My Family: Principles and Biblical Values for the IBC Family
I count it a privilege to serve this convention as one of its presidents and bring this message to the Annual Meeting. But I was hesitant. What could I teach a group of pastors and ministry leaders as yourselves? At my church we are currently preaching an expository series on Romans, but would an expository sermon be what is needed for us today?
So, as I thought about this being a kind of family reunion and how you are my fellow pastors and/or ministry leaders, I thought I could encourage you, either as an individual who is responsible for your own family or a minister to others. God has granted me and Kim the privilege of building a family together and, like many who start out on such an endeavor, we had no idea what we were about to embark on when we started.
Some of you still have young families, and you are currently in the throes of raising your children, so I hope you will find this useful. Others of you aren’t raising a family, perhaps you’re enjoying the empty nest like we are or perhaps you are enjoying the children who belong to other parents. But I believe that the principles I intend to share are relevant for the family we call our church, and even the family of churches to which we belong, the IBC. So, I hope that you can relate to what I am about to talk about and can apply it in your families, the ministries or churches that you lead, and to the relationships we have as the IBC family.
Kim and I knew we wanted our children to be well-behaved, kind to each other, respectful of authority, do well in school, and generally be decent human beings. But not just because we wanted to be a healthy and loving family. We wanted our family to glorify God and our children to follow in the footsteps of Christ. We hoped that if any unbeliever saw our family and watched our children, they would ask questions and that would give us permission to talk about God’s Word and our faith and ultimately introduce them to our Savior.
So, it was important to us that other people liked having our children around. Sure, you like being with your children, but would I like being with them? Would your neighbor like being with them?
Thankfully, we had the Scriptures to guide us, the Holy Spirit on our side in this endeavor, and some really helpful, biblically based parenting materials to help us know what to focus on and how to teach, reprove, and encourage our children to live in a way that honored God.
I’m going to share with you three biblical values that we tried to exemplify in our family and what we did to instill them in our children. Since we are a family of churches — churches who hopefully exemplify biblical values and seek to honor Christ — I’ll also try to create a parallel which I hope will still be a biblical principle we could apply to a family of churches. But not just because we all want healthy and loving communities to be a part of. Ultimately, we want our churches to glorify God. We want our family of churches to honor and exalt Christ. And, if anyone were ever to ask about our church or our IBC family, we would have the opening we need to talk about God’s Word, share our faith, and introduce them to Jesus Christ, the Lord of our church.
1. We tried to create a clear and strong family identity.
The world is a difficult place to raise children. The Bible reveals that the world is influenced heavily by the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Our children would often be influenced by their friends and naturally expect us to have the same values as their friends had. If their friends would be allowed to watch popular movies, our children would ask us why they weren’t allowed. Their friends would play video games and computer games that involved violence, theft, gore, mayhem, and demonic themes. We didn’t buy those games, and we didn’t allow them to play them.
Our children grew up alongside children who often had two sets of parents. One set was their mother and her new boyfriend/husband’s family. The other set was the father and his new girlfriend/wife’s family. As a child caught in the middle, wrestling with the conflict, they were often spoiled by both sides trying to soothe their pain and win their affection. So, they were allowed much.
Divorce was so common among our children’s pre-school friends, our son actually asked Kim one day, “When are you and Dad getting a divorce?” Kim made it clear to our young child that we were staying together.
Whenever we had to explain why we were different, why some things were not permissible or why we didn’t compromise on some things, or why they had to treat each other in a certain way, we always brought it back to our family identity as Christians who honor Christ.
We would always keep reminding them that we are Christians who love and follow Christ, so we were not like the rest of the world who has yet to know Him. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
Principle: Be imitators of God…as dearly loved children (Ephesians 5:1)
Being a Nielsen, a member of this family of Nielsens, means being someone who imitates God and lives in such a way that honors Christ. So, we don’t fill our minds with the same things the others do, we don’t participate in some of the same activities, we don’t treat others like some do, because those things wouldn’t honor Christ.
We knew that they would always be under peer pressure because the influence of the world was always present. They were taught in schools where teachers were not Christians. They had school friends with whom they spent a lot of time who were not Christians. They had sports teammates who were not Christians. There is one thing we understood about peer pressure: peer pressure is only as strong as family identity is weak.
It was important for us to include family activities and habits that kept reinforcing that identity — church on Sundays, family night on Fridays, monthly memory verses, story time, and intentional conversations about values and beliefs.
We did what we could and we were intentional, but I can’t say we were completely successful in helping our children fully embrace our family identity. Those of our children who were the most social and who had the most Danish friends were also the ones who struggled the most with their family identity — the identity we tried to instill in them.
Any church should also have a strong identity that is centered on Christ Himself. It should go without saying that any church should have a clear and strong family identity that is centered on Christ. Yet, it’s astounding how some churches can actually be associated, famous for, or perceived with an identity that isn’t even Christ-centered: a celebrity pastor, a scandal, the ornate and gaudy decorations. Whatever the distraction may be, a church is liable to lose its purpose of glorifying God and proclaiming the gospel of Christ.
As a family of churches, we should have a strong family identity.
I think that there is a similar principle for our family of churches: The stronger we sense a common family identity, the less influence the Enemy will have on us to divide us and weaken our influence on the world.
What are our churches best known for? Being English-speaking? Being an ethnically diverse congregation? Being a place of friendly and warm “fellowship”? Those may be true, but do we really want our common identity to be centered around those qualities? Are they really the values that bind us together?
Or is the value that our churches are best known for, and this family is known for, is that we exemplify the character of Jesus Christ and we are faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
The Apostle Paul identified himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). He had a singular purpose with his life when he was first captivated by the risen Christ; he became “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name.”
Our churches are not all the same. We don’t all have the same membership structure. We don’t have same requirements for individual membership. We don’t have the same requirements for leadership. We don’t teach from the same lectionary. Because we are not a franchise of churches.
But I would like to think that anyone who regularly attends a church, one that is a member in the IBC, can expect from any one of our churches a clear presentation of who Jesus Christ is, what His cross means, and the gospel of God’s grace poured out for sinners. I would hope that all our churches would not hesitate to call sinful deeds “sinful,” the consequences of which are death and eternal condemnation, and that salvation can be found in no other that Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Wouldn’t it be great if anyone who knew that our church belonged to the family of churches called the “IBC,” they would know that the central common denominator, the clear and strong family identity, would be that we are “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16)?
As with the need for a clear and strong family identity in our homes, could we not make a case that a clear and strong family identity in our family of churches will help us withstand the attempts of the Enemy to divide us and weaken our commitment to each other?
The Enemy is interested in dividing us and hindering us, but that pressure is only as strong as our family identity is weak.
2. We tried to teach our children to appreciate how precious people are to God.
Sin has affected all of us in way that is so easy to see in most children: we are selfish. When couples first become parents, the child very quickly becomes the center of all their attention. To a certain extent, it must be that way; newborns are needy, their survival can be a fragile balance between health and all the things that threaten their health. What many couples don’t realize, however, is that children can too easily become the center of the family, which they should never be. Becoming the center of the family only feeds a child’s already self-centered view of him/herself that is a result of the Fall.
What the Bible reveals is that the primary relationship in the family is the husband/wife relationship and all other relationships in the family are dependent on that relationship. When God created Adam and Eve as the first family unit, there were no children present. When children are added to the family, ideally, they are welcomed into the family. But the husband-wife relationship should always be the center of the family, because the entire family is dependent on the strength of that relationship, not the strength of the father-child or mother-child relationship.
So, we always tried to help our children visibly see that Kim and I loved each other. We were committed to each other, and we made our affection obvious. We would go on dates and leave them with a babysitter and if they wanted to come along, we’d tell them they couldn’t. “Why?” they would ask. “Because we love you” we would say. “But, if you loved us, you would take us along” they would protest. Of course, they couldn’t understand at a young age, but because we loved them, we gave them the greatest gift we could give: the security that their family was not going to fall apart.
