One of our members is a Baptist in transition. He is interested in understanding more about covenant theology and particularly how this informs and shapes how we treat children in the church. He asked about books to read in this subject. I couldn’t really think of any. We are great about defending infant baptism, but after that ….
Then I came across Our Covenant With Kids: Biblical Nurture in Home and Church by Tim Sisemore (it was previously released as Of Such is the Kingdom). I don’t like the title, finding it misleading. It isn’t our covenant, but God’s covenant with us that includes our children. But I suspected I ought to read it to gain a better theoretical understanding and therefore begin to move the congregation toward better nurture of our covenant kids in the church.
“The purpose of this book is to examine the entire teaching of the Bible that relates to children, to systematize it, and use this foundation to develop strategies that more adequately enable us to minister effectively to our children.”
This is, in many ways, a big picture book. He is thorough, and covers much ground. Numerous topics are covered, and covered well, but not exhaustively. For instance, in the chapter on the salvation of children, he talks about those dying in infancy. He covers the main views succinctly, and briefly argues for one over the others. I agree with him. But this discussion could have taken up many more pages. Sisemore displays great restraint and discipline as he approaches these topics. He gives information to help you sort through some things and make better decisions.
He begins with the nature of the task, parenting in a world hostile to our faith. The culture has affected the Church in general in a few significant ways: the loss of truth (we disregard doctrine), the loss of humanness due to evolutionary thought and the animal rights agenda (we’re okay with slaughtering children, but not seals, whales etc.), and the adultification of children (the world seduces them from an early age). As a result, he sets out to give us a theology of children, not merely instruction. So much of this is often assumed in parenting books. He wants to make it explicit so we can see if we are deviating from biblical norms in how we think of children. If we are deviating from biblical norms, our approach to instruction and nurture will be ineffective and possibly harmful.
He begins with the fact that children are a blessing from God. Too often they are seen as a burden in our self-centered culture. Raising children is difficult and costly in many ways. But many other things we consider blessings are also difficult: having a satisfying vocation, owning a home, technological advances. Children are a great blessing to both the family and the church. One purpose of marriage it to raise godly seed. These are the people God intends to care for us when we are old. These are the people God intends to make the core of future leadership in the church. Children are gifts from God, who alone has the power to open and close the womb (though many try to steal that power thru abortion). No child is an accident. In this context he discusses the pain of childlessness, and the joy of adoption. Great to see a book on parenting and church affirming the blessing of adoption for both parent and child.
He moves into the spiritual nature of children: are they born innocent or are they sinners from birth? Missing the mark here is huge. Scripture is clear, if we are willing to listen, that they are conceived ‘in sin’. All naturally born children (Jesus being the only one not conceived naturally) are born in Adam. He is their covenant head, and his sin is imputed to them (Romans 5). Our children don’t just need information and education, but salvation. Though created in God’s image, that image is distorted thru sin and our children will struggle with temptation and weakness. It manifests itself early on in life. But so can saving grace. This is why we start to teach children about Jesus and provide moral instruction almost immediately. We do not wait until some magic age of accountability. This means we instruct, but we cannot demand faith in Christ thru undue pressure. With our kids, we instructed them about what God has done for us in Christ, but didn’t pressure, or even ask them, to say the sinner’s prayer or anything like it. They eventually asked us about how their sin can be forgiven, how they could receive the benefits of Christ’s work.
In the discussion of salvation, he returns to the reality of covenants. In Scripture, we consistently find children included in the covenants God makes. “You and your children” is a common phrase in these covenants. We also see children receiving the blessings and suffering the consequences as a result of their parents. Adam’s sons were born into sin and strife due to his disobedience. It didn’t affect only him and Eve. Noah’s family was saved from the flood even though Scripture only mentions his faith. Lot’s daughters were delivered from Sodom because of Lot (and Abraham’s intercession), not their own faith. These are signs of God’s mercy and compassion in the Scriptures. It is not not mere sentimentality. He puts them in the visible church, and often in the invisible church.
This means that the goal of parenting is to provide a gospel environment (including our own godliness) that encourages faith in Christ. This is not only so they might be saved, but so they can grow in character, and wisdom to become godly and productive members of church and society. We cannot control whether or not they believe, but we continue their religious, moral and intellectual instruction with these goals in sight. In this context, he addresses the difficult question of education. He helps parents walk through this decision. He does not provide a one answer fits all solution. He recognizes that public schools differ, as well as parents’ abilities. He also spends a chapter on issues of discipline. There is more than one tool in that tool box, and discipline itself shouldn’t be limited to corporal punishment. He continues to show people the breadth of Scripture on topics like this. He also provides some succinct practical guidance for parents. Just as God uses covenant blessings to motivate us, we can and should use rewards to motivate our children. This is often dismissed, but God does it with us. I suspect he’s a pretty good parent.
He returns to children’s place in the covenant. He makes a brief argument for infant baptism. He hits the high points, but once again is not exhaustive. This is not the main point of the book. He also discusses communion. This was helpful for me as my daughter has begun to ask questions. It helped me think out a plan for approaching this with her. Later in the book he provides some criteria to consider. I thought many adults wouldn’t meet those criteria in most churches today. We should not put more burdens on them than Scripture does. They are coming to a means of grace, not to be church officers. But the “confirmation” process is a cookie cutter approach. We want to have good criteria AND recognize the work of the Spirit in the life of the child.
He also addresses kids in worship. A case can be made for young children participating in the worship of Israel. Too often we fall into the trap of age segregation in church. We separate families too often. Instead of preparing children to worship, we give them a worship alternative that never prepares them to worship with older generations. In our congregation we provide Children’s Church, but don’t require it. Some kids stay and learn to worship in the worship service. This requires more work on the part of the parents, and patience on the part of the other adults. We see children’s church as very temporary. We only offer it up to the age of 8 or 9. My 6 year-old goes in, but my 7 year-old daughter doesn’t and hasn’t for quite some time. Each child is different.
He also advocates family worship, and provides suggestions for how to do that on a regular basis. Too few families practice family worship. This is an important part of the spiritual nurture of our children. It doesn’t need to take long, but it does teach children basic spiritual disciplines, calls them to faith and godliness and shows them that faith is not merely private, but public.
This is a thorough book. It covers numerous subjects, and tries to apply the Scriptures to these subjects. To keep it readable, as I mentioned, he is not exhaustive in any of these subjects. He doesn’t write as though he has all the answers. He helps people think through things rather than dictate what they must do. But it is instructive. I think he maintains a good balance. I found much food for thought as a father and a pastor. It was a worthwhile read.