Grounding Child Protection in Six Core Commitments: Theology and Ethics


[1] As the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America deliberates a possible social message on child abuse and child protection, it is vital to ground the commitment to protecting children in core teachings that make explicit the implications for child protection.[1] This article addresses six core theological and ethical themes—baptism, spiritual practices, ecclesiology, diakonia, mission, and global ethics—with commentary on their significance for safeguarding children from harm.

Baptism: Jesus Safeguards Children

[2] The originating event for the Christian life occurs at baptism. Baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the person and way of Jesus Christ, occurs in a sacramental act of worship. The sacrament of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ joins the baptized to Christ’s own death and resurrected life.

[3] The baptized person has been given a new identity- a child of God! While at birth one receives status as one created in the image of God, at baptism one is named child of God. The identity as child of God is indelible, guaranteed by God’s Word, Jesus Christ. One’s identity as God’s child is the utmost truth about our value and worth. This is true every new day and for a lifetime. Jesus promises that the kingdom belongs to God’s children: “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt 19:14).

[3] The children of God belong to Jesus who promises to protect them from harm. This promise of protection aims to safeguard children from the sinful purposes of others. This includes protection from all forms of maltreatment and abuse. Jesus warns those who threaten and scheme to harm a child that “it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6).

[4] The baptized are called “to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”[2]  The primary vocation of Christian people is to live out this baptismal covenant. Worship provides the primary catechesis for a life of discipleship.[3] All forms of child maltreatment are a contradiction of these baptismal promises.

Spiritual Practices: Creating Safe Space

[5] Spiritual practices include worship, prayer, Bible reading, singing, community care, small group ministry, and other means of formation to promote the Christian life. Through spiritual practices the Christian community instills faith commitments to form the whole person in Christ. As Jesus teaches in the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). Congregations are responsible to provide intentional catechesis and formation of the Christian people.

[6] Child abusers often manipulate children through appeals to God’s will that undermine their safety. This is true of those who sexually abuse children, torture them, withhold medical care, or beat them. With respect to physical abuse, hitting children as a means of discipline is often justified by appeals to the Bible.[4]

[7] For this reason, it is vital to include in Christian education for children and their families instruction on safe and unsafe touch (personal safety training), the dangers of corporal punishment, and other matters related to healthy physical boundaries. Such instruction should be age appropriate, beginning with small children and continuing with sexual education for youth and their parents to learn about life-giving sexual relationships and practices.

[8] Luther’s Explanation of the Sixth Commandment on “adultery” in the Small Catechism states: “We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.” Decency in sexual relationships precludes the sexual abuse of children. Whenever sexual expression involves power imbalance and coercion, as always in the case of children, it must be restrained.

[9] For Luther, the baptismal life is centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who comes to us through the proclamation of the Word of God and the reception of the sacraments. The Gospel sets people free from thoughts and deeds that are injurious to the self or to others.[5] The Holy Spirit is working to deliver us from the temptation to think or act in any way that harms a child physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

[10] Spiritual practices involve both an inward movement that forms Christians for discipleship and an outward movement that turns them to care for others according to the Great Commandment of neighbor love. While spiritual practices are sometimes criticized for focusing on the holiness of the individual, Christian spiritual practices always ground us deeply in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that frees us for social holiness in response to the needs of neighbors in everyday life and in society.

Ecclesiology: Child Protection Practices

[11] The community of the baptized is marked with the cross of Christ forever. The church is not a collection of individuals but rather a corporate body. This community becomes, for the sake of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ in the world (1 Cor 12:4-27). Because the body of Christ represents the person and way of Jesus Christ, the church has the calling to welcome children, teach them the love of God in Christ, and responsibly protect them from harm.

[12] Through the practices of worship, the members of the body of Christ receive the values and character that belong to Jesus Christ as their own life practices. These life practices include sharing the good news with others, peacemaking, social justice, ecojustice, and safeguarding human dignity.[6] The body of Christ is bound together in relationships mediated by Jesus Christ.[7] This makes the church a community of life-giving relationships that fosters shalom among its members and embodies shalom for the world.

[13] The body of Christ offers mutual care and support that promotes holistic wellness for its members.[8] Wellness encompasses spiritual, social, physical, emotional, intellectual, financial, and vocational wholeness. Such wholeness is God’s intention for all human beings, including children. Safeguarding children promotes their wellness in all these dimensions and necessitates robust policies and practices to protect children from maltreatment.

[14] Congregations must develop robust child protection policies and educate members about child protection practices. Even more, congregations are responsible to abide by these policies through accountable, enforceable procedures.[9] Such policies are designed to fulfill the congregation’s responsibility to be a safe place for all people, especially for children, who are among its most vulnerable members. It may be useful to engage consultants in the process of adopting, implementing, enforcing, and updating child protection policies.

