Scriptural teaching on ministry to children (2007)

Jesus was very concerned that children be valued and ministered to by his people. I’m not sure there is anything more important than tending to the children among us – from our own families and from the community as well.

Yet among Christian groups there are different, even conflicting ways of approaching ministry to children. So we are called to discern how we will sort  through these issues; how we will minister to the children of this congregation.

As Elders we have been working on this, and we now invite you to enter into the process. That’s what this meeting is all about. I will give a presentation tonight on our understanding and our recommendations. It is our intention to move toward common understandings and practices on these issues – policies if you will.

We invite your feedback. Think of this as a Sunday School class. Stop me and ask questions or make comments. Some of this may be controversial or maybe not. I don’t know. What is important is that we let the Scriptures guide us in this.

The first thing I want us to look at, and what underlies much of what follows, is that Scripture teaches that

1. Children are a part of the kingdom of God

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” – Mark 10:14. This comes from the story of Jesus blessing the children. In the last part of this verse Jesus teaches that children “belong to the kingdom of God.” This teaches us that we do not need to worry about the destiny of children, at least in terms of their immediate status with God. They are a part of the kingdom of God; the realm of God’s blessing and salvation. Or to put it plainly they are saved; they are safe in God’s grace.

But what is the age of these children who are a part of the kingdom? The first clue comes from Luke’s version of this story. He specifically notes that “they were bringing even infants to him” – Luke 18:15. The second clue comes from the word that Jesus uses for “children” – “paidion.” Based on its use in the New Testament this word refers to children from birth (e.g. Luke 1:59 – 8 days old) to puberty (e.g. Mark 5:39-42 – 12 years old). So the reference here is roughly to any child 12 or below – preadolescent children.

This is cruical for what follows. Jesus teaches us here that we should not think of our children simply as small adults:

Unlike adults, who need conversion to enter the kingdom, and are thus baptized as a sign of their conversion, the kingdom already belongs to children.

2. Children are not mature

A child in Scripture means one who is not mature. Along these lines it is used figuratively to refer to adults who are not mature in some way (e.g. I Corinthians 3:1). Literal children are not mature in many ways, but the focus here is on their inability to discern and choose between right and wrong for themselves.

  • Deuteronomy 1:39 talks about “ . . . your little ones . . . and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil . . ..”
  • Isaiah 7:15 speaks of maturity in these terms: “when (the child) knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”
  • Hebrews 5:13-14 defines maturity in this way – “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

3. Children are born with “fleshly desires”

Not only are children not mature in terms of being able to make moral and religious choices, they have an inborn tendency to resist righteousness. As we know, they often do not do what is right. Like all humans, no matter what age, children must struggle with the desires of the flesh; our natural desires that lead us to do what we want instead of what God wants.

  • As Jesus said, with regard to doing God’s will – “the flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38.
  • Paul said, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law – Romans 8:7.

4. We are to train our children

Given the condition of children, the task of parents and the people of God is to train, shape and form them in the way of the Lord. Moses said to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:7 – “You shall teach my commandments diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Paul says in Ephesians 6:4, Christian parents are to raise their children in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

In practical terms this means teaching them:

  • what is right and wrong according to God
  • the contents of Scripture
  • about faith and helping them to learn to trust in God
  • about repentance and forgiveness when they do wrong
  • how to pray
  • how resist temptation

We are to teach them all this and more through both word and perhaps most importantly example – as they see us live out the Christian life.

The church also has a role in this training of children given its commission by Jesus to “make disciples” of all peoples (Matthew 28:19). We strive to do this through our various programming for children, especially Sunday school.

5. Childhood faith is good and should be honored

When we train our children in the way of the Lord they will most often come to have a childhood faith in God and Jesus. Even though the faith of children is different from adult faith (see below) it is loved by God and should be honored by the church.

  • Samuel served God as a child – 1 Samuel 3.
  • At age 12 Jesus knew God’s way better than the adults – Luke 2:42-50.
  • As Jesus said, God accepts and loves the praise of children – Matthew 21:15-16.

6. Adult faith is different and is the goal of our training

A child’s faith is dependent on what parents or others teach them. Since they are not fully able to discern and choose for themselves this is appropriate to their situation.

Adult faith, however, is different. It is a choice based on the person’s own discernment of what is right and wrong. And even though an adult’s faith will continue to grow and mature – the ability to discern for oneself and choose is what makes adult faith fundamentally different than the faith of a child.

So the goal of our training is that when our children are mature (past the age of childhood acceptance before God – see #1) they will be ready to begin to discern and choose to enter the kingdom of God for themselves. As Paul writes to Timothy– “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” – 2 Timothy 3:14-15. Our training is meant to equip our children so that when they are ready and able they will choose salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. For those with childhood faith this may well be a smooth and seamless transition.

