Raising Covenant Children without Presumption or Skepticism
It seems schizophrenic to pray at a child’s baptism that they would never know a day without Christ and then expect children raised in the church to have a conversion story. Questions like: What was your life like before you had faith in Christ? How is your life different today? are hard ones to answer for many children who have been raised in the church. Some may very well have a moment they can point to when they came to faith. For others it may have been such a gradual working of the Spirit that they aren’t aware of when exactly they became believers.
Growing up, my husband and I were raised in credo-baptist churches. We are familiar with the pattern of professing faith in these types of churches. At some point, a child raised in the church will hopefully profess faith and then be baptized, thus becoming a member of the church. As adults when we both joined the PCA as professing and baptized believers, we accepted infant baptism as biblical and appropriate.
When our boys were born, we had them baptized. We gladly answered the questions and promised “to bring (them) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” It was a joy to hear the pastor pray for us and our children and especially to have them pray that our boys would never know a day without the Lord. That has always been our dearest prayer for our children.
As the boys have grown, we began to think through and to wonder when our boys should meet with the elders to profess faith and become communing members. We didn’t have a template for that from our own upbringings. We began to study and to ask questions about how to know when a young person is ready to profess faith. Our boys were covenant children: baptized, raised in the church, catechized. They have always professed faith to some degree. How do we know when they’re ready?
Something that frustrated us the was the expectation by some that all believers must have a conversion experience. It seems schizophrenic to pray at a child’s baptism that they would never know a day without Christ and then expect children raised in the church to have a conversion story. Questions like: What was your life like before you had faith in Christ? How is your life different today? are hard ones to answer for many children who have been raised in the church. Some may very well have a moment they can point to when they came to faith. For others it may have been such a gradual working of the Spirit that they aren’t aware of when exactly they became believers.
Another thing we heard was, “No one is born a believer.” To an extent that’s certainly true. We don’t inherit our faith from our parents like we do our eye color or our nationality. Children raised in the church must take ownership of their faith. To be a communing member of the church, to be a believer, they must profess faith and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
But on the other hand, there are limitations to such a saying. We don’t know when exactly the Spirit begins to work in the hearts of our children. Scripture gives examples of some who the Spirit was active in even before birth (Luke 1:41). God can work in the hearts of unborn children, and for the sake of my stillborn daughter, I am thankful for that truth. If we use “No one is born a believer” to say that every one must have a conversion experience in order to be truly saved, we are placing unbiblical limits on what God can do.
In our churches today, there are two temptations that we face when considering the faith of our covenant children. One is presumption. In some churches and denominations, there is a tendency to assume all baptized children are believers and should be given the rights of full membership. Some of these churches advocate for paedocommunion. They argue that these covenant children shouldn’t be kept from the table.
Other churches have all children of a certain age go through confirmation and join the church at a set time, whether or not the children have made a credible profession of faith. In many churches, parents and leaders don’t take seriously the importance of evangelizing children raised in church. In each of these cases, there is a presumption that children raised in the church are believers without requiring or expecting the children to take ownership for their faith and their relationship with Christ.
The other temptation when dealing with covenant children is skepticism. Churches and parents who tend towards skepticism may doubt the sincerity of their children’s profession of faith. They might believe the children are too young to profess faith. They might say the children are simply parroting what they’ve heard from their parents. They might insist that the children have a conversion experience before becoming communing members.
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