Posts Tagged ‘children’

Children in the Bible

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education.

The two fundamental questions anyone must answer in creating a philosophy of education are: What is the nature of the child? and What is the goal of education? We are working through the first of these. Today’s question is: What does the Bible does tell us about children? What follows is largely a reworking of this earlier post.

While I want to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, I think it is helpful to have some idea of the range of beliefs out there regarding children. When we look at the many philosophies of education available to us, we see many ways of characterizing children. They are blank slates (Rousseau). They are lumps of clay. They are empty vases. They are hot house plants (Froebel). They are (gasp!) persons (Charlotte Mason). Many philosophies, classical among them, also speak of stages through which the child develops. 

Words for “Child” in the Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible uses four main designations for children of various ages: there are babes and infants (from the Hebrew root ‘ll), little ones (Hebrew taph), children (Hebrew yeled), and youths (Hebrew na’ar). The various terms are not always clearly distinguished, but we can make some general observations about each.

Youths are teens and young adults, as in Isaiah 40:8-9 where “youths” and “young men” are used in parallel.  They are capable of real work as servants (Gen. 22:19; Ruth 2:15) and armor-bearers (Judg. 9:54; I Sam. 14:1). Joshua is a “young man” when he begins to serve as Moses’ assistant (Exod. 33:11). Those who spy out the land are “young men” as well (Josh. 6:23). David is a “youth” when he battles Goliath (I Sam. 17:33) and evinces a strong show of faith. One in youth is capable both of sin (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 25:7) and of faith (Ps. 71:5), though youth is also still a time of tenderness and inexperience (I Chr. 22:5, 29:1; II Chr. 13:7). The Bible does not give us a clear line at which this stage of life begins (they are not so concerned as we are to label teens, tweens, etc.) but I think it is significant that Jesus at age 12 stays in the Temple and argues with the teachers, showing His intellectual maturity at that age (Luke 12:41ff).

Moving down the scale, yeled “child” seems to be used fairly loosely, referring at times to a weaned child (Gen. 21:8; I Kgs. 17:21) and at others to what is clearly a baby (Exod. 2:6; 2 Sam. 12:16).  They are included in both the mourning (Ezra 10:1) and the rejoicing of the community (Neh. 12:43). A child is the object of training and discipline (Prov. 22:6; 23:13; 29:15) and is called to holiness:

“Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” (Prov. 20:11)

“Little ones,” from the Hebrew taph, seem to refer to those who need care. The root seems to mean “to trip” or “to take tiny steps” so “toddler” could be a good translation of this term. It often overlaps with yeled. “Little ones” are paired often with women and the elderly, and even with cattle, all presumably falling into the “needing care” category (Gen. 34:29; 43:8; 45:19; 46:5; 47:24; 50:8, 21; Num. 32:24, 26; Judg. 18:21). Like women, they are not counted (Exod. 12:37). Even they, however, are included in the assembly of the people (Josh. 8:35; II Chr. 20:13) and are required to keep the Law (Deut. 31:12). The New Testament also indicates that children are included in the covenant community (Acts 2:39).

The Hebrew root ‘ll gives us a collection of words translated variously as “babes,” “infants,” and “sucklings.” What is clear of these children is that they are still nursing (which may have gone on for quite some time in that culture).

The Bible makes it clear that God’s involvement with children is from birth and even before (Ps. 139:13; cf. Jer. 1:5-7). Children are said to have faith from the womb, but also to be sinful at that very early age. John the Baptist shows some evidence of faith in utero (Luke 1:41a). Timothy too is said to have known the Scriptures “from infancy” (2 Tim. 3:14-15). On the flip side, the Psalms speak of sinfulness being from before birth (Psa. 51:5; 58:3)

Psalm 8 is a well-known passage which seems to speak of infants giving praise to God:

“From the mouths of babies and infants you ordained strength.” (Psalm 8:2; my translation)

When Jesus quotes this Psalm, it is praise which comes from the babies’ mouths:

“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?“” (Matt. 21:16)

My own interpretation of this Psalm would be that, whether it refers to praise or to strength, that it is using the infants somewhat ironically. Just as Jesus would say that God could raise up sons of Abraham even from the stones — rocks being nothing like living sons– the psalmist here says that strength could come even from infants, those known to be least strong; if we understand the term to be “praise” the idea is the same for infants do not speak much less give praise.

