The Joy of Family Worship (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.

All right, so the pictures from the road didn’t show up as promised. Ah, vacation. Not to worry, they should be arriving soon… But more importantly, now that Hester is back, The Big Box is back as well. So let’s begin a new month with a new speaker, R. C. Sproul Jr. (son of prominent Calvinist theologian R. C. Sproul Sr.).

In the interest of full disclosure, I did have some serious misgivings about Sproul Jr. before listening to The Joy of Family Worship. One of these misgivings – the defrocking of Sproul and his session for abuse of authority, tax fraud, and assorted other violations – is, I think, well-grounded; for more info, see here and here. Since going into detail would digress from the point of this post, here’s a summary to get you started:

On January 26, 2006 R. C. Sproul Jr., Laurence Wyndham, Wayne Hays, and Jay Barfield were stripped of their ministry ordinations and deposed from their office as Elders of Saint Peter Presbyterian Church by the Westminster Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly (RPCGA), by a Declaratory Judgement. …

A major factor in the decision to defrock R. C. Sproul, Jr. is that he did knowingly abscond with and use for banking and merchant credit card purposes the Tax Identification Number (TIN/EIN) of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP)…

A significant factor in the decision to defrock R. C. Sproul Jr. and the St. Peter Presbyterian Church session is the ecclesiastical tyranny and spiritual abuse they perpetrated against a number of St. Peter Presbyterian Church families and individuals over several years. The Presbytery termed this, “abuse of authority in an inexcusable manner.”

Sproul’s also raised eyebrows in some quarters with his statements about whether God is the source of evil:

Sproul Jr., however, wants to get to the bottom of the matter and weigh in on what he takes to be the source of evil: God! Shocked? I certainly hope so. Sproul Jr. lists the range of possible “suspects” in his third chapter, entitled “Who Dunit?” He lays out and discusses the only five possible alternatives: Adam, Eve, Satan, the environment, and God. God created a good environment (“it was very good”), and Adam, Eve, and Satan were originally created good; so their strongest desire or inclination (which dictates how we will choose, Sproul Jr. claims) must also have been originally good. This, then, means that none of the first four candidates can be the source of sin. The “culprit” (Sproul Jr.’s term) is God himself, who “introduced evil into this world” (p. 51). In fact, God acted according to his strongest inclination; he acted on what he most wished to come to pass – as he always does (p. 54).

The reason he wanted Adam and Eve to fall into sin was because of God’s eternal attribute of wrath – and “God is as delighted with his wrath as he is with all of his attributes” (52). So in light of this eternal attribute of wrath, God must create objects of wrath: “What I’ll do is I’ll create something worthy of my wrath, something on which I can exhibit the glory of my wrath” (p. 52-53). Without creating human beings (and let’s include fallen angelic beings here too), he would not have had the opportunity to display his glory in this way. So Sproul Jr. affirms something rather startling: “It was [God’s] desire to make his wrath known. He needed, then, something on which to be wrathful. He needed sinful creatures” (p. 57).

Anticipating a rejoinder, Sproul Jr. asks: “Isn’t it impossible for God to do evil?” He acknowledges that God can’t sin. This isn’t much of a consolation, as Sproul Jr. goes on to say: “I am not accusing God of sinning; I am suggesting that he created sin” (p. 54).[1]

While I haven’t read the book (Almighty Over All) from which these statements were quoted, I find them alarming enough on their own to make me think twice about Sproul. Combine this with the defrocking, and the fact that Sproul’s materials are promoted by Vision Forum, and a picture begins to form which I find increasingly unsettling.

It’s understandable, then, why the first question I asked of Sproul’s lecture was, when was it given? Fortunately for Vision Forum, this particular address was given at the 2004 Uniting Church and Family Conference, before Sproul’s defrocking. I can’t confirm whether he continued to speak at this or other Vision Forum-sponsored events post-defrocking. However, the fact that Vision Forum still carries Sproul’s lectures and books, and appears to not even mention his defrocking, is disturbing to me.

So having cleared up the question of timing, I approached The Joy of Family Worship expecting a defense of that practice – in other words, for Sproul to tell us why we should do family worship in the first place. Apparently, however, the lecture was designed for people who have already made up their minds about family worship, so Sproul provided no theological justification for it at all. Instead, he focused mainly on its purpose and what it is not about. Along the way he made many valid points (though some, like the extended treatment of the idea that family worship is not about pursuing “personal peace and affluence,” seemed to me to be dwelling on the obvious). His delivery, unfortunately, was rambling, repetitious in places, and loaded with far too many jokes, almost to the point of being distracting and annoying.

So delivery aside, Sproul didn’t say anything too alarming – but didn’t say anything too remarkable, either. There are a few passing comments which are worth examining, but first let’s take a brief look at the idea of family worship for those who may not be familiar with it, beginning with this brief definition by Winfield Bevins:

Family worship is simply coming together as a family and worshiping God in the home. In the same way we come together for a time of corporate worship in the church, we also come together in the home for a time of family worship that involves prayer, reading Scripture, and singing songs. [2]

So family worship is, in other words, a sort of mini-church service conducted by a family at home. Some families may practice much more involved forms than others, which might involve catechism instruction, memorization, etc. Today, at least, the practice seems confined mostly to Calvinist and Reformed circles, probably because of the longstanding Puritan conception of the family as a “little church.”[3] Since I don’t have a problem with family worship per se (as long as it doesn’t become a legalistic requirement of some sort, which it often does in patriarchal and FIC circles), I’ll merely point readers interested in further study here, here and here for more overviews from family worship advocates.

Now let’s move on to Sproul’s comments. First up is one of his many jokes, this one about Calvinism and Arminianism:

Pelagius was the grandfather of Semipelagius. [laughter] Semipelagianism is another name for Arminianism, the same basic principle. And you know – well, if you know anything about me, you know I’m a Calvinist, I’m not one of these Arminians. Except for the fact that as a Calvinist, I believe in total depravity, which means that as a Calvinist, I know that I am an Arminian. [laughter] That is, that even though I say with my lips that I’m justified by faith alone, in my heart – as again we learned about already – in my heart I think I can earn God’s favor with my behavior.

I have two problems with this insensitive jab. First, the implication that Arminians do not believe in justification by faith alone is just plain wrong. Sproul may disagree with their reasoning or their formulation of that doctrine, but just because he disagrees with them does not mean he gets to edge this close to questioning their salvation. Which leads directly to my second objection, that the implied identification of Arminianism with the totally depraved, unsaved state is rude and inappropriate. It’s also especially ironic in light of the second remark I wish to discuss:

That [the joy of Christ] is what we are to show them, and that, friends, not any of our distinctives, is what will knit us together corporately as a body. I tell my congregation all the time, I don’t want to be the homeschooling church. I don’t want to be the be-fruitful-and-multiply church. … I don’t wanna be the family-integrated church, I wanna be the Jesus church.

So if Sproul wants to only be about Jesus, why is he implying that Arminians don’t believe in justification by faith and may not be real Christians? Do Arminians believe in a different Jesus than Calvinists? And if it’s supposedly about Jesus rather than any patriachal, FIC “distinctives,” then why do so many supporters of FIC encourage their followers to leave their non-FIC churches and find a “Biblically structured” (i.e., FIC) church? Why have there been so many reports of patriarchal homeschooling families referring to non-homeschoolers as “Canaanites” (documented in Don Veinot’s excellent article Who Will Be First in the Kingdom)? Why do FIC proponents describe their opponents as “blind” and “rebellious” and ask that God would “turn their hearts”?

This is not the language of people who are “only about Jesus.” This is the language of legalists who have elevated their pet doctrines to nearly salvific importance. If Sproul truly wants to avoid this trap, perhaps he should re-examine his affiliations, as well as what he jokes about. But then again, given his words here, perhaps his Jesus comes with fine print and hidden fees, too.

[3]Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influenced and governed by His rules. And family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. -Jonathan Edwards

3 comments on “The Joy of Family Worship (TBB)

  1. Jeff S says:

    Hester, you got any more blog entries on the way?

    Always looking forward to your writing and exposing this stuff 🙂

    • Hester says:

      My summer was very long and taxing and I’ve been meaning to get back into the Big Box for about two weeks now. Hopefully I will get something up next weekend. And thanks for your comment, BTW – I was contemplating the idea of having to listen to Doug Phillips again just a few minutes ago, and this was encouraging to hear. 🙂

  2. Anna says:

    I get a little uncomfortable with family worship times. It wasn’t something my family did (we were Lutheran), and it was something that some of our more conservative friends did, so as a kid, I associated it with my friend’s dad who, at that time, had a tendency to be overly serious about everything and kind of scared me because of that. Obviously family worship times aren’t bad (or at least, they hopefully spring out of good intentions), but I don’t feel a particular urge to start doing them with my husband and daughter, unless we start doing a Compline service in the evenings or something (we’re Anglican), since I tend to enjoy those.

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