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Spring 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 1 · pp. 33–50 

Toward a Theology of Children

Dave Wiebe

The Mennonite Brethren Church of North America has stood by its Confession of Faith for many years. The Confession has not helped us, however, with a theology of children. Within the Believers Church tradition, there is a growing confusion about the status of children (Marlin Jeschke 1983:103). This is so primarily because our confession was written in a first-generation Christian mindset. Hans Kasdorf (1980:158) notes that first-generation Christians, lacking a theology of nurture, “know what to do with pagans but not what to do with their own children.”

Children as believers should be encouraged to participate in communion, but should wait with baptism until they can “own” their faith.

This paper attempts to integrate key elements from our theology with a ministry to children. These elements are conversion (how children come to faith), participation in the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and membership.

Although our confession has served us well, certain perspectives have changed. Theories of child development have become more sophisticated, and so have approaches to biblical exegesis. Moreover, our tradition has been challenged as we have reached out and drawn into fellowship people of varying religious traditions. Now may be the time to develop some new thinking on the subject of children in the Mennonite Brethren church. {34}

THE CONVERSION ISSUE: A NEW PARADIGM, NEW TERMINOLOGY

The Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith states:

We are saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, convicts man of his sin and need for salvation. Those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord receive forgiveness. By the power of the Holy Spirit they are born into the family of God and receive the assurance of salvation. Saving faith involves a surrender of the will to Christ, a complete trust in Him, and a joyful obedience to His Word as a faithful disciple. (Article IV, “Salvation by Grace”)

The language is that of conversion. When we use the conversion model to describe salvation for all ages, we are not being quite fair, for children differ from adults. Children are in an early state of development. Until they have reached a stage where they can be held accountable for their actions, their status in the kingdom and church must be defined somewhat differently. Therefore, I suggest using a different model or paradigm for salvation of children.

This model, a “Faith Development” model, acknowledges that children of believers grow up having faith in various stages or styles. It accounts for the fact that children are developing on many fronts: mental, social, emotional, and spiritual. It allows for children to respond affirmatively to the nurture and teaching they receive. Yet it does not deny conversion/new birth for those who have reached a responsible age, or who earlier failed to follow the ways of Christ (Westerhoff 1976:98).

Jesus and Children

The status of children is the subject in Matt. 18:1-6 and its matching text, 19:13-15. These two passages bracket a body of text containing two parables and two life-situations designed to illustrate what it means to belong to the kingdom of God. Matthew 18:1-19:15 form a chiasm, the center of which is the statement that the church is given authority to bind and loose in the presence of two or three witnesses who represent Jesus in their midst (18:18-20). But the leading question is, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” (18:1). Jesus answers, “Unless you change (be converted) and become like children, you won’t even make it into the kingdom (much less be greatest—implied).” Primarily, Jesus calls for a childlike submission and dependence by those who wish to be part of his kingdom. This dependence is characterized by the trust exhibited in the child Jesus set in the middle of the circle and the children he took in his arms. {35}

Greatness in connection with childlikeness is demonstrated in five situations where the vulnerable ones are great: the “little ones” (18:6-9); the one sheep that wanders (12-14); the brother needing restoration (1519); the servant who begged for mercy on a tiny debt (21-35); and the wife being divorced (19:1-12). Jesus indicates that greatness is measured by the extent to which each responsible party seeks, restores, forgives, and protects the vulnerable ones.

After all these examples are given, Matthew tells of mothers presenting their children to Jesus. The disciples push them away, thereby indicating that after all the examples and lessons, they still did not understand. Jesus, however, clearly states: “Let the little children come to me . . . for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” The term “such as” (toiouton) is always used in the NT in a literal, not illustrative sense (4:23; Acts 22:22; Gal. 6:1) (Inchley 1976:38). Jesus said, “Whoever receives (welcomes) a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (18:5).

Paulette Taylor-Wingender (1988) holds that children are part of the kingdom, since they don’t have to do anything to become like children! Put syllogistically it looks like this:

All kingdom members must become like children.
All children are childlike.
Therefore all children are kingdom members.

When Jesus used the term “convert” or “become like children” he was obviously talking to and about adults. When a person reaches an age of responsibility or adulthood, there must be “converting” towards childlikeness in order to be a part of the kingdom. Hardly do the words of Jesus imply that children are kingdom members because they are children.

The Nature of Children: Intellectual Development and Faith Development

The framework Piaget used for mental development still stands as the benchmark for judging children’s cognitive abilities. The framework is useful for understanding faith development.

Briefly put, there are four main stages of cognitive development.

  1. Sensorimotor (Birth-2). The child experiences the environment and learns through the senses: touching, looking, listening, tasting, feeling. The adult who controls the environment is primarily responsible for the stimuli available to the child.
  2. Preoperational (Age 2-7). The child’s inability to group ideas together results in a very fragmentary God-concept. The child would be unable to {36} form a general picture of God, but could experience individual and isolated facts and ideas about God. Also, ideas about God may be mixed with ideas which are not true about God at all. For example, ask, “How does God hear our prayers?”, and the Pre-op child might say: “God has great big ears.”
  3. Concrete Operations (Age 8-11). A child can conceive a more composite picture of God, but it is very much rooted in concrete situations. Ask how God hears prayers, and the child, who has now amassed more information and can integrate some of the concrete images, might say, “God has specially designed earphones.”
  4. Formal operations (Age 11/12-14/15). This child breaks the barrier of literalism and begins some abstract thinking. This ability to abstract allows the child/teen to put some conceptual distance between him/herself and his/her thoughts. It is at this stage that an individual can begin to choose to accept or reject the message of the Gospel (Doris Freese 1986:69-73).

Below age twelve, then, children are totally dependent on the faith of believing adults. George Konrad (1980) shows how socialization principles apply to faith:

The need for self-preservation leads the child to seek the approval of its parents. In this way a child also learns religious behavior, first by mere imitation and then later by internalization. Socialization principles teach us that these adaptations are the essential response of dependency, not mature or free decision.

Such children will “accept Christ” because it pleases the adult. More positively, they may “accept Christ” because they want to please God, and not because of a consciousness of sin.

Such a conclusion fits with early Anabaptist views of children. Menno Simons wrote that infants were not capable of faith. Up to age five, children do not know the difference between good and evil, and therefore are in a state of innocence, unable to believe or disbelieve. Anabaptists rejected the doctrine of total depravity which had led to infant baptism; they considered children covered by the atoning work of Christ (Schwartz, 1973). Konrad says the child is “safe” on the basis of Christ’s atonement until the age when he or she is capable of volitional rejection or acceptance of Christ.

The Faith Community Factor

In the Old Testament, the status of children is described within the God-chosen community. Deuteronomy 6 outlines the responsibility parents and the whole community have to pass on the faith. The Jews knew how to include children in the community (although we remember that they schooled boys only). “No nation has ever set the child in the midst {37} more deliberately than the Jews did” (Joy 1986:8)

In the New Testament, Jesus shows that children are dependent on those in authority (Matt. 18-19). According to Paul, children deserve to be brought up in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4; 1 Tim. 3:1-4; Titus 1:6). In Philippi the jailer’s entire household became Christians (Acts 16). The spiritual status of children was dependent on the adults in the home and Christian community.

Donald Joy (1986:12-13) outlines two significant principles. First, parents are God’s “first curriculum.” Children depend on their parents for knowledge about God, salvation, and holy living. Secondly, the church is the family of God. Psalm 27:10 states, “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.” Jesus said, “Those who obey me are my mother, sister and brothers” (Matt. 12:48-50). Not only parents, but the church at large, shapes the faith of our children.

Westerhoff (1976) outlines four styles of faith. The very young “experience faith,” i.e., they simply experience the community of faith at a low level of consciousness. Children somewhere in the elementary years have “affiliative faith,” which means they say or “believe” religious truths because they have heard adults say them. Only when they are capable of abstracting cognitively do they enter a style of faith called “searching faith” which entails processing why they have faith. Adults are capable of “owned faith.” In this model, until children are able to commit themselves to following Christ as a responsible disciple, their faith is derived from the adults of the community of faith. This faith is real; it is not “conversion” faith, but derived faith.

The Age of Accountability

“The age of accountability” is not a biblical expression, but is hinted at in Jonah where God spared Nineveh because he had consideration for the 120,000 who did not know the difference between their left and right hands. The Anabaptists’ view of the uncomprehending nature of the infant meant that they then needed to determine an age at which a child could be held responsible. They established the following criteria to mark the stages of growth:

  • Evidence of self-will. This opened the door to education, usually at age five;
  • Ability to understand and choose between alternatives. Once someone could think rationally, baptism became a possibility (usually not before age 20);
  • Some exhibition of fear of God, conscience, or penitence (Schwartz 1973).

These criteria, while reflective of an instinctive sense of developmental boundaries, are also evidence of the difficulty in knowing exactly when a child can be labelled “ready” for conversion. It is virtually impossible to set an age when conversion theoretically should occur (Unger 1988). It is even more difficult on a practical level, since children mature at different rates.

Potential for Continual Positive Response

Many children never stray from following Christ in the patterns of faith. Usually they make continuing responses to messages of truth based on increasing levels of knowledge and ability. They may never be able to point to a date when they “accepted Christ as Saviour.”

However, Mennonite Brethren have taken two roads to force a NT pattern of conversion on their children. Either children are encouraged to “sow wild oats” through their youth first, or from them as innocent children is demanded a crisis experience of repentance and conversion (Jeschke 1983:72-78). By “crisis repentance,” Jeschke means making children feel guilty of sin and eliciting from them repentance for sinful living. Guilt is a poor motivator. A child’s God-concept is healthier when it accepts Christ because it pleases God, rather than because it appeases God.

Ultimately, our objective is not so much to get them “saved” as it is to lead them into truth about their relationship with God. God has so worked his salvific plan that children are capable of avoiding a life of service to sin altogether. The mission of the church to children is not to try to get them converted from a sense of sin, but to encourage continual acceptance of the grace of God along the way (Jeschke 1983: 104-106; Bushnell 1967:4).

Ultimately, I would suggest, there is no fundamental difference between a child who has prayed a prayer to receive Christ and one who hasn’t. This claim would hold true especially for the child who continues to read the Bible, enjoys Sunday School, obey parents, prays, etc. Many children don’t pray a prayer of “commitment,” yet follow Christ. We can consider such children as part of the kingdom.

As for the innocent children outside the church, it is the mission of the church to inform them of the good news so that they can respond too. Children are remarkably receptive to good news and the promptings of adults. We should not consider the children to whom we reach out as being “converted” when they “accept Jesus into their heart” at a club or Sunday School meeting. Rather, we should rejoice that they are beginning a response to Christ that, if nurtured, can blossom into full faith. Many children have become “converted” at a Child Evangelism Fellowship meeting at age six or eight, only to lose all trace of that “conversion” years later when there was no follow-up response on their part or adult stimulation to continue responding. {39}

Goals for Children’s Ministry

The following summary may set the stage for some suggestions about a children’s ministry. Children up to the stage of reasoning or age of accountability are models of faith. The kingdom belongs to them and those like them. They are covered by the atonement of Christ. Their faith is dependent on and derived from adults until they reach the point where they can make personal belief and action choices based on their knowledge of God. Dependent faith is nevertheless real faith, since it is born within the community of faith. However, it can be lost through neglect on the part of those who nurture, or later, through reasoned choice. Conversion for children is therefore not a realistic paradigm to use. Rather, we should utilize the faith community paradigm with child as model citizen to express what we believe to be the status of children.

Suggestions for a ministry to children include the following:

  1. We must not press for adult-type conversions in our children. Jeschke (1983:113) makes it very clear that too many child conversions are “an extension of adult control over a child’s experience.”
  2. We must continue, however, to encourage children to respond to Jesus and the message of the gospel (“accepting Jesus into their life”). Some children are internally motivated to pray to receive Christ. We must not prevent them from responding to the gospel message. They should never be told they are too young to believe.
  3. We must expand our understanding of faith to include more than the cognitive aspect. As adults we define faith and belief as accepting a system intellectually, and following through with an ethical life (sometimes even downplaying the latter aspect in favour of “correct doctrinal beliefs”). Children’s faith is intuitional as much as intellectual. They absorb the atmosphere of the learning setting, responding to the emotions of the adult (e.g., if adult is accepting and warm, kids will perceive God that way).

    Children do not have belief systems, nor can they subscribe to any. The fact that their faith is dependent on adults simply means it is not adult-level intellectual faith. But it is real faith.

  4. We must work hard on the atmosphere part of the formal learning settings at church. We must promote and teach for home situations characterized by warmth, love, patience, and lack of pressure to perform according to the spiritual ideals of the parents. We must work on ways to provide formal acknowledgement of children’s faith in the gathering of the church body, so that they feel (in the technical sense of the term) included as part of the church body. {40}

CHILDREN AND COMMUNION

Biblical References and Primary Teaching Texts

Scriptures which refer directly to the Lord’s Supper are found in the gospel narratives (Matt. 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23), and in the instruction by Paul (1 Cor. 11:17-34). Another relevant Scripture is 1 Cor. 10:14-22, which warns the Corinthians that they cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too. In this it acts as a text clarifying the spiritual, mystical character of the celebration. And two other probable references to celebration of the Lord’s Supper are Acts 2:42 and 20:7-11. None of these Scriptures have any instructions regarding children. However, we can turn to 1 Cor. 11 for principles by which to govern practice.

The Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith says that the Lord’s Supper is instituted by Christ, and the elements symbolize his body and blood, reminding us of Christ’s suffering and death and our unity in him. It adds that every believer is to prepare for participation by some self-examination which is for the purpose of participating worthily. “Those who have peace with God, live in peace with their fellowmen, and have been baptized are invited to partake of the Lord’s Supper. . . .”

Admitting Children to Communion

The theological center of 1 Cor. 11:17-34 is that communion is to be celebrated in a spirit of unity which visibly includes all the members of the local community of faith. The Corinthians displayed disunity by eating their fellowship meal (which included the Lord’s Supper celebration) in an unequitable manner. The people who had good food ate and enjoyed themselves, while those who had little food or poor food and who came late were ostracized (vv. 17-22). The point Paul makes is that communion is the Table of the Lord (vv. 23-26). It is Christ’s institution. It is designed as a remembrance and proclamation of his work of salvation (vv. 24-25/26). It is a sacred event because it is a declaration of union with Christ and the church—which is Christ on earth (10:14-22; cf. 11:27).

Paul’s warning, “Let a man examine himself,” was given to help the Corinthians take the matter seriously in a practical way. In other words, Paul wanted them to put some thought into their celebration—thought that would put them into the right framework of unity in celebration. Gordon Fee (1987:560) notes that the term anaxios (“unworthy”) does not refer to a pietistic view that says people are unworthy if they have any sin in their lives, or have committed sins during the past week. Nor does it refer to maturity, or to “performing” the Lord’s Supper irreverently or frivolously (Marshall 1980:113-114). Rather, unworthy participation in the Corinthian {41} context refers to the disunified way in which the Corinthians celebrated the agape/communion meal when it was supposed to epitomize their unity and be a witness for Christ.

Paul’s final words of application are procedural suggestions, not for confession, but for taking steps to wait for and make accommodations for those who needed special deference (vv. 33-34). In bringing 1 Cor. 11 forward to the 20th century, we have whittled down the point of the passage about organic unity of the body to the personal piety of the individual as the prerequisite for participation.

1 Cor. 11 opens communion to the children in the following way. Because of their childlike status, they are dependents and not responsible for the unity in the body. They are to be recipients of actions which unify the weak members of the community. They are not to be recipients of actions which separate or ostracize them (cf. discussion above on Matt. 18:1-5).

Children learn as much or more from what they experience as from what they are told. We can conclude that they may sense exclusion from the family of faith in a dramatic way every time we celebrate communion in front of them, but without their involvement. They may not be able to articulate that feeling, but they are learning from it.

The poor and outcast in Corinth had no one to speak for them. Children, as weak or little ones, often don’t either. Jesus spoke for them. Paul spoke for the weak members in Corinth. We need to speak for them today. If the table of the Lord is for those who believe, then children should be permitted to participate along with adults.

Practical and Theological Questions

  1. Doesn’t the call for self-examination demand a level of maturity and responsibility of which children are not capable?

    The call for self-examination occurs within the framework of maintaining unity in the community of faith. The trust level of children in their adult caregivers stands as a model for unity from which adults should learn. The children’s trust and dependence on Christ, as they understand his work of salvation for them, is also a model. It is precisely because adults have trouble with their own pride and independence that they have to engage in self-examination so that they don’t offend others in the body. That is an adult responsibility. Children are absolved from this demand.

  2. What about the link established between baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

    Vernard Eller (1972:60) compares the church to a caravan {42} or a group banded together to seek a common destination. One has to join the caravan by baptism and membership. Once one has “gotten on board,” one participates in the functions of the group, i.e. the Lord’s Supper. In the NT, people who wished to join the community of faith did so publicly by baptism. It appears that only those who were a part of the community of faith actually participated in the Lord’s Supper. (In some cases, the gathered church was very secretive and didn’t allow anyone who was not a committed follower). However, Pritchard (1980) argues that nonbelievers interested in the faith were present at the Corinthian gatherings and there may not have been a distinction made between believers and non-believers because of the fellowship meal structure. (This conjecture is worth pondering).

    The link between baptism and the Lord’s Supper is established primarily on the logic that NT believers were baptized on profession of faith, thereby joining the fellowship of believers. Only after that do we see them participating in the agape feast/Lord’s Supper celebration (Acts 2). But we must remember that the accounts we have in Acts are about first-generation Christianity.

    Baptism has become a highly abstracted event today. It doesn’t have the commonly understood connotation of the NT where the baptized persons were truly committing their lives to identify with a teacher or movement. Rather, it is more a rite of passage marking a point of progress in the faith. We tend to look for signs of maturity in the candidate, signs that we could only expect from someone who had been a professing believer for a number of years. This may be an understandable extrapolation from first- and second-century Christianity, which did employ stringent catechetical processes to prepare baptismal candidates; but the reality is that baptism no longer connotes the NT image of a public demonstration of one’s conversion.

    Because of this, we have felt comfortable in stretching out the time lapse between conversion and baptism. For children, when we employ the conversion model, we say they may be “converted” at an early age; but then we require that they wait a number of years before they become baptized. We ask the same of converted adults.

    Biblical connections between these ordinances reflect the character of first-generation Christianity. Nothing is said about children of the believers and their acquiring of faith. Significantly, the Anabaptists and the Mennonite Brethren formulated their doctrine in a first-generation Christian mindset. Let us acknowledge the organic connection between conversion/childhood faith and baptism. Even when people are baptized many years after their early childhood “conversion,” we believe the two are metaphysically connected. {43}

    We should be able to make the connection in a different direction. If we accept the fact that children’s faith is embryonic at an early age, and that they are part of the kingdom of God as children, then in anticipation of their future adult commitment to following Christ, let them take communion as an expression of that faith. There are two factors at work here.

    • As part of the community of faith, they possess real (if dependent) faith, and ought to be able to express that faith in an intergenerational religious ceremony or ordinance.
  3. Their future potential commitment in baptism as a responsible adult is organically connected, just as it is connected to their response to Christ. (We should not be worried about the role that time plays here. Time restricts our knowledge of the future, but that doesn’t stop us from going ahead with baptisms. God’s view from beyond time frees us because he will ultimately judge where a person stands.)

