Mailbag #5: Not Baptizing Children, Small Groups, Elders and Porn—Again 

Mailbag
04.10.2015

Saying “Not Yet” to Children on Baptism »
Encouraging Discipling »
Elders and Pornography, Again »

Dear 9Marks,

I have read the CHBC elders’ positions on child baptisms and agree with it. My question is how to deal with the issue pastorally. It can be difficult to explain to parents (and sometimes children) the reasons for delaying baptism, assuming the child has been truly converted. What are practical ways a pastor can approach this subject with the parents in the congregation? How do you avoid discouraging a child’s pursuit of Christ? Are there particular resources you use to teach parents and/or children? Thanks!

Drew, North Carolina

Drew,

Great question. I’m in this position now with my own girls, the older two of whom profess faith. Here’s how that conversation can go.
Daughter: Daddy, am I a Christian?
Me: If you’re repenting of your sins, and putting your trust in Jesus, then yes.
Daughter: I am.
Me: If you are, then praise God! Keep doing that, sweetheart!
Daughter: Can I get baptized?
Me: At some point, honey. Right now, while you’re young, let’s continue to learn and grow. We’ll think about this more when you are older. I want you stand on your own two feet as a follower of Jesus, and not just believe these things because I do. But I’m so glad you want to follow Jesus with me! This is the most important decision you’ll ever make. There’s no one better than him.

Notice a couple of things. First, I don’t formally affirm her as a Christian. Instead, I give her the criteria (repentance and faith) and I make conditional statements (If…then…). Second, I do rejoice with her in what she believes to be the case when I say “Praise God.” But again, I don’t go as far as employing my parental authority to say, “You are a Christian.” I honestly don’t believe God has given me such authority as a parent. Instead, I believe he has given the local church this affirming authority (Matt. 16:19; 18:18, 20).

Okay, what about the grown up conversation with the parent of such a child? Our elders tend to make several points:

  1. No one questions whether or not children can be saved. God can save at any age.
  2. The question is whether or not a church has the ability or competence to affirm a child’s profession of faith.
  3. Let me explain that last point. Baptism requires two parties to make a public statement, not just one: the baptizee and the baptizer (the church). The baptizer, for its part, needs to be able to state with integrity, “Yep, best we can tell, this person’s profession of faith is valid and he or she should be identified with Father, Son, and Spirit as a Christian.” And insofar as children are under their parents’ authority, and have been designed by God to want to please their parents, it’s difficult for a church to discern whether or not a profession of faith is genuine (we assume it’s sincere). (When children come without Christian parents, we tend to baptize younger.)
  4. Best we can tell, most churches who have practiced believers baptism throughout history did not baptize until something closer to adulthood. It’s a relatively new practice to baptize children.
  5. The problems of nominal Christianity in our country, and the number of children who leave youth group and abandon the faith in college, have been created, in part, because we’ve given so many young children the assurance of salvation sooner than we should have.
  6. I want to give my children the ability to make this public profession when they are standing on their own two feet closer to adulthood, if not as adults. (I personally found this to be a source of much joy in my experience.)

There’s more to say, but hopefully that’s a start. To summarize, use conditional statements, rejoice in the fruit that you see, encourage children and parents both to press on and be patient, and express caution about acting prematurely.

Dear 9Marks,

What should be a church’s primary means for disciple-making to take place—one on one discipleship or small group discipleship? Should pastors be pushing people into small groups or one on one meetings for discipleship? I know both can be helpful, but I’m trying to think through which is more biblical.

Donald, South Carolina

Donald,

Disciple-making starts with evangelism. Can I say the “primary” place for evangelism is everywhere?

As for discipling within the church membership itself, I think the “primary” place for growing the saints is in your main weekly sermon. I take that from the emphasis on gathering to hear the apostles’ teaching in Acts, as well as in the Epistles. The main weekly gathering is where the preacher can make the broadest and most sustained impact on the congregation.

If you’re asking me to compare one-on-one versus small group, I don’t think the Bible specifies which is more important. The key is the element of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) to one another within the church. The actual form that that element takes might vary. The emphasis of the New Testament, best I can tell, is laid on cultivating the kind of culture in our church where its normal for people to build relationships that fulfill commands like these: “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26)”; only talk “as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29); and “save other by snatching them from the fire” (Jude 21). So one-on-one relationships are essential. But I’m not concerned about whether two young professionals or two moms are having those kinds of meaningful, vulnerable conversations in a small group or over lunch. The point is that they should be having them—somewhere.

As such, I’m going to insist that everyone who calls him or herself a Christian should be working to get to know other members of the church, looking out for one another’s good, spending time with other believers, helping others fight sin, inviting others into one’s life to help in the fight against sin. And I’ll use small groups and one-on-one relationship to further those ends. But I’m not going to push any one form as the way. Doing so binds where Scripture doesn’t.

Hope this is helpful.

Dear 9Marks,

I read one of your previous responses, Mailbag #4, Elder Qualifications and Pornography, and I have a question from your answer. Essentially, I feel your response to this question about pornography was “not even a hint” should be found among you. You communicated that you would not recommend an elder candidate who was still looking at pornography, even if it is sporadic and not a pattern. My question is this: To what extent does that “not even a hint” principle apply to our anger, passivity, panic, fear of man, lack of evangelistic creativity, and so forth?

Further, to what extent should we as pastors share our struggles with our people as we teach and disciple? If it is critical that our people need a good example, then to what extent are we allowed to be fallible and to share examples of that (and God’s corresponding grace) with our people?

Tim, Missouri

Tim,

As you know from your own pastoral experience and personal life, we deal with different sins differently. It’s not like different kinds of sins are like different shades of the same baseball cap. They have different meanings, different temptation points, different impacts on the self and others. They fit as differently as a baseball cap and a necktie. Sexual sin I take to be particularly pernicious, deceitful, and enslaving. It requires the greatest of care. Even Paul makes a distinction with sexual sin (1 Cor. 6:18).

You’re right to observe that with some of the elder qualifications, we cannot require absolute perfection. For instance, an elder must be “self-controlled” and “not quarrelsome.” Suppose late one evening, an elder finds himself in a particularly foul mood, and he’s a bit too quarrelsome with his wife. Or suppose after a long day, someone cuts him off in traffic and he loses control for 5 seconds and shouts at the other driver. Is this man immediately disqualified? I don’t think so. The question Paul is interested in is, is he characteristically self-controlled and not quarrelsome?

Okay, how about “not violent, but gentle” or “the husband of one wife” (or “one woman man”). I’m inclined to say that a breech of these can lead to immediate disqualification. If an elder beats someone up? Yes, he should step down. If he commits adultery? Again, he should immediately step down.

If you agree with me so far, then you see that with some qualifications, we are looking for what is characteristic. With other qualifications, we are looking for clean track records: he doesn’t ever do that. In my mind, pornography falls into the latter category based on what I said in the previous answer. I daresay, there is a difference between lust and acting on that lust, even though Jesus tells us both are sin. And looking at porn is to act on lust. It is to cease being a one-woman-man. It is materially using another women to satisfy one’s sexual desire.

As for sharing our struggles with congregation members, that is something I’m constantly asking myself. Some things elders should share, some things they should reserve for fellow elders and spouses. God, give us wisdom! The further something is in the past and the more sensitive the topic, the more comfortable I feel about sharing it with members. The more present and the less sensitive the topic, the more I keep it with my fellow elders. (And I do have a bi-weekly accountability group of three other elders I tell everything.) Plus, it’s one thing to share one-on-one, where you can assess the person receiving the information. It’s another thing to share in the context of a sermon, where you cannot account for everyone. You need to continually take care not to cause people to stumble, even while balancing that with not projecting an image of perfection. They should know you are a sinner saved by grace, too. So much of wisdom is about balancing competing principles, and I think that balance is necessary here as much as anywhere. There’s much more could be said, but this answer is already too long!