Many Christian homes are battlegrounds rather than sanctuaries of grace. Many Christian marriages are hollow. Many parents are panic-stricken about raising children in our postmodern culture and many are heartbroken over choices their children have made. Despite all the formulas and checklists, many Christian families are crumbling and people are trying to find the silver bullet that will provide the solution.
I keep wondering, is the problem that we’re simply not applying the covenant to what we believe about family? Is it so simple that we’re missing it? The covenant is not a checklist. A covenantal perspective does not divide life into neat little compartments. It does not separate the marriage from parenting, and it does not separate the family from the family of families the church. The covenant model calls us to live in God’s presence to reflect His glory to each other so that we touch each other with grace. Only then will husbands and wives turn with one heart and voice and reflect grace to their children.
Then households can turn outward and join hands with other households in the community of faith and face the world with the message of grace.
Cultivating havens of grace is not so much about what we do; it’s about who we are. It’s about being transformed by the gospel of grace as our family journeys through life with others in the covenant community.
I know this is radical. Our practice of family is generally shaped more by culture than Scripture, and we live in a culture of individualism, selfism, and materialism. This distortion seeps into many Christian families in the form of family individualism. The members of a nuclear family become an island unto themselves. They are devoted to one another, but detached from the covenant family. The motive is noble—there is an intense desire to protect. But the strategy is flawed—they isolate and barricade.
For the last two or three decades, we have flocked to the experts with our questions about marriage and parenting. I am not discounting the importance of the expertise of the experts, but perhaps we have neglected the covenant way of listening to the generation ahead of us. They are further down the path. They know things we need to know.
This exodus to the experts has robbed one generation of hearing the wisdom of the next generation, and it has robbed the older generation of the opportunity to share their life experiences.
The basic premise of a covenantal approach to family and church is that we must teach the content of the covenant of grace in the context of covenant relationships that validate the covenant of grace. The covenant way is for one generation if to tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord. When families isolate, they deprive themselves of one of their greatest resources—the people of God.
In Exodus 33 Moses made an amazing request. He said, “Show me your glory.” What did God show Moses? He revealed that He is a personal God of covenant faithfulness. He is a God who enters into intimate relationships with His people. He is merciful, gracious, and longsuffering. He abounds in goodness and truth. And He forgives. This is what a reflection of His glory will look like in us.
Then God gave Moses specific instructions for the tabernacle, even its placement. Prior to this, the tent of meeting had been outside the camp. Now, this visible manifestation of God’s presence among them was to be right in the center of the camp. Anytime Israelites walked outside their tents, they saw glory. But not only did they see glory, they were to see each other in light of that glory and they were to reflect that glory to each other.
What if one family had decided they really didn’t like group travel so they packed up their tent and traveled through the desert alone. Can you imagine how weak and vulnerable they would have been? And they would have left an empty place in the community.
Many families make themselves weak and vulnerable because they pull away and keep church at a distance. Sometimes this happens because of a philosophy of family that says, “We need quality time and therefore we have to be careful that church doesn’t infringe on that time.”
There is a delicate balance between home and church. The lines are not distinct -they are wavy. There are overlaps and we will never get it exactly right. It is a step-by-step process and we learn as we go. But if we pull away we will be weak and vulnerable and we will deprive our families of the privilege of weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. We will deprive ourselves of people to grieve and celebrate with us.
As we have been blessed with grandchildren, the covenant way of life has become even more precious to Gene and me. We want our grandchildren to enjoy the privileges and responsibilities of being a part of the covenant community. But it was the death of a grandchild that plunged our family into the comfort of being a part of the covenant community.
Two years ago our oldest daughter and her husband learned that their fifth baby had a hole in her heart. They are members of the church in Decatur, Alabama, which is pastored by a Covenant Seminary graduate, Charles Garland. This church embraces all of their covenant children in grace, but they particularly embraced Annie Grace as they realized how fragile her little life was.
The day of Annie’s surgery, many people from the church were with us even though we had been told that it was almost routine surgery. It wasn’t. Annie’s little heart was much weaker than had been thought. When the doctor told Kathryn and Dean that Annie would only live a little longer, and that they could go into intensive care and stay with her, I saw horror on Kathryn’s face. “I can’t watch her die,” she cried as they walked into ICU. Immediately the church in the waiting room began to pray that God would give Kathryn and Dean grace to parent Annie to the gates of heaven. When the nurse took Gene and me to Annie’s bedside, we saw the incredible answer to those prayers.
Dean was sitting in a rocking chair, Kathryn was in his lap, and they were holding Annie. I have never seen such extraordinary peace. They talked to Annie about heaven, and told her how much they loved her. They told her that she would soon be worshiping Jesus face-to-face.
After a while, we reminded them that the church was in the waiting room and asked if they would like them to tell Annie good-by. Kathryn and Dean could have clutched those last moments with Annie, but they acted covenantally. They understood that Annie belonged to the covenant community. The covenant family began coming in two or three at a time. They kissed Annie. They wept. When Annie began worshiping God face-to-face, we joined the church in the waiting room and worshiped Him together.
Over the next days, weeks, and months this covenant community continued to surround this family with tender love. They did not just weep for Kathryn and Dean; they wept with them. They believed that Annie had been entrusted to their church family, and they loved her. They did not stand at a distance and watch. They entered into her living and her dying, and they continue to care for her parents and siblings in remarkable ways. When the other children asked why people were doing so many things for them, Kathryn and Dean would reply, “This is the body of Christ taking care of us.” At one point I was flooded with fear wondering about the effect of Annie’s death on her precious brothers and sisters. But I quickly realized that they were not learning about death in a vacuum. They were experiencing this reality in the context of a community of love.
Several months later, our family was back in that church for a joyous celebration as Kathryn and Dean’s oldest child became a full communing member of the church. I sat there and watched this church family weep tears of joy as one of their little boys stood and made his public profession of faith.
Over the next several days Kathryn would call me and say, “Mom, you wouldn’t believe it—everyone keeps calling and telling me that they felt like their little boy was standing there.” And indeed their little boy was standing there. It was more than just a celebration for our nuclear family. His whole church family rejoiced that this child of the covenant had ratified that covenant.
That’s what covenant life looks like. But if we isolate our families we’ll miss it.
The covenant community is part of our inheritance. It is in this community that one generation can commend God’s works and ways to the next generation. It is in this community that the cords of the covenant hold us when we are weak and vulnerable. Human language is inadequate to describe the wonder and beauty of God’s people living out the reality of their relationship with Him, but it is a dazzling spectacle of grace.
This article is reprinted from Leader to Leader, a quarterly produced by Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
Susan Hunt serves the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) as the Director of Women’s Ministry for the Christian Education and Publications Committee while also serving in her local church as the wife of Reverend Gene Hunt. She is the mother of three children, Kathryn, Richie, and Lauren and the grandmother of nine. Mrs. Hunt shares the knowledge gained from rearing her own children as well as her extensive work in the church, as the author of many books, including: Leadership for Women In the Church (co-authored with Peggy Hutcheson), Spiritual Mothering: the Titus 2 Mandate for Women Mentoring Women, By Design, The True Woman, and Heirs of the Covenant. She has also authored two children’s books, My ABC Bible Verses and Big Truths for Little Kids (coauthored with Richie Hunt). Her latest book on a covenantal perspective of family is scheduled for publication in June. A graduate of the University of South Carolina and Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), Mrs Hunt resides in Atlanta, GA.