“Children are not just the church of tomorrow– they ARE the church of TODAY!”–
… a catchy slogan, but it plays more to the anxiety of parents about their children than it does to a biblical view of the church.
Are children really the “church of today”? Two forces within modern society would say “yes”– “yes” so strongly they almost guarantee many people will miss the point of this post.
The first is a secular impulse that treats children in a sentimental way– that confuses and even inverts the distinctions between child and adult. Thus, children are loaded up with adult concerns while adults are granted the indulgences of childhood. The nature of the church is similarly turned upside down with it being seen as most relevant, not to adults, but to kids.
To attract members, many religious communities cooperate in the recasting and refocusing of the church as a thing for children. The result is an accumulation of adherents whose biggest connection with the church is through their children.
Such children naturally leave the church as they grow older (because after all, church is for kids) and don’t return until they have children.
A second force arguing “church is for kids” is religious tradition. In many traditions, babies are “baptized into the church” much like Jewish boys were “circumcised into Israel”– but such parallels blur a fundamental distinction between Judaism and Christianity. The former is based on circumcision of flesh while the latter centers on “circumcision of heart.”
Justification for baptizing babies against their will and without their knowledge is often based on the doctrine of “baptismal regeneration,” the idea that baptism has a super-sensible effect in removing the stain of original sin independently of the heart, mind, and will of the recipient. That practice, however, begs the question of why such baptisms frequently have no effect on recipients. So next comes the doctrine of “confirmation,” a sacrament in which the Holy Spirit is subsequently given to those who have been baptized as infants to equip them in living a Christian life.
All of the preceding is extra-biblical and can be swept away in preference for a better understanding of salvation and the church. Children have no need of individual baptism or personal regeneration because they are not lost in the way adults are lost. Instead, they are part of that innocent, but still corrupted creation that collectively groans in anticipation of cosmic regeneration (Rom 8:21). The church is God’s plan for the salvation of accountable men and accountable women, not unaccountable children. It consists of all who belong to Jesus as his disciples, and are one in love, in character, in hope, in Christ as its head.
The relationship of children to the church is mediated through their parents. The only direct command to children in scripture is for them to obey their parents (e.g., Eph 6:1). Although it’s a very good thing for children to mimic the Christian behavior of their parents, it’s not the same thing. It’s also a good thing for the church to be concerned about the children of its members, to collectively work toward their spiritual development, and to habituate them to the thought world, attitudes, and behavior patterns of Christianity, but those concerns and actions are marks of natural affection– not marks of the church.
The church is made up of “those who have been called out of the world” by God. In that sense, children are naturally disqualified, both as the objects of evangelism and as its instruments. They can do neither the coming nor the calling. They are largely bystanders in the five core functions of the church: (1) evangelism, (2) worship, (3) edification, (4) service, and (5) fellowship. Thus, a contrary statement of the obvious– “church is NOT for kids”– is not intended to diminish concern for children but to get adults to participate in a vocation limited to them– to get them to quit dodging the demands of discipleship by acting as if such demands are directed, not to them, but to their kids.
In Mt. 19:14-15, Jesus values children because they reflect the nature of discipleship, not vice versa. Jesus and NT writers use the imagery of children often, but most references are figurative or symbolic of Jesus’ disciples. Although children are good figures and symbols of discipleship, they are not perfect ones, being sometimes used in negative ways. (1Cor 3:1; 13:11; 14:20; 2 Tim 2:22; Heb 5:13)
The impulse to limit the NT use of the word “children” to a literal understanding is almost irresistible in the face of modern-day sentimentality. Doing so however, runs the risk of exchanging a greater truth for a lesser one. In a lesser sense, many men and women will be judged based on their neglect of children. The greater truth, however, is that the world itself will be judged based on its hospitality toward the “children” (that is, the disciples) of Jesus. Those who accept them will be saved; those who reject will be lost.
Saying these kinds of things is definitely not a church-growth kind of thing to do, but they are true. The idea that “church is for kids” points people away from greater truths toward lesser ones.
The following posts explore the preceding subject from other angles: