Teaching Bible doctrine to young children
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Children ask the best questions. If God is everywhere, is he also in the loo? Does God the Father have a body? Why did God make the tree in the garden of Eden if he knew Adam and Eve would eat from it? How do we know what Jesus is doing in heaven when we can’t see him? Why didn’t God send Jesus to die straight after the Fall? Does God love non-Christians? If God can do anything, can he lie? These questions, all asked by children, are thorny theological questions which require us to be on our toes with our Bible doctrine knowledge.
So how should we teach the Bible to young children at home and in church? Is it enough to teach Bible stories? Church history shows us that previous generations thought catechisms were an important tool in teaching children doctrine. Catechisms can be traced back to the early church and grew in popularity in the Reformation, especially in the question and answer form. The Church of England produced a catechism for children in the BCP, and in 1559, Canon Law demanded that ministers gave weekly catechism classes to all children in the parish (and threatened excommunication if they didn’t do this job properly!). The BCP catechism revolves around the baptism promises, the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. Many authors produced commentaries on the catechism, or their own versions of catechisms and looking at these texts can help us to see the importance of teaching doctrine to children.
1. It’s the parents’ job
Thomas Becon was a chaplain to Thomas Cranmer and he wrote to parents that we have been given the gift of children so that we can bring them up “in the doctrine and knowledge of his holy word”. He goes on to say that animals give their young food and shelter, and if this is all we give our children we are no better than a beast! As parents we should be concerned less for our children’s worldly studies than their growth in the knowledge of God. We are willing to make time for swimming lessons and homework; can we also make sure we set aside time and prayer to teach doctrine to our children?
2. The aim of bringing a child to maturity
Becon dedicated his catechism to his young children, saying that his aim was to bring them mature and perfect in Christ, and through Christ to obtain eternal life. We want children to grow from a simple profession of faith to a mature understanding of the things they believe. And in due time we want them to come to confirmation (or adult baptism) with a good understanding of the Christian faith. William Beveridge (in 1720) wrote that when the child says “I believe in God the Father ...” in the catechism, s/he is saying “I heartily assent and consent, being fully persuaded of it upon the testimony of God Himself”. Our aim as parents and church youth leaders is to bring children to maturity in understanding.
3. The rich treasure of theology
Thomas Becon asks his children “How may I enrich you ... with such riches, goods, treasure and possessions, as neither fire can burn nor water overwhelm?” His answer is “the goods and riches of the mind ... doctrine, learning, knowledge, the right understanding of the holy scriptures ...” This will make you “richer than King Croesus, even in the midst of your poverty.” Teaching children doctrine is an investment for their future, more than a bank account or a bottle of fine wine in the cellar!
4. A summary of what you need to know for salvation
William Beveridge writes that the BCP catechism “contains all things necessary to salvation”. He also reminds us that I must believe that Jesus Christ is fully God “otherwise I cannot believe in Him as my Saviour”. If we want our children to grow up in trusting Jesus for salvation, it is important that they get to know the articles of the faith. We will need to purposefully teach the basics to them as well as answering doctrine questions as they arise.
Teaching doctrine to our children is a great and worthy task. You don’t have to use a question and answer catechism (though if you do, there are many good ones, for example the New City Catechism which has a version especially for children, including songs). It’s important to teach in a way that suits the age and personality of your children. Teaching doctrine shouldn’t become a boring chore, for you or your children – Bishop Nicholson in 1686 suggested we should even encourage children with sweets or cakes! I think he would heartily approve of a youth group “Doctrine and Donuts” session. You could read a catechism yourself and think about how you could incorporate that doctrinal teaching into your current pattern of teaching your children. You could read a book like Everything a Child Should Know about God at bedtimes. Perhaps you could go through a sentence of the creed one day a week? Or you could think about a truth you want to communicate (e.g., God is the Creator of everyone and everything), and look for opportunities in conversation during the week to talk about and reinforce that doctrine (while walking and looking at nature, while building Lego, while discussing racism, while at an art gallery).
Remember that God has given you a job, remember the aim of maturity, and be encouraged by the rich treasure you can impart to your children.