Five Unbiblical Doctrines Christians Teach Children

I posted a great list, written by Jim Palmer, of child-damaging doctrines, on my Facebook a few months back. It got over 40 likes, but several people were confused about my own position on the matters presented.

The number of parents and young non-parents who defended the list as truthful and worth teaching to children was shocking to me. Having a soft spot for children made me the bad guy to these people.

Matthew 7:16 says "Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles."

Jesus said that. Hey guys, he might be on to something. I could be running too far with the metaphor, but let's just say thistles are categorized as bad, and fruit like grapes and figs are categorized as good.

If you teach children hateful things, they might not turn into loving people. In fact, they might just perpetuate the cycle of parent-to-child emotional and spiritual abuse. It only makes sense, if bad trees bear bad fruit.

At first glance, this list looks like hyperbolic strawmen. I have met too many people who grew up thinking in these terms after time spent in church and Christian homes, so I contend that these exact terms are taught and they need to stop being taught.

Here's the list, and why I think all five of these doctrines are damaging to children:

1. Telling children that they are born into this world intrinsically bad, absent of inherent worth, and repulsive to God.

I was accused of questioning original sin for the first three doctrines listed. The problem isn't that parents tell their children they've sinned and need Jesus. I've met many people who had to overcome serious self-harm and suicidal issues because they were taught in home schools, Christian schools and their churches, "You're worthless. God finds you repulsive."

Which is weird, because I always thought I was worth something to God because God thought I was worth saving. There are countless parables in which Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven being like the thing everyone else thought was worthless -- the prodigal son, the lost sheep -- being sought after, loved and welcomed.

A friend took me to see a private showing of the documentary Blood Brother, and in it the children with AIDS in a hostel in India are told to hate themselves. I wrote down the phrase, "Your blood is poison." The workers at the hostel helped to keep the kids healthy, but also did their best to rebuild the self-hatred these children had developed. The point was to tell children that being sick didn't mean they were absent of inherent worth and intrinsically bad. They are worth the price of all the medicine and love and care it takes to make them know how important they are.

2. Telling children that their sinfulness is so bad that it left God no choice but to brutalize, torture and kill his son.

Crucifixion is a very brutal way to die, to put it mildly. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ had to tone it down to get an R rating. I remember learning more details about the scourging and suffocation process as I got older, but I would never expect a parent to go into those details with a young child. The New Testament itself isn't very graphic about it -- I memorized in AWANA "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures...and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures."

The idea that God had no choice in the matter is extreme, even in the most nihilistic of sub-beliefs within Christianity. My own study of theology has convinced me that Christ's death was his own choice. Planned ahead, followed through with despite facing the fears and temptations of man. But I remember some sermons alluding to the idea that Christ's death was our fault -- my fault.

One moment stands out to me from Sunday School in my early childhood, though. I was perhaps five, and I questioned the teacher about God not seeing me. She explained that God hates my sin, and so I have to be punished for it, so every time God looks at me, he sees Jesus' crucifixion. No wonder so many people carry crucifixes; they need to protect themselves from letting God see them for who they really are.

Why, then, would David, who is said to have been "A man after God's own heart," do so much soul-searching? If he wrote, "Search me, oh God, and know my heart, try me, and know my anxieties, and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting," wouldn't it be odd for God to want children to think he never wants to search the heart and know it intimately, and for sanctification to happen? Children ought to be taught that God sees and loves them first, no matter what they do (Romans 5:8), and it's not their fault Jesus died. Jesus loved them, so he wanted to die instead of them.

3. Telling children that there is nothing good inside of them and that they should not trust their thoughts and feelings.

This idea is also tied to original sin, but it finds its root in a specific verse, Jeremiah 17:9, which says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, who can know it?" The weird thing is, the very next verse answers the question: God can know the heart. That's why John Eldredge explains in his book, Waking the Dead,

Launching out with an untrained heart can bring much hurt and ruin, and afterward we will be shamed back into the gospel of Sin Management, having concluded that our heart is bad. It isn't bad, it's just young and unwise.

He introduces the idea of "original glory, which comes before sin and is deeper to our nature." Yes, our hearts are deceitful. But God knows the heart, and searches the heart (Romans 5), and knows what the mind of the spirit is, and intercedes for us. Trusting instincts and thinking for themselves, then, is something children should certainly be able to do, because God created those thoughts, feelings, and instincts.

Anyone who fears questioning is afraid of being proven wrong. If parents and teachers are confident that their side is stronger, they should have no fear of children's questions.

I've met several people who grew up thinking God doesn't speak anymore. If he does speak, some adults have told me, he won't speak to children or women. Only the authority in charge gets to determine what God says. This is a problem both for Catholics and Protestants. In addition, people who read the Bible and conclude that maybe God still speaks, are told they "shouldn't trust their feelings."

Telling children they shouldn't think for themselves makes them submissive. That's not "setting the captives free," as Christ came to do. Worse for Christians, it is committing the blasphemy of limiting God. There's a story in the Old Testament about Samuel, who heard the voice of God. His mentor didn't tell him not to trust what he thought he heard. He told him to listen. That's how a major prophet was introduced to God -- as a child.

4. Using fear or shame as a means of binding children to certain beliefs or practices related to God.

Using fear and shame is against the Christian narrative. When I was a kid, I memorized Timothy 1:7, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." So it shocks me all the time to meet and hear about Christians -- hundreds more of them as the years pass -- who use the tools God is specifically opposed to. Is fear more effective in gaining followers? Tell God that, so-called spiritual leaders. Because that's not the message of Christianity, and when you use fear to control people, it sounds like you're putting yourself above the God you claim to submit yourself to.

As for shame, it's used one time that I know of, and it's not for binding someone to a belief. It's to exhort people who already believe, when Paul calls out the sin of the Corinthians and says, "I say this to your shame." Most uses of the word shame talk about Jesus taking it on, so children raised to worship God should never have to be shamed.

5. Teaching children that the rejection, hatred or diminishment of other human beings is an expression of devotion to God.

The most heartbreaking thing about this one is how much of a blind spot it is. Parents can easily read this and agree with it, while their children have picked up on what they do instead of what they say. Children learn by example, and every time an adult says something negative about people of other religions, races or sexual orientations, and backs it up with devotion to God is teaching this. Christianity never teaches to reject or diminish people for their apparent sins or wrong beliefs. If Jesus taught that the first commandment is love, don't add anything until love is faithfully in practice.

Beware of blind spots around children, because political and cultural prejudice gets passed along. Good things do not come from hatred, and every one of these teachings is a false representation of Christianity.