[15] Child abuse and child sexual abuse contradict God’s purpose for Christian congregations. Child abuse in the congregation inflicts harm not only on the victims and their families but also diverts attention from the Gospel-centered purpose of congregational life. Pastors, deacons, and church staff are responsible for equipping members to practice clear and rigorous boundaries in relationships with children. All members of the congregation have responsibility to uphold the central purpose of the church to be centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[10] The integrity of the body of Christ depends on the commitment of all members to provide a safe place for all people with special attention to safeguarding children.

Diakonia: End Corporal Punishment

[17] Mercy is a way of life for all Christian people.

Mercy is goodness, goodness is love, and therefore, mercy is love. Mercy is goodness and love but in a specific relationship, namely, in relation to the unfortunate and wretched. Love is manifold. When it is directed to God on high, it becomes devotion and adoration. When it is directed to the whole earth to other redeemed brothers, it becomes goodness, affability, and friendliness.[11]

The office of deacon was instituted in the book of Acts to take responsibility for works of mercy. The Reformation gave impetus to new forms of mercy, dispensing resources from a community chest. In the 19th century there was a renewal of the office of deaconess and deacon at the formation of diaconal social service organizations.[12]

[18] One of the most significant Reformation developments was Luther’s call for the priesthood of all believers. In many ways this teaching remains an unfulfilled promise of the Reformation. Today the universal priesthood comes to dynamic expression as the diaconate of all believers.[13] Vocation is grounded in the promises of God in Christ made at holy baptism. The diakonia of all believers originates in baptism, where the baptized person is joined to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit bestows spiritual gifts to be shared in merciful service to others.

[19] This diaconal vocation relates to everyday life, including the family that cares for its members, especially children, the elderly, and those with special needs. Luther sought to elevate the status of this daily work by the baptized in a context in which “ministry” was equated with the work done by clerics.

Each shoemaker, smith, farmer and the like has his own office and trade, and never-the-less all are equally consecrated priests and bishops. And each with his office or work ought to provide aid and service to the others, so that all kinds of work can be set up in a community to support body and soul, just as the members of the body all serve each other.[14]

[20] Families are the primary location for living out baptismal vocation. For example, the baptized serve as ministers to neighbors who are son/daughter, sister/brother, aunt/uncle, spouse, parent, or grandparent.

[21] The great work of the generations encompasses passing down the Christian faith from one generation to the next. Luther’s attention to the care of children in families names a primary responsibility of neighbor love: to ensure the welfare of children in society and their protection from all forms of maltreatment. Congregations are called to equip the Christian people for this diaconal responsibility in the home. Because child maltreatment is often hidden from public view behind closed doors, it is imperative that congregations preach and teach about care and protection for children in the home, including the dangers of corporal punishment.

[22] Corporal punishment brings severe physical, emotional, and spiritual risks for children.[15] The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages parents from venturing down the path of hitting children as a means of discipline.[16] Research demonstrates that corporal punishment is a risk factor. The more a child is hit and the harsher the discipline, the greater the risk factors for poorer mental health, including depression, anxiety, anger management, and inability to sustain healthy relationships.[17] According to thirty-four major studies, involving more than 19,000 abused children, a great many children are spiritually damaged from maltreatment.[18]

Mission: Denominational Accountability for Child Protection

[23] The mission of the church is to bring all those created in the divine image into communion with the Triune God. This mission accords with God’s purpose revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to make us children of God (John 1:12). Jesus taught: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). By the power of God’s love, we have been made God’s children: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1).

[24] Because children are central to the mission of God, the church has an obligation to welcome, nurture, and instruct children in the way of Jesus Christ.[19] Ministry with children is centered on the Gospel, teaching them to center their lives in the grace, mercy, and love of God in Jesus Christ. The promises of baptism and the gifts of Holy Communion mediate Christ’s love in a personal way also to children. Violations of this central Gospel message undermine God’s own most purpose for the church.

[25] Every measure should be taken to ensure that children remain safe from abuse through communal practices that protect them from those who would cause them harm. The responsibility for protecting children belongs not only to church leaders but to the entire church community.[20] This means educating for child protection must become core to the mission of every congregation.

[26] To accomplish this priority, denominations and judicatories need to adopt and promote materials that give priority to child protection.

Having a churchwide and congregation-wide policy for child protection and child maltreatment prevention is essential. First, and foremost, the policy intends to protect both children and those who work with them. Policies define behavior, describe acceptable and unacceptable behavior, make it possible to identify violations of expected behavior, and draw needed boundaries to safeguard against both abuse and ambiguity. Policies help safeguard children, educate congregations, deter potential offenders, and prevent congregational liability.[21]

Even as the church is accountable for the protection of the children in its own membership, it also has a mission to educate about the dangers of child abuse across the globe.

