Previous | Next

October 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 4 · pp. 24–36 

The Conversion of Children

George G. Konrad

The subject of child conversion has received increasing attention over the years. Virtually all Christian denominations, including the mainline churches, 1 have struggled with this issue. The problem, however, is not unique to the twentieth century. It is the concern of all second generation believers.

Even a cursory survey of extant literature demonstrates that our theology of sin, salvation, and church membership is largely developed with the adult in mind. 2 Fifteen years ago Delbert Wiens lamented,

Because we have a technology of conversion appropriate to adults but no adequate theology of Christian nurture, we know what to do with pagans but not what to do with our own children. 3

The problems seem to arise from various sources. One is the lack of clear theological answers largely due to the paucity of biblical teaching on the topic. Second is the well-meaning concern of parents, often heightened by child evangelists, about the spiritual destiny of their children. And finally, we have to deal with the spiritual experiences, both positive and negative, of children.

This paper, although working within extreme limitations, will deal with three general topics: “What is the biblical teaching concerning the child?”; “What does our theology of sin and salvation say to the question of child conversion?”; and “How does our knowledge of the child inform us in this matter?”


The Old Testament

Children were considered part of the community of faith by virtue of birth without any personal decision. 4 Passages relating to circumcision (Gen. 17:9ff.; 34:14-16) and to the dedication of the first-born {25} son at infancy (Exod. 22:29b-30; 34:19-20) illustrate this point. This relationship of the child to the community can be explained on the basis of two concepts: covenant and corporate solidarity.

The covenant made the assertion that the Lord will be their God and Israel will be his people (cf. Exod. 6:7; Hos. 2:23). “All of life was embraced by the covenant. . . . Thus, a child born into a covenant family was part of the whole of the covenant community. 5 The principle of corporate solidarity emphasizes the point that the whole family is summed up in its head, the father. The child became a member of the community through identification with the father. 6

The Old Testament clearly teaches the sinful nature of humanity and moral accountability to God. Although a difference in the moral responsibility of the child from that of the adult is indicated (cf. Nu. 6:26-31), “The Old Testament assumes no change in the relationship of the child to the worshipping community before and after such a time of individual responsibility.” 7

The implications of these teachings for the New Testament church are significant. 8 They cannot, however, be applied directly to us, since they must be viewed through the grid of a theology of the church. The problems facing us today were dealt with from a significantly different perspective in the Old Testament economy. The covenant view of the People of God and the principle of corporate solidarity provided continuity and support for growing children in their induction into the community of faith.

The New Testament

The New Testament teaching concerning the spiritual condition of children and their relationship to the church is even less definitive than that of the Old Testament. 9 Even the references to the personal history of Timothy tell us little more than that biblical instruction during the formative years is of significance in making a later decision to follow Christ (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15). In spite of the faithful teaching and consistent example of his mother and grandmother, Timothy was converted (no age indicated) under the influence of Paul (cf. 1 Tim. 1:2) and not as a child in the home.

The Gospels contain three distinct occasions where Jesus dealt with children. In each of these, children were used as object lessons for the faith of adults without dealing directly with the spiritual needs of the children. Since these passages are, however, sometimes used as biblical rationale for the evangelism of children, they will be dealt with briefly. {26}

The first of these references has to do with Jesus’ blessing of the children (Mark 10:13-16; Matt. 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17). This incident arose out of the request by some mothers that Jesus touch their children or, in keeping with common practice, bestow a blessing upon them. This request was based on the belief that one’s relationship to God could be used to bring benefit to the life of another. Jesus used the occasion, not only to meet the request, but to teach the disciples that the Kingdom of God is made up “of such,” that is, of persons who come to it in a condition of weakness and helplessness. This passage shows Jesus’ concern for the weak and the helpless but in no sense is it a call for child evangelism.

The second experience with children occurs in Jesus’ lesson on true greatness (Matt. 18:1-5; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48). This time the child was used to teach a lesson on true humility. The disciples were concerned about rank and status; the child was not. In order to enter the Kingdom the disciples would need to be converted, that is, to turn their backs on human standards of status and accept Jesus’ ideal that “the great one in his kingdom is the one who recognizes his own helplessness and dependence, even his worthlessness.” 10

The final incident deals with the value of the life of a “little one” (Mark 9:42; Luke 17:1-2; Matt. 18:6-14). The Markan account is tied to Jesus’ rebuke of John for having interfered with the person casting out demons in Jesus’ name (9:38). The crucial term is “little ones who believe.” If these passages refer to little children then it seems that they could be “lost” and hence are in need of salvation. It is not clear whether Jesus is referring to small children or to immature believers. On the basis of the clear intent of the other passages where children are used, the evidence supports the interpretation that here, as in the other passages, Jesus is referring to those who are spiritually immature and, therefore, easily led astray or caused to stumble (like the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name but not following him with the disciples, [cf. Mark 9:38]). Where one uses the opposite interpretation to build a case for the evangelization of children, one should “realize that the weight of the evidence in the rest of the New Testament is against this application.” 11

