The following is a modified excerpt from an investigative report I wrote for Homeschoolers Anonymous, “The Child as Viper: How Voddie Baucham’s Theology of Children Promotes Abuse.” You can read the report in full here.
As we consider Jesus of Nazareth’s own words concerning children and their place in the Kingdom of God, there are many questions that might arise. For example, how do Jesus’s words about children relate to traditional Christian doctrines such as Augustinian original sin, Lutheran bondage of will, and Calvinist total depravity? While such questions are certainly important and worthy of examination, they are tangential to this article’s purpose and will thus be put in brackets. This article’s focus will simply be on what Jesus says about children and what theology and iconography of children we can deduce from his sayings.
We shall start with the earliest passage in the Gospels in which Jesus mentions children, Mark 9:33-37:
“And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And He sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’ And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
In this passage we see Jesus take a radical departure from the ideology of his historical context. In the ancient Palestinian context, children were considered the lowest of the low, legally on par with slaves. They had no rights. They were considered property of their family’s patriarch. As theologian Joyce Ann Mercer observes about this passage in Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood,
“In Mark’s story, the child becomes the occasion for Jesus to explain (yet again) the reordering of social relationships and power made real under the reign of God, a concrete way of showing the meaning of ‘being last of all’ (paston eschatos, Mk. 9:35). Horsley describes the issue in terms of children’s social status: ‘In ancient Palestine, as in most any traditional agrarian society, children were the human beings with the lowest status. They were, in effect, not-yet-people. The [language that] “the kingdom of God” belongs to children sharpens the agenda of the whole Gospel story that the kingdom of God is present for the people, the peasant villagers, as opposed to the people of standing, wealth, and power.’ In the patriarchal honor/shame society being described, children were quite literally the possession of their fathers. Thus in this story the child’s low social standing accentuates Jesus’ message that [we should] lift up the lowliest” (p. 51).
One thus cannot overstate the iconographic significance of the act of Jesus taking a child, placing that child in the center of the people’s midst, and declaring that whoever loves a child — loves this lowly piece of property with no legal standing — is loving divinity itself, is loving the very manifestation of the incarnate God.
The Gospel of Mark continues this theme of children as images of God in the next chapter. This is from Mark 10:13-15:
“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”
In this chapter Jesus is engaging the religious teachers of his time in a serious debate about marriage and divorce. (Mark 10 begins with the controversial “divorce passage.”) Right in the midst of this debate, parents are bringing their children to Jesus to bless. Considering how theoretically important the divorce conversation was, the disciples try to shoo away the children. Yet Jesus was “indignant.” He “rebuked” the disciples in public and declared, “Let the children come to me.” Jesus not only prioritized the child over and against a doctrinal debate; Jesus declared that “the kingdom of God” belongs to the child. The child is not only inherently a manifestation of the incarnate God, the child is also inherently a possessor of God’s kingdom and the model by which one enters that kingdom: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
These passages about Jesus’s interactions with children were so important — and so revolutionary in terms of their historical context — that the other Gospel writers also included them. They are repeated by both Luke and Matthew. In Luke’s version (seen in Luke 18:15-17), Jesus is busy lecturing to the crowds about parables and other serious, adult matters. As in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gets interrupted by parents bringing children to him. And also as in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus prioritizes the child over his adult audience:
“Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’”
Once again, Jesus asks that the children come to him — and that the adults do not hinder them. And yet again, the child is held up by Jesus as the model by which one enters the Kingdom of God. This is repeated a third time in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 19:13-15), the context being the same debate about divorce as seen in the Gospel of Mark:
“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And he laid his hands on them and went away.”
The Gospel of Matthew goes even further than the other Gospels in establishing how Jesus thought of, valued, and gave preferential treatment — or what some theologians call “preferential option” — to the child. In Matthew 21:14-16 we see Jesus envisioning the child as ecstatic worshiper of the divine:
“The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise”’?”
Here we have Jesus healing the blind and the lame. These miracles are so overwhelming that children are running around the temple screaming — likely with either joy or astonishment. Either way, the children are being raucous and making a scene — enough so that the religious authorities are becoming annoyed by their unruly behavior. They point out the children’s behavior to Jesus, yet Jesus points out to these authorities what King David in the Hebrew Scriptures wrote in Psalm 127:3-5:
“Lord our Lord, your name is the most wonderful in all the earth! It brings you praise everywhere in heaven. From the mouths of children and babies come songs of praise to you.”
From the mouths of children and babies come songs of praise to God.
Let me repeat that:
From the mouths of children and babies come songs of praise to God.
This is a far cry from the evangelicals’ image of the child as viper or a theology of children that considers the child to be a miniature serial killer in the making. Rather, this is Jesus affirmingly quoting the Psalmist who declares songs of praise to God are on the mouths of children. And Jesus affirmingly quotes this imagery to remind the religious authorities of his day that children — even (and perhaps especially) in their raucous, unruly behavior in the temple — are signals of transcendence, are miniature reminders of how we should all be related to God.
The final passage we must look at is Matthew 18:1-6 and 10-14:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea…’
“‘See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.’”
This passage summarizes everything we have thus observed about Jesus’s attitude towards children: Children represent to Jesus “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” They are the image of what one must “become like” if one wants to “enter the kingdom of heaven.” Not only that, they also serve as a litmus test: whoever accepts a child in Jesus’s name is accepting Jesus himself. They also serve as a warning: whoever rejects a child might as well drown “in the depth of the sea.” These are nothing short of serious exhortations, which Jesus reminds his audience when he says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Jesus also reminds his audience just how important they are: God would not let even one — not even a single child — go missing. God would not rest until a lost child is found. Children are valued simply for who they are, not for their utility.
This is the immense value that Jesus of Nazareth places upon the child. Jesus used very specific imagery and emphases when talking about children — imagery and emphases that directly contradict those employed by evangelical child training experts. In the Gospels, children are spoken of and treated with a historically revolutionary amount of respect, love, and value — the very respect, love, and value that are grossly absent in many evangelicals’ worldviews.