Riffs: 07:02:07: John Piper on Why Christian Children Should Be Confused

logo.gifUPDATE: Read Greg’s story prompted by this post, and feel free to add your own.

I’m listening to John Piper’s program, Desiring God Radio, for July the 2nd, and the topic is “Pastoral Thoughts on the Doctrine of Election.” (Available in print and in audio.) It’s a good topic and a well-done program, but in one of his points, Piper says something extremely relevant to the issue of how we bring our children into a mature embracing of the faith.

In a point on how we need to know the doctrine of election and believe it even if we don’t understand it, Piper uses this illustration:

One of the implications of this point is that we will not always know how some particular doctrine in the Bible is good for us. We Americans are especially pragmatic and demanding. If we don’t see the payoff of a doctrine immediately, we tend to ignore it. We are like foolish children when we do that. Every parent knows that children must be made to learn things without knowing how they will someday be useful. We teach them the particulars of table manners when they are small, for example, so that later they will be able to navigate every social situation with grace. And they don’t have a clue why you are telling them to hold the spoon a certain way and keep their elbows off the table. They have to take your word for it that the sun is standing still, the earth is a ball, the green vegetables will make you healthy, and the little bag of rat poison will kill you. If children must know these things before they know why or how, imagine the distance between us and God and how much we may have to know without knowing how it will help us.

The effects on our lives of what we know are always more than we know or can explain. Sometimes we must simply learn something because God says it’s true. Then later we may see how the knowledge protected us, or strengthened us, or humbled us, or purified us, or guided us, or enabled us to see other things as true. The issue boils down to trust. Do we trust that God has revealed what is good for us to know?

One of the things I have lived through in my ministry is a shift away exactly what Piper is talking about to an approach that says “Ignore or change whatever can’t be understood by a child or young person on their own level of comprehension.”

So “catechesis” is now a word almost no one knows, while skateboarders and comic book characters teach life lessons to our children with plenty of entertainment and special effects. The heritage of Christian music has been virtually wiped out by the twin waves of contemporary Christian music and secular music used in a seeker context. Christian media and publishers provide warehouses of entertainment driven resources for young people. Celebrities- especially those needing to revive lagging careers- are given automatic credibility as teachers in evangelicalism. (No possibility this is someone’s idea of how to make quick money off a name. Naaah. Couldn’t be.)

The vocabulary of the Bible can’t actually be found in a lot of Bibles anymore, replaced by trendy words that sortof kindof like get to the meaning and stuff. (I’ve written before that the faith is at stake in our abandonment of our unique vocabulary. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be good communicators and use good words and better words. It is to say that “justification” and “righteousness” and many other terms can’t be lost without an effect.)

When I was working at a seminary church in Louisville, the subject of children’s church came up. Our parents wanted more children’s church, extending up to older kids. “Youth church” even made it into the discussion.

I’ll never forget how our pastor held the line. He said he wanted every child possible to be in church as soon as possible and to be confused about what was going on. (This, btw, was that odd bird SBC church with liturgy, the Christian year, the lectionary, etc., so there actually were things to be confused about.) It was our job to teach and the job of Christian parents to explain. It was healthy, he said, for children to see church as somewhat mysterious.

Hmmmm. It’s ok for our children to be a bit confused? Talk about counter-culture. But go back and read Piper’s larger point about election, and realize that it applies to all sorts of things in Christianity. It is those doctrines that are not easily grasped that seem to have the most deepening effect, giving reverence to the mind and stability to the entire framework of faith.

If Piper is right, then the question isn’t “What direction are we going?” The question is “Is there anyway back from what we’ve done?” Can we salvage future generations?

This is one reason I believe church planting, and the intentional rethinking of foundational issues that should go on in a new church, is the way to go for reformation in evangelicalism. We need new churches that won’t make the mistake of allowing the culture to dilute our worldview or dictate our methods. We need faithful small church pastors who won’t let numbers or mobs of parents control the direction of children’s and youth ministries.

Let’s consider an intentional effort to confuse our children about the faith. It beats having everything reduced to the lowest level in the name of “keeping the kids interested.”

15 thoughts on “Riffs: 07:02:07: John Piper on Why Christian Children Should Be Confused

  1. “Thanks for the comment Dan. I didn’t really attempt to say much about the soul. ”

    I’m sorry for the confusion, I was addressing K W Leslie’s explanation of the soul in his previous comment. I have not yet read anything on your understanding of the soul so I hesitate to agree or disagree. I was mainly trying to point out that sometimes we are very confident about our understanding of something, but it may be a bit more complicated than we think.