7. Children and baptism

That baptism is for adults can be seen in several ways:

The symbolic meaning of baptism involves, among other things, the choice to leave the world and sin behind in order to walk in Jesus’ way. Or, to use the similar imagery of Romans 6  – baptism has to do with dying to your old life of sin and being raised to a new life of righteousness. But children are still a part of the kingdom of God, not the world. They have not yet even entered this adult world of choosing and discerning for themselves – along with culpably sinning before God. To apply this symbol to them is inappropriate in that it doesn’t properly reflect their status before God. They aren’t leaving the world and sin behind. They are already in the kingdom.

In Scripture, baptism is uniformly connected with adult kinds of responses: hearing the gospel, understanding it, and choosing faith and repentance in response to the message. But by definition children are not able to discern and choose to have faith in Jesus for themselves. The faith that they have is dependent on what parents and others have taught them.

Finally, Jesus connects baptism with discipleship, or “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” in Matthew 28:19-20. But children are not able to make the serious, adult kinds of choices that Jesus requires of all disciples. Jesus calls us to obey his hard teachings, to submit to church discipline and to sacrifice our lives for the kingdom.

Given this, baptism should not be applied to preadolescent children – even those who have a childhood faith in Jesus. Baptism is meant to be the marker of adult faith in Jesus. It is the way that Jesus chose for adults to publicly identify with him as a Christian and as a disciple. So baptism should be reserved for those who are able to have adult-faith; for those who are (roughly) 13 or older.

For those with childhood faith, baptism should be looked forward to as the symbol of transition from childhood faith to adult faith.

What we need, and are proposing, is a ritual for those who come to childhood faith, to affirm and support their faith, allowing us to reserve baptism for its proper role with reference to adults.

When our child matures to the point of making adult choices in relation to God – they may well be ready for baptism, or their childhood faith may continue on for a while, or they may discern and choose not to follow Jesus. We should be careful in this transition time not to pressure them into baptism. To be genuine, it must come from their own initiative, discernment and choice, although it is always appropriate to invite them to make this decision.

8. Children and the Lord’s supper

Symbolically the Lord’s supper represents much of what baptism represents.

The bread, coming from the Passover meal, speaks to leaving behind our old lives of bondage and despair in the world (just as Israel left Egypt behind). As was noted above under baptism, this is not an appropriate symbolic statement about where children are in their status before God. The bread also assumes an adult type choice to leave behind the world and sin in order to follow God. Each time we partake we remind ourselves of this commitment that we made to God at the time of our baptism.

The cup, coming from the covenant ceremony of Exodus 24 (where Israel agreed to obey all that God commanded), has a covenant context. It assumes that we have covenanted with God through baptism and it calls us to remember this adult type commitment – to do all that Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19).

So the Lord’s supper is a meal for those who have made the adult kind of commitment that is required to be a disciple of Jesus – baptism. Those with childhood faith should be taught to look forward to their baptism, when they too will be able to take part in this discipleship meal.

9. The blessing of children

Jesus is very clear that we are to “receive” children in his name. Jesus said in Mark 9:37 – “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Jesus is also very clear that we are to “let the children come” to him – Mark 10:14. We are not to be like the disciples who tried to hold back the children from Jesus; who made Jesus angry.

But if baptism and the Lord’s supper are not the way to do this as a church, what is? The Gospels answer this question by telling the story of Jesus blessing the children.

“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.. . . And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them” – Mark 10:13-16.

So, to “let the children come” to Jesus (Mark 10:14) is defined in this story in verse 16. And what it means to receive children in Mark 9:37 is explained here in Mark 10:16.

When Jesus ministered to children he did not baptize them or give them the Lord’s supper. He took them, prayed for them and blessed them. He took the time to receive them and care for them and to minister God’s blessing into their lives. This is also what we should do.

10. A summary of practical outcomes

1. We should have a continued focus on training our children: Sunday school, bible school and girls’ clubs. And we should seek to equip and support our parents as teachers of their children.
2. We should continue to have a service of blessing for our babies upon their presentation to the church and we should be ready to pray for God’s blessing for children, whenever they or their parents seek it out.
3. We should reserve baptism for adolescent young people and older.
4. We should provide a public ceremony to affirm and support the expression of childhood faith in our children.
5. We should reserve the Lord’s supper for those who are baptized.
6. We should provide a special time of blessing for children each time we celebrate the Lord’s supper so that they are included and are able to be ministered to by Jesus.
7. For the preadolescent children among us who are already baptized, we would like to walk with them, invite them to catechism classes, as needed when they are ready, and in general encourage them to own their faith as young adults as well.