Letting Johnny Decide for Himself

Picture the scene in the living room of a home. Two people are there. One is the mother of a thirteen year old boy. The other is the minister of the church this family attends.

“Johnny’s been absent from catechism quite often this season,” says the minister. “I’m asking your cooperation to see to it that he is more faithful in both attendance and studying the lessons. This is most important and necessary for Johnny’s spiritual development and well-being.”

But the mother replies: “Well, my husband and I feel that religion is something that Johnny ought to decide just by himself, free from any outside prejudice or pressure. We think it’s not good for Johnny or right for us to influence him one way or another. You can’t push your children into the Christian faith!”

The conversation above describes one of Christianity’s perennial problems. However, with certain variations, I believe we can also encounter the same spirit behind some of the “open-ended” methods of teaching used with Junior and Senior highs also in the church and school. A partner to this “openendedness” is an emphasis on problem-centered teaching in favor of direct instruction in objective, propositional truth in matters of faith and practice. Many consider the latter “indoctrination” and n mortal sin in education.

As a pastor who teaches catechism in the chl1l’ch, and who is also a father of teen-age children, I feel there are some real dangers connected with this spirit of “open-endedness.” Those who want just to let Johnny decide (or discover?) for himself seem 10 think that somehow, in the process, and with a little help here and there, Johnny will also find out what’s right and wrong relative to the Christian faith and life. We ought to be aware of these dangers, and the risks involved here.

Whenever I encounter the attitude and spirit described above in the mother’s conversation, I want to ask those who manifest it questions like these:

Question 1:

Isn’t this somewhat inconsistent? There are many lesser things in Johnny’s life that we don’t allow him to decide for himself. For example, would Johnny go to school if we allowed him to do as he pleased? Would he gel the proper rest and foods to maintain his health? Or think about morals: would you have nothing to say if Johnny decided that there was nothing wrong in stealing cigarettes and candy from the local drug store?

Think about the other forms of education that affect Johnny: such as TV, radio, books and magazines, and the people he has contact with every day. Don’t we try to influence and direct him toward what we know to be good and wholesome? Shouldn’t we do the same in such all-important matters as his decisions relative to the Christian faith and life?

Question 2:

Isn’t this giving Johnny’s enemies a needless and dangerous advantage? We might even go further and say such a spirit places you on. the side of Johnny’s enemies. If anyone asked whether you wished your son to be an atheist, a Moslem, or a Christian, there would be little doubt about your answer. Likewise, if anyone inquired whether you would rather have him grow up in a Marxist world or a Christian environment, you would not hesitate in your reply.

To put it bluntly, the forces you disapprove of are fighting for both Johnny’s life and Johnny’s world. Are yon then going 10 do nothing to block them? The manufacturers of narcotics, alcoholic beverages, pornographic magazines, and dirty movies do not share your reticence about influencing Johnny, nor your desire for his world. Neither do the adherents of other world religions, or the men in the Kremlin. They want Johnny badly, and they are willing to struggle for the allegiance of his mind and heart, his soul and body. In fact, not a day passes without the rivals of Christianity doing their utmost to gain the loyalty of your Johnny and my Debbie.

Has it ever occurred to you that by refusing to give Johnny positive and forthright instructions in the Christian faith and life you arc playing right into the hands of Satan, who wants to capture the life of your covenant son for hell and damnation? Has it ever occurred to you that by withholding such direct Christian instruction and influence from Johnny you are actually weakening Johnny himself and also the world in which he will live?

Question 3:

Haven’t you forgotten that there is no way of really being “open-ended” or neutral about spiritual matters? When you refuse to either influence or instruct Johnny in these things you lire not being neutral. Rather, your refusal is more eloquent on the subject than anything you might say, either pro or con. By your silence you are saying: “Whether you get enough sleep every night, whether you eat the right food, whether your personal appearance is neat and clean, whether you go to school—I shall do all in my power to see that you don’t make any mistakes about these things. But religion is not so important. You can decide that just by yourself.”

Refusing to be consistently and continuously direct with Johnny about the Christian faith and life is really negative indoctrination. It is a silent but effective way of indicating you do not consider these things to be really all that essential to his well-being.

Question 4:

Haven’t you also accepted the misconception that religion is merely a matter of personal preference? Doesn’t the attitude of the mother described above imply that a man’s religion is his own business, and that the faith he chooses is no one else’s concern hut his own?

Herein lies a grievous error, surely. If you don’t want Johnny to believe wrong things about sleep, the need for schooling, or the edibility of arsenic—can you then be content that he may believe wrong things about God or be confused about Christ? In this connection, we ought to remember that the Christian faith deals with objective truths revealed in Scripture about God, the universe, man and his reason for existence. It makes pronouncements about a reality which is as it is in spite of what you, I, or Johnny may think about it. Is it not therefore desperately important that Johnny’s faith and life be based on Scriptural truth and not on humanly-conceived illusions?

Furthermore, a man’s faith always affects others besides himself. No man is an island. Neither will Johnny be. Some say it really doesn’t matter what you believe: it’s what you do that counts. Yet it is precisely what a man believes that makes him do what he does. If, therefore, what a man does is important, surely what he believes is even more important! A single false belief can beget a thousand bad actions.

Question 5:

Again, haven’t you also fallen for the erroneous idea that, if you stand in the background and just let Johnny decide for himself, he will naturally and ultimately walk straight into Christian conviction, character, and conduct? Isn’t this assumption incredibly naive?

Take the two commandments which our Lord called the greatest—loving God above all with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourself. Let’s be realistic and honest about this. Ask yourself whether !1011 can obey them by “doing what comes naturally.” Consider also some of the requirements of the life of Christian discipleship as described by our Lord—taking up one’s cross, self-denial, loving our enemies, turning the other check, doing good to those who hurt us. Can you remember how many times you yourself have fallen short in these things? Ask yourself then how much likelihood there is that Johnny will decide to do these things for himself without direct, positive instruction from you by word as well as example. A wordless example in this connection is about as enlightening as a TV picture without the sound turned up. Being a Christian is the highest way of life anyone can live. Therefore it is also the most difficult. If Johnny needs your instruction and encouragement to be a gentleman or a sensible human being, is it unreasonable to assume that he needs it even more to learn Christian faith and discipleship?

Question 6:

Finally, are you certain that you’re not looking for an easy (or lazy) way out of fulfilling an ofttimes difficult parental-teaching responsibility? Perhaps it is hard for you to talk about spiritual matters. Because it is always so personal you tend to feel uncomfortable and even embarrassed in discussing these things with members of your own family. You may think your children will consider you self-righteous and affected. Or, you don’t want to run the risk of getting a negative response.

Because we want to avoid this, we look for an excuse for our neglect. “It isn’t that I don’t want to talk to Johnny about spiritual matters,” you say to yourself. “It’s only that I feel I shouldn’t. It’s my duty to just let him decide for himself!” But doesn’t this really amount to dodging a real, God-given responsibility by inventing a false one?

It’s not easy to be a parent, teacher, or pastor today when it comes to instructing our sons and daughters in the Christian faith and life. But it is our God-given. responsibility and task to do so. God has so ordered human life from the very beginning that the adults must diligently, carefully, and forthrightly teach the younger generation the things He has revealed in Scripture (cf. Deut. 6: 6, 7; Provo 22:6).

I shall not forget the sage advice given me privately by one of my professors (now gone to be with the Lord) during my Seminary days. It was given in connection with teaching catechism. “You must always keep in mind two things about your catechumens,” he said. “As you teach them, remember that on the one hand they are God’s children. And on the other hand, remember that they have depraved natures that need conversion too.”

I think all of us who have anything to do with teaching, instructing, or raising covenant children at any age should keep these two things in mind. We are not engaged in a game in which we are allowed by God the liberty to experiment with the lives and precious souls of our youth.

There is a lot of “education” going on in the lives of covenant children over which we have little or no control at all. Weak enough even with our imperfect help, Johnny is even weaker when he walks alone in the world. It seems to me, therefore, that just letting Johnny decide for himself in matters spiritual and religious without giving him all the positive, objective truth and direction we can is much like leaving a sheep among wolves.

Jacob W. Uitvulugt is pastor of the Creston Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.