My wife wrote this as well. It is my view, though I would have written it differently.
for those that sympathize with us on this topic, we need an argument that is akin to a “Regulative Principle of Congregational Activities,” if we wanted this to be really strong. I.e., if the Bible doesn’t explicitly or by good and necessary consequence authorize a session to do something with their congregation, it is therefore forbidden.
One thing that is certain, though. The use of distinct groups in the church doesn’t do much good, and makes us look like a voluntary association where you can get what you want and avoid/downplay the rest.
These are issues that David and I have stood mostly alone on for the past 18 years. Some people have been mystified about our stand, and some people have misunderstood us. Some have been offended at our lack of support for their ministries. Some have said we are overly restrictive with our children or don’t want to let other people teach them. A few have put mild pressure on us or our children. At the very least, most people in the congregation and denomination disagree with us about these things. We do not think it is likely that we will convince anyone of our beliefs, but we’d like you to try to understand our reasons for our beliefs.
Informal vs official groups
First of all, we have to distinguish between a group that is initiated by the members themselves on an informal basis and one that is an official ministry. Of course, we should encourage members getting together for fellowship, including fellowshipping around the Bible. For example, a group of four single women had a regular Bible study together for several years and built relationships to last a lifetime. Many teens planned their own social times together, trips to Ocean City, ice skating, parties, etc. Sometimes they would plan these events entirely on their own, sometimes they had the help and/or participation of parents or other interested adults who would assist in planning, driving, chaperoning, or whatever was needed. Fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ is a great blessing.
Breaking up the Body
The problem comes with officially breaking up the body of Christ. The church is supposed to be together and one, when we worship, learn, serve, and fellowship. As we would not tolerate dividing the church on the basis of race, education, or wealth, so we should not divide it on the basis of age or gender. “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand,’ I have no need of you.’…there should be no schism in the body.” The parts of the body are created to function together. We should not separate the body parts, amputate one peer group in the body and have it go meet by itself.
The two covenant groups ordained by God for our edification, socialization, and “comfort” are the family and the church. We should not splinter or fragment them.
The church is supposed to be limited to functions and ministries that have Scriptural warrant. The elders should not go beyond their biblical mandate, creating groups within the church that have no Scriptural basis. There are no instructions for or examples of youth groups or women’s groups in the New Testament. (In Philippi, where there was no synagogue and presumably no men following the God of Israel, the women met on the Sabbath for prayer.) In the Old Testament there is 1) Rehoboam foolishly looking to his peers for advice, rather than older men and 2) the group of youths who harassed Elisha, an example of negative peer influence.
One on one ministry
One on one relationships are like the joints and ligaments, “from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.” Col 2:19 “But speaking the truth in love [we] may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-Christ-from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Eph 4:15-16
The context of Titus 2 is not women leading Bible studies for other women as part of a church ministry, but older women developing relationships with younger women and teaching them informally how to walk with the Lord. We have appreciated women in the church who have taken the time and interest to do this with our daughters. We are also grateful to adults who have reached out to and spent time with our sons.
Most people do not open up and discuss practical, personal heart issues in large groups. This intimacy comes more often in situations that are one to one or in groups of three or four. Trust is developed and more effective ministry done here than in formal peer groups.
Often, after an initial interest, group meetings tend to be poorly attended. Some people say they want more fellowship, but after awhile other priorities in life compete. This is why we see the pattern of trying a peer group, interest flags, and a few years later something new is tried. Of course, we should keep trying to meet the individual needs in the congregation. We might have more success with individual initiated outreach, such as one on one or small group Bible studies, prayer partners, fellowship times, etc. People may be more likely to develop close relationships, open up, and grow together in these types of contexts.
We have also tried to emphasize to our children the importance of family to family fellowship, especially having people in our home and serving as a family. A major way children are supposed to learn is by being with their parents and seeing their example.
Our heavenly Father’s family
As parents delight in seeing their whole family together, the Father delights in seeing His family together in unity, and not only in Sunday morning worship. All ages, all races, all classes, people of all cultures and levels of income and education together. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are strongest integrated in our diversity, we are weakest segregated into our peer groups.
We need each other and we need to cross pollinate and learn from each other. What the women need to hear from the Bible, the men need to hear too, and we need to hear from each other. The Proverbs are full of exhortations to young people to look up to and learn from the wisdom of older people. Older people also need the perspective and enthusiasm of younger people. We become near-sighted when we only hear from our peers.
Direction from the Bible, not culture or tradition
Actually, youth groups and women’s groups are a modern, American concept, coming from an emphasis on Baptist individualism, rather than reformed covenantalism. But we should look to the Bible for our models, not other churches or denominations, lest we be like the Israelites who wanted a king so they could be like all the other nations.
God’s ordinary means of reaching covenant children is through parents and pastors. Everyone else should normally be in the role of supporting these God-ordained instruments. Experiences such as retreats are wonderful for building relationships across the denomination, but we should not be looking primarily to the mountaintop experiences of retreats for our children or for ourselves. Though these experiences can be inspirational and occasionally pivotal, typically mountaintop experiences do not persist, and we should not think that ordinary church and family are not good enough. We should expect and pray for great things through the ordinary weekly preaching of the Word, and we all should eagerly anticipate Sunday worship and fellowship.
Disadvantages of peer groups
To the youth, we may be sending the wrong message, i.e. Christianity is cool and a fun time with my peers. Our children should be encouraged to love the church across peer group lines. To persevere in Christ, they need to hear from older saints about God’s faithfulness through tribulations. Given the option, which we don’t give her, our daughter Grace would rather go to Sunday school with her friends. Then she would not have heard Sarah, choking back tears, tell how she learned that God does answer prayer when He gave a child to her sister-in-law. Grace was deeply impressed by this.
Teens often have an immaturing effect on one another. They tend to reinforce each other’s silliness, pride and overconfidence that they know it all. Teen hormones and the desire to impress each other sometimes distract from the message of Scripture. It takes a majority of teens with a strong Christian walk to pull a group up. It’s far easier to pull each other down. As one of my public school colleagues put it, they all tend to reduce to the lowest common denominator. It is good to encourage young people to mingle with older, more serious adults.
Peer group meetings can compete with family time. I think this is especially true for male household heads. Their time is so limited and they need to spend free time with their wives and children, rather than feel obligated to “support the ministry” of a men’s group.
I guess we really confuse people because we are willing to make exceptions where we think it is warranted or other considerations are more important. For example, though I love coed wedding and baby showers, I can see how it is sometimes more appropriate to have a women only party. Our sons went on a backpacking trip where issues were taught on that were best not discussed in mixed company. Our children benefitted from attending TFY and ECHO. Finally, Sunday schools began as an outreach to unchurched children, and there is also a place for youth groups and women’s groups that are outreaches to unbelievers.
What we all should agree on
Even if few agree with our stand against youth groups, women’s groups and age-based Sunday school, we hope people can at least agree that everyone’s priority should be meetings when the whole church is together. It is not right that people make room in their schedules for time with their peers, but do not have time for social events, evening meetings, or midweek meetings that are for the whole church.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope I haven’t written in an offensive tone. I’m sure you realize that these issues are not primary issues for us. There are so many more important aspects of Trinity that we greatly value. It’s true that we can all respect one another, as the motives of all of us are to do what pleases the Lord.