The Intellectual Immaturity of Children
A Series by Dennis Gunderson – Part 2 of 8
While the desire to win children to the Lord burns in pastors as much as parents, for most pastors are parents too, yet parents often find themselves in conflict with pastors who seem, to them, overly cautious about their child’s profession. Pastors often find themselves at odds with impatient parents eager to get their child baptized at the first hopeful glimmer of interest in the Lord. In so doing, parents often show insensitive blindness to the considerable difficulties of being sure that a child’s profession of faith is real.
Do you expect to have difficulty discerning the reality of a child’s profession of faith even more so than you would with an adult? You ought to. The Scriptures contain certain facts about the nature of children which are revealing at this point, and it is my purpose to make these commonly overlooked facts plain.
A child’s thinking is undeveloped and simple; and when a person is immature, for whatever reason, it should render us a little cautious in receiving his expression of commitment concerning almost anything, including a commitment to Christ. Does this mean children cannot be saved? No, it only means that reluctance to take a child’s commitment at face value is understandable. Children do not know, for the most part, what they are saying when they make commitments; any adult who knows his child ought to know this by observation. In 1 Corinthians 13:11, we read:
When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.
While the subject matter of 1 Corinthians 13 is love, that does not change the fact that this is a scriptural statement about a basic difference between children and adults. A child is one whose thinking, speaking, and apprehension of things is less mature than that of an adult. The Apostle Paul says so by the inspiration of the Spirit of God. A child speaks less maturely than you do; so you cannot assume he means what you mean by what he says. He thinks less maturely than you; so you cannot assume his thoughts are what yours are just because he uses the same words you might have used to express those thoughts. He reasons less maturely than you; his is the reasoning of a child, incomplete and partial to a greater degree than even some of the most immature adults. Can anyone doubt that taking this into account is crucial when deciding how we will respond to a child’s profession of faith ?
Later in the same letter, in 1 Corinthians 14:20, Paul makes another statement about children:
Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature.
To Paul, children are the perfect picture of immature thinking! Only in evildoing, he says, should our thoughts be as those of a child: undeveloped, immature, weak, uncreative, naive. Again we have a statement about the nature of children in general they are immature in their thinking, "childish" we say, naive in their view of the world and of life in general. Their judgment is shallow and their ability to see the implications of their decisions is very weak.
Despite the best of intentions, children seldom have the ability to think far beyond today, nor do they perceive to what extent their choices will affect matters beyond today. Paul tells us in Corinthians that this would be sinful for adults. But there is a degree to which we should expect it in a child. It is a trait which is not sinful to find in a child, just predictably childish, all of which means there ought to be reservations about receiving a few words of "commitment" from a child that may only resemble genuine commitment of life to the Lord. We realize that children lack the maturity of mind to properly understand the choice they say they want to make. They may not even intend by their words what we as adults would intend if we spoke the same exact words.
Let me make this very simple. If I ask a nine-year-old if he or she intends to follow Jesus Christ all their life, never turning back no matter what may happen, if the child answers "Yes," my accepting that response at face value, and considering that child a believer, would be less than wise! I would certainly not be dealing with sinners as our Lord Jesus did; in fact I’d be inexcusably reckless with that child’s eternal soul and negligent of important truths the Word of God states concerning the nature of a child. I may unintentionally be participating in his eternal deception.
Consider some of the ways in which our Lord Jesus chooses to describe a commitment to Himself, and ask as you read them, "How capable is a child of comprehending a commitment described in terms like these?" Please be aware, as you read this, that I have gladly baptized many children whose professions were everything one could ever ask for. I have seen many children come to the Lord; but I believe God has honored our intent to be careful, and has given us several childhood conversions that were clear and convincing to all! So I am not suggesting that the following points rule out the possibility of a child’s becoming a disciple; absolutely not! But I do suggest that these give evidence, from Scripture, of the difficulty of knowing if he has really come to Christ. Perhaps you will gain from this some grasp of the reasons I suggest caution.
