by Dr. Harvey Plett
We need to accept children as children and that they are safe in the Kingdom of God, and not demand that they make little adult choices when it comes to spiritual decisions.
In no area of life do we accept a child’s decision as binding. There is no good rationale to change that in the spiritual realm. By accepting that they are in the Kingdom gave me as a parent a real sense of peace.
Developing a Child’s Spiritual Life
We need to continue our programs for nurturing our children in the faith. We need to teach our children that Jesus loves them, that they are in the Kingdom, and that they need to affirm their love for Jesus. We need to continue to teach the children about right and wrong as well as stressing the need for confessing their sins to Jesus and asking His forgiveness.
The parent-child love relationship is a good model to illustrate the love that exists between Jesus and the child. This means we need to be careful we don’t teach the frightening realities of being spiritually lost until they are old enough to understand. Any child can be scared into making a decision without knowing what is involved by scaring it with hell. Care and discretion needs to be used.
Similarly we need to use discretion in terms of which Bible stories we use to teach the Bible to children. We need to be aware of what our children are taught in Sunday School, at camps, VBS, and other clubs.
Accept a Child’s Decision as a Child’s Decision
We need to expect that children below the age of accountability will make decisions for Jesus because they live in an adult world and see and hear how adults are asked to make decisions.
In addition children do make decisions as they grow. Children will also confess the wrongs they do and ask Jesus for forgiveness as they have been taught. When this happens we rejoice in the child’s response, affirm and encourage the child but deal with the child on the child level and not a miniature adult level.
We also need to accept the decision as the decision of a child and not that of an adult. We can expect that our children will make many decisions as they grow in their understanding. We need to affirm them each time. Should it not be possible for a child from a Christian home to never know a time that it was lost because it made decisions for the right as the opportunity came along?
Balance Our Conversion Stories
In our churches we need to ask those who have dramatic conversions to share their testimony, but each time we have one of the dramatic conversions we should invite someone who does not have a dramatic conversion experience to share his or her testimony. This will help the child understand that there is no one model of conversion that must be experienced in order for a conversion to be genuine.
The child will share her or his decisions they made as a child and possibly date their conversion from that time. That is good but it will probably be rather non-dramatic. In my class at Steinbach Bible College I asked the question, “Who can give me the date of when they became a Christian?” Surprisingly many times one third to one half of the class didn’t have a date. This was due to their upbringing. I said, “Fine. What is important is that you know you are a Christian today.”
We need to be clear that baptism is believer’s baptism and not infant or child baptism (Matt. 28:18-20). And so we baptize an individual when he or she is mature enough to own the faith. Baptism is not a sacrament that conveys the grace of God. It is a ceremony that illustrates what the grace of God has done and incorporates the individual into the visible local body of Christ. Therefore infant baptism is not baptism for the church that believes in believer’s baptism.
We do not thereby condemn those who baptize infants, but neither do we accept that baptism. We are dealing with truth here and not feelings about how good that person is. We need to graciously take a stand on the truth.
Using More Accurate Language
We need to clean up our language when it comes to the idea of child dedication. We cannot dedicate another individual. A person is responsible for himself or herself. We can influence them, but we cannot dedicate them to something. In reporting such services, churches should identify them as Parent Dedications.
By calling them Child Dedication services we are communicating something we, first of all, don’t believe in, and sort of assume that people will understand that we are not conveying sacramental grace with the ceremony.
Though many consider something has happened to the child in the Dedication ceremony, in actuality it hasn’t. The dedication is of the parents committing themselves to raise their child in a Christian environment.
I believe the dedication of parents is an important idea and practice, but it does not mean that parents who don’t do this in a public service are any less Christian or less concerned or dedicated to raise their children for the Lord. To assume that children who have gone through the ceremony have something more than those who haven’t is reading more into the ceremony than what it is.
Implications for Communion
This view of the child, church, and baptism, also has implications for participation in the communion service. Like baptism, communion is for those who have made an accountable decision to follow Christ and have been baptized on that faith commitment (Acts 2:38; Matt. 28:18-20). A child does not understand the meaning of the communion service. A child cannot do the self-examination nor discern the body as Paul teaches (1 Cor. 11:27-29). Therefore it is not ready to participate in the ordinance.
I suggest that we let the child be a child and not require of it what we require of a person who is accountable. The communion service is not a sacramental service that conveys grace. It is a commemoration of what Christ has done for those who understand what that is.
Time to Re-Examine!
On this issue of the child and the Kingdom of God, I believe we as a Conference have experienced what Arnold L. Cook would call “historical drift.” Our drift seems to be towards sacramentalism on the one hand; and, on the other, demanding of a child something it is incapable of doing. It is time to re-examine some of our practices to see whether they are in line with Scripture and what our early Anabaptist forebears lived out.
A child is in the Kingdom of God; and as we teach the child, it responds to the truth at its level of understanding and thereby remains in the Kingdom unless, when accountable, it makes contrary decisions.
Dr. Harvey Plett (Prairie Rose) is a long-time EMC minister, educator, and conference worker. He has served as president of SBC and as EMC moderator. He continues to do some teaching, preaching, counselling, and writing. He and his wife Pearl live in Mitchell, Man., and celebrated 58 years of blessed marriage on Aug. 22, 2016.