As the oldest of seven kids, I’ve done my fair share of wiping dirty faces, checking for closet monsters, and speculating as to why the sky is blue. But I also grew up in a church that encouraged “child-like faith.” In that church, this phrase was often shorthand for, “We don’t have answers for this, but having questions and worrying about it shows a lack of faith.” Sometimes “this” was a problem the Church has struggled with for ages, such as the problem of suffering, but sometimes it referred to where funding would come from for the next church project. As a young adult, my belief that my faith should be unquestioning made me feel guilty when I had doubts about Christianity and God’s existence, but it wasn’t until recently that I recognized the disconnect between my experience with children and the phrase “child-like faith.” Children are no less fearful than adults, although their fears of things like closet monsters may seem irrational to older people. And anyone who has ever answered an endless string of “but why?” questions from a preschooler knows that it is difficult to satisfy a child seeking answers.
This led me to question where the concept of “child-like faith” originates in Scripture. The phrase itself doesn’t occur, but there are two places where Christ uses children as examples, and Christians often use these passages to support the idea. The first has to do with humility and commissioning rather than faith; the second requires a closer look because the Greek itself contains an ambiguity. Taken together, these passages call the believer to humility and the reception of those who appear to have nothing to offer, but they in no way support a view of faith that silences questions.
The first incident where Christ uses children as an example occurs after the disciples fight over which of them is the greatest and Christ puts a child in their midst. This is recorded in Mark 9:36-37, Matthew 18:2-5, and Luke 9:47-48. Both Mark and Luke focus on a concept that that could be called “transferred reception,” the idea that receiving person A is a way of receiving person B, who sent person A. “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48). Within this particular story, it is the reception of this child (not all children) that is equivalent to receiving Christ. The child lacks the advantages the disciples must have listed in their argument over who was greatest, but Christ called the child and the child obeyed, just as Christ obeyed the Father. To become “like children” in Matthew’s account of this episode means obedience to the call.
The second place where Christ uses children as an example occurs when parents bring their children to Christ. The disciples rebuke the parents, and Christ rebukes the disciples (Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). In both of these accounts, Christ tells his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (The Greek, like the English, is essentially the same in both gospels).
When interpreters use this passage to develop the idea of “child-like faith,” they assume that the passage means “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child [receives it] shall not enter.” The bracketed words are not included in the Greek text of the passage but seem implied by the sentence structure. Sermons or books on this passage usually discuss ways in which children are naively trusting: they don’t worry about where their next meal will come from or whether or not their parents will take care of them. But the phrase “like a child” is difficult to interpret because there are few attributes of children given in the passage, so this interpretation depends on a characterization of children that comes from outside the text and cannot be universally applied to all (or most) children. There are, unfortunately, children who do worry about where their next meal will come from or whether their parents will care for them.
But it is possible that this reading of the passage is flawed in another way, as well. The theologian Luke Timothy Johnson points out in his commentary on the gospel of Luke that it is grammatically possible to read this passage with two different set of brackets:
“whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like [he receives] a child shall not enter” or
“whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child [receives it] shall not enter.”
In English, a reader could distinguish between the two meanings based on word order, but Greek uses a set of endings to help distinguish whether a noun is the subject or object of a clause. Unfortunately, these endings are identical for the word “child” (paidion). There is no easy grammatical way to tell whether the phrase should be read as “like a child receives it” (subject) or “like he receives a child” (object). Either reading is grammatically possible, so it is necessary to look at which reading fits best with the immediate discussion Jesus is having with his disciples.
The second reading—like [he receives] a child— arguably makes more sense in light of the immediate context of Luke 18 and Mark 10. There is little in the passage on how the children receive the kingdom, except that their parents bring them. Interpretations of the passage based on the idea that we are to receive the kingdom as children receive it will be as varied as perceptions of children are, and this is hermeneutically shaky ground. On the other hand, Christ clearly tells his disciples to receive the children, so the alternative interpretation does not require the same interpretive leaps.
This interpretation is on more solid ground when it takes into account that the children in the passage do nothing except receive. They are not characterized as humble or unsophisticated or obedient or any other characteristic, moral or otherwise. The sole identifying word we glean from Luke is that they are infants (breph, Luke 18:15). On this interpretive model, passive receptivity is the most that can be argued for. But the phrase “to such” could also be translated “of such”: “for of such is the kingdom of God.” Of is an English word used to translate another Greek ending that indicates a genitive relationship. This relationship can indicate ownership, but it can also be used to identify the material that something is made of, just as in English we say “a wall of bricks” or “a flock of geese.” It is quite possible grammatically that “of such [i.e., of children]” refers to the type of people that the kingdom is made of rather than who possesses it. This is a subtle distinction, but one that Luke Timothy Johnson also points to as a possible reading of the verse.
It is possible, then, to understand the passage as Christ’s call to his disciples to active reception of those “such as these [children]” because they are what the kingdom is made of. Rejecting them is, in essence, a rejection of the kingdom itself. This interpretation is, at the very least, consistent with Matthew 10:42, where Christ discusses hospitality toward children: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”
These passages where Christ holds up children to his disciples do not support a view of faith that is unquestioning or blind. Rather, they indicate Christ’s interest in his disciples’ intelligent participation in the logic of the kingdom. This logic requires the reception of those who seem helpless—such as infants—because receiving them is an act of welcoming something that is small and insignificant but holds tremendous potential. In the same way, the kingdom of God during Christ’s ministry seems small and politically useless in its inability to change existing institutions, yet it holds tremendous potential for transforming individuals and society.
When we hold up an ideal of child-like faith, we need to consider whether our assumptions about children and faith are drawn from Scripture or Romantic ideals of children and Kierkegaard’s ideas of faith. In its best sense, the phrase “child-like faith” gets at the idea that certain relationships, such as the ideal parent-child relationship, include extraordinary benevolence and greater intelligence on one side of the relationship (i.e., the parent’s side). Thus a child may not fully understand why his parent tells him not to talk to strangers, but he has good relational reasons to believe that his parent says this for his own good. But the best parents want their children to grow into maturity and make independent decisions. If a twenty-year-old still refused to talk to anyone he didn’t know simply because his parent once said so, we would think the parent or the child had gone wrong somewhere. The gap between a human and God is infinitely greater, but elsewhere in Scripture it’s clear that God still desires emotional and intellectual maturity from His children (1 Corinthians 13:11, Hebrews 5:11-14). If we privilege naïve faith above this maturity, we abdicate part of our responsibility and privilege as children of God. As Thomas Merton says, “If He is good, and if my intelligence is His gift, then I must show my trust in His goodness by making use of my intelligence” (No Man Is An Island, 2.2).
Part of receiving children, then, means seeing the potential in their difficult questions about faith rather than making the questioner feel guilty for having doubts. It means avoiding simplistic Sunday School lessons or glossing over differences in the gospel accounts because we don’t have answers. Instead of viewing these questions as threats to orthodoxy, we should consider them provocations to consider issues of justice and good reading practices. Part of receiving the kingdom as we receive a child involves gratitude for the minds God has given us to explore these questions, but it also involves a recognition of our life in community, for these questions and doubts are gifts that can also spur others to use their God-given minds in questioning alongside us. Questions, like children and like the kingdom of God, hold greater possibilities than we can now see.