Do you realize how many of the New Testament’s ways of describing Christian faith and discipleship are exceedingly difficult, next to impossible, to meaningfully apply to small children or recognize in a child? This greatly complicates the attempt to accurately discern if saving faith is present. Some of the most decisive proofs by which any of us recognize a Christian are hardly to be seen in a child; some of them are not even sensible to look for in a child. What things do I mean? For examples, the New Testament describes and illustrates discipleship in the following ways:
· Hating father and mother (Luke 14:26). Will a child easily think of following Christ in terms like these when Scripture repeatedly says to him that the major part of his duty at this time of life is to obey his parents in the Lord, to honor his father and mother, and the like (Ephesians 6:12)? Most of a child’s known sphere of obedience to God in early years is channeled through father and mother. So how is he supposed to apply this? I suggest it is very difficult (though not impossible) to apply this standard because of the inability of the child to comprehend the scope of such an adult choice.
· Hating…even his own life (Luke 14:26). How can he hate his own life? He barely knows who he is yet! Any strong sense of personal identity is yet unformed. How can we tell whether he is willing to forsake his own self? The "self" is still to a great degree in the formative stages and the direction of life still so undecided. He is living in a world in which his important choices are made for him, and he has no need to think such things out.
· At war (1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Corinthians 10:34). The Scripture often compares the life of faith to fight, or a state of being at war; and like the other descriptions of discipleship, the idea of participating in war clearly points to some degree of maturity. How seriously would you take a ten-year-old boy who said he wanted to go fight for his country in a full-fledged war? You might kindly commend his patriotism, but you would expect it to be immature and not likely to hold up on a battlefield.
· Marriage to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2, Romans 7:14). We who are saved are called Christ’s bride. This speaks of a depth of love, a maturity of commitment, a step children are not ready to take. How seriously would we take an eight-year-old girl who said she was so sure of her love for a certain boy that she knew she could marry him today and stay with him for life? If we have any sense at all, we would not take her seriously. We would be kind and not mock, but we would not take that commitment at face value.
All in all, the above show that being converted requires one to come to the point where he can take a step of independent devotion to Jesus Christ, and this can hardly be recognizable in a young child. How can we seriously look for independent devotion in lives in which nearly nothing is independent in any sense at all?
Someone may object, "But even though a child is not ready to marry or fight in a war, God can still save him while young." Of course God can! I would hope no one denies that. I am not saying He cannot or will not. But since the New Testament describes discipleship in these terms, it will be a very difficult task for us to apprise if a child is truly saved. Readiness to fight, making a lifetime commitment, turning one’s back on family and friends these things can only be manifested later in life. This kind of decisiveness and determination is rare in a child. That being so, why should we hurry to baptize, or consider with certainty that a child is saved, when we can wait to see if, in maturity, a profession made proves itself to be sound and past reasonable doubt?
For all the talk of how hard it is to know if a child is converted, put yourself in the place of your pastors to whom you look for guidance. Granted, there are many pastors who are less than careful. But many others are troubled by the danger of false professions. Consider being charged to preach the gospel and then to baptize only those made disciples in response and then consider the difficulty one has when charged with the responsibility of being confident that a child has come to the Savior. I ask you to keep before you that Christ and His apostles describe conversion as a commitment of the most serious order. How remarkable it would be to see such a level of commitment in a child.
Certainly I will not tell a child who feels he may have come to Christ that he has not! No man is qualified to be a final judge of this; but some of us have to make decisions about whom we will baptize. He may well have become God’s child; we all eagerly hope so. But at that early point, be careful not to take just any show of commitment as decisive proof that he is converted. This is a great mistake which too many parents are quick to make; because of their understandably high hopes their ability to be objective is often diminished.
We all know there is more to conversion than just saying the right words. Do you believe every adult you know who says he is following Christ? Of course not. You know very well many of them have no idea what they’re talking about. I only suggest that you be reasonable about your child and expect that the same deception is possible in him as well¾ all the more so due to the immaturity of mind, thought, and expression which God says can typically be expected in a child. The importance of your good judgment in this matter is vital; your child cannot afford for you to rush into assuring him of his salvation just because he thinks he is converted, when the issue at stake is his everlasting salvation or damnation!