Neither Covenant Children, Nor Evangelism by Proxy: Recovering a Baptist Approach to Raising Children in the Lord


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Recently, a question came to a Baptist friend who works with multiple Presbyterians. And the question went like this: How do Baptists understand the condition of their children? Are they members of the covenant? If not, as they would be in a Presbyterian church, what are they? What is their status? And how does their status manifest itself in the church and home? These are good questions and they illustrate an important but often overlooked difference between credobaptists and paedobaptists.[1]

1. A word about labels: By credobaptist I simply mean churches who practice believer’s baptism; and by paedobaptist I am using that term to generally dscribe those churches who “baptize” infants as members of the covenant of grace. Additionally, when I say Baptist, I am not referring to any single denomination, but to the historical tradition defined by the first and second London Baptist Confessions (1644, 1689), and continued in America with the Philadelphia (1742) and New Hampshire (1853) confessions, which then proceeded to other confessions, most prominently the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, 2000).

Baptists do not confer upon their children a place in the covenant community (i.e., in the visible church) until they have professed faith in Christ as a fruit of the Spirit’s work of regeneration. While sharing a common interest with paedobaptists in raising their children in the Lord, credobaptists relate to their children in a different way. Due to different views of the biblical covenants, Baptists believe the church is a regenerate community and not a mixed community of believers and their children. Accordingly, faith and repentance is the mark of a new covenant believer, and only those who have expressed such Spirit-given faith are admitted into church membership

Admittedly, many Baptists of the atheological type may not think in these terms, but historically, Particular Baptists and Baptists with Reformed theology have.[2] And in this essay, I will take the position between my paedobaptist brethren on the one side and my atheological brethren on the other. And seeking to avoid two ditches, I will argue two things: (1) the necessity of the new birth for entrance into the new covenant church and (2) the home is the God-given place for Christian parents to instruct their children in the ways of Christ.

2. For those who find themselves in “baptistic churches” (i.e., churches that practice believer’s baptism), but do not know the history of Baptists or think of themselves as “Baptists,” this essay may at times be challenging. But in response, I would challenge Bible Church Christians, like the members of my church, to grow in their understanding of Church history, especially Baptist history. One appeal of Presbyterianism is its rich tradition. Baptists have the same, but many members of Baptist churches do not know their family heritage.

On the surface, there are countless similarities between paedobaptists and credobaptists in the ways in which they raise their children. We hold the same gospel, have the Bible, and hold the same hope of salvation. But for all the similiarities, there are differences too. And for the Baptists in the chatroom, I am going to argue that our covenantal convictions lead to practices that are distinctly Baptist. This is not limited to parenting, but it includes parenting. And so for those Baptists who have moved to Moscow, so to speak, or for those thinking that the Presbyterians have a better track record with raising their children in the Lord, I will argue that they are missing out on an historical Baptist tradition that is truer to the full text of Scripture.

To borrow from the language of Richard Furman, an eighteenth century Particular Baptist, the children of church members are “wards” of God’s church members.[3] That is, the children of believers are not members of the covenant, but as family members of church members, they receive the blessing of growing up in a home that is ordered by Christ, provided that the parents conduct themselves according to God’s Word (1 Cor. 7:14).

3. Richard Furman, “The Children of Church Members” (1792). Drawing the same line that I am drawing here, Furman observed, “And, perhaps, while the advocates of infant baptism have gone too far in asserting the right of membership, our churches, or the advocates for our principles, have sometimes overlooked their true relation, and been too inattentive to the duties consequent thereon. It may be difficult to find a term every way suitable to express this relation; but we think it is of the nature of wardship.

So, the aim of this essay is to show how a Baptist Covenantalism (in this case, a progressive covenantalism) leads to a particular way of raising children that is similar to but distinct from our brothers and sisters in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. In this essay, I cannot address every exegetical question (e.g., what does Paul mean in Ephesians 6 when he says that fathers must raise their children “in the Lord”). [4] Yet, for now, I hope to demonstrate that differences between credobaptists and paedobaptists extend beyond the practice of baptism. Indeed, I will show how the different covenantal systems have implications for raising children and why this matters. So, I offer two ditches to avoid—one that stands on the Presbyterian side of the aisle and one on the Baptist side. Like the construction workers in orange, I will put cones up around the ditch and then show how to avoid it.

4. Stayed tuned, an exegetical treatment of Ephesians 6:1–3 will be coming later this month.

Ditch #1: Including Children in the Covenant

The first ditch to avoid is the inclusion of children in the covenant. By way of making children members of the covenant today, parents grant their sons and daughters a status like that of old covenant Israel. This makes sense, if the Abrahamic covenant is the first administration of the covenant of grace. However, if the “covenant of grace” is distinct from the old covenant and coterminous with the new covenant, as the Particular Baptists who wrote the London Baptist Confession believed, or if each major covenant in the Old Testament leads to the new covenant, as in progressive covenantalism, then it does not work for children of believers to be given a position in the covenant community today.[5]

5. See Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 55–77, for the confessional differences that stand between Presbyterians and Baptists.

More on that in a minute. But first, let’s consider a historical example.

In the early twentieth century, the inclusion of children in the covenant community resulted in “presumptive regeneration”—the assumption that all children who have undergone “baptism” are saved. In places like the Netherlands (and her colonies), the cultural Christianity promoted by Abraham Kuyper and others resulted in a generation of unregenerate, children growing up in Christian homes, only to leave the home as adults still unregenerate because they were rarely pressed to convert to Christianity.[6] Certainly, one negative outcome of including children in the covenant does not prove its error, but it does lead us to ask: What does Scripture say about the children of believers and their place in the covenant?

6. One example of cultural Christianity failing to stress the need for personal regeneration is found in D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 215–16. He writes, that in addition to Kuyper’s increasing stress on creation over redemption and common grace over redeeming grace, “A second element that contributed, after Kuyper’s departure from the scene, to the extraordinarily rapid decline of Christian influence in the government and culture of the Netherlands was the heavy emphasis within Kuyperianism on presumptive regeneration.”

Clearly, in the Old Testament, the circumcised offspring of Abraham received the blessings of the covenant. And as a result, the genealogical principle was born—namely, that those born to Abraham and circumcised on the eighth day were made a part of the covenant family. And by extension, paedobaptists conclude that this kind of genealogical principle continued in the New Testament as well.

Importantly, circumcision was a sign of the promise, not the law. In Exodus 31:12–17, we find the Sabbath as the sign of the Sinai covenant, which reinforces the point that circumcision was a sign of the covenant with Abraham (see Genesis 17), not a sign of the Sinai covenant. In Genesis 15:17, God walked through the bloody animals, signifying his commitment to fulfill his covenant with Abraham. In the generations that followed, Isaac (Gen. 26:1–5), Jacob (Gen. 35:11–15), and the whole nation of Israel (Exod. 6:2–8) enjoyed the blessings of this covenant.

7. Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd Ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

Some have concluded that these promises to Abraham reveal the inauguration of the covenant of grace. But others, like Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry, have more convincingly (in my mind) explained how this promise to Abraham was fulfilled by Christ in the new covenant.[7] Accordingly, this circumcision in the flesh was fulfilled by Christ’s circumcision on the cross (Col. 2:11–12) and the believer’s circumcision of the heart. Importantly, this circumcision of the heart was promised in the Old Testament (Deut. 30:6) and carried out by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25–27) when Christ ratified the new covenant (Heb. 8:1–10:18).[8]

8. Clearly, Bible-believing Presbyterians also believe in the better promises of the new covenant (Heb. 8:6), but their understanding of the covenant, with its mixed nature, serves to make the warning passages in Hebrews a genuine threat to those enjoying the new covenant. Because the covenant of grace, in its new covenant administration, permits children of believers, those children, if not elect, can fall from the covenant. Baptists, by contrast, believe that all who have been brought into the covenant by the Spirit remain in the covenant.

For this reason, the children of God are not born into covenant families by their earthly birth. Rather, they are born again into the family of God by their new birth (John 1:12–13). Practically, this means that unbelieving children of Christian parents should not be baptized, invited to the Lord’s Supper, added to the membership, or treated as a fellow member of the covenant. Instead, members of the church should only be comprised of those who are truly children of God, as evidenced by their repentance and faith (1 John 5:4-5).

Indeed, without making this distinction, the difference between believer and unbeliever can become unhelpfully fuzzy. Even as Presbyterian churches preach the gospel and make strong distinctions between eternal realities (e.g., election and reprobation on one end of eternity, heaven and hell on the other), their ecclesiology encourages a membership of believers and unbelievers (i.e., believers and their yet-to-be-regenerated children). While the effect of this mixed membership varies, it makes it more difficult to draw clear lines of demarcation between those who are in Christ and those who are only in the covenant. This, not the mode baptism, is the great difference between credobaptists and paedobaptists, and it is not an inconsequential difference.

