[(Part 1 here) Part 5 of Pastor Mathis' lecture notes from the Spring 2014 Presbytery of the Midwest Seminar, "A Pastoral Evaluation of the Family Integrated Church Movement." More information on the movement, homeschooling and the history of Christian education, see the new book Uniting Church & Family (Kindle format).]
The strongest argument against youth ministries by the NCFIC is a hermeneutical argument rooted in a misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura. They claim that Sola Scriptura logically leads to family integrated churches, if one is to be faithful to the Word of God. If this theological claim fails, the entire system collapses.
The “Regulative Principle of Discipleship”
Scott Brown and others follow what I dub the “regulative principle of discipleship” or education. It comes from several assertions in his book and in online articles. Assertions such as:
“From the Scriptures themselves we only see one pattern of celebration, worship, instruction and discipleship for the people of God…. To be biblical we must be able to point to the Scriptures and affirmatively find the matter anchored within the Word of God. Then and only then can we say that something is biblical.”
What exactly is Scott Brown saying? The clearest statement of this belief is in an online blog posting from 2011. It is in this posting that he makes his most systematic, theological argument against age and family-segregated practices, even more so than in his book:
“While we do observe in the film that the modern form of systematic, age-segregated youth ministry has neither precept nor example to support it in either the Old Testament or the New Testament, we do not rest our argument on this fact alone. What is more important—and this is the main point we want to make—is that all the positive commands and examples in Scripture call for the practice of age-integrated worship and discipleship in the church and the responsibility of parents to disciple their own children.”
He continues: “The Bible is clear about this matter, and it gives the full range of that teaching including who, where, why, what, and when....When you split youth up according to age, you are doing something that is contrary to the explicit, revealed commands and patterns of Scripture…”
What should we make of these claims?
There are two claims: negative and positive. The negative claim is that, for example, Sunday school (as commonly practiced) is not in the bible. Therefore, it is wrong.
What is the rebuttal to this? It is simple: why do we have to find an example in the bible? Scott Brown never answers that question. It is merely an assertion.
The positive claim is that the bible only offers age-integrated worship, instruction and discipleship. But is this true? No. There is no command that states: “children should only be family integrated for instruction,” neither in so many words nor by syllogistic reasoning. Not one.
As for the practices of the bible, why should these limit the option for teaching and discipleship? Even if we were to grant this unproven assertion, the examples offered are not specific enough to determine exactly how the meetings of instruction were arranged. Did the wives sit with the husbands? Did nursemaids watch over the infants? Did families even sit with each other? The texts do not say, except Nehemiah 8: 2: “both men and women and all who could understand what they heard”—which is pleaded away into an insignificant “exception.” But history tells us that during the time of Christ, families were segregated in the temple worship. Where is the New Testament outrage for this practice?
Now, the question may come up: what about microphones? Or television? Or computers?
Scott Brown has an answer: that which are the “practical aspects of church life” do not need positive warrant. They don’t count. But he offers no syllogistic reasoning or biblical passage to prove this slippery distinction—because there is no distinction. I can claim that age-segregation is a “practical aspect of church life.” So, I’ve bypassed his prohibition. His distinction is arbitrary.
But let us back up here and look at the forest instead of the trees. Earlier Scott Brown wrote that there are no examples or commands of age-segregated youth ministries in the Bible. So they should not be practiced. He then continued to assert that the examples and commands that are in the Bible all point toward family-integrated discipleship activities. To practice age-segregation is to act contrary to the positive commands of God.
Does this hermeneutical principle sound familiar? Let me put it in more familiar language:
All methods and means of discipleship invented by the brain of man without God’s own express commandment is wrong.
Does that language sound familiar? It should, I took is straight from John Knox’s defense of the regulative principle of worship (RPW). When all his words are stripped of their verbiage, this is the hermeneutical position Scott Brown is taking. It is the RPW applied to Christian discipleship and instruction. This is what drives his rhetoric and reasoning.
And there is no Christian liberty in this viewpoint. This is what he means, what his organization means and what his confession means. It is what all the signers of the NCFIC confession are supposed to mean.
But the matter does not end there. Mr. Brown does allow for age-segregation!
In his book, A Weed in the Church, he writes: “There are times when it may be appropriate for various ages of people to meet for specific purposes" (p.231, cf. 61).
Then what is the whole debate about? Why is this exception not placed at the beginning of the argument? Where is it in the NCFIC confession?
Has the entire decade-long debate been over how much age-segregation is allowed? If so, how much does Mr. Brown think is allowable?
Very little it seems. He writes: “However, this is not to be the normative pattern of biblical youth discipleship, but rather an exception.” A glimpse of what an exception may look like is offered on page 225 of his [first edition] book wherein he contends that as “little as one hour a week” of age-segregation is “problematic” for those wishing biblical felicity.
In other words, 1/168 of a week is still too radical to contemplate. That is .006% of a child's week! What Mr. Brown gives in one hand is virtually taken away by the other.
This is why I used the word virtual. For all practical purposes, and certainly in practice, youth ministries are forbidden.
The Desert Island Test
Another way to understand their hermeneutical approach is with what I call the “Desert Island Test.” This is how Doug Philips put the case:
“[If all you had was the Bible on a desert island] . . . would you naturally conclude that you should fragment children along age-groups and put them in grade-based classroom . . . would you see a foundation . . . would you see a pattern, would there be any ground, any refuge in God’s Word that leads you to mimic this approach?” (emphasis original, track 13)
Scott Brown similarly argues without a desert island but with only the bible:
“If all we only had the bible as our guide, would children be separated from their parents during the meetings of the church?...Are there any commands or examples to follow in Scripture for age segregation?” (p.167).
Such a naïve hermeneutic permeates the movement. It is just that Phillips and Brown have articulated better than others. Now we can see what they mean by Sola Scriptura [the bible alone as the norming norm]; they mean Solo Scriptura [only the bible].
This is one way they have attracted over 800 churches in America: they reiterate, repeat and remind people that they are the true heirs of the Reformation, consistently following Sola Scriptura. It is to the Bible they return and call others to with their pied piper allurement. As Scott Brown said in one interview on Generations Radio, "We are really advocating confessionalism in this movement. Whether you are a baptist or a Presbyterian we are encouraging really a return to the historic doctrines of the Christian faith."
He may think that. But history and good hermeneutics is solidly against his position.
So, whenever you hear them end their argument with the finality of “the bible alone says…,” remember the desert island test—remember, they are asserting Solo Scriptura not Sola Scriptura.
The conclusion of the matter is that historically and theologically the movement has nothing to stand upon beyond repeated assertions, shallow research and a nascent legalistic hermeneutic created whole-cloth out of a misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura.