A few weeks back I offered a tribute to my dad for being a good parent to an unbelieving child (yours truly) by (1) being an agent of common grace, introducing me to “received laws” that God communicates generally to man in his image (language, logic, conduct, industry, etc.) and by (2) offering me the special grace of salvation and urging me to receive it. In his mercy God softened my heart in my late teens to receive the latter, but in the meantime, my parents were not stymied in their parenting efforts—they had plenty of common grace to pass along to their little pagan. They knew well that the world is filled with pagans of various degrees. Some pagans are morally upright, honest, industrious, law-abiding, and conservative. Others are immoral, dishonest, lazy, lawless, and licentious. And since I was at the time determined to remain a pagan, they deduced that a moral pagan was preferable to an immoral one. So they heaped common grace upon me and worked hard to make me the best possible pagan I could be.
Common grace, you see, is the sphere in which believers and unbelievers are able to successfully interact, and the sphere in which special grace is introduced. Greater levels of common grace typically lead to greater opportunities for the Gospel. And that is because greater levels of common grace tend to make the intersection of believers and unbelievers more agreeable and thus more frequent. When common grace is abundant, Christians are more easily able to earn a hearing as neighbors, teachers, lawyers, governors, etc. Further, when common grace is abundant, unbelievers themselves tend to be better neighbors, teachers, lawyer, governors, etc. As a result, we are able to have greater confidence in our pagan acquaintances, whether they be pagan gas station attendants, pagan grocers, pagan auto mechanics, pagan building contractors, or pagan governors. Most of us will even entrust our children to the care of pagan relatives, pagan doctors, pagan athletic coaches, and pagan teachers of various types. Reciprocally, when believers are on the giving end of these graces, it is easier to offer neighborliness, medical care, coaching, and other forms of instruction to children—Christian and pagan alike—without discrimination.
That is why I am a bit perplexed when I read parenting books that suggest we raise toddlers as though they were already Christians, viz., recipients of the special grace of God. In such a situation, we’re told, we must shepherd their little Christian hearts, paying attention, especially, to the avoidance of draconian rules that can never commend us to God and that tend rather to “moral paganism.” We should instead give them grace, cultivating authentic fruit in hearts grateful for God’s saving grace. One Presbyterian blogger went at length last week to assert that parenting is practically impossible if parents cannot regard their children as Christians from their infancy (by means of infant baptism), adding, “I wouldn’t actually know how to raise [my children—two of which he divulged to be just three years old] if I were not a Presbyterian.” He then expressed astonishment that Baptists could be good parents, imagining, apparently, that Baptist parents are left twiddling their thumbs nervously until Junior says the sinner’s prayer before the shepherding process can begin.
At a basic level all parents do this. Irrespective of the faith commitments of parent or child, parents everywhere manage to teach their children to walk, talk, read, add/subtract, avoid common hazards, catch a ball, sing a song, and ride a bike without ever explaining the “why” of these disciplines to their little hearts—we simply tell them what to do and they do it. Of course when kids finally mature sufficiently to sustain discussions about the philosophical/theological basis and reasons for these skills and disciplines, faith commitments do emerge (I am deeply committed to presuppositional apologetics and the transcendental approach to gospel witness if any were wondering), but we do not ordinarily think of these as Christian skills per se; rather, we think of them as human/social/civic skills. Christian parents can cultivate these skills successfully in both pagan and Christian children, and pagan parents can cultivate these skills successfully in both pagan and Christian children. And that is because the family is, first and foremost, a civil institution created for mankind generally. And so we should treat it as other civil institutions.
For instance, if I am a Christian governor ruling pagans, my goal is to produce not a Christian society, but a “peaceful and quiet” society where the opportunities for the gospel abound and are unhindered (1 Tim 2:2). If I am a Christian mechanic fixing cars that belong to pagans, my immediate goal is not to convert my customers, but to “try to please them and not to steal from them, but show them that I can be fully trusted, so that in every way I will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:9–10). If I am a Christian wife married a pagan husband, I should be “submissive,” “pure,” “reverent,” and “beautiful,” in order to “win over my husband” (1 Pet 3:1ff). And if I am a Christian parent charged with the stewardship of a pagan child, I should cultivate in that child the kinds of discipline, obedience, and honor that anticipate, as much as it lies within the apologist, a respectful hearing of the Christian gospel.
I would argue further that this approach is strongly implied in the qualification lists for NT elders. Paul does not demand that elders be fathers of Christian children, but rather fathers of children who, so long as they are part of his household, are “respectful,” “submissive,” “obedient,” “faithful” (in their deportment), and “not accused of being wild or rebellious” (so 1 Tim 3:4; Titus 1:6). In other words, the minimum requirement for an elder is that his children be moral pagans. Of course we should yearn for the realization of the greater goal of producing Christians, but that is not the requirement for the children of elders. The biblical requirement is that an elder’s children exhibit morality vis-à-vis immorality—because that is the extent of a Christian father’s purview.
Moralism is under assault in Christian parenting literature today, and I sometimes wonder whether morality is under assault too. True, the most hopeful end for our children is not that they become moral pagans. But producing moral pagans is not, as is sometimes assumed, necessary evidence of parental failure. All Christian parents should both hope and pray earnestly for God to save their children, but if God chooses not to do this (a prerogative that he alone possesses), then the goal to which Christian parents should aspire is the production of moral pagans in whose hearts are faithfully planted the seeds of the saving grace of God.