Functionally, a mixed membership has implications for the church and the raising of children. For instance, some have argued like this: Have as many children as you can, raise them in Christian homes, put them in Christian schools, and this is how Christians will change the world. Indeed, the logic goes that if we have enough Christian homes, then we can have Christian towns, Christian states, Christian nations, and eventually, a Christian world. This is the postmillennial approach that connects childbirth to the salvation of the world.[9]

9. On postmillennialism, see my 9Marks article, “Postmillennialism and Theonomy.”

And though not every Presbyterian holds this eschatology and many stress evangelism as the means of kingdom advancement, you can see something of the logic that says natural birth leads to spiritual conquest. If there is one unchanged covenant of grace, and if salvation and kingdom and covenant were passed on from fathers to sons under the old covenant, then it makes sense that procreation is still essential to world transformation. Yes, salvation is found in Christ, and regeneration comes by the Spirit, but this salvation will come to believers and their children as those members of the covenant have children to a thousand generations.

In the short term, this postmillennial approach to childrearing may produce good fruit. But in the long run, it has a negative impact on the church and her witness. And the reason for this negative impact is that this genealogical principle joins together what Jesus has intended to divide. When Jesus came preaching the gospel of the kingdom, he said that he would bring a sword to divide families (Matt. 10:34–39). By consequence, his death and resurrection created one new man by means of extracting Jews and Gentiles from their earthly families and placing them into his heavenly family. Churches today should not only preach this message but order themselves by it (Eph. 2:11–22).

As a Baptist, it is not surprising that I would make this point. But what is surprising is how many Baptists are ignoring this point and drifting towards this first ditch. Therefore, building on Baptist Covenantalism that began in the seventeenth century and continues to the present, I am making the case that Scripture presents a different view of the covenants, and thus, parents seeking to raise their children in the Lord would do best to avoid the misconception of including their children in the covenant.[10]

10. For the best treatment on the issue of baptism, see Stephen J. Wellum, “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2006), 97­–161. Cf. Fred Malone, The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2007).

Ditch #2: Expecting Experts to Evangelize Our Children

If there is a ditch on the paedobaptist side of the road, there is also a ditch on the credobaptist side too. This ditch may even be more dangerous and is probably why many have swerved towards paedobaptism. What is this ditch? It is the one pragmatic churches dig when they make children’s ministry a product of Christian consumerism. Likewise, it is the ditch unassuming (or lazy) parents drift into when they believe that salvation for their children comes not by covenant but by charisma. This is the ditch that Jared Longshore and others targeted when they blamed Baptist churches in America for transgenderism.[11]

11. Longshore later qualified his point, after others pushed back.

To be sure, parents who fall into this ditch may not see their church life as consumeristic or beholden to the cultural gods of self expression, but when they let their children, unregenerate as they are, decide what church to go to, they are playing into a commodified version of Christianity. And churches that cater to this attraction-based model of outreach build ministries to draw families by way of their children. Thankfully, many churches are not like this. But enough are that, in these churches whose lights and bells are so bright and so loud, parents can begin to think that what they do at home is either unimportant compared to the church’s mega-ministries or that they are most faithful by letting the experts (e.g., the cool youth pastor) be the primary evangelist for their children.

12. As Andrew Root observes, “Youth became the priests of cool who inherited practices, perspectives, and predispositions to lead us all into authenticity” (Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 60). Paying keen attention to the trends in culture, many churches replaced holiness for the hip and sought youth pastors who play it cool and preach Christ.

In contrast, I am arguing that when parents put their confidence in men, methods, or ministries, all the while vacating their responsibility to lead their children to the Lord, something is amiss. And tragically, this parental irresponsibility seems to be generational, as churches have provided more and more consumer-oriented services over the last seventy-five years.

13. On this point, it is interesting to consider that greatest evangelist of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, began as a Youth for Christ worker.

As Andrew Root reports in his book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness, this impulse towards the cool happened to some degree when the American church prioritized a youth culture.[12] As a measure of pragmatic effectiveness, churches began to deploy youth pastors as the chief evangelist for children and youth.[13] Children’s youth groups sprang up and, intentional or not, these replaced parents as the central source of spiritual formation.

14. David Wells, No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

Indeed, in an era when pastors were rebranded as corporate executives and psychological experts,[14] and when ministers and parents succumbed to the growing individualism of their children,[15] focus on the family was replaced with satisfying the cravings of the individual. Again, there are countless historical reasons for this, not the least of which would include the television-inspired need for Christianity to be cool.[16] But to avoid this second ditch, my focus cannot be sociological or historical. Instead, I will return to the storyline of Scripture to show that God intends his children in the faith to raise their children in the flesh to know and love God.

15. Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

More specifically, the language of family is essential for understanding God’s purposes of redemption. For not only does God raise up for Abraham a family from whom the messiah will come, but throughout the New Testament, the Lord and his disciples use family imagery to explain the way of salvation. Perhaps most helpful in seeing this pattern is the work of Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Community.

16. The classic analysis on television is Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1986). But for more on the way various image-laced media cultivated cool, see Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 63–72.

Among other things, Hellerman makes the observation that when Jesus came to call his disciples, he demanded that they leave their families in order to follow him. In one place, Jesus refused to let a son bury his father so that the man would follow him fully (Matt. 8:21); in another place, Jesus denied his mother and brothers—to make the point that his family was created by the Word of God and not the flesh and blood of man (Mark 3:34–35). From these family-dividing narratives (see also Matt. 10:34–39), Hellerman explains, “Jesus challenged his disciples to transfer their primary family allegiance from one group (the natural family) to another (the family of God).”[17]

17. Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Community (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2009), 165.

Certainly, Jesus’s “attack” on the natural family was not an attack on God’s created design. When he said that a disciple must hate his family, he was not condoning fratricide or a violation of the fifth commandment. Instead, his words demonstrated the way God was raising from the dead a new family of faith. In time this household of God would be identified as the church (1 Tim. 3:15). And in the church, God would gather his children so that they would learn how to conduct themselves according to this law (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15–17) and his apostles’ teaching. And part of this teaching included instructions for parents to be faithful fathers and mothers (Eph. 6:1–4).[18]

18. On a progressive covenantal reading of Ephesians 6:1–3, see my “Living Long in the Land: Reading Ephesians 6:1–3 through the Lens of the New Covenant.”

Critical to God’s mission of making disciples, therefore, are parents who are not simply raising their children for earthly success. Instead, as children of their heavenly Father, these parents have a spiritual stewardship over their children’s souls. Children, as Richard Furman put it, are “wards” of the Lord. The Father has entrusted children to believers so that these children might learn of Christ and, when the Spirit gives life, that they might believe in the gospel they have heard since child birth. Clearly, this commitment to evangelism is not restricted to Baptists, and this is why many Baptists have been drawn to the first ditch.

But here I am not addressing the first ditch (including children in the covenant), but the second (parents entrusting the souls of their children to others). As children are a gift from the Lord (Psalms 127–128), they are a gift to be tended. While parents may be overwhelmed and underequipped to lead their children to Christ or to answer their growing questions, this is our calling. And one way God grows his children is by parents learning how to raise their children in Christ. In our age of convenience, many churches are happy to lift the burden from parents. But in providing a full array of services, some go too far.

I am not disparaging the place of children’s workers, youth ministers, or evangelism to teens. Many are doing good work to proclaim Christ to the next generation, even as they encourage the weary parent and help parents communicate biblical truth to their children. So, do not hear what I am not saying. Ministry to youth is good and needed when it affirms the place of parents. What I am critiquing, however, are churches that take the place of parents, or invite parents to trust in the skill of the experts instead of the power of the Spirit and the ongoing role of the Christian home.

Indeed, in Scripture parenting is the model that pastors follow, and thus it makes little sense for pastors and evangelists to replace the parent. Instead, when we look at the apostles, we find a model of spiritual parenting that all Christians should emulate.

For instance, the apostles spoke of their “children” as those whom they “fathered” in the faith. Paul called Titus (Titus 1:4) and Timothy (1 Tim. 1:2) his true sons in the faith. Likewise, John rejoiced when he saw his children walking in the truth (3 John 4), and Peter called John Mark his “son” (1 Pet. 5:13). By all accounts, none of these are biological children. They are all sons in the faith, spiritually-born heirs of the kingdom. And today, Christians should seek the same.

For singles, there remains a place for fruitful ministry and the joy of seeing children born to Christ. Likewise, for those married and infertile, there remains for them the hope of the eunuch in Isaiah 56:3-5 that they can be fruitful and multiply by making disciples. This may come through adoption or through a vibrant ministry to spiritual children in the Lord. Just the same for the Christian parents. Their hope is not simply in raising up children for worldly success, but in seeing the physical children entrusted to them by God become their spiritual children through faith in Christ. And this brings us back to the second ditch.

Knowing the importance of their child’s salvation, many parents have been convinced that they need the help of experts, the charisma of the pastor, or the experience of the youth camp in order to see their child saved. Whether through a semi-Pelagian doctrine (or a revivalistic confidence) that believes that God saves his people through human effort, well-meaning parents veer toward the second ditch for good desires. They want their child to know Christ, but if they are in churches that do encourage them in their work or equip them with the Word, these parents may not see or desire the role God has given them. Truly, this is a ditch to avoid.

All in all, the biblical means of imparting faith to the next generation are households filled with mothers and grandmothers telling the ancient story of redemption (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14–15), and fathers who lovingly discipline their children with the Word of God (Heb. 12:5–11). Indeed, Paul compares himself to a father and mother to express the kind of ministry he had to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:5–11). And the same is true in reverse, mothers and fathers must take up the ministry of an evangelist. And such a ministry of evangelism is done best not by looking for the expert but by becoming a student of the word and telling the next generation of the hope we have in Christ (Ps. 78:1–8).

Recovering Our Baptist Heritage That Avoids Both Ditches

As we bring this to a close, it is good to remember that Christian parents do not serve their children by treating them as though they are already in the covenant. Instead, Christian parents serve their children, who are born in Adam and under the wrath of God, by telling them where they stand in the story of God’s redemption.[19] If they are outside of Christ, they serve them well by explaining the realities of sin and death, and if their children are considering the claims of Christ, they serve them well by calling them to repent and believe so as to enter into the new covenant.

19. Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (Indianapolis: Wesleyan, 2011).

In truth, every child is born in covenant relationship with God. The qualification is that children are born in Adam, even if their parents are in Christ. Treating children of Adam as covenant members of grace only confuses the clear distinctions that Scripture presents. In effect, if children of Adam are treated as though they are in the covenant of grace, they are placed in two competing covenants at the same time. Theologically, this is confused. And practically, this blurs the lines between being in Adam or in Christ.

Indeed, godly parents serve their children well by making these covenantal divisions clear. And with confidence that God answers prayer and saves sinners, they can, as priests in the kingdom of God, pray for their children, pray with their children, and explain to their children how God delights to hear the prayers of faith. In that context, then, they can continue to explain the content of that faith and make invitations to believe on Christ. To be sure, Presbyterians can and will do this too, but there remains the confusion of the covenants.

Thus, as a Baptist drawing out the distinction between paedobaptistic and credobaptistic applications of the covenant, I conclude by calling Baptists to avoid the ditch of including children in the covenant. And I do that as someone equally concerned for all Christian parents who attend churches that maximize the place of pastoral experts, which denigrates—unintentionally or not—the place of parents.

As parents let the experts take their place, they miss the joys and the often-painful fellowship with God that comes with raising children in the Lord. Similarly, this second ditch is dangerous because of the way it promotes an overreaction. How many Baptists have traded their allegiance because they were surrounded by ministers and ministries that did not adequately develop the Christian home. Accordingly, as cultural Christianity has been swallowed up by secular forces, they have sought a sturdier option.

To those drifting towards either ditch, I offer a rich heritage among Baptists who have rightly applied the new covenant to the church and home and who have rightly called for church members to raise their children in the Lord. There is such a straight and narrow path, but it is one that requires avoiding both ditches. And thus, to point the way forward I close with the eminently wise words of Richard Furman, whose concept of wardship is one that Baptists need to recover today.

Thus beloved brethren, we have laid before you a plan respecting the relationship and education of children, which appears to us to be consonant to the great law of nature and the gospel of Christ. By pursuing this we shall, on the one hand avoid what appears to us to be an abuse of holy ordinances, and on the other, secure every blessing and privilege in our power, for the benefit of our children. The spiritual, free and rational nature of the gospel worship will be held up to view in our churches, and generous, dignified sentiments inculcated in the minds of our members and their offspring. By a proper attendance to these duties, it is hoped we shall be placed in the way of receiving abundant and substantial blessings of having some of the most tender feelings of the heart gratified to the highest degree, in the spiritual happiness and true honour of our children; and of having the cause of God and the honor of our Redeemer promoted by them in his church, when we are gone to render our account to the judge of all the earth. Such a view of things cannot, we hope, fail to excite your most vigorous endeavours to secure the important end proposed.[20]

20. Richard Furman, “The Children of Church Members” (1792).

In this way, may God help us recover a Baptist approach to raising children in the Lord.



  • David Schrock

    David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.

David Schrock

David Schrock

David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.