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"Children don’t understand the Faith they are baptized into"
Once again, the assumption behind this statement needs to be challenged because it is not one which existed in the early Church or in the centuries which followed. The assumption here is that faith is a product of reason. To truly believe, our minds must be capable and of age to understand why we believe, and even if we can’t fathom the depths of our baptism, we must at least be able to provide intellectual consent. For the adult convert to the Orthodox Church, this must be the case. Baptism is not magic; it is a voluntary act of submission to God, a consent to live in relationship with God within the covenant He has established through His Son with a larger body of baptized believers, the Church. In this sense, ‘believers’ baptism’ is a teaching of the Orthodox Church regarding adults. But when these baptized adults have children, the underlying assumptions of some evangelical Protestants are laid bare and seriously challenged. To state it plainly, a ‘me, my Reason, my Bible and my God only’ kind of faith which pushes believers-only baptism (ie. no kids allowed until they can accept the four spiritual laws) falls flat. This kind of faith falls flat because, first of all, it is so highly individualized. Never in biblical history has faith ever been so exclusive, so self-centered. Tertullian said famously that “one Christian is no Christian”. Our faith certainly must be personal. We must have a personal relationship with God. But it must not also be limited to that personal relationship. Our relationship with God is valid only if it is also realized in communion with the whole Church.
At the beginning I spoke about the church as family, and I want to return to that image. Children, as I said, belong to that family as individuals, but they cannot be said to belong to the family if they consider themselves outside the family’s fate. They are family members only in so much as they live as part of the family, accepting all the responsibilities and patience and self-sacrifice that such family status demands. But it is interesting that I do not have to explain this to my children. They understand from birth that they belong to a larger group, and belong in the most intimate way. They know who their father and mother are, they know too where to go for help and for security. The concept of ‘family’ is beyond them, but the reality of family life is not. In other words, children have a sense of belonging a dozen years or more before they understand what this belonging means.
As I have said, the earthly family is only an image of the heavenly family, the family of the Kingdom of God. Children born to a Christian family are born again into the heavenly family through baptism, the fulfilled birth, for which maternal birth is only an image. This means that a child baptized in the Orthodox Church belongs to a church family, which bridges both heaven and earth, which stretches both backward and forward in time, which comprises both saints and angels, and they belong to this family exactly in the manner that each of my children belong to my family. Children know very well that they belong in a vital way to this church family, and they know that the altar table is their table, that they can turn to the church for anointing when they are sick, for guidance when they are confused, for protection when they are frightened. All of this is known to them before they have some kind of cerebral understanding of that belonging.
Our modern world has exulted reason and cerebralism so high that young children are treated (not explicitly, but certainly implicitly) as not fully human, or, at least, less seriously as adults because they can’t think like we do. The truth is that a child is a full human being, by which I mean that a child of any age is capable, as I have said, of expressing and participating in the glory of God. This is so because Christ Himself sanctified every age as God bearing, since he was the perfect Word of God as an infant as much as when He was a grown man. We must remember that a child is not a second-class person and that their baptism is as significant to them and to God as an adult baptism, and that even if they do not cognitively understand what that baptism means, they are certainly capable of intuitively understanding it. We may argue that a cognitive consent should come first, but God created the family, and this is the way He created it.