Monday, June 02, 2008

Presumption -- children and church membership

"Presumption is as iniquity and idolatry" 1 Samuel 15:23

Many adult Christians have never known a time when they didn't believe; they have grown up in the church from their earliest years. My wife is one of those; however, what she said recently serves as a warning to Christian parents against presuming the spiritual state of their young children.

She cannot identify a time when she didn't believe, yet she speaks of being converted as a teenager. Is this doublespeak? I don't think so. She grew up in a Christian family and learned all about the fundamentals of the Christian faith (think Apostles' Creed) and rejected none of it; she believed this was true. However, there came a time years later when she embraced Jesus Christ as crucified for her sins, as taking her penalty upon himself and freely offering his righteousness to her. She points to this as her moment of conversion.

I write about this tonight for two reasons. First, my two older children have begun church membership class at the tender ages of 10 and 8. They have a fairly good intellectual understanding of the Christian faith (thanks to diligence in memorizing much of theWSC), and they believe it to be true. But as a parent great discernment is now asked of me. If they complete the class do I allow them to go forward in joining the church? This would imply that I consider them to be regenerated. The seriousness of this decision causes many Christian parents to postpone their children's membership until the end of high school. This makes sense to me, but how should I respond to my children's wonderful desire to join the church now?

A second cause for this post is that there are many today that were raised in the church, like my wife, that continue in it into adulthood, yet cannot recall what I described above as a conversion. This is foreign to me and I am puzzled by it. I don't doubt that many of these people are Christians--that somehow God converted them very early, even before their earliest memories. But I am curious to know whether they would say that they have always had more than an intellectual belief in the Christian faith, that they have always had the marks of saving faith in their life (a hatred of their own sin, a dependence upon Christ to save them).

This issue is wrapped up in a person's view of covenant theology, but even as an advocate of that, I see reason to be on guard against presumption. Because the stakes are so high (we're talking about your children's eternity afterall), it seems to me that Christian parents should view their children as "children of promise" without going so far as to consider them saved and ready to become full members of the church. Membership may best be saved until they reach a point in their maturity when their profession of faith reveals more than an intellectual belief.


Haley said...

This is a really interesting issue, Tim, and one that I think Dan and I are struggling to define ourselves now that we're parents raising a covenant child. Both of us fall into that category of never remembering a time when we didn't believe. I think for both of us, there were points along the way when the Holy Spirit really began to move in our hearts and some observable maturing in the faith took place, but neither one of us really recalls this as a "conversion" experience. It was confusing for me because as I got older, my parents and I would have conversations about whether or not I should join the church, but the fact that I couldn't point to a time when I was "saved" made me worry that maybe I wasn't, and I hesitated, because I didn't want to be presumptuous. And my parents, who were both converted as adults, kind of didn't know what to think about it either. So if anything, my major turning point came when I actually began to have assurance of my salvation after a long period of doubt. And I don't want that to be Kate's experience if she is one of those kids that just never can point to a specific moment of conversion.

Have you found any good reading on this topic?

Tim said...

Haley, what a great comment. I read it before going to work this morning and have been thinking about it for much of the day. Thank you!

Parents that consistently teach their children the faith may discover that the conversion of their children looks different than it does in others who were not raised faithfully. However the same fruits of grace—such as hatred for sin, love for Christ, and yearnings for holiness—that are evident in adults should be evident in converted children as well.

So faithful parents who are trying to decide whether to present a child for communicant membership should first consider whether the child is just giving intellectual assent to what they've been taught or whether the child's faith appears genuine at even a tender age.

There are great examples of children who have joined the church at an early age. Our friend, Jeff Vaughn, did so when he was 8 if I'm not mistaken.

For a short but good book on this, I recommend Bringing the Gospel to Covenant Children by Pastor Joel Beeke. It is available on-line at