The Book of Acts poses two issues. The first is Peter’s words on the day of Pentecost, “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, . . .” (Acts 2:39). This is not a particular reference to the literal children of the parents who are present, but rather a statement to indicate that God’s purpose is to bring salvation to all persons in Jesus Christ, including all the coming generations of the Jews (cf. 1:8; 10:35; 13:47; 26:19-20). {27}

The second issue is the record of household baptisms, that is, baptisms including whole families. There are six such cases: (1) The nobleman (John 4:53); (2) Cornelius (Acts 10:2; 11:13-14); (3) Lydia (Acts 16:15); (4) The Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31); (5) Crispus (Acts 18:8); and (6) Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15). Studies have shown that this expression in the Old Testament as well as in Greek literature referred to all members of the household, including children. These passages are frequently used as evidence in favor of infant baptism on the one hand and the possibility and need of child conversion on the other. No conclusive evidence is available. Since no specific information concerning the number or age of children present is given, any arguments, at best, are based on assumption which cannot be verified. In one case, that of Cornelius, we have some additional information. He “called together his kinsmen and near friends” (Acts 10:24) and “the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word” (10:44). Here the focus seems to be on adults since no further reference is made to children. Other passages concerning children are not germane to our topic.

William Coble concludes his study of the New Testament passages by saying that

. . . in the problems which are encountered when dealing with the relation of children to the church we will never find the needed guidance by studying the New Testament with the purely historical view or the backward look. 12

Although this writer agrees with that general assessment, some conclusions can be made:

1. Jesus loved the weak and the helpless, including the child.

2. The unassuming humility and obvious helplessness of children are necessary qualities for persons to enter into the Kingdom.

3. Children were present in the worship services of the early church and parents had the responsibility of Christian nurture.

4. Believing parents have a positive influence on their children.


The Question of Sin

Although the early Christians included children in their gatherings, they did not baptize infants nor young children. 13 However, by the middle of the third century, infant baptism was practiced in North Africa. This was based on the idea that baptism washes away sins. “Baptism came to be viewed as essential to salvation, . . . 14 By the third century, {28} also, the doctrine of original sin made it necessary to baptize infants. Augustine formalized the rationale for infant baptism based on original sin. His view is summarized as follows:

Created morally good, Adam sinned and his nature became corrupt. All of his posterity share his corrupt nature, for all members of the human race were seminally present when Adam sinned. All are guilty and are justly punished with death. Original sin is a condition deriving from Adam, inherited by all of his descendants, and punished by death. 15

This doctrine forms the theological base for the practice of infant baptism to this day. Confirmation came later, either as a rite for the completion of baptism or as an opportunity for a personal affirmation of religious commitment. Anabaptists have consistently repudiated this practice and its theological base:

Christ did not institute it; children can neither understand gospel-preaching nor make a decision of faith; infant baptism confuses the church with the world; and, as held by some but not all, Adam’s descendants are born without the guilt of original sin and therefore do not need baptism at birth. 16

The earlier Mennonite Brethren Statement of Faith on this point is brief and almost cryptic:

. . . all are sinful by nature, guilty before God and in need of forgiveness through Christ. Children, however, stand in a special relation to God’s redemptive provision and purpose. 17

The sinful nature of humans is clearly taught in Scripture. Anabaptists acknowledge this but espouse a position of safety for the child based on the premise that one is not responsible for the inherited sinful nature but only for volitional sinful acts. J.A. Toews says that “man is not held responsible for hereditary sin, but for personal sin (cf. Ezek. 18:20).” 18 William Klassen summarizes the Anabaptist view of the position of the child as follows:

it is clear that every voice we hear from Anabaptism agrees in saying that the newborn child is innocent, and whatever sins the child may commit prior to the age of discretion, prior to this choice about whether or not to serve under the Lordship of Christ, is covered by the atonement of Christ. 19

The conclusion is that the sin that condemns is not the sin of being born {29} but the personal, volitional act of sin. 20 The child is “sate” on the basis of Christ’s atonement until he has reached the age where he is capable of a volitional rejection or acceptance of Christ. “Hence we believe that if a child die before they (sic) reach the age of accountability, they (sic) are not lost but saved. Christ’s redemption extends as far as Adam’s sin.” 21