In sum, we should not feel uncomfortable in “unhooking” the Lord’s Supper from baptism, in the same vein as we already “unhook” baptism from conversion and adult commitment to Christ.

  • At what age should we admit children to the Lord’s Supper?

    If we accept the faith community model and recognize the faith that children possess--initially very dependent, but as time goes along, more and more their own--, then we should be free to admit them to the Lord’s Table from very early on. Some pedobaptists argue that they should be admitted at infancy when they are capable of ingesting solids, but other pedobaptists argue for first communion at confirmation. Westerhoff (1976:59) makes a case for first communion as a rite of passage at first grade. Then children know exactly when they can take communion, and it can become a moment of celebration and acknowledgement of the faith of the children in the church body.

    One difficulty with Westerhoff’s idea is that while it may be a good rite of passage, it rests on the intellectual/cognitive developmental progress of children. If a child is developmentally disabled and never enters first grade, this ceremony would highlight the child’s disability. Another problem is that it does not reflect sufficiently well the kingdom status of children at even the earliest age. To open the Lord’s Table to children, however, acknowledges their faith status as members of the faith community.

  • What about children from outside the church who are brought into the church by Christian adults?

    This question is more difficult to answer directly. The principle of childlikeness as requisite to kingdom status remains the same. The factor that has changed is that they are not beneficiaries of the faith of a believing {44} parent. However, children are not going to be coming to church unless an adult is involved, and if they are regular participants in church programs like clubs or Sunday School, they will be under the faith-influence of believing adults.

    Believing adults carry the burden of making the decision as to whether or not such children may be ready to participate. Most outreach to children is to those age five and over; a basic understanding by the child of the sacrifice of Jesus should be evident. If the children show they love Jesus and have responded positively to the gospel message, then they should be permitted to join in the communion celebration.

  • What happens when children reach the age of accountability?

    This age varies considerably according to the development of the individual. However, it usually accords with what Westerhoff terms “searching faith.” “Searching faith” entails persons who retain connection to the faith community in some way while exploring various religious options. Westerhoff’s position on a youth who fundamentally throws all faith experience aside and lives a life of sin and open rebellion against God, is unclear.

    Most youth who grow up in the church follow the first track, retaining connection with the faith community. There is no need for them to interrupt their participation in the communion service, since they are continuing to respond to the call of Christ and Christian living. As they are more intellectually adept, they will take on more responsibility for their own maturation and ultimately will make an open commitment to the way of Christ through baptism. This marks the occasion at which they say they are ready to take part in the affairs of the church and contribute to the spiritual welfare of others.

    Some youth do refuse to take part in the church community once they have reached mid-teens and have more individual social rights. In many cases, this is the only way they know how to individuate from parents and all that their parents stand for. If they come to church occasionally, they need to be welcomed to attend. It is highly doubtful, given their perspective on life during that time, that they would want to participate in the communion celebration. If they would participate, their conscience might remind them of their life stance and serve to bring them back to commitment. Also, if they do participate, it may be a signal for youth workers or other disciplers to make contact for the purpose of finding out, in the spirit of encouragement, how their pilgrimage is going.

    If it becomes clear that such youths are living a sinful life and not doing anything about it, then a careful explanation of the communion service and its significance should be given. They should be gently asked to abstain until they have made a clear commitment to Christ, so as not to {45} do damage to themselves spiritually by continued, unexamined participation. This can be a great teaching moment for them.

  • What should we do about the disruptions children cause?

    We practice a highly stylized form of the Lord’s Supper. It is completely unlike the manner in which the early church celebrated it.

    In NT times the Lord’s Supper was connected to the agape/fellowship meal. It would be difficult to differentiate the agape from the Lord’s Supper, except perhaps for a special explanation or commentary or prayer by the host. Banks (1980:84) explains that the Lord’s Supper was simply part of the meal itself. Indeed, the 1 Cor. 11 passage gives no sense that the “words of institution” were actually meant to be said during the meal to set off the Lord’s Supper.