Children in the Gospel of Matthew

Turning to the New Testament, we find a few passages which seem to speak of the faith of children (I have discussed these passages in more detail here):

“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matt. 19:14)

In its context, this verse is quite literal; the disciples were physically preventing children from approaching.

Another well-known passage is found in the previous chapter:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’” (Matt. 18:1-6)

In its context — the disciples are disputing over who of them is the greatest — Jesus praises the humility of children. Though I do not think it is the main purpose of the passage, I do think this passage tells us that children are capable faith. The second paragraph tells us something interesting too — children can sin. We don’t immediately think of the negative, but to have a relationship with God can be good or bad; we may be in relationship with Him or we may offend Him.

Matthew 11 seems to imply that children are capable of understanding the things of God:

“At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.’” (Matt.11:25; cf. Luke 10:21)

In Matthew’s gospel, this prayer of Jesus comes right after His condemnation of the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida; in Luke there is an intervening passage in which the 72 return rejoicing that they have cast out devils and Jesus tells them to rejoice instead that their names are written in the Book of Life. The context seems to indicate that these are not literal children but that those who are like children — the uneducated and perhaps the not-too-bright — will understand. As in Psalm 8, the use is ironic; God allows children to understand what those who should know more and better do not. Similarly, in Romans 2:20, Paul uses children in parallel to the blind and foolish who are in need of instruction and guidance. In other words, children are used in these passages not because of their knowledge but because of their habitual lack of knowledge.

Conclusions

What conclusions can we draw from all these Bible verses about children? Here’s what I see:

  • The Bible does not give us an age at which one goes from being a child to an adult but it does seem to distinguish between children — including children, babes and little ones– and youths. The latter, while inexperienced, are essentially adults. Teens and young adults would likely be called youths.
  • Children (all those below teens) seem to be lumped together; the terms used for them are not clearly distinguished.
  • Children are characterized as ignorant or foolish. They are in need of instruction and discipline.
  • Nonetheless, they are counted among God’s people and at important points (such as covenant renewal ceremonies) are included in the assembly of God’s people.
  • Children are called to follow the Law and to holiness. They can sin but they can also exhibit faith. There is no indication of any minimum age for faith.

What are the implications of all this for education? I certainly don’t think we have all the answers yet, but we can make some preliminary conclusions. Children are not presented in the Bible as something other than adults. What we have seen thus far does not give us a lot of insight into children’s mental or intellectual capacity but their spiritual capacity is equivalent to that of adults in that they can both sin and have faith. I think this excludes the blank slate, empty vase ideas which depict children as empty and therefore neutral substances. [Children are lumps of clay — but then again, so are adults  (Rom. 9:20ff).] Children are in need of training which would seem to preclude the more laissez-faire approaches to education such as unschooling. We will talk more about education in the Bible; for the moment I see no clear stages of development such as classical education posits but neither have I seen that the Scriptures preclude such a view.

Until next time,

Nebby

 

Keeping Kids in Church: Why?

Dear Reader,
A little while back I did a post on how to keep kids quiet in church and to train them to participate in worship. In that post, I promised that I would come back and talk about the why of keeping kids in worship. This is my attempt at doing so.
Of course it all starts with our view of children. In our church we baptize babies (now there’s a big topic!) because we believe that they are part of God’s covenant community. As such, they are expected and required to participate in worship just as their elders are. As an old pastor of mine used to say, “When the flood comes, you don’t leave your kids outside the ark; you bring them in!”
Nor is it enough to have kids attend some sort of Sunday school or children’s worship. Worship is family time — the church family — and that means all ages. Growth in Christ is through discipleship; the older members are to train the younger. This can only happen if they are together. Nor are carefully prepared Sunday school lessons enough. I would venture to say they are not the best training for young covenant members. The most valuable experience my kids ever had was when they were quite little and we could attend our church’s weekly prayer meeting and they could hear how other adult believers read and discussed the Bible, how they shared prayer requests and prayed for one another. Much of the discipleship that will go on in the church will not be explicit or intended; it will be what is absorbed from just seeing and hearing how other, more mature believers interact with one another and with their God.
And do not too quickly assume that what happens in service will go over your children’s heads. They likely get more out of it than you imagine. At any rate, they will not be better prepared to pay attention and to worship with the body by being excluded from it. My observation of friends’ children who have been segregated in children’s ministries till age 12 (or thereabouts) is that when they reach that age they are still not able to sit and pay attention as required. Whereas children who are required to do so from an early age are perfectly fine in worship quite early on.
Lastly, I want to quote one of my absolute favorite writers, Frank Boreham. Boreham was a minister in Australia and, I believe, New Zealand, some years ago. He was also a prolific writer. His tone is always pastoral and I find his works very comforting. As a pastor, he laments that some churches separate out the children, noting that their presence is not just for their own benefit but for that of the whole body. Here is what he has to say:
“I am told that, away beyond the Never-Never ranges, there is a church from which children are excluded before the sermon begins. I wish my informant had not told me of its existence. I am not often troubled with nightmare, my supper being quite a frugal affair. But just occasionally I find myself a victim of the terror by night. Ans when I am mercifully awakened, and asked why I am gasping so horribly and perspiring so freely, I have to confess that I was dreaming that I had somehow become the minister of that childless congregation . . . An appointment to such a charge would be to me a most fearsome and terrifying prospect. I could not trust myself. In a way, I envy the man who can hold his own under such circumstances. His transcendant powers enable him to preserve his sturdy humanness of character, his charming simplicity of diction, his graphic picturesqueness of phrase, and his exquisite winsomeness of behaviour without the extraneous assistance which the children render to some of us. But I could not do it. I should go all to pieces. And so, when I dream that I have entered a pulpit from which I can survey no roguish young faces and mischievous wide-open eyes, I fancy I am ruined and undone. I watch with consternation as the little people file out during the hymn before the sermon, and I know that the sermon is doomed. The children in the congregation are my salvation.
“I fancy that the custom to which I have referred was in vogue in the church to which the Rev. Bruno Leathwaite Chilvers ministered. Everybody knows Mr. Chilvers; at least everybody who loves George Gissing knows that very excellent gentleman. Mr. Chilvers loved to adorn his dainty discourses with certain words of strangely grandiloquent sound. “Nullifidian,” “morbific,” “renascent” — these were among his favourites. Once or twice he spoke of “psychogenesis” with an emphatic enunciation which seemed to invite respectful wonder. In using Latin words which have become fixed in the English language, he generally corrected the common errors of quantity and pronounced words as nobody else did . . . Ans so on. Poor Mr. Chilvers! I am sure that the little children filed out during the hymn before the sermon. No man with a scrap of imagination could look into the dimpled face of a little girl I know and hurl ‘nullifidian’ at her. No man could look down into a certain pair of sparkling eyes that are wonderfully familiar to me and talk about things as ‘morbific’ or ‘renascent.’ If only the little tots had kept their seats for the sermon, it would have saved poor Mr. Chilvers from committing such atrocities. Can anybody imagine John Wesley talking to his summer evening crowd at Dublin about ‘nullifidian,’ or quoting German? I will say nothing of the Galilean preacher. The common people heard Him gladly.” (Mushrooms on the Moor, Kindle loc. 1191)
Nebby