Children and the Church
In the days of COVID-19 restrictions, the worship services were really quiet.
When there is just three or eight people present, the congregation doesn’t produce much noise, either in the singing or in the ambient sounds of books closing, jackets rustling, and little children talking or whimpering. In a congregation blessed with many young families, the noise of youth is almost a constant, and when it is gone, the silence is deafening.
But the children belong. Children of believers have an essential place in Christ’s church, and this is why we baptize them and why we include them in the worship services even from a young age. As Reformed believers, we hold the Scriptural conviction that a covenant child is part of the community of God’s people, a community where they are the recipients of the precious promises and commands of the Triune God.
Such is also the beautiful theme of the book Children and the Church, a collection of essays edited by Dr Gerhard Visscher and Dr William Den Hollander. The book has its origins in the conferences organized by the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary held in Ontario and British Columbia in early 2019.
Considering a broad swathe of evidence from Scripture, and viewing the topic from various angles including the confessions, church history, and culture, the authors are unanimous in their view that children must be seen as integral parts of the church.
In this respect, the book does not reach a conclusion that Reformed believers will find surprising. Does anyone who reads this book need to be convinced about the place of children in the covenant of grace? Perhaps few. Yet it is exactly on the matter of infant vs. believer-only baptism that the question is asked with increasing frequency these days: Does it matter? Should we really make the case so strongly that it becomes a matter of must? Is this a salvation issue?
In this connection, Tyler Vandergaag in his chapter surveys a diversity of viewpoints in the early church concerning who baptism is for, and he contemplates the challenge that this presents for those who seek to be guided by the practices of the church fathers. While there is diversity, he makes the interesting observation that there is no evidence that this was considered acceptable, encouraged, or promoted.
Ted Van Raalte engages with the writings of a couple of figures from the Reformation period and shows how they helped to enhance the church’s understanding of the grounds, meaning, and implications of baptism.
Besides the perspectives gained from church history, of course, it is important to take a view of the children of believers that is thoroughly shaped by Scripture. If we fail to articulate the Biblical basis for our beliefs, we face the danger of a creeping theological ignorance and underappreciation.
And so the chapters which explore the Biblical basis and meaning of baptism are helpful. For instance, Gerhard Visscher explores the attitude of the Lord Jesus toward covenant children, and also the views of Paul and Peter. The language of “sign and seal” is familiar to Reformed believers, but our understanding is refined by Jason Van Vliet’s investigation of how this language is used in Scripture and the confessions. Scripture presents baptism as a sign of God’s promises and a seal of their reliability.
William Den Hollander considers how baptism was administered in the time of the apostles, examining the household baptisms that are recorded in Acts. He argues that when these are viewed in relation to the Graeco-Roman cultural context, any first century reader would have assumed that infants and youth were also included in the baptisms. Indeed, the “silence” of the New Testament about the baptism of children—far from being an exegetical strike against paedobaptism—actually supports the notion that children were regarded as part of the church community, just as they had been in the Old Testament. The denial of baptism to the children of believing parents would have required an apostolic defence or a clarification.
Every time an infant is baptized in our churches, the Form for Baptism is read. In this theologically rich form, it is said that our children are “sanctified in Christ.” Arjen Vreugdenhil demonstrates how this phrase presents both a comfort to Christian parents and a serious call.
For if we are agreed that children are included, then the next vital question is how we nurture and discipline them. How can covenant children be guided along the path to maturity in a way that will equip them for a lifetime of walking with Christ? We affirm that they belong, so we also seek to give them a true sense of the privilege and calling of belonging. Bringing them up in the security of God’s covenant promises, we aim to cultivate faith, and under the Lord’s blessing, God-honouring behaviour will be in evidence.
Thus it is right that the church is also a place where covenant children are called to personal faith and repentance. If they do not hear this call clearly, the emphasis will naturally fall on outward conformity—doing what is expected as members of a community—and not on inner transformation. So are our covenant children receiving instruction that is soundly Biblical and culturally relevant? Are they benefiting from meaningful relationships with their parents and other believers so that they can grow in Christ?
In arguing for a deliberate approach to discipling our youth, Bill DeJong proposes that Reformed churches should consider the advantages of admitting early adolescents to the Lord’s table, perhaps as young as ten, as was sometimes done in the early Reformation period. The reader of his essay will of course need to reach their own conclusion. In this they may be assisted by Cornelis Van Dam, who writes on children’s participation in the Passover, and the relationship between that meal of the old covenant and the new covenant Lord’s Supper.
In the final chapter, Eric Watkins (OPC) offers good insights into how confessional Presbyterians seek to foster maturity in Christian youth, and what can be learned from these practices for the important task of guiding them to Christ.
In Children and the Church, the amazing truth which emerges time and again is that the children of believers belong: they belong in loving fellowship with the Triune God, and they belong in his covenant community. And so I am sure that the chapters in this volume could be read with profit by many. Some of the authors at times employ jargon that may be unfamiliar, and occasionally threaten to overwhelm the reader with footnotes, but readerly perseverance will surely be rewarded.
May this volume cause us to appreciate anew the riches of God’s rich grace by including believers and their children in his covenant.
Children and the Church
William den Hollander and Gerhard Visscher (editors)
Lucerna Publications, 2019