The theological answer to the question, “When do children become accountable?” is when they have attained the maturity to understand themselves, the intelligence to understand the message of salvation and the freedom to make a voluntary choice. William Hendricks puts it this way:

Since the clearest revelation of God is Christ, man is fully responsible when confronted by Christ. Since responsibility is obtained in using the ability to respond, the actions of a man facing Christ and deliberately relating to him or refusing to relate to him brings the full status of responsibility. 22

Accountability comes at the moment when the Spirit brings one to the point of decision for or against Christ. William Coble speaks about the implications of this responsibility. 23 The first is that sin as described in the New Testament represents acts which are essentially adult in nature. Second, since sin is at the core of human nature it requires a new “heart,” a change at the center of one’s being. This means that only those who can exercise the freedom of choosing for themselves can make this type of a decision. Third, repentance can only be a genuine experience for those who have the maturity to recognize that an attitude, a thought, or an act is totally destructive to their own being.

The Question of Repentance

Repentance, a “turning,” a change of one’s attitude about oneself and about the person and work of Christ, is at the center of conversion.

In repentance, it is important that the individual does not only repent for what he has said and done, but also for what he is. Man is a sinner, not only in act and disposition, but also in need of transformation at the core of his being. Repentance at the center of being will lead to newness of life (Acts 11:18). 24

Consistently the call for conversion and the description of the nature of conversion assumes a responsible individual. {30}

The Question of Faith

A similar conclusion must be reached when speaking of the “faith that brings salvation.” Menno Simons said that

little ones must wait according to God’s Word until they can understand the holy Gospel of grace and sincerely confess it; and then, and then only, is it time, no matter how young or how old, for them to receive Christian baptism. 25

The faith that brings salvation is more than saying, “I love Jesus.” It is more than simple belief, that is, “the mental acceptance of the truth of the sets of descriptions.” 26 The distinction between the faith of children and that of adults is identified by John Westerhoff III:

Conversion is best understood, then, as a radical turning from “faith given” (through nurture) to “faith owned” (through conversion). . . . Conversion is the result of the witness of the faithful and implies a turning from one style of faith, typical of children and adolescents, to another style of faith, possible for adults. 27

The Question of Baptism and Church Membership

In the reaction to infant baptism, the Anabaptists stressed adult baptism. 28 Baptism and church membership anticipate that the converts will be aware of their place in the mission of the church as well as participate in the fellowship of love and upbuilding. 29 Such baptism, by definition, is adult baptism.

It was, our ancestors insisted, the sign of a fully self-conscious mature decision to join a group of people who had covenanted together to be the Church of Christ and to live together in ways appropriate to that calling. 30

The general conclusion to be reached in this section is that our theological definitions of sin, repentance, faith, and baptism imply a level of maturity and personal responsibility which is not attained in childhood. Until the age of accountability children are “safe” on the basis of the atonement of Christ. The insistence upon child conversion is inconsistent with these definitions. Kenneth Chafin points out our inconsistencies:

At a time when he is too young to choose his clothes for himself, at a time when he is too young to choose a life’s vocation, at a time when he is too young to serve on a church {31} committee, at a time when he is really too young to vote intelligently on business matters in the church, at a time when he is not considered legally responsible by any agency in the community, there has been a tendency to feel that he is sufficiently responsible to make a life-binding, permanent-type decision concerning his relationship to Christ and his church. If we are unwilling to feel that the child is capable of making lesser decisions, how can we justify our confidence in the efficacy of this greater decision at this age? 31


The term “childhood” as used in this paper refers to pre-puberty, generally through age 11; early adolescence, years 12 and 13; middle adolescence, ages 14 to 16; and later adolescence, beginning with age 17. However, the question of individual differences is of significance here. This means that persons must be dealt with as individuals rather than as members of an age group. 32

The setting of an arbitrary age or date fails to take into consideration the great variety of maturity, interests, knowledge, and understanding even within a single age group. 33

Another important factor is that of socialization. This refers to the process whereby the newborn child assumes the skills, behavior patterns, and values of the society into which it was born. 34 Socialization is operative and especially effective within the family unit because of the child’s physical and psychological dependence upon significant others. The need for self-preservation leads the child to seek the approval of its parents. In this way a child also learns religious behavior, first by mere imitation and then later by internalization. Socialization principles teach us that these adaptations are the essential response of dependency, not mature or free decision. Edward Hayes, a well-known Christian educator, summarizes the realities and dangers involved in these processes as follows:

Often a child responds to a gospel appeal out of a deep desire to gain approval. It is part of the identity struggle within each of us to desire the approval of a parent or teacher. Winning the child, according to this set of psychological principles, may be little more than instilling into the child the mysterious codes and mores of our society. Thus, willingly obedient, a child may gain his rightful place in the family or other adult institutions. 35 {32}

Three facets of the growth of the child are closely related to developing personhood and, hence, to the question of accountability. The first of these is independence. In the early childhood years, parents, Sunday school teachers, and other adults are the source of authority. Children accept what they are told because adults are their only source of truth. In early adolescence this authority is transferred to their peers. Only in middle adolescence do they begin to think independently. At this time they become capable of truly independent personal decisions. 36 Findley Edge outlines this change:

But there comes a time in the developing experience of the individual when the authority of others is not sufficient. Religion to be experiential must be self-chosen. There must come a time in the child’s life when in a spirit of deep conviction he says (in effect), “Previously I have accepted God and Christ because of what others have told me, but now, with the insights into life I have, and with my understanding of God, I, voluntarily and willingly, accept Jesus as the Savior and Master of my life, and I surrender my life to Him. 37

A second factor in the move toward maturity is the developing selfhood. Self-understanding and self-identity have been consistently related to the experience of puberty. The commitment of oneself, as in conversion, is dependent on self-knowledge. As Delbert Wiens pointed out,

the adult knows what he is surrendering. His self is formed. This is not true for the child. He is not yet fully accountable for himself. Indeed, he is not yet “himself.” 38

There is a consensus of psychological opinion that this self-understanding, knowing who I am in terms of my past experience, in terms of my sexuality, and in terms of my growing abilities, comes early in adolescence. 39

Another facet of development has to do with the power of abstract thinking. This refers to the ability of the person to generalize, to deal with principles, to move from the concrete to the abstract. This is the difference between confessing to acts of sin (I have lied, I have stolen) and recognizing that I am a sinner. The final stage of intellectual development, referred to as the “formal operational period,” is characterized by the development of reasoning, abstract thought, and generalization and comes in early adolescence. 40

Another finding related to developmental processes is that the stages of intellectual growth are discontinuous. They differ in kind, not {33} only in degree. Although there are intermediate stages, the changes are somewhat radical and can be readily determined. Abstract and integrative thinking is necessary for a responsible decision for Christ. Only this perspective allows persons to recognize themselves as sinners, to see Jesus as the Savior of all and to give themselves in a responsible commitment to a life of faith and discipleship.

This brief survey of some insights from the social sciences does not allow us to specify an age of accountability. However, one can draw the cautious conclusion that the closer one comes to puberty and adolescence, the greater probability there is of religious responsibility.


On the basis of the biblical, theological, and social science summaries that have been made, a few tentative conclusions will be ventured.

1. We may not invalidate the religious experience of the child. The spiritual growth and development of the child in the Christian home is firmly rooted in the processes of socialization. Children do learn to love Jesus, they do seek to live in ways that are pleasing to God, they can experience the sense of forgiveness that comes through an awareness of the love of God. Parents must use their responsible position to rear children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” These experiences set the stage for later, responsible decisions.

Thus the experience of the child can have permanent validity, even though at the time the implications of that experience were veiled. A decision at one point, though not for a radical turn, can set the stage for the further decisions. 41

2. The spiritual experiences of childhood should not be equated or confused with responsible decisions for Christ. We dare not superimpose adult definitions of Christian experiences upon the child. As Wiebe has stated:

As I see it this represents a child’s commitment to Christ—one God will not reject. Some time in the future, however, that child must yet make an adult commitment regarding his faith. 42

The difference in the later decisions is not only their greater comprehensiveness in terms of broadened experience, but a difference in kind based on changes in thought processes, social relationships, and self-perceptions. {34}

3. We must provide the “believing” child, especially in the pre-puberty and early adolescent years, with in-depth instruction concerning the meaning of faith and Christian discipleship. Here the family and the church should work together. 43

4. We ought to provide specific opportunities and encouragement for early adolescents to make a commitment of their life to Christ and to the mission and fellowship of the church. At this time they would be baptized and become members of the church, based on their personal decision.

5. Since the spiritual decisions of childhood are genuine and valid (although not responsible) and since they are a desired and necessary part of the natural growth processes with the Christian family, consideration might be given to an appropriate recognition of these experiences. Proctor suggests the following:

During the elementary grades (approximately ages 6-11) a child should be “encouraged” to feel free to make his initial, spontaneous profession of faith in Christ” in a service of public worship. This profession should be given proper recognition. 44

Such consideration is based on the continuity of the growing faith experience of the child in the Old Testament covenant. It would provide the child with a sense of belonging on the basis of identification with the community. The implications of such action will need to be explored further.

This study indicates that the biblical materials concerning the child do not provide adequate guidance in meeting the spiritual needs of the child in the church today. However, our theology of sin, repentance, and faith implies that a level of maturity not reached in childhood is required for conversion. Social science findings point to early adolescence as the time when such maturity is reached. To remain consistent with our theological convictions and our knowledge of the developing child, we conclude that responsible conversion of children will not take place before then. The spiritual experiences of children are considered genuine and valid and should be encouraged. These will then form the basis of later, responsible decisions. {35}


  1. See Religious Education (September-October 1963): 411-442 and Religious Education (July-August 1965): 290-302.
  2. Cf. John A. Toews, “The Theology of Conversion,” Conversion: Doorway to Discipleship, ed. Henry J. Schmidt (Hillsboro, Kansas: The Board of Christian Literature of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1980), pp. 30-40.
  3. Delbert Wiens, “New Wineskins for Old Wine” (Hillsboro, Kansas: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1965), p. 7. Cf. also Clifford Ingle, Children and Conversion (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), p. 13.
  4. Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr., “The Child Within the Old Testament Community,” Children and Conversion, ed. Clifford Ingle (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), p. 23. Note: This section is based largely on the study by Honeycutt, pp. 20-35.
  5. Ibid., pp. 23, 24.
  6. Cf. Joshua 7:24-26. The sin of Achan as well as the subsequent punishment was shared by the family group.
  7. Honeycutt, p. 27.
  8. Ibid., p. 35.
  9. This section is largely based on the study by William B. Coble, “New Testament Passages About Children,” in Ingle, pp. 36-54.
  10. Coble, p. 45.
  11. Ibid., p. 47.
  12. Ibid., p. 54.
  13. For the historical development and practices of different confessions cf. Hugh Wamble, “Historic Practices Regarding Children,” in Ingle, pp. 71-83, and Gideon G. Yoder, The Nurture and Evangelism of Children (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1959), chapters I and II.
  14. Wamble, p. 73.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., p. 80.
  17. Cf. Karen Neufeld, “When Is a Child Saved . . . ?” Christian Leader, 14 October 1975, p. 7.
  18. John A. Toews, “Child Conversion,” Christian Leader, 15 July 1955, p. 4.
  19. William Klassen, “The Child in Anabaptist Theology,” Unpublished Manuscript. No date, p. 3.
  20. Cf. Coble, pp. 57-58 and Kenneth L. Chafin, “Evangelism and the Child,” Review and Expositor 60 (Spring 1963): 165.
  21. Toews, p. 4.
  22. William Hendricks, “The Age of Accountability,” in Ingle, pp. 85, 86. Cf. also Eugene Chamberlain, When Can a Child Believe? (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1963), p. 33.
  23. William B. Coble, “Problems Related to New Testament Teachings,” in Ingle, p. 61. {36}
  24. Toews, “The Theology,” p. 34.
  25. John C. Wenger, ed. and transl. Leonard Verduin, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956), p. 241.
  26. Wiens, p. 5.
  27. John Westerhoff III, “A Necessary Paradox: Catechesis and Evangelism, Nurture and Conversion,” Religious Education 73 (July-August 1978): 414. Cf. also Proctor, p. 61, and Hendricks, p. 91.
  28. Toews, “Child Conversion,” p. 4.
  29. Coble, “Problems,” p. 64.
  30. Wiens, p. 7.
  31. Chafin, p. 166.
  32. Proctor, p. 61.
  33. Chafin, p. 164.
  34. Cf. Charles P. Loomis, Social Systems (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1960), p. 34.
  35. Edward L. Hayes, “Evangelism of Children,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (July-September 1975): 257.
  36. Proctor, p. 62.
  37. Findley B. Edge, “Christian Nurture and Conversion,” Review and Expositor 53 (April 1956): 197, 198.
  38. Wiens, p. 5.
  39. Cf. Charles W. Stewart, “Confirmation and the Identity Crisis,” Religious Education 60 (July-August 1965): 291, and Proctor, p. 62.
  40. John Unger, “Can a Child Be Converted?” in Schmidt, p. 64.
  41. John Regehr, “Conversion as Human Experience,” in Schmidt, p. 57.
  42. Katie Funk Wiebe, “Some Modern Anabaptists,” Christian Leader, 30 March 1965, p. 21. Cf. also Jacob A. and Anne Loewen, “Can Child Conversion Last?” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 17 October 1969, pp. 2-6, for an outline of conditions that need to prevail in the home.
  43. Loewen, p. 5.
  44. Proctor, p. 63.
George Konrad is Professor of Christian Education at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California.

Previous | Next