Raising Christian Children

Tara disovered that if you want a lot of discussion on your weblog, talk about child rearing. (You have to register to read her weblog.) For those of you too lazy to register, she’s given me permission to summarize and quote her post. She’s teaching her son to read using A Beka Books, but has become frustrated with what she calls “blatantly obvious propagandizing”. “Truth is truth,” she writes. “I want [my children] to find out for themselves that the Bible should be a treasured possession, that going to church is a good thing. I don’t mind having a hand in the convincing but I don’t want to exclude reason and personal observation.” I would counter that Truth is accessible only through God’s gift of faith. You cannot rationalize your way into it. Either you believe or you don’t. Still, I’m sympathetic. The A Beka Book story that she talked about was very heavy-handed with its message. No subtlety whatsoever. No art or craft, either. I certainly won’t be using their books to teach anything to my children. I offer the rest of my comments here as another way of thinking about raising Christian Children A couple of months ago, I was talking to my priest about raising children in the Church and the differing perspectives: Evangelical vs. Orthodox. This difference is especially obvious (and troubling) because my children are involved in a program at an “Independent Bible” (read: fundamentalist) church. As an Orthodox, there is no question about whether or not my children will use “reason and personal observation” to come to a “saving faith in Christ” (that’s American Evangelical code for “being a Christian”). They are Christian. They’ve all been baptised and they all take communion — in our church the children receive communion first and mine look forward to it. They’ve managed to impress their Sunday School teachers with their knowledge of Scripture. Does this mean that they’ll be Christians their whole lives? I don’t know. As St Theophan the Recluse wrote in The Spiritual Life, adults must choose to live out their baptism. In contrast, the Evangelicals want to persuade my children to be Christians. They want to show my children a sugar-coated Christianity and hope they’ll buy in. I am not ashamed to admit that I take advantage of the various church’s evening Vacation Bible Schools during the summer. My kids have fun and Alexis and I get a quiet evening to ourselves. One of the prices I pay, though, is that my children get bombarded with propaganda. “Isn’t this ice cream yummy? Aren’t these crafts fun? Don’t you want to pray The Sinner’s Prayer?” The fun was so infectious this past summer that my five-year-old did “walk the aisle.” Why are the Evangelicals are so scared of infant baptism, but so ready to accept a five-year-old’s prayer? Back to the that conversation with my priest. While I’m not ashamed of taking advantage of the local VBS programs, I am concerned about the conflicting messages my children are getting and, as a result, I’ll probably not be involving my children in so many. I asked my priest about this. “Why do the evangelicals have so many programs for children, but we have so few?” (Not strictly true…) After he reminded me that the church sees it as primarily my responsibility to rear my children as Christians and we talked some more, I was able to elaborate this distinction: Evangelicals persuade children to be Christian whereas Orthodox children are Christian. Evangelicals want your child to develop a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” while the Orthodox children grow up knowing the triune God. As Orthodox, we certainly try to help our children know God better over time. We have some great tools in the sacraments and icons of the church — perfect ways for a small child to experience God. Contrast this with the “Madison Avenue” approach that tries to persuade children that God and Church are tons of fun and, hey, you don’t want to miss out on that! But the church and God are not about fun. God isn’t always my favorite person. And it is dangerous to teach our children that they’re in church because its fun. After all, if someone joins the church simply because they think that it is fun, they’ll leave when it isn’t fun any more.

10 thoughts on “Raising Christian Children”

  1. Unorthodox evangelicals?

    The excitement of seeing my name (Tara) in print inspires a response. Interesting article. Of course, I’ll have to take issue with some of it, since I fall into the evangelical category. I must say, it seems as if your argument is with evangelicalism gone wrong, which doesn’t seem quite fair. I take issue with a Beka, also with ice cream as a lure into the fold. On the other hand, the apostle Paul, among others, sought to persuade many jews that Jesus is the Christ. He talks about “becoming all things to all men in order to win some”.

