/ Rut Etheridge III

Is Your Church a Safe Place for Kids (or adults for that matter)?

As a society, we’re scrutinizing much more closely the adults and young adults who want to work with and on behalf of children. And rightly so. We should do all we can to ensure that children are safe in every situation and that their caretakers are held accountable for it. In addition to submitting our public record to background checks, though, and thinking beyond the obvious, atrocious kinds of emotional and physical abuses those evaluations are meant to mitigate, we need to do some biblical background checks on our churches. We need to look with Scriptural scrutiny to see if they are truly safe places for questioning hearts, especially young ones.

There are all kinds of safety checks we could make based upon the biblical criteria for what constitutes a truly Christian community. For this blog, and because Gentle Reformation espouses a Confessional, Reformed theology, I want to focus upon how we in such assemblies teach our doctrines and handle the hearts of those who doubt or don’t understand them. Because Jesus teaches that the church is a people and not a place, and because God’s word searches far deeper than surface-level, observable behavior (Hebrews 4:12), we need to place beneath a biblical spotlight not only our congregation’s teaching, but its collective temperament.

Do people feel truly safe to voice their questions and misgivings? And even if they say they do, how do we know they’re not hiding their true hearts for fear of ecclesiastical retribution?

What we’ll think about can apply to every church member as caretaker and protector of fellow believers, but it’s especially incumbent upon those of us who are elders in the church to care well for the flock. I’ll aim these thoughts most directly at those of us whom Christ has called to church leadership, given the stricter standards of Christian belief and conduct to which the Great Shepherd holds us undershepherds.

Do we church leaders feel threatened by questions? We might answer immediately with “No! Of course not. I love to teach truth so I’m happy to answer questions.” But our heart’s true posture is revealed in how we react to questions, both the content and character of our response (Matthew 12:34b).

We must be careful not to treat people, especially young people, as unintelligent (much less as apostates!) for simply having questions, or for having thoughtfully investigated a viewpoint different from the church’s position. Sometimes church leaders do this without realizing it.

As an undergrad student, I once sat across from a pastor who knew that I was struggling with the question of whether infants should be baptized. He looked at me, quizzical eyes shining with incredulity, and asked a (sort of) question, “You don’t mean to tell me that you’re actually considering something as stupid as infant baptism, do you?” Guess how long that conversation lasted? As you can imagine, I became quite sheepish in revealing my thoughts to this shepherd of souls.

It might not be baptism; it could be anything of relatively small or very large doctrinal and therefore practical and personal import. Do we give off a vibe that gives people every reason to expect a gentle and respectful hearing of their hearts, no matter what they ask us, no matter what truth they tell us they’re struggling with? Or does our general comportment tell people that they’d be far better off keeping their mouths shut, their hearts unexpressed, especially on the most substantial and therefore sensitive issues?

Sometimes we think a no nonsense approach to truth means allowing for no nuance in our understanding and teaching of it. When this mentality hardens, it's a brick wall which forbids even the consideration of other ideas. Do we get antsy or angry when someone moves beyond a question and, perhaps for the sake of further learning, articulates a divergent theological opinion?

One pastor, upon hearing a young adult articulate an understanding of Scripture's creation narrative different from his own, asked a fellow pastor later on, “Where would he hear that kind of stuff?!” (Which is a rather surprising question to ask in the information age!) But notice how this question expresses offense if not outrage at the mere fact that this young person had been exposed to a different viewpoint. It’s good and right and necessary to know what’s being taught within the church, especially by its leaders. But were the student to hear the pastor reacting this way, the message to him would be clear: You are not allowed to even investigate opinions other than what you’re taught. Does this approach really encourage a deep and personal embracing of the doctrinal position this pastor holds so dear? Or does it suggest to the deeply thinking young adult his belief has something to hide from the critical evaluations of other perspectives, and thus might not be as sound as the teacher of Scripture assumes?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “False teaching is nothing to play around with.” I agree completely. It’s precisely the vital nature of biblical truth which requires a calm and calming response to questions concerning it. Jesus says that we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). And many of God’s words tell us to calm down! James tells all Christians to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19) just a few paragraphs before he tells the majority of Christians not to seek a teaching office in the church, because those who hold it are held to that aforementioned stricter standard. Paul tells us that love’s very first attribute is patience (1 Corinthians 13:4), that all Christians must be increasingly marked by the fruit of the Spirit - which includes patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control – and that gentleness and self-control are essential requirements of elders in the church (Galatians 5:22-23 and 1 Timothy 3:3-7).

I’ve counseled with young person after young person who feel so painfully and deeply disconnected from their church body, and who are reluctant or flat out terrified to tell their parents and church leaders about it. Some feel disconnected because they just don’t understand the preaching and teaching they get. They’re eager and able to learn and understand God’s truth, but the vocabulary and any attempted personal application of their church’s teaching and preaching are better fit for people of bygone days (sometimes several centuries deep into history!). We church leaders can fail to realize just how fully the philosophical, moral and social ethos in which young adults have been reared impacts them. And we probably fail to realize how much the same happened to us, and how much our cultural conditioning still colors what we consider to be our crystal clear perspective upon faith and life. This double-ignorance devastates the communication of the truth we sincerely desire youth in the church to embrace. Though we address them in their native tongue, our teaching often speaks a foreign language.

Our temperaments, if they bear the fruit of the Spirit, can bridge some of that distance they feel, but if our hearts bear the posture which James in particular warns against, that felt distance is redoubled. And then it gets far worse. Troubled, stifled souls begin to think, with a sad but clear-headed logic, that if their undershepherds and the Scriptures they so love to explain and defend just can’t or won’t understand and engage them, maybe it’s because God can’t or won’t either. They begin to both dread and long for life beyond their church family. In the meantime, they live nervously, secretly harboring doubt like a ticking time bomb in their souls and fearing the imminent explosion of a biblical faith whose grasp on real life, on their lives, feels increasingly shaky.

The power and practicality of biblical truth encourage age-appropriate inquiries into the claims which counter them. Biblical truth can handle it. Jesus was never a stranger to criticism, and he was always the friend of sincerely questioning hearts (John 4). Scripture can take the scrutiny, but we might rightly fear that particular adherents are not ready for it. So we always need to explore these questions and issues and opinions in Christian community, looking for Christ-like leadership from those whom he’s appointed as leaders among his flock (Ephesians 4.) Jesus knew well the condition and capabilities of his disciples, and would not tell and teach them more than they could bear at the time (John 16:12). But nor did he discourage his disciples from asking the questions so heavy upon their hearts (John 14.)

Even more, Jesus made sure that he was often questioning his disciples. He routinely engaged them in thoughtful conversations which began by his asking for their analysis of culture and current events and their opinions on the heaviest matters of life, death and eternity (Matthew 16:13ff). Jesus encouraged this open, personal, and affirming QandA dynamic, and the disciples clearly felt safe conversing with their Master. Fear finds few reinforcements in such an atmosphere of love and trust, and members of such a blessed community find fewer and fewer reasons to want to leave.

Of course, in encouraging open dialogue, Jesus always warned his followers away from false teaching and false teachers (Matthew 16:2ff; 22:29ff). We must never treat sinful ideologies as safe and harmless. As theologian R.C. Sproul put it memorably, “Ideas have consequences.” Lies about the Lord and his word reap an especially bitter harvest in souls (Galatians 1:8-9). But it’s precisely the vital nature of biblical truth which calls us to handle with particular care the young hearts struggling to understand and affirm it, and who may stumble upon falsity and find it compelling or even convincing.

If a child were to walk up to us somehow having gotten hold of a loaded firearm and carrying it casually like a stuffed animal, it is precisely our screaming and shouting that could get someone shot. Proverbs, especially chapter 15, is a treasure trove of counsel and commands concerning sensitive and potentially incendiary conversations.

Young people often overestimate their abilities and speak confidently of matters they haven’t begun to comprehend. In this way, they are very much like adults. We all need to be taught by people more knowledgeable than we, wiser in both content of thought and character of heart.

But what about when genuine questions turn disingenuous among people who should know better? Or when the desire to undermine hides behind the likeness of the desire to learn? It’s sadly true that “nuance” is sometimes code for compromise, and that some questions are really statements born of settled conviction, spoken in order to subvert. It’s true that malice can sometimes lurk within a professed desire to learn, and self-deceit is and ever-present danger…for all of us.

So how do we sort out sincere questions from attempted doctrinal subterfuge? With a default disposition toward patience, and in “the multitude of counselors.” Some situations may require quick action. If someone is already actively teaching falsities as opposed to discussing them for the sake of learning, a firm “cease and desist” from church leadership is appropriate, and further steps in church discipline may need to be taken. But it gets confusing, and loud, when stubborn souls on one side of the issue are confronted by stubborn souls on the other side. Insolent souls will stand out as such earlier and more clearly in a church community free of hubris and full of humility.

When the Holy Spirit calls us through Scripture to be on the watch for wolves in sheep’s clothing, he lets us know the tell-tale signs of these often subtle troublers of Christ’s flock. Even if we don’t hold office in the church, it’s imperative for the peace of God’s people that all of us, no matter our chronological age or spiritual maturity, search our souls for these foreboding signs (2 Peter 2:12ff). Chief among these signs is an autonomous spirit (see the book of Jude on this).

An autonomous spirit lives as a law unto itself. Such souls stand out all the more starkly in an atmosphere of humble, loving submission to Christ’s law (John 14:15). That autonomy is the truest mark of false teachers and false teaching. Genuine Christians, including Christian leaders, get confused in doctrine and practice. And so the crucial diagnostic question for us becomes - even in some ways before questions of what we believe - are we teachable?

Paul needed to correct both the Galatians (Galatians 1:6ff) and the Apostle Peter (Galatians 2:11ff). And Paul was in at least some sense significantly schooled by the patience and encouraging spirit of Barnabus (Acts 15:37ff; 2 Timothy 4:11). As Galatians demonstrates, and as every parent knows, sometimes heated words are necessary to keep our kids safe, depending upon the severity of the danger they’re in. But a heated temperament doesn’t indicate a heart on holy fire for the Lord; it reveals a smoldering self-righteousness which takes his name in vain when vented in alleged service to Scripture. It is that posture of heart, especially among religious rulers, which ignited the Lord’s most fiery words against false teachers (Matthew 23:13ff).

The more biblically trained and tempered teachers we all have, and the more teachable we all are, the better. The more willing we are to bear one another’s burdens, to patiently hear one another’s hearts, to speak the truth to one another in love, the more we reveal that we are truly a Spirit-led community, a people who love the risen Christ, have every confidence in his holy word, and every desire that everyone should come to know and be like him.

This is how God designed the covenant community to work. Our churches should be communities of calm, calming confidence in Christ and his word. Such communities are truly safe places for children – and adults, too – because they live by the Spirit in close keeping with the loving, protective heart of our heavenly Father.

Rut Etheridge III

Rut Etheridge III

Husband to Evelyn; father to Isaiah, Callie, Calvin, Josiah, Sylvia. Pastor and Bible Prof. Loves the risen Christ, family, writing, the ocean, martial arts, Boston sports, coffee, and more coffee.

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