But, teaching them and treating them like they were part of the family and not the center of the family, was also critical to them developing a sense of “others.” The world didn’t revolve around them. What many children grow up thinking about themselves, is that they are the only ones who really matter.
Parents treat them like the family revolved around the children. Parents catered to their needs, and all schedules were adjusted around them. It’s easy to fall for that because it sounds so “noble” to put children as the highest priority. The truth is that while our children certainly matter to God and they are deeply loved by God and their parents, other children and other people also matter to God just as much.
Each of us are created in the image of God and every human being, great or small, rich or poor, well-dressed or poorly dressed, is precious to God who made them. Therefore, we must love people and treat them in ways that are not based on our own estimation or emotional attachment to them, but God’s estimation of them and His love for them.
We had a lot of our conversations and teaching moments that would often come back to this biblical principle:
The preciousness of others is simply a healthy preoccupation with those behind, before, and around us. We treat people based on their value in the eyes of God. It easy, and it is tempting, to treat people based on how interesting they may seem to us, how attractive they may be to us, how beneficial they have been or could become to us, or how likable they are.
To us, a person may be nothing more than the annoying driver of the vehicle in front of us or the person hogging the armrest or the 18 people waiting in the queue in front of us or the busboy or the carpet cleaner.
But to God, who made them and to whom they belong, every one of them, they are worthy of the precious gift of the blood of His Son. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8 ESV).
As God’s love transforms us, it transforms us to become less and less selfish and more and more “others oriented.” Some may require a greater transformation because of how they were raised by their parents, as the center of the family where everyone catered to them and they had no responsibilities to the others in the family. But, as God transforms us into His image, He develops in us a healthy preoccupation with and a sensitivity to the needs of others.
As a family of churches, we should have a love that treats people as precious.
Again, I think there could be a similar principle with regards to the prevailing sentiment in our churches. Is the Christian community in each of our churches characterized by a genuine, God-inspired love for people, regardless of ethnic background, race or color, age or youth, wealth or poverty, well-dressed or poorly dressed? Do we treat people as precious to God and love them like He does?
As pastors and ministry leaders, what do we demonstrate to our people, and how well do we exemplify the gospel we preach by our love for all, even the “weak,” the “ungodly,” and the “sinful”? While each of us would not be wrong to take care of our individual needs, do we also demonstrate a healthy preoccupation with and sensitivity to the needs of others?
Wouldn’t it be great if what people experienced in one IBC church, of Christ-centered selflessness, God-inspired love for others, would be what they could expect in any other one of our churches? Of course, that would depend on how well we who are pastors or ministry leaders are doing to cultivate that kind of godly spirit among our people and how well we demonstrate it before them.
It ought to be evident when we gather at our annual meeting, conferences, and meetings that we as the pastors and ministry leaders of the IBC churches are living examples of this gospel we preach in our churches. Because people, whoever they may be, are precious to God, they are loved by Him even though they may be difficult to love.
3. We tried to be more interdependent than independent.
Children are expected to grow up very quickly. I don’t know if one could say that such an expectation is greater today that it has been in the past. But it certainly does seem so — what they get exposed to of evils, what threatens their innocence, the information that is available to them at their fingertips, the young age they must adapt to a broken family, how early they are given freedoms. It seems they must learn to avoid dangers, exercise self-control, guide themselves, and sometimes even earn their own keep, at a younger and younger age.
Some would say that that’s a good thing because we esteem independence so highly. We value resilience, strength, self-confidence. We highly esteem those people who have done something great without anyone else’s help. Somehow, we value independence more than interdependence.
As a result, many children are already looking outward, away from the family, eager to leave the bonds of family. Today’s teenagers look more downward to look outward, as their lives are centered around their social connections available on their mobile phones.