    I think that perhaps we differ in our use of the word Truth. The OT says “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the LORD swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth…” and so on. Part of what I get out of that is that we have an obligation to teach our children about God, teach them what the Bible says. I was, in this case, referring to the words/concepts of the Bible when I mentioned truth. When I said that I didn’t want to exclude reason, I should clarify that I want them to understand what the Bible means, why it says what it does, instead of blindly accepting what I say as truth. I want them (I think!) to challenge what they hear in church, decide for themselves if it’s true (that word again — I mean ‘in line with what the Bible says’). I would think of the opposite as, say, a cult that requires absolute submission to authority and leaves no room for individual thought.
    So, I guess I’m saying that I see nothing wrong with a form of persuasion — maybe it would be safer to call it ‘training’. Reminds me of the oft-quoted proverb “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it” (probably my paraphrase).

    A (fairly major) theological difference between us is brought out by your statement ending “…orthodox children are Christian”. I would say that, though I deeply desire that my children be Christian, I have no basis for assuming that they are (also that salvation would be “by grace through faith” — not as the result of performing a sacrament).

    I agree that we’re out of line to try to sell children on the “church is fun” idea. I suppose I haven’t attempted to dissuade Daniel from thinking on his own that church is fun. I guess I don’t expect him to understand many of the concepts that make church desirable (for myself).

    I must say, the cute pictures of your kids interspersed throughout this post make it even more convincing… 🙂

    1. Re: Unorthodox evangelicals?

      Tara, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

      First, don’t get me wrong: if church is fun for children then I don’t think it is necessary to become dour cynics with them and disuade them from that notion. They’ll find out on their own that Church isn’t always a bag full of kittens. I just don’t want to tell them that church is fun because when it becomes dull and boring they’ll remember what I told them and question other things I’ve said. As much as possible, I want to make sure that I don’t send them bogus messages.

      Jeremy and I had a discussion about Truth (I think you know him ;). I continue to believe it is more important to have faith in the incarnation of Truth, rather than the individual truths in scripture. Truth begats truths.

      If you read back over my past entries, you’ll see references to the Thursday morning study group that I’m in, led by my priest. Most of the people in it are Mennonite with a few other Protestants and the occasional Orthodox thrown in for fun.

      At one point, we were discussing whether or not we had to accept the creation story as recorded in Scripture as if it were a scientific, objective record of the actual events.

      Someone said that we should because “if God could create the world in seven days, then he can do all the other things in scripture.”

      I countered: That God created the universe is axiomatic. I believe it and even if you took a time machine back and saw evolution unfolding over billions of years, it wouldn’t shake my belief in God or that he was the creative force behind every big bang. It’s like the Russian cosmonauts going into space and saying “No god here! Proof he doesn’t exist!”

      God is not a conclusion that we arrive at after analyzing the facts.

      I appreciate “training up the child” so that he will be prepared. I do want my children to be intellectually prepared to understand their faith so that when it is assulted by people attempting to use reason to destroy faith they’ll be prepared.

      But I continue to think that it is unwise to trust reason to be the basis of faith. The only sort of faith that will survive is the kind that results from an encounter with God.

      Finally, you say though I deeply desire that my children be Christian, I have no basis for assuming that they are.

      Salvation does come by grace through faith. Absolutely! But as it says in another place, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy. So to say that God only saves people who muster up the right faith seems, to me, to limit God’s power. (Especially since faith is the result of Grace, not something that we muster up.)

      And I think you’ll find that the “salvation” issue is misleading. I assume that you think of salvation as an event that occurs at some point in a persons life. Before X (where X is baptism, saying the sinner’s prayer, the acceptance of Christ’s death as atonment for one’s sins, or even the moement one decided to finally live in submission to God’s will) they were not saved and after X they are saved.

      I don’t see salvation that way. Yes, I believe that we experience God through the sacraments, but the sacraments themselves do not grant salvation.

      Salvation is a daily, moment-by-moment action. God’s role is paramount (it is because of his grace and love for us that we can obtain his mercy), but we have a part to play as well. We must choose every day to follow him.

      If this were a debate, we could now get into “assurance”, but, like “salvation”, these are red herrings. They distract us from what our focus as parents should be.

      Hopefully you’ll agree with me that we shouldn’t push our children to set all their hopes on a single event, whether it is the sinner’s prayer or their baptism.

