Raising Children: Covenantal or Missional?

Gaining By Losing When I was reading through Greear’s Gaining by Losing (which I reviewed here) I ran across a theme that has bothered me on and off the last week or so.  While I was critical of a few aspects of this book, one little part has been on my mind more than others: the way Greear speaks about children of a Christian marriage/home.  He says that raising children is “missionary” work; for example, his wife is a “missionary to the unreached people group” of their children (p.72).

I realize this might be a figure of speech that Greear is using to motivate people to tell their kids about the truths of the Christian faith.  I very much agree with that!  Christian dads and moms should tell their kids the Bible stories, read Scripture with them, talk about repentance, faith, forgiveness, grace, Christ’s work, etc.  But calling this “mission work” is unhelpful and unbiblical because it ignores the deeply covenantal nature of the Christian faith.

In the Old Testament, for example, Noah’s family and Abraham’s family stick out.  They are Yahweh’s people, he is their God.  Abraham’s children were not the same as the children of the Chaldeans or Egyptians or other pagan nations; they were in God’s covenant and received the sign of the covenant (circumcision).  Yahweh was Abraham’s God and the God of his children; they were his “set apart” or “holy” people.  Later, we learn that the Israelites (Abraham’s descendants) were a special, chosen people of God who were called to be lights and witnesses to the pagan nations around them.  The children of the Israelites weren’t like the children of the pagan nations; they were God’s covenant people.

In the New Testament, the children of God’s people are still “set apart” and distinct from children of unbelievers.  Paul, for example, says that children of two – or even one! – Christian parent(s) are not “unclean,” but “holy” (set apart) (1 Cor. 7:14).  This is covenantal language: just like in Abraham’s day, his children were “set apart” (covenantally), so in the New Covenant children of believers are “set apart.”  The promise belongs to children of believing parents (cf. Acts 2), which is why entire households were baptized in the stories found in Acts.  God never said that, after 1500+ years of including them in his covenant, children are now (in NT times) excluded:

“If children are included in the covenant of grace under its Old Testament administration, surely they are not excluded in the new covenant administration, which the writer to the Hebrews calls ‘better’ than the old (Heb. 7:22)” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 795).

Based on these biblical themes, Reformed confessions say things like this:

[God’s Word] testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with their parents are comprehended…  (Canons of Dort, 1.17).

“Infants as well as adults are in God’s covenant and are his people… [they] should be distinguished from the children of unbelievers” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 74).

“Infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant…” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 166).

“The visible church …consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children, …[and is] the house and family of God.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2).

Again, covenant children do need to hear the truths of Christianity from their Christian parent(s); just like God’s people were told to instruct their children in the Old Testament and New Testament, so we do the same today (Deut. 4:9, Eph. 6:4, etc.).  But my young children are not pagans, outsiders, an unreached people group, or heathens, and I am not a missionary to my children (nor is my parenting “missional” – even if it is a neat figure of speech!).  Mission work is proclaiming the gospel to the lost; Christian parenting is instructing and nurturing covenant kids in the truths of Scripture and fear of the Lord God – the God of their fathers. As Herman Bavinck said,

“The believer has the calling to serve the Lord not only for oneself but with all that belongs to oneself and with one’s entire family.  For that reason the children of believers are admonished by the apostles as Christian children in the Lord (Acts 26:22; Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20; 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 John 2:13).  Also the little ones know the Lord (Heb. 8:11; Rev. 11:18; 19:5), and have been given a place before his throne (Rev. 20:12)” (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.529).

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi