Are you preventing children from coming to Jesus? Part 1

Our Lord Christ said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.” We sneer at those villainous religious leaders–or even disciples–who prevent children from approaching Jesus.

But we have to ask the question, “Do we hinder children from coming to Jesus?”

And when we ask that question in the negative, why not put it in the positive sense also: “Do we do much intentionally to help our young children come to Jesus in our families and churches?

I want to do some sweeping through Christian history, Scripture, a couple of studies of practices related to conversion or faith-shaping of children in the last century, and make some conclusions or applications and issue a challenge to us all.

As the church developed into the third century, lengthy instruction before baptism was introduced, and the time before baptism became longer.

By some accounts in the third century, the catechesis, or pre-baptismal instruction, could last up to three years.

By the fourth century, and most probably before, this catechesis included the children of the church. This seems like a long time but consider that this instruction could be viewed as similar to what today’s churches attempt to do through teaching Sunday school or extended Bible studies.

How do we approach our children with our faith in Christ? We are called to nurture them in faith and lead them to discipleship in Christ, which includes believing Christ confession of Christ as Savior and Lord, baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit.

But how do we begin and how do we consistently teach them both in our churches and homes?

OK, let’s take this a step at a time. We first look for models in Scripture. The following on Acts is from John Mark Hicks.

Since Acts describes the missionary push of the church towards the “ends of the earth,” the conversion narratives are first generation in character. There are no “second generation” conversions in Acts. There are no descriptions of children who “grow up in the church” and seek confirmation of their faith in Jesus. Indeed, there are no explicit references to children in Acts at all.

There are references, however, to “household” baptisms. Lydia and “her household (oikos) were baptized” (Acts 16:15). The jailer “and his entire family (hoi autou pantes, literally, all the ones belonging to him, which is synonymous with “household”) were baptized” (Acts 16:33; Acts 16:34 refers to his “household” [oikon]).

“Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household (oiko) believed in the Lord” just as many Corinthians “believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:16 where Paul writes that he had baptized the “household [oikon] of Stephanus”).

“Households,” of course, could have included children, but the Greco-Roman “household” also included slaves, extended family and even employees. The term is inclusive and it is impossible to determine who actually constituted these households and whether infants or children were present.

We language of these above texts could include infants or small children, but there are several considerations that may discourage that reading.

First, several of the texts characterize the household as not only undergoing baptism, but also that the household heard, believed or rejoiced.

Second, we would not presume to think that an unbelieving slave would have been baptized in one of these households. The prior question is whether faith is necessary for baptism before we assume who was baptized or who was not baptized as part of a household.

Ultimately, the question of infant baptism cannot hang on these ambiguous texts in Acts. They neither include nor exclude infants from baptism. Rather, the discussion rests upon whether personal faith is necessary for baptism or whether one (such as an infant) may be baptized on the faith of another (such as the faith of the parents or the faith of the church as a whole).

Yet, in Luke’s theology, baptism is not simply about faith, but also repentance. It is, as Timothy George has described it, “repenter’s baptism as well as believer’s baptism.”[i]Would we accept vicarious repentance? May one repent for another? The theology of “baptism of repentance,” which is rooted in Luke’s baptismal theology, seems to exclude participation of those who are unable to commit to following Jesus as a matter of personal faith. Luke’s baptismal theology, then, prevents us from reading his descriptions of “household” baptisms as inclusive of infants or small children. That would read more into the language than Luke may have intended.

With these examples from Luke-Acts in mind, we don’t have a ton to go on when it comes to discussing conversion or faith-nurture in children. In the next post, however, we’ll work through some theological questions that come from the Bible and apply toward children.