How Modern Churches Are Harming Families (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what The Big Box is all about.

In the last installment of The Big Box, I complained that Scott Brown’s Equipping Men for Leadership in the Home and Church did not provide any detail about the day-to-day functioning of a Family-Integrated Church. Well, this week I got my wish, as John Thompson’s How Modern Churches Are Harming Families provides loads of detail on this point, so I recommend that this post be read in tandem with last week’s to get the full picture of the theology underlying Family-Integrated Churches.


Thompson’s lecture, overall, reminds me of the can of tomato paste pictured above (photo credit As we all know, there are lots of healthy nutrients in tomatoes. We also know that Clostridium botulinum is a deadly nerve toxin that can grow in dented or damaged cans and, when present, causes those cans to swell and leak. So if you found that can of tomato paste (which shows all the signs of botulism contamination) in your pantry, would you eat it?

If you said no, I have some questions for you. Don’t you want to eat a healthy diet? Don’t you want to consume the clinically recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals every day? Tomatoes are full of lycopene and all sorts of other good things. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

But of course the above argument is ridiculous and any sensible person would tell you so. The risk of contracting botulism far outweighs any health benefits you might get from the nutrients in the tomatoes; and if you really must have tomatoes for dinner, there’s probably a supermarket nearby where you can choose from any number of uncontaminated cans of tomato products. So why, if we replace botulism with bad theology and the can of tomato paste with the Family-Integrated Church, do so many of us accept this argument?

Before I outline the four major flaws I found in Thompson’s lecture, let’s first ask an all-important question: who is John Thompson? If you’re like me, you weren’t familiar with his name as he isn’t (to my knowledge) currently one of the well-known speakers at Vision Forum. Thanks to Cindy Kunsman and the Wayback Machine, however, he proved to be relatively easy to find (Wayback Machine page dated 2003):

John Thompson, director of the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches, director of Family Shepherd Ministries, church pastor and home-schooling father since 1983, has taught extensively on the family-integrated church, the busy father as family shepherd, and the benefits of home education and home business. A graduate in biblical counseling under Dr. Jay Adams at Westminster Seminary, he has been a keynote speaker at numerous state and national home-school conventions, Christian camps, and other conferences since 1985. As a contributing writer to The Teaching Home, Home School Digest and Patriarch Magazine, he is the author of several acclaimed articles including “College at Home for the Glory of God” and “God’s Design for Scriptural Romance.” John and his wife Dawn live in Walpole, New Hampshire where, in addition to their ministries, they and their musical daughters operate the Majesty School of Fine Arts.[1]

Thompson is the founder and former director of the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC). The current director is Scott Brown, who delivered last week’s lecture Equipping Men for Leadership in the Church at Home. So when these men talk about the practices of Family-Integrated Churches, we should believe them!

The priesthood of all believers?

Thompson structures his lecture around eight ways he believes modern churches are harming the family (by which he appears to actually mean “homeschooling family,” as he quotes extensively from Michael Farris’ book The Future of Home Schooling and essentially equates “family” and “homeschooling family” early in the talk). While addressing his first point – that modern churches have a wrong philosophy of growth more focused on numbers than spiritual health – he makes this statement:

In fact, in a gathering of thousands or even hundreds, the priesthood of believers cannot function. There’s simply not opportunity for fathers to lead in worship, for fathers to lead in teaching, for fathers to disciple their sons.

In mainstream Protestant theology, the phrase “priesthood of all believers” refers to the fact that all Christians are called priests in the New Testament (1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6) and have only Christ, their high priest, as their mediator (1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 6-10). In other words, we are all on equal footing before God and need no earthly mediator (ala the Old Testament high priests or Levitical and/or Aaronic priesthood) to intercede for us.

Thompson, however, seems to define this phrase differently. He first omits the crucial word “all,” then immediately equates his “priesthood of believers” with Christian fathers and sons. Combine this with the well-documented (and problematic) belief in FIC circles that men are the prophets, priests (sometimes even high priests) and kings of their homes, and it seems that Thompson is limiting the priesthood of believers to men only. This represents a significant departure from traditional Protestant theology.

(Tellingly, Thompson also never mentions women’s functions in worship until the thirty-third minute of a 44-minute talk, and even then their only function is to stand quietly in the assembly. Throughout the lecture it is only men, men, men – fathers and sons, fathers and sons, fathers and sons – over and over and over again, world without end, in saecula saeculorum, amen.)

Thompson’s doctrinal misstep here has some frightening theological consequences. First, it’s in flat contradiction of Scripture, which states that all believers are priests regardless of gender (1 Peter 2:9). Second, it’s also quite clear from the Bible that priesthood has an essential intercessory function (see Leviticus, where priests had to perform all sacrifices, for just one example) and even clearer that high priesthood does (Hebrews 9:6-10). So, unless the Biblical definition of “priesthood” is stripped of all its essential meaning, removing women from the priesthood of all believers and redefining men as the priest or high priest of their homes leaves women (and possibly children too) in the position of having two mediators – first Jesus, and then their husbands. Unfortunately for Thompson, this destroys the heart of Christianity:

For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus Christ… (1 Timothy 2:5)

Lest Thompson be tempted to claim that “men” in this verse refers only to males, in Greek the word is anthropos (“a human being, whether male or female”). Since Thompson quotes 1 Timothy 2:8 later in the lecture and specifically points out that the word “men” in that verse is aner (“a male, husband”), I know he knows the difference between these two words. In my opinion, he would do well to re-examine his theology of priesthood in light of that difference.

The definition of “church”

After tipping his hand about his aberrant view of priesthood, Thompson continues through his eight problems with the modern-day church, most of which center around his idea that the church is “a family of families” (i.e., made up not of individuals but of households) and thus all church ministries should be family-oriented (as opposed to age-segregated). His definition of the church as a “family of families” is, to my knowledge, nowhere in the Bible. In fact, it is actually undermined by Jesus Himself:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:34-37)

While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.” But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is my mother and my brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)

The church can be described in terms of a family, with God as the Father and believers as His children; but Jesus makes clear that these “family” ties are not based on blood. (See also last week’s article for a pertinent discussion of genealogy, adoption and sonship.) We must also remember the many conversion stories of individuals in the New Testament, who have no apparent family ties (Acts 9:1-9, 8:26-40). The second account is especially interesting as the person in question is a eunuch and thus completely unable to have a family. What really finishes Thompson, however, is the fact that Paul holds up singleness as the preferable Christian state (1 Cor. 7:8, 25-38), an unthinkable position if households really are as central to the very definition of the church as Thompson wants them to be. In fact, his definition has essentially no place for singles at all – a serious omission in light of the fact that Jesus was never married, and nearly half the New Testament was authored by a single man.

Sunday School the product of evolution

In keeping with his ideas of family-oriented ministry, Thompson roundly condemns all age-segregated ministries (Sunday School, youth group, etc.). He claims that the church did not age-segregate until the mid-19th century, after coming under the influence of “evolutionary” ideas. As it turns out, however, a five-minute Google search on the history of Sunday School is all that is needed to put this one to bed for good, as the good folks at Internet Archive have made available an interesting little volume called The First Fifty Years of the Sunday School by W. H. Watson, published in 1862. In this book we learn that the first Sunday School was founded in Gloucester, England by Robert Raikes, who was motivated not by evolution but by his Christian beliefs:

In the year 1781, an individual, of no great note in society, went one morning to hire a gardener in the suburbs of the city in which he dwelt, where the lowest of the people, who were principally employed in the pin manufactory, chiefly resided. The man whom he went to hire was from home; and while waiting for his return, he was greatly disturbed by a troop of wretched boys, who interrupted him, as he conversed with the man’s wife on the business he came about. He inquired whether these children belonged to that part of the town, and lamented their misery and idleness. “Ah! Sir,” said the women, “could you take a view of this part the town on Sunday, you would be shocked indeed; for then the street is filled with multitudes of these wretches, who, released that day from employment, spend their time in noise and riot, playing at chuck, and cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid as to convey to any serious mind an idea of hell rather than any other place.” This convsersation suggested to Robert Raikes, of Gloucester – for he was the individual – the idea of attempting to stop this profanation of the Lord’s day: the word “try” was so powerfully impressed on his mind as to decide him at once to action; and many years afterwards he remarked to Joseph Lancaster, “I can never pass by the spot where the word ‘try’ came so powerfully into my mind, without lifting up my hands and heart to heaven in gratitude to God for having put such a thought into my head.” (p. 18-19)

I’ll also add that it’s likely impossible for Raikes to have been motivated by evolution at all, as Darwin’s magnum opus The Origin of Species was published in 1859, a full seventy-eight years after Raikes’ founded his Sunday School. In fact, Darwin was not even born until 1809! How could Sunday Schools have been founded on evolutionary theories, when the theory of evolution had not even been formulated yet?

This should be enough to tell us that Thompson is dead wrong and we shouldn’t believe any of the conclusions he derives from his faulty history. But let’s explore this a little more deeply. Thompson claims that, due to their age-segregation and “breaking up” of the family, Sunday Schools promote immaturity rather than Christian instruction, so what were the results of Raikes’ Sunday School and the ones that followed it?

The good effects of the care bestowed on the scholars were also seen in their families. One boy, the son of a journeyman currier of dissipated habits, after being some time in the school, told Mr. Raikes that his father was wonderfully changed, and had left off going to the alehouse on a Sunday. Soon afterwards Raikes met the father in the street, and expressed the pleasure he felt in hearing of the change in his conduct. “Sir,” said he, “I may thank you for it.” “Nay,” said Raikes, “that is impossible; I do not recollect that I ever spoke to you before.” “No, sir,” he replied, “but the good instruction you give my boy, he brings home to me, and it is that, sir, which has induced me to reform my life.” (p. 26)

The pictures were very attractive to infants; he had a little a child in the school between four and five years of age who was much pleased with the pictures; he had parents who possessed a beautiful Bible which they kept merely to look at for its beauty without examining its contents. This child, having been taught by the pictures, said when he went home, “Father will you please read to me about Joseph and his brethren?” The father replied, “Don’t bother me.” The child added, “Master told me about it and said it was to be found in the Bible”: the father put the child off, and referred him to his mother. The child was persevering, and applied to the visitor who came to the house, and the parents were at last induced to comply with the child’s desire. [Mr. Wilderspin] should never have heard of this incident had not the time arrived when the child was old enough to be drafted off to the national school, and then the father waited on him and said he was sorry I should send the child away. He was informed that his boy being six he was removed to make room for others. The father then gave his reason why he wished the child to stay – “It seems you have pictures in your school, and I have a Bible in my house which I did not much like to look into till my child made me; having done with Joseph, then the boy would make me read about Lazarus being raised from the dead; and, in fact, he kept one so well employed that I have now learned to read the Bible for myself, and as soon as I can I will associate myself with a body of professing Christians and hear this book explained which I have too much despised.” Thus the infant scholars act as missionaries to their parents. (p. 141-142)

We can easily see from the above that Sunday Schools do not automatically discourage Christian instruction. In fact Raikes’ Sunday School actually promoted spritual growth – not just in its students, but also in those students’ families and (more importantly for Thompson) their fathers!

Thompson’s ultimate motive, however, for denigrating Sunday School is that he believes it is a sin for a father to delegate primary teaching responsibilites (even to his wife). He doesn’t provide much evidence for this belief (and Scott Brown failed to support it last week) except for a brief claim that all commands to instruct in Scripture are given only to fathers. All I can say is that he is leaving out several important verses that might change the picture more than a little:

My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother; for they will be a graceful ornament on your head, and chains about your neck. (Proverbs 1:8-9)

My son, keep your father’s command, and do not forsake the law of your mother. Bind them continually upon your heart; tie them around your neck. When you roam, they will lead you; when you sleep, they will keep you; and when you awake, they will speak with you. (Proverbs 6:20-22)

The words of King Lemuel, the utterance which his mother taught him… (Proverbs 31:1)

…when I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also. (2 Timothy 1:5)

These verses (esp. the first two) clearly set a mother’s instruction equal to a father’s, and show that it can have equally powerful results. It is clearly vitally important that parents teach their children; however, this does not necessarily imply that only the father should do so, or preclude delegation to others (pastors, Sunday School teachers, etc.).


Near the end of the lecture, Thompson spends a good deal of time describing an average Sunday service at his church. He claims to base his church “just on the Bible” and not any “traditions” his parishioners may have learned in other churches. Let’s see how consistent he is in applying this principle.

As I mentioned above, Thompson does not allow women to speak in worship. This alone is a hardline, literalist stance that even most other complementarians would disagree with, but interestingly Thompson takes it even further and also forbids children from speaking in church. And not just female children – all children. He bases this rule on 1 Timothy 2:8:

I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath or doubting…

He points out that the word for men in this verse is aner, and therefore concludes that only men can speak in the assembly. But how does Thompson draw the line between a man and a boy? When does a boy (a child and thus forbidden from speaking) become a man (and thus not only allowed, but commanded to speak)?

As it turns out, Thompson has decided that a boy becomes a man (at least per speaking in church) at age 13, since he is now a “youth” and thus growing into manhood. But where did Thompson get this? Presumably from the Bible, since he loudly proclaimed that everything in his church is based only on Scripture. Where is the Bible verse stating that boys should be considered men at age thirteen? Or did Thompson get this, perhaps, from cultural considerations, or even worse, some kind of extrabiblical “tradition”? His position on this point reminds me of a certain song from a popular musical, which you will probably recognize.

Thompson also references (like Brown last week) boys asking questions of their father at Passover:

…and it’s like in the Old Testament, when the sons would ask the father after the Passover, “Father, why do we eat bitter herbs?”

I find it strange that Thompson and Brown, who both made a point of saying that the Bible alone is sufficient to direct church and family life, keep having to return to extrabiblical Jewish tradition to support their ideas. As I pointed out last week, the traditional text of the Passover seder as such is not found in the Old Testament. All that is found in the Old Testament are brief, unelaborate instructions to tell your children the reason for Passover if and when they ask, and these instructions are worded such that either a mother or a father can answer the child’s question. For Thompson and Brown to derive their core beliefs from extrabiblical tradition, while simultaneously trumpeting their adherence to sola Scriptura from the rooftops and questioning the “sola Scriptura compliance” of those who disagree with them, is inconsistent at best.

Wrapping up

If Thompson and Brown’s arguments represent the basis of the Family-Integrated Church movement, then I must conclude that that movement is based primarily on historical misrepresentations, extrabiblical tradition, and a denial of priesthood of all believers that, in my opinion, comes awfully close to adding mediators between women and Jesus. Should we really build our churches around premises like these just for the sake of being “pro-family”? Or should we take that swollen, leaky can of tomato paste out of our pantry, throw it away, and go get a new one?

3 comments on “How Modern Churches Are Harming Families (TBB)

  1. Jeff S says:

    I think there are some legitimate issues that IFC folks are trying to address. I think it is true that churches can become so age segregated that families aren’t really doing church together in any sense. And I’ve certainly been to lots of youth functions that appear to me to be “off the rails” in terms of their ability to promote Christ-like living.

    But I think their answer is far too simplistic, has no Biblical foundation, and goes way too far by claiming to be the prescribed, Godly model. It’s interesting that my sister (who is an elder at a liberal PC(USA) church) has noticed the problems with age segregation at her church and is trying to come up with activities that will include various ranges of people. It isn’t necessarily about families as much as it is all people, though. So I would agree that we need to take a look at both age and gender segregated activities and ask the hard questions- what are we gaining and what are we losing by doing things this way? Are there ways we can do better? But that’s a far cry from biting off the whole system of IFF. I’ll get my tomatoes elsewhere, thank you.

    And of course, I feel especially affronted as a single father that my situation is not covered by their church structure (and almost certainly they would not allow me to remarry to become a part of their church structure either). I know I commented about this in the previous post, but the issue hasn’t gone away: you can’t create theology that leaves people behind and call it Christian.

    • Hester says:

      Oh, there are definitely legitimate issues. Having been raised homeschooled, I can see that many of my peers do lack skills in socializing with people who aren’t their own age, and yes, lots of what passes for “youth ministry” in some churches is just ridiculous. And on the other hand lots of adults don’t know how to interact with kids/teenagers/young adults without condescending to them or just making everything “fun.” So I think you’re right – areas to improve, but no need to ditch age-segregation whole hog. And I say this as someone who doesn’t regret having been homeschooled and (to some degree) non-age-segregated, as my parents weren’t nuts. (Though it does shape your mental assumptions in ways you might not expect. For instance, I can’t easily assign ages to school grades because my parents didn’t really use that system, so if someone refers to a kid as a “sixth grader” I have to count up from being 5yo in kindergarten to figure out their age.)

      Good catch on gender segregation – I didn’t have a chance to address that in the actual post. A lot of these folks love gender segregation, but where’s the Biblical basis for that? Ancient cultures did strictly gender segregate, but like I said, that’s not “sola Scriptura” so according to their own rules they can’t use that as justification.

  2. snowlyjam says:


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