  2. So where does ‘Let the little children come to me, for such are the kingdom of God’ come into this? What is wrong with the faith of a child? My daughter just finished kindergarten, but over the past couple years she has asked me some really good questions that I’d be impressed to hear from an adult (‘The bible also calls David son of God, so does that mean David is part of God too? … Why not?’). And sometimes she has ways of expressing things that are both childish and profound (Like ‘Do Christians believe that God became a real boy?’ – after getting past the image of Pinocchio dressed as Jesus, it struck me that this was not all that bad a way of expressing the Incarnation). Kids can understand more than we give them credit for, but have to feel safe asking questions and working out the meaning of the ‘Christianese’ they hear.

    On the one hand, I’m all for allowing children to experience and embrace mystery, along with awe and otherness, in worship and for assuring them that it’s okay with God if we don’t understand everything – He cares about what’s in our hearts alot more than what grade we can get on a theology exam.

    But catechesis is important and should be a lifelong process. It’s just that forcing kids to sit thru long expository sermons is not going to help them learn anything (other than church is shear torture and God and/or your parents will be mad at you if you don’t sit still and stay quiet all the time). I’ve always liked the model I remember where the kids came in with their parents for opening hymns, readings and prayers, then went to something like a short Sunday class during the sermon and rejoined their parents for closing hymn and prayers. some churches even had a little children’s sermon before the kids left (and often I thought the children’s sermon much better than the one meant for us adults).


  3. Janet,
    I think you might be a little more gracious in your interpretation of Dr. Piper’s and imonk’s words. Neither of them are wanting to “keep things a mystery” from anyone. They are simply saying that some topics, explained properly, will not be understood by a small child. Piper’s example of table manners is crystal clear. The goal is not to make table manners incomprehensible. Rather, it is a fact that a two-year-old cannot comprehend *why* table manners are important. Putting these two men on the level of gnostics is uncalled for.


  4. As a believer, it is our duty to bring others to faith in the historic Jesus. This Jesus is not only a list of data, a statistic, a quantum of qualities and characteristics, but also a historical person; God in the flesh. “Et Incarnatus Est”. While non of us will ever have a total knowledge of Him while on earth, yet we must be introduced to Him in order to believe and be saved. Though non of us will ever fully comprehend Him, we can have a total faith in Him even without total knowledge. As in traditional marriage, we accept the person we marry without reserve, without complete knowledge (for better or for worse). Our knowledge grows as we cohabit. The forensic certainty of our marriage however does not grow by degree as based on our knowledge of our spouse, but rather, is complete and final in our volitional acceptance of him/her as we know them at the marriage altar. Likewise with Salvation. Some who come to faith in Jesus Christ could write a theology book, while others might not even be able to spell their own name. In some of these cases even a volitional x before God will do.

    Nevertheless, we must be careful that we are not deceived as Jacob was, who supposed he had married Rachel, when in fact he had married Leah. There is such a thing as having faith in a false christ. That type of faith does not save. “Idols named Jesus” by Dan. covers this concern well.

    We are not saved, baptized and called to the Lord’s Table on the basis of either mental nor physical age, but on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. I am by no means a paedobaptist, and believe that true baptism must follow, not precede true faith. Yet, I also believe that some children, even as young as two years old, truly believe, and should therefore be eligible for baptism as well as communion.

    What must I then know in order to believe and be saved? That God exists and hears us (Heb. 11:6), that I am a sinner in need of Salvation, that God supplied this salvation in Jesus, Who became flesh in the incarnation, died for me, and rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-4). That Jesus died for me. Can a child know and believe this? Yes!


  5. Thanks for the comment Dan. I didn’t really attempt to say much about the soul. That’s one of those words so fundamentally misunderstood among most Christians that I hesitate to use it. When I do, I mean a person in their wholeness, not in some tripartate division.


  6. “We need new churches that won’t make the mistake of allowing the culture to dilute our worldview or dictate our methods. We need faithful small church pastors who won’t let numbers or mobs of parents control the direction of children’s and youth ministries.”

    Amen to that! I am so sick of the heathen world defining Christianity. Look at the music, look at the way we do church.

