Children, childlessness and culture wars – what we believe affects how we live

Last week, I responded to an article that Kevin DeYoung has written for The Gospel Coalition arguing that the best way for Christians to respond to engage in the US culture wars was to have lots of children and disciple them well. In his own words:

“Here’s a culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: have more children and disciple them like crazy. Strongly consider having more children than you think you can handle.”[1]

Now, behind that provocative statement are some theological presuppositions and I suspect that they might not be that well known to English evangelicals, so I thought I would try and outline them here.

The first one relates to DeYoung’s Presbyterianism and why Presbyterians baptise babies.  It’s to do with their understanding of the Covenant. Their position is that children of believing parents are in some shape and form genuinely part of God’s covenant people. They are part of the church.  There are two reasons for this.

Children and the Covenant

First of all, in the Old Testament, children were considered part of the Covenant and so were circumcised. They enjoyed the benefits of being part of God’s people. Secondly, Peter on the day of Pentecost told the crowd that:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children.”[2]

Now, main-stream evangelical Presbyterianism would acknowledge that, to put it in DeYoung’s words again:

“being a good parent does not guarantee believing children.”

However, the normal expectation seems to be that your children are likely to believe and that you should treat them as though they are in Christ and in the covenant including through baptising them.

Some people have suggested that this in fact creates inconsistency. If you genuinely believe God’s promises and you genuinely believe that your children are in the covenant then you treat them as fully in, therefore receiving all the benefits. The most overt example of this is the Federal Vision theology associated with Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart. This viewpoint argues that the children are fully part of God’s covenant meaning that they are elect, therefore saved and therefore should not only have been baptised but should also receive communion.

Christ’s Second Coming and the Millennium

The second question is one about eschatology.  There are three main approaches to this question.

Pre-Millennialists believe that Christ will return to earth and reign here for 1000 years before judgement day and the end.

Post-Millennialists believe that Christ will return after a great awakening when the church will grow in numbers and in influence around the whole world. This could be for a literal 1000 year period or the number 1000 could be figurative for an exceptionally long period of time. Some, though not all believe this will lead to Christian governments and possibly a majority of believers around the world.

A-Millennialists believe that the obsessions with a specific 1000 year golden age are based on a misunderstanding of the book of Revelation. The book portrays history but not in a chronological fashion. Until Christ returns, we can expect the Gospel to advance but also for the church to face opposition as evil advances too until the end.

I don’t know for certain which position DeYoung holds to but his positive view of the ability of Christians to provide a majority and to reshape American public life would best fit with the Post Millennialist view-point. 

The Flaws in the presuppositions

I think that both presuppositions have significant flaws (or to put it another way, I think they are wrong). First of all, the covenantal view is based on a serious misreading of Acts 2:38-39 resulting from stopping the quotation too early. Let’s give the quote again, this time in full.

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With the full quote stated, you realise that this is not a promise to some people and their children that they are part of the covenant on the basis of it being passed physically down the generations.  The promise is something to be shared with people far off as well. In other words, Peter is saying “this is a message for people all around the world and through all generations.” The quotation has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not to baptise your kids or give the communion.

Let’s look again. Notice what the promise actually is and notice as well what the specific condition is and isn’t. I n reverse order, the condition is not that you should be the child of a believing parent but that you should repent and be baptised.  In the name of Jesus. Peter is preaching for a response. The promise is (unsurprisingly given the context) thar if you do this, then you will receive the Holy Spirit because your repentance and baptism reflect the fact that you have been forgiven for your sins.

Secondly, I have indicated elsewhere and in greater depth that the focus on “millennialism” is a misunderstanding of how the book of Revelation functions. Therefore, I believe that the a-millennialist position best fits the teaching of that book.    This means that throughout future history, just as in past history, you will see people coming to faith in Christ. You will also from time to time see Christians have a significant and positive effect on the culture as happened with the abolishing of slavery and the reform of factories.  However, I don’t think we should expect to see significant long-term changes to culture bringing it more into line with Christian beliefs. The current UK experience is most likely to be the norm on the West and if anything, we are more likely to be about to face seasons of persecution.

This can actually be a good thing for the church. Some of the post-millennial optimism looks a little like over-reached eschatology, an expectation of the full benefits of the New Creation now and an over-confidence in what we can do as a church. It is a good thing that we are caused to learn to be patient and to look forward in hope to that better and perfect day when Jesus returns.


[2] Acts 2:38-39.

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