Right thinking fuels right practice. Having set the vision in part 1 of this series, here are 5 theological principles to help lay the foundation for a family ministry in your church. They may not be new, but they are fundamental.
1. Children need the gospel
“Surely I was sinful at birth”,writes David, “sinful from the time my mother conceived me”(Ps 51:5). This is confirmed by the fact that, all too sadly, children are subject to death. Hence, somehow, they must be caught by the grip of sin (Rom 5:12-14).
Time and again God reminds us that we need redemption and children are never excluded from this call (John 3:3, 1 John 5:12, Eph 2:3). This is why ministry to children by both parents and other leaders at church is vital.
2. Children are welcome and treasured in the kingdom of God
When the disciples intercept mothers bringing their children to Jesus, he exposes their worldly thinking and teaches about the place of children in God’s kingdom:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
Children belong in the kingdom of God. Actually, Jesus puts it the other way around. Children belong in the kingdom of God because the kingdom of God belongs to them—little children are the model for how adults are to enter God’s kingdom!
Children are not to be looked down upon, cast as second-class citizens or ignored in the church, because God’s kingdom belongs to even little them. The examples of John the Baptist and Timothy remind us that it’s possible to be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb and taught the Scriptures from infancy (Luke 1:15, 2 Tim 1:5).
3. Be careful
Since the kingdom of God belongs to children, we must be careful in how we treat and teach children in God’s family. Listen to Jesus’ words of warning:
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matt 18:1-6)
It is no small matter to cause a child to stumble in the kingdom of God. We must never say “they’re just kids; it doesn’t matter too much”. Indeed, we must be more careful in how we minister to them, treat them, love them, train them in the knowledge of God because they are more vulnerable.
4. Parents are responsible
The question of who’s responsible for raising children as Christians often causes confusion. Some parents look for a school to do this or hope the local church will fulfil this role. Yet both the Old and New Testaments give this responsibility to parents.
In the Old Testament
In Deuteronomy 6, it is the parents who proactively teach God’s commandments to children and answer their questions (Deut 6:6, 20).
The assumption here, and in similar passages, is that children would ask their Israelite parents about these rituals, laws, beliefs and way of life. Then it was up to the parents to explain them. There was no kids’ church or youth group. It was the parents’ responsibility to instruct their children.
As we saw in part 1, the goal was not merely to pass on to them information about God and a way of life. It was to raise children so that they would put their trust in God and not forget his deeds but keep his commands! (Ps 78:4-8).
In the New Testament
This basic pattern is re-iterated in the New Testament: households and families remain a significant structure through which God deals with people. Timothy is a great example of someone who knew the Holy Scriptures from infancy because he was taught by his mother and grandmother (2 Tim 1:5, 3:14-15).
The basic New Testament understanding of children born to Christian parents can be summarised with these verses:
The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. (Acts 2:39)
Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Cor 7:14)
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:4)
A child’s salvation is not guaranteed by the parents’ faith, just as being born into Israel did not secure automatic salvation on a personal level (Rom 9:6-13). However, it is reasonable to conclude that just as Israel was privileged in their corporate relationship with God, so Christian families and their children should be considered in a special category. God has placed them in an environment where Godly instruction is not just encouraged but commanded. They are to be treated as ‘in’ the church until or unless they actively choose to withdraw from the people of God.
We see this in how much children participated in the life of the early church. Children were addressed specifically in letters to the churches (Eph 6:1, Col 3:20). When children are encouraged to obey their parents they are to obey their parents in the Lord (Eph 6:1) and for this pleases the Lord (Col 3:20). This logic assumes that children are already part of the people of God, otherwise Paul would be promoting salvation by works.
So whose responsibility is it to raise godly children? Ideally, the parents with the support of the rest of the church. Theologian Andreas Kostenberger concludes:
The New Testament is pervaded by the consciousness that parents are to pass on their religious heritage to their children (especially fathers). God’s express will for his people Israel is still God’s will for people in the church today. It centres on God’s deliverance from sin and his revelation in the Lord Jesus Christ and his death on the cross and a personal experience of this.
Christian parents ought to take every opportunity to speak of these all important matters with their children and to express and impart to their children personal gratitude for what God has done. Parents must never go back on their God given responsibility to be the primary source of religious instruction for their children.
Some children will not have Christian parents and so it is up to the Christian community to reach them with the gospel. Tellingly, Jesus always dealt with children through their parents and so in our efforts to share Christ with children we should be wary of dislocating them from their families and always seek to include their parents as far as possible.
5. God is sovereign
The final key theological principle for a family ministry in your church is a deep trust and contentment in God’s sovereign plan. To all Christian parents and ministers alike, God calls us to trust him as the one who makes things grow.
In 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, Paul describes the various ministers who played different gospel roles in the Corinthian church: one sowed, another watered, but God was the one who made things grow. The same is true of our children. Different people may play these different gospel roles of sowing, watering and evening standing on the edge of the field to watch others water. Overall, though, the deep call is to entrust our children to God, knowing that the security of their faith does not depend on the quality of your parenting or the faithfulness of your prayers but on the sovereign mercy of Christ, who gave himself up for his people. What an immense comfort that is!
In the next and
final article in this series, we’ll take these principles and put
them into practice, exploring how they can help you grow a flourishing family
ministry at your church.
 Andreas Kostenberger, God, Marriage and Family, p. 103.