    I disagree with K. W. Leslie that the responsibility of a Christian teacher is to explain mysteries more fully. I believe it is the responsibility of the Christian teacher to help disciples conform more fully to the image of Christ. Sometimes this includes explaining a doctrine to them (as in the case of Apollos) sometimes it means throwing up your hands and saying “I don’t understand how it works but I know you need to do X”. It is not what I don’t know that scares me it is what everyone else thinks they know.

    Incidentally, perhaps the nature of the soul is a bit more complicated than your understanding.


  7. Amen! I have been trying unsuccessfully to push our ELCA congregation in this direction for years. Time to move on to a small church that values the bible, education, and tradition.


  8. Well, if we’re talking election, I find the Reformed view of that doctrine pretty incomprehensible, too. Frankly, I’m glad my children have confessed confusion about it–I’d be dissapointed if they didn’t. 😉

    Great insights! Let me go one step beyond,though. I think our children, whatever their age, deserve more than a subtly dismissisve “you don’t have to understand it to believe it” response from adults when they express questions about faith. That’s probably not what Piper was intending, but I think we need to guard against the temptation to fall into “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” mode as parents.

    We never dumbed down truth with our children, and they will tell you now that’s what helped them become articulate and confident in their faith as young adults. We never shied away from “hard” biblical terms, or from talking honestly about difficult and confusing truths. The vocabulary of truth strengthened our children’s faith and, I believe, increased their intelligence and their ability to think deeply and clearly about matters that go beyond intellect.

    In Matthew 18:2-6, Jesus points to a young boy of no more than about seven (a paidion). He rebukes his disciples by saying “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble” had better learn how to hold their breath in deep water. The word “believe” (pisteuo) is the same term used of adult faith. It’s nascent and undeveloped belief in a child, to be sure, but Jesus clearly recognizes it as valid faith.

    I believe God has hard-wired our children to expect “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” from their parents. My exegesis of Eph. 6:4 suggests that children are provoked to anger when we fail to give them what God has prepared them to receive. Sidestepping difficult truths of Scripture is a sure recipe for “exasperating” the faith-ready little ones God has put under our care.


  9. As a current Sunday School teacher in a Singaporean church, I am guilty of “dumbing” things down – part of our challenge as teachers is to work out how to bring the gospel message across in its entirety, but without losing the children in the process. I teach 5 to 6 year olds.

    Let me clarify a few things that I have learnt – which may still be wrong, but I have honestly learnt so much from the children themselves about this.

    Confusion is definitely part of growing up. A child told me with great confidence “Jesus wears blue!” I told him that the Bible doesn’t say so. (Arguably only white was mentioned in Revelations right?)

    However our very task is to bring across the gospel sensitive to the context of the listeners while not losing the gospel. Which has two aspects as mentioned – “sensitive to context of listeners” and “the whole gospel”. That is, how to make the examples and ideas relevant in the limited scope that the children have been aware of thus far.

    How can the children understand sin at that age other than being “naughty”? So we tell them that sin is being naughty against God. How can we get them to understand how far Paul went in his ministries? We take a map and show them how far it is from this block to that – and show it relative to the actual map of the area that Paul travelled.

    But we cannot leave out the gospel in anything that we teach. Always we start from the Bible, work on the verses to see what they mean, and then no matter how complex the issue is, we try and bring it into the children’s lives. Even bringing across Paul’s journey was a challenge – we got them to repeat (till they started to look bored but a month later they still remember) “Talk about Jesus”. We brought them on a little “trip” around our church where they would “visit” other countries and a teacher would prompt them to “talk about Jesus” to the “natives”. And what about Jesus? That He died for our sins, that we’re naughty from young, that He is the Son of God for example. It IS possible to have the whole gospel in “simpler terms” without losing the gospel in the process.

    I think your pastor is not being very helpful in his insistence that he wants “every child possible to be in church as soon as possible and to be confused about what was going on”. For he has neglected that children would be bored with sermons that they cannot relate to – and would end up either refusing to come (no matter the explanations, boring is boring), or coming and dozing off, or worst – coming and causing trouble for the rest of the pew-sitters by making noise despite the parental discipline. By creating a separate section for them and teaching them in a creative yet correct way (with emphasis on correct), the children now ENJOY coming and actually tell their parents about God. Not to mention the pastor will have to use “child-friendly” words to engage the children – which is infinitely more tiring for someone used to using difficult words. We’re not here to teach vocabulary – we’re to teach the gospel.

    Truth in point – one girl who was a non-Christian comes because her aunt brings her. Her own parents refuse to come yet allow her to come to church. Her aunt recently told me that her dad was alarmed at what we were teaching – because his daughter told him that “if you believe in God, we don’t have to be afraid of death.”

    She’s five. And been with us for 3 months. And amazingly, I don’t even remember covering that lesson with the kids.

    We must teach the gospel first and foremost – correctly and accurately, not losing any of the meaning of the gospel (or risk Hell ourselves). But I believe that just as Paul preached to the Athenians, there are various methods of delivery and we cannot stand fast on one method for all – but see which is most appropriate.

    For despite all this, God IS a wonderful and awesome God and we still wonder. One child – out of the blue – while playing with his sandals before class, told me seriously that his mum told him that if you don’t believe in God, you will go to a Hell of fire which is very hot. A little unprepared for this, I asked him back – what do YOU think? He thought for a second and then nodded tentatively, searching my face to see what I would believe about him. And I told him that it was true, but that as he believed, he would go to heaven. I don’t remember if he smiled back.

    But the mystery of God doesn’t go away by “dumbing” down the words we use so that children can understand the Bible and enjoy it better for their age.

    Please note that I do question people who believe that concepts like Hell, sin and death should not be brought before the children. We have to be careful with it (they may cry) but we have to do it as it is simply the sinful reality we all live in. Anyone who takes away from the gospel (and causes a little one to sin) should fear the punishment that comes after. My issue is with even the possibility that children should be assimilated into the church directly, at any age.


  10. Yours and Piper’s comments sound surprisingly similar to the ideas taught by the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, particularly the “keep it a mystery” ideas. Actually, that might be closer to the Gnostic ideas. How do they fit with Jesus’ words in John 14: “6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”?


  11. I believe it’s irresponsible to perpetuate ignorant Christians in your congregation, and justify it by saying there should be some mystery to the faith. Jesus came to reveal mysteries, not create new ones. The Christian teacher’s job is to find out what the disciples find mysterious, and explain it to them more fully. Note Priscilla and Aquila filling Apollos in on the details, Acts 18:26.

    The Christian teacher should never assume that even longtime believers know the meaning of every Christianese term. Frequently they don’t. It’s only in the past couple years I’ve discovered most don’t even know what “soul” means. It began with someone who had said that animals don’t have souls and I had to respectfully disagree. Animals are named after the fact that they have souls, which in Latin is anima. “The words we translate ‘soul,'” I pointed out, “mean life. Anything alive has a soul. The difference between humans and animals, which is what I think you’re trying to articulate, is that we have eternal life, whereas we’re not so sure about the animals.” She’s been a Christian all her life; yet she was unclear about what a soul is because it was just assumed that everyone knows what a soul is. But ever since this conversation, I’ve asked a lot of Christians and found out that almost none of them really know what a soul is. And they’re almost universally pleased that someone finally explained it to them. (The few who aren’t pleased are the people who have invented complex teachings based on their misunderstandings of “soul” and are annoyed that they now have to readjust so much.)

    I have no problem with five-year-olds in the “adult” service so long that we never forget that our congregations are a mixture of beginner and advanced disciples. I have no problem with difficult vocabulary terms so long that we remember to teach vocabulary. I have no problem with mysteries so long as we keep seeking to understand them. Willful ignorance, and perpetuating it, isn’t of God.


  12. Psalm 139 is a wonderful Psalm on both the Sovereignty of God and the free will of humankind. Our freedom to choose, which is “real”, never extends beyond the Sovereignty of God. Is it Biblical therefore to state that the Sovereignty of God and the free will of humankind are always in total harmony?


  13. A girl walked down the aisle to talk with the pastor at the church I’m interning at in the service last night… as a counsellor was talking to her later, I saw her respond to some question of his by holding up six fingers… This very question of diluting the message is all I could think about after that. Can any six year-old really understand what’s going on in a decision like that, if it’s presented as it should be? I have my doubts.


  14. Oh totally. Anything that is as life-altering as Christianity SHOULD be somewhat beyond the comprehension of small children. If they couldn’t understand all the teachings of Taoism or Stoicism at 5 years old, why should we expect them to understand all Christian teachings?


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