This model for family ministry not only began before Paul’s generation but also persisted far beyond the lifetimes of the first followers of Jesus. Didache and Letter of Barnabas provide summaries of Christian practices that date to the first and second centuries A.D. Both of these writings include an identical command for parents—a command that was evidently well-known and oft-repeated in early churches: “You shall train [your son and your daughter] in the fear of God from their youth up.” In a letter to Christians in Philippi, the second-century church leader Polycarp specifically held husbands responsible to partner with their wives “to train their children in the fear of God.” Another early Christian leader, Clement of Rome, urged parents to pursue the privilege of sharing with their children “the instruction that is in Christ.” Church father John Chrysostom described how children should become “athletes for Christ.” And how, according to Chrysostom, were children to be coached toward such athleticism?
To each of you fathers and mothers, I speak: Just as we see artists fashioning their paintings and statues with great precision, so we must care for these wondrous statues of ours. … Like the creators of statues, give all your leisure time to fashioning these wondrous statues of God. As you remove what is unhelpful and add what is lacking, inspect them day by day, to see with which good qualities nature has supplied them so that you can increase these qualities, and to see which faults so that you can eradicate them. (John Chrysostom, De Inani Gloria, ed. Anne-Marie Malingrey [Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1972] § 22).
Throughout the earliest centuries of Christianity, households remained central to Christian practices, and parents were expected to play a primary and personal role in the formation of their children’s faith. A primary parental role did not, however, require every event of spiritual formation to occur in nuclear or even extended family units. In churches of the third century A.D.—perhaps even earlier—all the generations worshiped together, but men, women, and young people sat separately. Furthermore, this perspective on the discipleship of children did not diminish the responsibility of Christians to care for children who had no parents. The church in general and elders in particular were held responsible to care for abandoned children and orphans.
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