    The Passover was the antecedent of the Lord’s Supper. The classic question by the child, “Why is this meal different from all others?”, was posed more likely because of the child’s natural curiosity than because of formal programming. The presence of children was natural; their involvement in the tradition was expected.

    While we cannot say conclusively that children were a part of the agape meal or even of regular family meals in NT times, the image of the child as integral part of the Passover is helpful. The meal setting of the NT Lord’s Supper lent itself to the presence of children. And even though it was a sacred occasion for the chosen people of God, it was also a key occasion for passing on the faith to the next generation. The presence of children, then, could be a most positive feature. One way to include children in a less formal way would be to hold the Lord’s Supper in a fellowship meal context. We might be surprised at the cooperative response of children were they to be permitted to participate!

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    BAPTISM: AN ADULT STATEMENT OF COMMITMENT AND MEMBERSHIP

    A Solution to a Problem

    The Southern Baptists have seen a dramatic drop in the average age for conversion, baptism, and church membership. That average was age sixteen prior to 1916, twelve years prior to 1935, nine prior to 1955, and was still dropping in the mid-sixties. In the church year of 1966/67, Southern Baptists baptized over 34,000 children ages six to eight, and over 1,000 children under six years of age! On average, every tenth person baptized was younger than nine years (Ingle 1970:14; see also Chamberlain 1973:16). A look at the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference {46} reveals that the age of baptism is also dropping, but more gradually. There has been a steady increase of children baptized under the age of eleven. The statistical report lists the lowest category as “eleven and under.”

    According to principles of child development, these little ones essentially do not understand what they are doing. In terms of faith development, it is apparent that they have not yet begun even to question their faith in a serious way, much less stand ready for responsible membership.

    The Confession of Faith (M. B.) states: “Baptism is a public commitment to discipleship. At baptism the believer enters into the full fellowship and work of the church.” This statement reflects the NT teaching and Anabaptist approach to baptism as an entry point of responsibility and commitment in the church.

    The problem we currently face is that when we baptize children and teens, we do not give them full responsibility. They are in a period of suspension, and properly so, since they do not have the maturity to handle church affairs. At best, they are “put on the shelf” and feel not needed. At worst, they may feel unwanted because of their ambiguous status. Somewhere in between is the subtle--and even not-so-subtle--idea that baptism is really a social formality. To compound the problem, we have no clear rite of passage into mature involvement with the church. In a vague way, marriage is one marker, but that is hardly fair to singles.

    In practice, this lack of clarity leads to serious dilemmas when the baptized child enters the period of “searching faith.” Sometimes radical individuation means putting faith and religious activity on hold. It seems that we are ahead of ourselves in our eagerness to extract a faith pledge from our children. We have not yet given them time to think things through and to arrive at a personal “owned faith.” Many of those who are being baptized under age twelve are encouraged by their parents. Other youth in their later teens proceed with baptism because of peer pressure. Many of these children do make it through to an “owned faith” without stumbling, but for others, it would have been better for them not to have gone through baptism. The problem that parents face when ten-year-olds tell them that they truly believe in Jesus and want to receive baptism, is that to say no may turn that child off religiously. Baptizing children does not meet the need for going public with an “owned faith.”

    The adoption of the faith development model (or kingdom-child model) with the accompanying proposal to include children at the Lord’s Table will help us with this dilemma. Children whose faith is acknowledged for what it is, will feel that they are a part of the church. Accepting them may have the effect of removing some of the pressure for early baptism. {47}

    The Anabaptists held that adults should be baptized. They educated children until well into their teens, but on principle did not accept candidates for baptism until around age twenty. At that age, people knew the consequences of their religious actions (which could be dire!). They were in a position to enter marriage and career as responsible citizens, which meant that they also could enter church affairs. That is, baptism and church membership were logically joined.

    This logical connection is applicable today. In fact, baptism in the faith community model can act as a major milestone of commitment for the growing child of faith. Ideally, the child nurtured in the faith community and responding often to the gospel of Jesus, will be taught that baptism is a moment when, as in NT times, an individual declares to the church and the world that he or she is making a conscious, knowledgeable commitment to follow Christ. This moment then marks a boundary which separates dependent or derived faith from newly acquired “owned faith.”

    Questions Concerning Baptism in Relation to Children

    1. At what age should baptism be recommended?

      When we baptize people, we like to see evidence of “maturity.” This is not the NT way. There persons were baptized upon (adult) conversion. The only maturity involved in the NT model was adult (social, mental) maturity. When we baptize children and even teens, we frequently scramble to find evidence that they are true followers of Christ. Meetings where the candidates give their testimonies are often a formality; it is shocking to hear how often responsible leaders indicate that they “know” the parents of the candidate in question and intimate that such a condition will be an indicator of the quality of the faith of the candidate. True, we try to discover whether or not the candidate is having devotions, or is witnessing to friends. However, such sessions are often simply opportunities for leaders in the church to “preach” at the candidates a little in the hopes of encouraging them to retain their faith during the rough years ahead.

      Let us not baptize children until they have entered the age of accountability. Even then, they should be encouraged to question theology and doctrine. They can be offered structured class settings where they can face the issues of faith and commitment. Let them process the ideas and ideals of their leaders with their emerging ability to abstract. Let them round out their derived faith--which is intuitive but real--with intellectual embracing of truth. Then let them be baptized.

      Jeschke (1983:112-13) sums it up well:

      Whatever the complexities of identifying [the age of accountability], we are obliged to recognize its reality. {48} Pedobaptist churches recognize it in the practice of confirmation. . . . Judaism has its “bar mitzvah,” or “bas mitzvah. . . .” Secular society makes a definite distinction between juveniles and adults. . . . It should be recognized that the actual age of accountability may vary from one individual to another. And the church in its ministry to youth will not be governed simply by an age established by society’s law. . . . In a society in which youth are kept in school by law until the age of sixteen, cannot hold a job or get a driver’s license until sixteen, cannot vote until eighteen, and are not usually allowed to live on their own until out of high school, we are deluding ourselves if we ask them to make authentic decisions with respect to personal faith at a much earlier age.

      When a child of eleven or even up to sixteen asks for baptism, we need to counsel with them and their parents by affirming their faith, but encourage them to postpone baptism until they have had a time to further process their faith. With the church accepting their current faith affirmations through communion, there should be less difficulty in postponing baptism.

    2. What about the relationship between baptism and membership?

      In the proposed process, baptism and responsible church membership can be properly anticipated. Children have already participated in the faith-life of the church in communion. Now, with an “owned faith,” they are ready for responsibility. The demands of adult responsibility, however. have not been placed on them until they are adults.

      That baptism signifies a covenanting with the body of believers puts a demand on the “quality” of that baptism. We do well to keep baptism and membership chronologically linked. The system articulated thus far will remove the pressure to baptize the young, and so will help clarify the significance of baptism.

    CONCLUSION

    The foundation question to face in this discussion is “How does the proposed model fit the believers’ church ecclesiology?” In the believers’ church tradition, we organically link new birth, baptism, membership, and communion.

    Hardly can one talk of the status of children without talking simultaneously about how the way they come to faith, communion, baptism, and membership. Nor can we talk of strengthening the significance of the ordinances—especially baptism and membership—without addressing the {49} status of children in the faith community. How we view the children’s faith status in relation to conversion is the watershed point. What we decide at that point affects what we decide regarding communion and baptism/membership.

    The model of children as kingdom members, we have argued, incorporates developmental considerations much better than the conversion model. The new model offers a way of dealing with the reality that we are no longer a first-generation church body. The Lord’s Supper has traditionally been linked with baptism, but it need not be so linked. Baptism traditionally is linked to membership. That is something we wish to retain, but in a system that makes it more of an adult commitment.

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