What we tried to encourage and instill in our family was:
Principle: Be more interdependent than independent.
We would require that they participated in the chores and duties in the home, without paying them for it. They had to help with cleaning, setting the table, clearing the table, doing dishes, keeping their room neat. As they got older, they helped with food preparation and when they reached 18 they did their own laundry. We didn’t want them to leave home without the ability to cook their own meals and do their own laundry.
Even as children, they were needed in the home, and they had to learn to do their part in a well-functioning home. Of course, there were some tasks that they could earn a little money for. We used that sometimes as an incentive. We used that to teach them to save up. We used that to teach them that value for some things is based on “sweat equity,” work and effort. But as a general rule, we all had to pitch in because we all belonged to the same family and we were dependent on each other.
We like to use the illustration of a circle to represent the family. As children are added to the family the circle grows bigger and bigger. To convey the idea that children are not the center of the family, the circle includes them but they are not at the center. To convey the idea that the family stays together when mom and dad love each other, mom and dad are still holding each other’s hand as the circle grows bigger with each additional child. This was also reflected in the way we sat around the table for meals.
In the circle, all of us are looking inward toward each other, not outward. If we were all looking outward, that would represent each of us having our own interests outside the family. We might still be connected to the family, but as though the family was actually keeping us from what we really wanted to do and where we really wanted to be.
As a family of churches, we should be more interdependent than independent.
Again, I think there is a principle that we can apply to our family that is the church and our family of churches. God made us for relationships, with Him primarily, but He also placed us in a community called a family and that should also teach us to become an actively functioning part of the body of Christ. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:4–5 ESV).
Everything in 1 Corinthians 12 teaches us a way to move away from independence and towards interdependence. Although we may be individual members, we are parts of one body so we “all suffer together…all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Our churches ought to also be characterized by being a place where individuals are encouraged to belong and be active members. Of course, we’ll have to teach new believers about belonging and being active because our “untransformed” selves, who imitate the world, will have a tendency towards independence.
Considering our family of churches that is the IBC, I also would hope that we who are pastors and ministry leaders, also value interdependence more than independence. That’s especially difficult for Baptists, who traditionally are all about independence and autonomy. But while we esteem that value highly, perhaps more as a reaction to the papacy and controls of the state, I think that cooperation and association are also traditionally very “Baptistic” too.
But cooperation and association can still be a long way from interdependence. Just like in a family, it takes a conscious effort to encourage interdependence and maintain the relationships we have in the family of churches like ours because we would have a tendency to think we don’t need other churches.
There are member churches in our convention who, for whatever the reason, choose not to participate in the activities of the convention and do not contribute to the cooperative program of the convention. Could that be a sign of such independence over interdependence? No church and its pastor/leader should be allowed to feel unneeded by the others, and no church should be unwilling to actively engage in the cooperation. It would be like a child who said they don’t need their family, and the family that said that that didn’t matter to the rest of them.
As imperfect as we were in raising our children and building our family, we did try our best to make certain values characteristic of our family:
- We had a family identity as followers of Christ.
- We valued people as precious because we knew they are precious to God.
- We encouraged interdependence more than independence.
We spent much time in prayer over our children, and we continue to do so even as they are adults today.
If you are a parent who is raising children, I hope that you find this message encouraging as you also teach your children these biblical values. But I also see how the family shares a lot of qualities that a family of believers, and even a family of churches should have:
- We should have a strong family identity centered on the gospel of Christ.
- We should be characterized by God’s unconditional love for people as precious; (if we are supposed to love even enemies, then we should certainly love friends we don’t agree with.)
- We should encourage interdependence more than independence.
God’s children are an ornery bunch aren’t they? Just look at us. But by God’s grace and His Spirit in us, God children can become a God-honoring, Christ-imitating bunch that lives out His truth and displays His love. Hopefully, that’s what people associate with churches in the IBC.
by N. Erik Nielsen
IBC President and Pastor, First International Baptist Church, Copenhagen, Denmark