      Instead, I want my children to desire a continuing relationship with God. That is the focus of all of my parenting. As I’ve told them in the past, “I want you to love God and serve others. You can do that if you are a garbage collector, a priest, or a doctor. But I will be satisfied as long as you love God and serve others.”

      1. Re: Unorthodox evangelicals?

        Yeah, I was following the Truth discussion with great interest. I think I was in over my head then, too.

        Just wanted to respond to the salvation by faith thing. I didn’t mean to come across as saying that God saves those who come up with the “right faith”. Free will vs. predestination is another interesting discussion. The same verse seems to mention both — “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God, not by works lest any man should boast”. Hm, too lazy to look that up and I think it’s a mixture of NIV and KJV.
        I guess I think God only saves those who muster up the right faith — but He gives them that faith and then enables them to “work out (their) salvation with fear and trembling” (for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose)
        I think you’re right — I do see salvation as something that wasn’t there at one point, then is there — I guess like the Paul/Damascus road experience, though often not so drastic. I think we agree, however, that it doesn’t end there; it’s not a one-time experience but the beginning of a process. I’m a little worried that we disagree over whether or not that process can be interrupted (permanently or otherwise).

        Sure, I’ll agree, given all the above, that it is not enough to pray a prayer or to be baptized — and I’ll endorse your last paragraph, too, which effectively keeps this discussion from becoming too distressingly heated and uncomfortable. 🙂

        1. Re: Unorthodox evangelicals?

          I’m a little worried that we disagree over whether or not that process can be interrupted (permanently or otherwise).

          I’m only talking about what I’ve experienced. There isn’t much use in being abstract when it comes to how we experience God’s grace. Too much theory and I start taking things for granted. (But it is true that what I’m saying is influenced by Orthodox thought.)

          My experience is that I have it in my power to accept or reject God’s grace — he doesn’t force it on me. At some point in the past, I turned towards God, but I could easily turn away from him. And God, being Love, will not force me to turn back. Indeed, there’ve been times that I have turned away from him and I feel my committment to our relationship is only tentative at the moment.

          Yes, “he who began a good work in you will complete it” but “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Scripture makes it clear that we are entirely dependent upon God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean we have no role to play. It never says “Ok, after this point, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Its all easy going on God’s credit from here.” There is always some cautionary note. And this is a good thing. False assurance does not lead to humility, but humility is the mark of all great saints.

          Is that because God’s grace isn’t sufficient to overcome our imperfections? By no means! Instead, God created us in his image and part of what that means is a measure of self-determination. God respects that, even if what we want isn’t in our best interest. He waits for us to cry out “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

          To bring this back to the topic at hand, this is like a good parent. The good parent loves his children and lets them know what he wants. But he doesn’t force them to attend law school.

          The good parent lets his children make mistakes. And there are times when his children are offended by something he does and they never call him again.

          Our relationships are best when we don’t take the other person for granted. I think that applies not only to parent/child and husband/wife relationships, but also to our relationship to God.

          (But don’t worry, I’m sure will tell you I’m great at taking people for granted.)

          1. Re: Unorthodox evangelicals?

            When I think of God and the parent-child comparison, I think more of a parent and small child. The God-sheep relationship falls in with this as well.
            I agree that both aspects — the free-will and God’s action — are present but it’s easy to lose the balance (even assuming I knew what that was).

            Jeremy and I had a discussion some time ago (I guess 3 years ago) about whether or not our son should be immunized for hepatitis B. It seems that, if he contracted it, it would be the result of his own sin. Should we immunize to protect him from his own mistakes? The key point here would be in noting that those mistakes would be made when he was responsible for his own actions. The opposite might be whether or not we should put our 19 month old near a hot stove, unattended, so that she might learn quickly not to play with stoves. She’s not ready for that responsibility; it’s our job to train her not to touch the stove and not to risk an accident. I suppose there will come a time when we will feel free to let her use the stove — and, if she makes a mistake, she will not have done it in ignorance.

