consists in prayer, reading the Scriptures, and singing praises. The head of the family, who is to lead in this service, ought to be careful that all the members of his house hold duly attend, and that none withdraw themselves unnecessarily from any part of family worship, and that all refrain from their common business while the Scriptures are read, and gravely attend to the same, no less than when prayer or praise is offered up."

4. Household religion includes faithful religious instruction. This was enjoined by Moses in explicit terms. "These words which I command thee this day shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates." Joshua was present when these injunctions were uttered; and there can be no question that he was faithful in carrying them into effect in his own house hold. Without it, his family could not have served the Lord intelligently. The words of Moses enjoin not only frequent formal instruction in the divine law, but daily religious conversation. They must give "line upon line, line upon line, precept upon precept, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little." They must also write down his words (the Pentateuch was not then printed) and let them occupy conspicuous places on their persons and premises, in order that their own recollections might be kept constantly awake, and that their children and servants might always have before them the great truths of God's holy law. It is not surprising that a people thus instructed should, as Josephus testifies, become as familiar with the sacred oracles as they were with their own names.

From the practice of Jewish parents, we may learn the spirit of our Lord's injunction, "Search the Scriptures." We should do this privately, for our own personal benefit, and in the presence of our households, with a view to their instruction in divine things. We will quote again from our Directory for Worship. "Let the heads of families be careful to instruct their children and servants in the principles of religion. Every proper opportunity ought to be embraced for such instruction. But we are of opinion, that the Sabbath evenings, after public worship, should be sacredly preserved for this purpose. Therefore, we highly disapprove of paying unnecessary visits on the Lord's Day, admitting strangers into the families, except when necessity or charity requires it; or any other practices, whatever plausible pretences may be offered in their favour, if they interfere with the above important and necessary duty."

Household religion implies proper parental restraint and correction. Joshua could not secure the fulfilment of his resolution that his house should serve the Lord, except by the exercise of his legitimate authority over them, in connection with the use of other appropriate means for promoting their spiritual good. He must keep them from idol-temples. He must restrain them from vice and immorality, and from unnecessary exposures to temptation. He must rebuke and chastise them, if he saw them going astray. This course was pursued by Abraham, the father of the faithful, and God approved of his conduct. "I know Abraham," said Jehovah, "that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment." Solomon was inspired to give similar directions to parents, "Train up a child in the way he should go;" not in the way he would go, for to err is the natural tendency of our fallen humanity; but in the way he should go; "and when he is old, he will not de part from it." Again, "Withhold not correction from the child, for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from hell."

5. Kind parental counsels are to be employed, either with or with out the use of authority and correction, according to circumstances; and correction is not to be resorted to until reproof and counsel fail. But experience and observation show that children cannot always be restrained from sin, and kept in the path of virtue, with out the exercise of more or less severity. Eli's "sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not." He counselled and re proved them; he expostulated with them; but to no effect. If, in addition to these remonstrances, he had firmly and faithfully interposed his parental and official authority, and had proceeded to punish his wicked sons as their offences deserved, and particularly if lie had done this when they were children, he might have rescued his family, his office, and the cause of religion from much reproach and injury. It is reported of the eldest son of President Edwards, that while congratulating a friend on having a family of sons, he said to him with much earnestness, "Remember, there is but one mode of family government. I have brought up and educated fourteen boys; two I suffered to grow up without the rod. One of these was my youngest brother, and the other was Aaron Burr, my sister's only son — both having lost their parents in their childhood; and from both my observation and experience, I tell you, sir, a maple sugar treatment will never answer. Beware how you let the first act of disobedience go unpunished."

We need scarcely remark (it is so obvious), that punishment ought never to be inflicted in a passion, or out of due proportion to the nature of the offence. It should be performed conscientiously and religiously, in a kind and benevolent spirit, and with earnest prayer to God that he would bless the chastisement for their spiritual and eternal good. We know a lady who was successful in family government, concerning whom it was said by one of her friends, that she kissed her children into subjection. This remark was true so far as it described her kindness and affection towards them. But kissing did not always produce the desired effect, and then she resorted to the rod, or some other mode of punishment. But when she inflicted chastisement, it was done as a religious duty, accompanied by prayer with and for them, that the Lord would subdue their wills and give them new hearts.

6. Household religion requires of parents a pious dedication of their children to God in the ordinance of baptism; and a diligent use of all the other means of grace appointed in God's word. The seal of infant dedication in the Old Testament Church was circumcision, but in the New it is baptism. The two ordinances agree in this, that they are both signs and seals of the covenant of grace, and involve a solemn engagement to be the Lord's. In the ad ministration of the ordinance to infants, the parents make this engagement in their behalf; and as a part of what is implied in it, they promise to maintain household religion. The Church has always been composed of families, embracing parents who profess the true religion, and their offspring. Hence circumcision, though an initiatory ecclesiastical rite, belonged to the household. And so of baptism. In three instances household baptism is distinctly mentioned in Scripture. The prompt and pious observance of this ordinance is therefore a part of household religion, and a suitable introduction to the other religious duties which devolve on Christian parents with regard to their children.

