Monday, September 15, 2008

Children and Family - A Theological Overview

I thought my blog has got a bit personal recently (how strange a concept that is, a blog that is personal) and its time for a change of focus.

I'm preparing for a big vision day for my new church, putting a framework around children and family ministry there, and I have been reading back over my research paper submitted last session (see here for a precis!)

Here is a short excerpt, on the role of the family:-
It assumes a knowledge of the work of Westerhoff/Fowler, on faith development, which I had written about in an earlier section. You can catch it here and here, if you so desire.

Who should be nurturing children's faith? Who is responsible?

If there is consensus that Christian parents are the best people to nurture their children’s spirituality from birth onwards, then it follows that the best way of discipling children is directly through their parents and no further models or methods are needed. This view could be too simplistic for the post-modern Britain and there may be other lessons to be gleaned from the Old Testament.

The Old Testament does outline steps to take to ensure spiritual formation but this learning was not merely to be memorised and recited, but was to be lived (Deut 6:7-9). This principal is as pertinent for today as it was then. The youngest to the oldest were part of the whole community of faith and the clan-type structure of living indicates that other adults apart from the biological parents would have played a part in rearing children. “The larger body of people took precedence over the interests and concerns of man, woman and child”

Gordon Wenham has analysed the pattern of family life in the Pentateuch and substantiates this description of a large body of people: social order is demonstrated where everyone cares for the other and lives in harmony with the other, in larger units rather than as individual families (1). This is a model that could be emulated in churches today.

Edesio Sanchez states that no other book in the Bible gives more teaching to children and young people as Deuteronomy (2) . There are key principles in Deuteronomy for families today, if we read it with a “family oriented hermeneutic” as there are countless references to the people of God in the past, present and future along with the exhortation to “impress these commandments upon the children” (Deut 6:7). There are clear promises of blessings that will affect families who make up the nation (in verses 1-3) for remaining obedient and faithful under the terms of God’s covenant with his people.

As well as personal instruction within families to talk about the covenant, there is evidence of corporate remembrance and celebration. Catherine Stonehouse points out that many events recorded in the Old Testament included children as well as adults, for example, celebrating alongside adults when the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt by Nehemiah (Neh 12:27-43) (3)

Turning to the New Testament, children were included in the home-based meetings for worship, teaching and learning. This evidence suggests that Christians valued children much more highly than the Greco-Roman culture around them. (later note: what about Christians today? Is there any sign to those outside our church culture that we value children highly?) Judith Gundry-Volf notes that Roman children were on the lowest social rung and exposed to the potential brutality of the father; he literally had the power of life and death over them (4) .

Are there any New Testament principles that assist in developing a theological consideration of families? John 1 outlines one of these. Jesus became flesh and lived among us (v14). He was born into a human family. Grenz states “Jesus participated in our existential humanness….knowing human needs" (5) . Jesus developed cognitively just as ordinary humans do. There were things that he could not do and as he became older he learned to do them. He needed the support of his family to grow and learn. This is an important principle.

Jesus words and actions towards children; of blessing, nurture, promise and protection (contained in passages in Mark 10, Matt 19, Luke 18) speak clearly to those responsible for the discipleship and integration of children and their parents into the community of believers. The faith community, gathered congregation or small groups, should exercise blessing, nurture, promise and protection upon the younger generations. (later note: and not ignore children!)

An interesting question to be considered by pastors and leaders is that there could be something gained by interacting with children in a discipleship or worship setting. Children model something for adults; demonstrated by Jesus when he elevated their status by saying that adults should become like them. Westfall states that it was “unusual for a rabbi to give children precedence or elevate them as models of humility and faith, let alone single them out as his personal representatives” (6).
There are lessons to be learned from these words and maybe we should consider what opportunities, if any, there are for children to “be” with adults in a way that avoids tokenism but genuinely allows them to express their faith.

(1) G. Wenham, Family in the Pentateuch in R Hess and M Carroll (eds), Family in the Bible, Grand Rapids, Baker Books 2003, 31
(2) E Sanchez, Family in the Non-Narrative Section of the Pentateuch in R Hess and M Carroll (eds), Family in the Bible, Grand Rapids, Baker Books 2003, 43
(3) C Stonehouse, Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey, Grand Rapids: Baker Books 1998, 32
(4) J Gundry-Volf, The Least and the Greatest, Children in the New Testament, in M Bunge, ibid, 33
(5) S Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1994, 278
(6) C Westfall, Family in the Gospels and Acts in R Hess and M Carroll (eds), ibid, 127


  1. Anonymous9:17 AM

    Had dinner with Gordon Wenham the other week there, what a nice man.

  2. thanks for visiting the blog anonymous. I very much enjoyed GW's chapter in Hess and Carroll's book; very detailed decription and examination of all mentions of family/clan in the Pentateuch; very helpful for someone in my position.

  3. Anonymous9:13 AM

    anonymous know how I am so I'm not that annonymous. I just refuse to play blogger's game and sign in etc!
    As I've always told you, you really should move your blog to typepad!

  4. ummm, unfortunately I don't know who you are. I have too many anonymouses in my life, so if you are the anonymous who had dinner with G Wenham then I am completely stumped. You need to give me more of a clue. Unless you are the anonymous who likes nothing more than an evening with a cup of tea and a nice custard cream :)

    Or you might be the anonymous whose son won a prize for dressing up as Raven at the Light Party I organised.
    or the anonymous I know who hates Starbucks.

    I'm totally confused now!!

  5. Anonymous10:31 PM

    I would be the anon whose son won a prize for dressing up as Raven.

  6. Where did you have dinner with him? Thought he was based down South? How exciting! You meet another theologian :)


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