Can children be brought under Church discipline?

I have met various baptists who, besides being unwilling to obviously baptize their children after birth, will often be exceedingly uncomfortable when it comes to baptizing anyone under the age of eighteen who still lives at home.

I will save their full reasoning for another time, however, one often cited reason is the inability for young children to be disciplined by the Church. I see a few errors with this rhetoric. But I let me start off by asking the question simply.

Can young children be disciplined by the Church?

Yes! And thanks be to God!

Often times, however, we equate Church discipline in the broad sense with excommunication in the very specific sense. Excommunication is one means of discipline, but discipline is much larger than excommunication. Of course, we are to discipline our children, and the Church is to play a part in this. Discipline entails training, correcting, teaching, and rebuking when needed – all things that are to be given to our children at any age.

Excommunication is a subset of discipline that would require much greater depth than we can go into. In short, excommunication is only to occur when a disciple is in serious unrepentant sin and continues in it after being brought before several witnesses with the last witness being the Church. Excommunication is the very last step in a normally long process of discipline – discipleship is, after all, discipline! Excommunication is not to be taken lightly.

Likewise, there are certain sins that warrant excommunication – for example, serial adultery – and there are others that are nearly impossible to bring to that point and it would be unhelpful to do so – for example, grumbling, preferring the TV to your bible, etc. Just as it is helpful to distinguish between sins that are crimes deserving civil punishment (adultery) and sins that are not (grumbling), so it is helpful to distinguish between those sins that warrant ecclesiastical charges and those that don’t. Most if not all of the sins of a young child fall into the latter category.

If my child continually whines, gropes, and complains, and after weeks of corrective discipline they continue in it, bringing them before the congregation or elders for excommunication would likely be inappropriate. I may go to some other members of the church for advice, I may seek the counsel of my pastor, I may even ask others to remind my child of their duty to have a grateful heart and to hold them accountable. But excommunication would not be necessary, helpful, or even appropriate.

In God’s providence, children normally receive discipline with much greater efficacy than adults. Discipline may take time, but when done rightly it normally ends in the child’s confession, repentance, and restoration.  I believe this is all a part of God’s wisdom, that he creates children this way and commands parent to raise them in the LORD.

When your Christian life begins early you do not carry as much baggage and bad habits as those who spent their entire lives being taught and conditioned otherwise. This is not to deny total depravity or original sin. But it is to say that we should echo the faith of a child in the way they trust and obey without years of bad habits that fight against them.

So is there an example where excommunication may be appropriate for a young child?

If my eight year old has been known to frequently hit his sister, leaving serious bruises on her head, this would be a much more serious case than grumbling and complaining. If after weeks of discipline and correction he proceeds to tell me that he hates Jesus and will happily continue to hurt his siblings than pursuing a formal process of discipline ending in excommunication may be necessary. Our eight year old would no longer be treated as a Christian. He has spurned his baptism and refused to receive the grace of God. He may be barred from Communion and will be treated as an unbelieving eight year old. This includes all of the continual prayer and calls to repentance and faith that come with being treated in such a way.

It should also be noted that discipline and excommunication are going to look different for every member of the Church. I do not mean that different judgments are passed on them – all are treated as unbelievers in the case of excommunication. All punishments should match the crime. What I mean is that how we treat them as unbelievers is going to be different. I would interact with an unbelieving 24 year old young man differently than a 87 year old unbelieving woman. In much the same way, I will interact with my unbelieving 8 year old son differently than I would a grown woman who is a serial adulterer and I have no parental responsibility towards.

The notion that baptizing young children – or infants – because it would make discipline ‘tricky’ is no excuse to be disobedient to God. When Christ commands us to baptize and teach (discipline) disciples, that is what we are called to do, regardless of their age or how messy that discipline may seem. Duty is our, the results belong to God.  Likewise, we often equate discipline with excommunication, instead of understanding excommunication to be the final step of discipline when all else fails. Discipling our children is what we – parents and the Church – are called to do. Discipleship is messy, but it is worth it.

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