            So, I guess I’m trying to say that God will let us make mistakes — but, if He’s saved us, He won’t allow us to ‘make the mistake’ of “becoming unsaved”. Hebrews says somewhere that, in essence, Jesus’ death and high priesthood enables Him to “save us completely” — for us to “become unsaved” would seem to deny the power of the cross.

            Somewhere else the Bible says that if we are unfaithful, God will still be faithful to us (I take that to mean that He doesn’t reject us) because He cannot deny Himself…

            It’s pretty amazing how often we take Him for granted, or deny His power, given that we know all this stuff about Him.

          2. Re: Unorthodox evangelicals?

            If He’s saved us…

            Again, we have this difference of interpretation. Orthodox theology isn’t focused on Christ’s death as salvation from our the effects of our sinfulness. “Salvation” is rarely discussed among the Orthodox. Nor is Hell, for that matter.

            Instead, it is focused on entering the freedom God gives us through the Resurrection to be like him and in communion with him. We recognize that the effect of our sins is to separate us from God, so sin is certainly an issue for the Orthodox. I like the way Johnathan puts it in his Metacultural Gospel:

            God wants communion with us, and he wants it so badly that he would rather see a devout, dedicated son working in utter futility, with no results for his toils and watching souls perish, than let some of his children act as mere tools without being drawn first and foremost into communion with him. Drawing people into his presence, not just in the future but here and now, is that important to him. God does not want tools. All the angels in a thousand galaxies are his, and if he needed help, he would not tell us. He wants sons and daughters, and he will have us be that and nothing less.

            I would suggest that the difference we’re seeing here is not so much theology, but focus. Ensuring that you are “saved” isn’t a huge focus of Orthodox theology because that is such a small part of our relationship with God. Baptism is, as much as anything, the “moment” of salvation.

            The question the Orthodox is concerned with is not “Am I saved?” but “How can I become closer to God?” Instead of being driven to God by a fear of Hell, we are drawn to him by Love.

            But Love does not force itself on you.

            Getting back to the parent/child analogy, a child grows up taking his parent for granted, but the parent still loves the child. The parent will do whatever is necessary to save the child.

            Later, as an adult, the child will decide how much he wants to interact with the parent. We can see this interaction perfectly in the example that Christ himself gave us in the story of the Prodigal Son. The adult child leaves his father and, ultimately, falls into dispair because of it. Only then does he decide to return to his Father, who, through undeserved grace, saves his son from a life of slavery.

  2. church can be fun

    I thought about Tara’s original blog when I asked one of the children … why do you light a candle. The child smiled, “Because it is fun.”

    1. Re: church can be fun

      Gee, thanks, Mom.

      You’ve totally destroyed my carefully thought out argument with a single, blith statement.

      1. Re: church can be fun

        The church experience and how we relate to God evolves through experience, information and time spent praying.
        For instance, as a teenager, my parents attended a small church where each member was expected to show up every week with a verse they had memorized. One week I quoted the verses about Jacob’s fight with the Angel of the LORD. I was rather cocky about it. It seemed to have no relevance in the midst of everyone else’s verses of significance. We had a visiting pastor who commented at some point about in the future knowing the struggle with God and the way it touches one’s life.
        Okay, he put me in my place.
        And 25 plus years later I understand better what he meant. That we do struggle with Him, that we do ask for a blessing and sometimes He gives it … with a touch that leaves us wounded, marked for the rest of our lives, and closer to Him as a result.
        The thing that always intrigues me is this … without deep doctrinal discussions, without a written Bible, without an organized church, the message of God’s provision of His son was established early in the history of the world, that message and belief sustained through 100s of years in Egypt and through the Dark Ages when few had the opportunity to read ABeka books. And no matter what the form of the worship, the doctrinal quibbling differences, the message continues to impact people’s lives.
        Sometimes it seems like we each try to put God into our own small, doctrinally restricted box that will not hold Him or explain everything and miss the wonder of “Enoch walked with God and he was not for God took him.”

        1. Re: church can be fun

          how we relate to God evolves through experience

          yep, yep.

          All our doctine and dogma is nothing. “The theologian is one who
          prays, and one who prays is truly theologian” is the saying in the
          Orthodox church. Or, you can’t pretend to understand God, you can
          only enter into relationship with him.

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