Since there is little evidence of children being converted in the early church, we ought to think theologically from Scripture and work from there.
One big theological idea that can be applied is the long-standing issue of whether an infant is born into sin. This goes way back to early church fathers, associated big time with Augustine and has continued to be discussed into the Reformation and since. The big question is, are children born into sin. Most Evangelicals don’t believe so. So we ask, Must we view children as lost before they can be found?
There are centuries of debate about whether or not a child is depraved from infancy. I don’t think we need to treat children as if they are depraved. Seems it’s we adults who are more depraved. Still, children can sin just like adults can. When a child is old enough to recognize what a lie is, a lie ought to be called a sin and other sins called sins. Does this make us need to approach our children as lost sinners? Seems Jesus approached every child, woman and man as people–not some kind of prospects or objects of evangelism or saved or lost but people, humans needing to come closer to Him, closer to the Father. Nuff said.
Ok then, but are children converted, nurtured, or both? Biblical instruction nurtures our children’s faith, but what specifically is the church’s role in leading them to conversion versus the parent role in leading them. Is it OK for the church to assume the role of leading children in conversion prayers, baptizing them at camp without parental approval?
I’ll just answer that question personally. I wouldn’t want a counselor to baptize my child at camp without my approval and participation and presence. I’ve been praying for this child since in the womb, I was there at birth, and I want to be there at their re-birth. I have baptized each of my three children and for Christ followers, we want to respect parents and increase their role in every way.
In fact, the role of the church is both to partner with parents and to help equip parents who may not feel equipped to nurture their children in faith. Churches can have parenting classes specifically about how to form faith in children rather than or in addition to parental mechanics classes–there are enough of those out there and too little in way of showing parents how to help their families grow in faith.
You might be amazed that over the past century there has been a dramatic shift in the way children are view in Evangelical churches. A study of Southern Baptist methods of evangelizing their children helps to frame the discussion.[ii] In the study, four ways emerged as the primary historic approaches of the church to sharing faith in Christ with their children. Over time, children were viewed in the Southern Baptist churches in one of four ways:
- Prospects for evangelism
- Potential disciples
- Maturing participants in the faith community
First, early in the history of the Southern Baptist movement children were considerednon-members. Though Baptist roots are found in English Puritanism, Thomas Halbrooks, author of the study, said that one major difference was the Baptists’ insistence on adult baptism. Founder John Smyth said the church “is a company of the faithful: baptized after confession of sin and faith.” Consequently, baptism “does not belong to infants.”[iii]
Second, children were also viewed as prospects for evangelism. Revivalists such as Charles G. Finney encouraged parents and teachers to instill Christian character and hope for traumatic conversion at “the earliest possible moment.” Many revivalists did not baptize infants, but they did want to bring children into the fold as quickly as possible, viewing children as young as five-years-old as prospects for evangelism. By 1960, the normative age for responding to the gospel among Southern Baptists had dropped from “Juniors (ages nine to twelve) to Primaries (ages six to eight).”[iv]
Third, in the mid-1900s, children were increasingly viewed as potential disciples. The revivalist’s idea of children making decisions at such tender ages was called into question in light of developing ideas of educational psychology. Children in some churches were deferred until they were of the “age of disciple-ability.” In 1963, Lewis Craig Ratliff wrote a doctoral thesis discussing the quest for “disciple-ability” in children, rather than “age of accountability.” While accountability focuses on knowing right and wrong, disciple-ability requires the child to have an “ability to understand abstract ideas, the development of selfhood and independence from parents, and social maturity.”[v] Ratliff pegged this range at somewhere between 13 and 15, and in this window of opportunity the child would be able to profess faith, follow Christ in baptism, and become a member of the church. Before this time the child is viewed as a potential disciple.
Fourth, Southern Baptists the last several decades have begun to view children asmaturing participants in the faith community, according to Halbrooks. This approach focuses more on nurturing children within the context of the church. William E. Hull, in a paper presented at the meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in 1980, said Baptists need a theology of the child that recognizes and follows more of the Hebrew insights into the nurture of children.
Three major stages of development, says Hull, are “infancy” (birth to 9 years) when children ought to be taught their religious heritage, “childhood” (9-12 years) when children ought to affirm this heritage and commit to faith, and “adolescence” (12 years and up), when children ought to take great responsibility in the life of the church and own their faith completely.
So with this study in mind, how do we view our children? Do we view them as non-members until they are baptized? Are they lost until they are baptized? Or do we view them as prospects for evangelism? Potential disciples? In a household with Christian parents, can we call this a Christian family when not all the children are baptized? What is the church’s role in leading our children to faith? Do we instead nurture faith from early years?
This study of Southern Baptist views of children is significant because it describes four historic approaches to sharing faith with children in one denominational body. Most Evangelical churches today land near the maturing participants view. Churches like Garnett Church of Christ that come out of the Stone-Campbell movement, on the other hand, come closer to the third view but some churches and individuals seem to be moving toward the maturing participants view as well. Generally, however, most Churches of Christ view children as potential disciples until they reach an age where sin can be discerned and a decision to follow Christ can be made independently from parents.
We call our children to love Jesus when we sing, “Yes, Jesus loves me” and “Yes, I love Jesus.” We call them to believe in Jesus from earliest ages, but for some reason–and maybe someone can comment and help me on this, we’ve resisted the language of “get saved”–perhaps it’s because of a long history of opposition to the “once saved always saved” debate that’s never been solved in 2,000 years! I think we can see lots of ways God saves us and perhaps we need to lighten up a bit on this and allow for more kinds of salvation language with our children.
To illustrate what I just said above . . . we received a Christmas letter from close friends who are members of a Church of Christ, and they described how they are teaching their pre-school children the Ten Commandments and the books of the Bible. They also described ways in which the children participate in the life of their church. While they do not view their elementary school-aged children as Christians in the sense that they have decided to follow Christ on their own and have been baptized, they do view them as needing instruction and seek to bring them into the life of the church as nurtured participants. Our friends teach and nurture their children, yet they are viewed as too young to be baptized. They have not reached the age of accountability or disciple-ability. They would likely view their children in the third category: as potential disciples.
While views of children vary according to culture and churches worldwide, many parents and churches in the Stone-Campbell Movement view their children as potential disciples. The closer a child comes to the age when she is convicted of sin and affirms Christ as her Savior and Lord, the more she is viewed as a prospect for evangelism. A Bible class full of children eleven and twelve years old is ripe with potential disciples in the typical understanding of Churches of Christ in the United States.
We have talked with conservative Baptists and Evangelicals who view five and six-year-old children as prospects for evangelism. As soon as the children are able to reason and know right from wrong, they move to convict their children of their sinfulness and their need for a personal Savior.
For example, we have Baptist friends who confessed Christ and were baptized at age five. Many in Churches of Christ would say this is too young. Catholics, meanwhile, baptize infants. For them, the process of maturing and confirmation begins as early as the child is able to comprehend the rites and teachings of the church.
How, then, do we approach our children with our faith in Christ? In the next post, I’ll cite another study done in the 90s that was a watershed for understanding the impact of conversion in a group of college students at Abilene Christian University.
- A Step Toward Unity (gregtaylor.wordpress.com)