As soon as children are old enough to understand, they should be taught the nature and design of their baptism, and how they ought to improve it as a means of grace. The relation of baptism to the Lord's Supper, should also be explained to them. They should be told of their obligations to devote the morning of their lives to the service of God: be earnestly exhorted to trust in Jesus Christ, as their Redeemer, and to ratify their baptismal dedication to him in their infancy, by a public profession of their faith, and a devout reception of the Lord's Supper. The relation of circumcision to the Passover, was analogous to that which exists between baptism and the Lord's Supper; and the Passover, though a public church ordinance, was celebrated in a household capacity, and by all the members thereof, who had been circumcised, and were otherwise qualified to partake of it. And for their being duly prepared, the heads of Jewish households were, in a great measure, responsible. Preparation for the Passover was, therefore, an important part of household religion, and this was accordingly implied in Joshua's resolution, that his house should serve the Lord. The paschal lamb was a type of Christ, and those who partook of that ordinance, expressed their faith, not only in the true God, but in the Messiah, and in his atoning sacrifice. Hence, the resolution of Joshua involved a solemn purpose to make his house, as far as he might be able, worshippers of God, and believers in his Son. In harmony with this, Christian parents ought to bring before the minds of their children what is implied in the worthy partaking of the Lord's Supper, and their duty with regard to it, and to endeavour to prepare them, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, for receiving this holy ordinance in the exercise of a true and living faith.

We have already spoken of family prayer as a part of house hold religion. We add now the further remark, that parents ought not only to pray with and for their children, but to enjoin upon their children, the duty of praying for themselves. Philip Henry, father of the commentator, Matthew Henry, frequently gave his children this advice: "Be sure you look to your secret duty" [i.e., prayer]; "keep that up, whatever you do; the soul cannot prosper in the neglect of it. Apostasy generally begins at the closet door." Prayer is offering up to God our desires, and not a mere form of words. Yet it is difficult to pray without language; and more so for children than adults. Hence, in teaching them how to perform this duty, parents will find it necessary to prescribe suitable words, in the use of which their children may be trained to the habit of devotion. They should, of course, be taught that their hearts must be engaged as well as their lips, in order to render their prayers acceptable to God. But the serious repetition of devotional words, is often blessed of God to affect the heart; sometimes in producing a saving change, and at others in making a valuable and permanent, if not a saving impression. The distinguished American statesman, John Randolph, once said to an intimate friend, "I used to be called a Frenchman, because I took the French side in politics; and, though this was unjust, yet the truth is, I should have been a French atheist, if it had not been for one recollection, and that was, the memory of the time when my departed mother used to take my little hands in hers, and cause me on my knees to say, 'Our Father which art in heaven.'"

A further means of grace which parents ought to employ for the benefit of their households, is to require of them the proper observance of the Christian Sabbath, by a suspension of business and worldly recreations, by reading God's Word, and a regular attendance upon the public ministrations of the Gospel. The divine command, "remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy," is as obligatory on households, as on individuals. Heads of families are required not only to sanctify the day themselves, but to take good care to have it sacredly observed by their children and servants. This is distinctly enjoined in the original law of the Sabbath: "In it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates." This law was designed to prohibit worldly recreations, as well as secular business. It is thus interpreted by Divine inspiration: "If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words." (Isa. 58: 13.) But in addition to abstaining from labour and amusements, the proper sanctification of the Sabbath requires us to spend the day in religious services. They are both mentioned together in the divine command, "Ye shall keep my Sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord." This statute was conscientiously observed by pious Israelites; and it received the sanction of our Lord; who " as his custom was, went into the Synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read." This was practised also by his disciples, not only during his sojourn on earth, but after his death and resurrection. Christ appeared to them several times, on the evening of the first day of the week, as they were assembled for worship. Paul preached again and again on that day, directed that Christians should not forsake the assembling of themselves together, and that collections should then be made for charitable uses. John calls it the "Lord's day," and he observed it in a devout and holy manner. The law of the Sabbath thus expounded by the practice of Christ and his Apostles, was regarded by the primitive Church as being of perpetual obligation. In the famous letter of Pliny to the Roman Emperor, he says, that they were accustomed to assemble on the first day of the week, and sing hymns to Christ, as to God. And we add, that with regard to their families, they followed the example of Old Testament believers, who, when they publicly appeared before the Lord, took with them their " wives, and children, and little ones." This noble example ought to be imitated now, by every Christian community. The great congregation of worshippers in the sanctuary, should consist of households; and these should be whole and entire, and not broken fragments — the parents for instance, while their children are permitted to remain at home; or one or two members of the family, while the remainder spend the Sabbath in recreation. "The Lord loveth the gates of Zion, more than all the dwellings of Jacob." And he accordingly loves the dwellings of Jacob, when their inmates show the sincerity and fervour of their household devotions, by delighting to throng the gates of Zion. The sacred fire on their domestic altars, when thus kindled afresh in the temple, is made to burn with a purer and more heavenly flame, and on their return, they carry back the coals of a new consecration, to render more holy and sanctifying their household worship. 

The above article was originally published The Home, The School, and The Church, Volume 8 (1858)

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