The debate over infant baptism within Christianity is often thought to be a debate over the meaning of baptism. But it is really a debate over the place of children. The Reformed contention is that children are members of God’s covenant. This was certainly the case in the Old Testament, as every male in Abraham’s household was given the mark of the covenant (Genesis 17).
Children and the New Covenant
Are the children of Christians still members of God’s covenant? Or has God limited the new covenant to only those who express faith in Christ? I realize I am opening up a can of worms, and there are many arguments to be made on both sides. However, I would like to go to just one passage discussing children in the new covenant, Ephesians 6:1-4. The Apostle Paul writes:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Notice that Paul addresses children in this passage. Children are assumed to be part of the church, as they are told to obey their parents "in the Lord." Obedience to their parents is to be grounded in their obedience to Jesus. Paul then cites the 5th commandment from the Mosaic law to honor father and mother, even referencing the promise regarding life in the land. Not only are children as a category assumed to be part of the church in Ephesus, but the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament are considered to still be authoritative for the church. In other words, the passage suggests strong continuity between the place of children in the new covenant and the old covenant.
Paul then addresses fathers with a command to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This passage is really quite clear—children are part of the church, and fathers are to raise their children in the way of Christ. Contrary to the modern emphasis on the individual, God deals with families.
Children and Education
My point is not to argue for infant baptism (though I do think that follows from my argument). Rather, my point is emphasize that children are members of the new covenant. The children of Christian parents are not to be regarded as pagans who we hope will one day be converted. No, the children of Christians are part of the church. They are under the authority of their parents and are to be set apart to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:14).
Of course, this does not mean children born to Christians are automatically saved. It is quite the opposite. Children born to Christian parents are sinners like everyone else, and they are to therefore be raised so as to believe in Christ and follow His ways. Thus Paul commands parents to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
This is not some esoteric theological debate. Rather, this has significant practical implications.That Christian children are part of the covenant means that parents are to train them in the covenant. Christian children need to be taught a Christian worldview and trained to think God's thoughts after Him. They need to learn every subject with God and His Word as the foundation, for "The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7).
Christian Children Need a Christian Education
Sadly, many Christians, even those in the Reformed tradition, have not given their children a Christian education. They have handed their children over to non-Christian schools and unbelieving teachers to be trained in a secular worldview. Louis Berkhof lamented the inconsistent practice of many Christians in this regard:
It is quite evident that in most of the churches of our land, even in those who theoretically subscribe to the doctrine of the covenant, this doctrine has no grasp on the life and the conscience of the people in general, and fails utterly to have a determining influence on the education of their children.
J. Gresham Machen offered similar criticism:
I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the Gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the Earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism.
Secular state schools are often a cheaper option than Christian private schools and homeschooling. But is a Christian education not worth the extra time and cost? We are talking about the training of the minds and hearts of young Christians. Our educational practices must be consistent with our view of the covenant. God's children deserve it.