John Owen (1616–1683) on children in the church


John Owen (1616–1683), in his Works, Vol. 16, p. 22, asks this question: “Whether a church may not, ought not, to take under its conduct inspection, and rule, such as are not yet meet to be received into full communion, such as are the children and servants of those who are complete members of the church?” In other words, can a church take into its company people who have not publicly professed faith?

Owen’s answer reminds me a little of the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 74):

“No doubt the church, in its officers, may and ought so to do, and it is a great evil when it is neglected.”

Clear enough. He goes on:

“For, 1) They are to take care of parents and masters as such, and as unto the discharge of their duty in their families; which without an inspection into the condition of their children and servants, they cannot do.

2) Households were constantly reckoned unto the church when the heads of the families were entered into covenant, Luke xix; 9 Acts xvi 15; Rom xvl 10 11; 1 Cor i 16; 2 Tim iv 19.

3) Children do belong unto and have an interest in their parents covenant; not only in the promise of it, which gives them right unto baptism, but in the profession of it in the church covenant, which gives them a right unto all the privileges of the church whereof they are capable, until they voluntarily relinquish their claim unto them.

4) Baptizing the children of church members, giving them thereby an admission into the visible catholic church, puts an obligation on the officers of the church to take care, what in them lieth, that they may be kept and preserved meet members of it, by a due watch over them and instruction of them.

5) Though neither the church nor its privileges be continued and preserved, as of old, by carnal generation, yet, because of the nature of the dispensation of God’s covenant, wherein be hath promised to be a God unto believers and their seed, the advantage of the means of a gracious education in such families, and of conversion and edification in the ministry of the church, ordinarily the continuation of the church is to depend on the addition of members out of the families already incorporated in it.  The church is not to be like the kingdom of the Marmalukes, wherein there was no regard unto natural successors, but it was continually made up of strangers and foreigners incorporated into it; nor like the beginning of the Roman commonwealth, which, consisting of men only, was like to have been the matter of one age alone.”

Very well said. By the way, though there’s much more to it, broadly speaking a Marmaluke was a boy/man around the 10-14th centuries who would be randomly chosen or bought to be a soldier for Islam. Owen’s point is that the Marmaluke decision on who would be a soldier had nothing to do with families or blood-lines, and the Roman principle was to wait until a person reached a certain age to become a citizen. The same things do not follow for incorporation into the visible church.

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