Global Ethics: End Child Trafficking

[27] A matter of ethical urgency plagues the entire globe: the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation. The trafficking of children is defined by the United Nations as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”[22]

[28] While child trafficking exploits children from across the world, the US itself is both a source and transit country, and one of the main destinations for victims of child trafficking and exploitation with cases reported in all 50 states. Children of every background can be trafficked regardless of race, class, education, gender, age, or citizenship when enticed by false promises or forcefully coerced.[23]

[29] Children in the US with high Adverse Childhood Experience scores are not only at risk for sexual abuse in general but for becoming entangled in the sex trade.[24]

Primary risk factors for a youth’s involvement in the sex trade include running away from home or being forced to leave home without safe alternative housing arranged, also known as thrown away. Throwaway and runaway children, homeless children, and youth aging out of foster care may find themselves living on the streets in locales where the adult prostitution market suggests a way for youth to secure their own shelter, food, and clothing.[25]

[30] An estimated 1.2 million children are affected by trafficking, the majority in various forms of enforced labor. Common examples of child trafficking cases in the US involve: commercial sex, stripping, pornography, forced begging, magazine crews, au pairs or nannies, restaurant work, hair and nail salons, agricultural work, or drug sales and cultivation.[26]

[31] It is the responsibility of congregations to educate members, including children, about the reality and dangers of child trafficking.

Especially deplorable are the billion-dollar global sex market and the economic systems that thrive on it, both in the United States and abroad. The people trapped in this system are damaged and often destroyed by degradation, abuse, and, sometimes, torture. Companies that profit from this enterprise need to be identified and strongly denounced. This church supports building international agreements and national laws to prevent these practices.[27]

This includes protecting children from abusive environments that make them susceptible to trafficking. The church must implement and advocate for policies and laws that protect all children from maltreatment, whether on the congregational, local, state, national, or international level.


[32] While Christian theology in recent decades has paid close attention to the suffering of oppressed people as has been thematized in the various expressions of liberation theology, the suffering of children has been largely ignored.[28] There is a need for liberating theology written from the perspective of children, who are not able to speak for themselves about suffering from deprivation, maltreatment, corporal punishment, abuse, and trafficking.[29] This article develops six core themes of Christian theology in service of theological construction that takes seriously the harm done to children and the active measures needed to protect them. The foundational meanings of baptism, spiritual practices, ecclesiology, diakonia, mission, and ethics each contribute to the formulation of a theology that inherently safeguards children from harm.



[1] Craig L. Nessan, ed., “Rationale for a Social Statement on Child Abuse and Child Protection,” Currents in Theology and Mission 48 (April 2021):43-56.

[2] “Affirmation of Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 237.

[3] Craig L. Nessan, “Diaconate of All Believers: Theology, Formation, Practice.” Special Issue: “Diaconia and Christian Social Practice in Global Perspective.” Religions 14.5 (Spring 2023): section 3. Accessed 6 November 2023.

[4] Victor I. Vieth and Pete Singer, “Wounded Souls: The Need for Child Protection Professionals and Faith Leaders to Recognize and Respond to the Spiritual Impact of Child Abuse,” Mitchell Hamline Law Review 45.4 (2019): Accessed 6 November 2023.

[5] Victor I. Vieth, “A Bird in the Air or a Nest in the Hair? Pastoral Care for Adults Expressing a Sexual Attraction to Children but Who Deny Acting on These Thoughts,” Currents in Theology and Mission 49.3 (July 2022): Accessed 6 November 2023.

[6] See Nessan, Shalom Church, Chapters 1, 4, 5, and 7.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

[8] Craig L. Nessan, “Wellness and Vocation: Baptism and Everyday Neighbors,” Word and World 43.3 (Summer 2023): 250-258.

[9] Basyle Tchividjian and Shira Berkovits, The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 2017).

[10] Arden Mahlberg and Craig L. Nessan, The Integrity of the Body of Christ: Boundary Keeping as Shared Responsibility (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

[11] Wilhelm Loehe, Löhe on Mercy: Six Chapters for Everyone, the Seventh for the Servants of Mercy, trans. Holger Sonntag (St. Louis: Lcms World Relief and Human Care, 2006), 3.

[12] Cf. Craig L. Nessan, “The Transfer of Diakonia from Germany to North America: The Diaconate and Lutheran Social Services in the United States.” In Contextualization of Diaconia, ed. Johannes Eurich, Beate Hofmann, and Thorsten Moos (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2023), forthcoming.

[13] Nessan, “Diaconate of All Believers,” section 2.

[14] Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility of the German People” (1520). In Timothy J. Wengert. Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 13.

[15] For this and the following, see Victor I. Vieth, “Augustine, Luther and Solomon: Providing Pastoral Guidance to Parents on the Corporal Punishment of Children,” Currents in Theology and Mission 44.3 (2017): 25-33. Accessed 6 November 2023.

[16] Robert D. Sege, “AAP Policy Opposes Corporal Punishment, Draws on Recent Evidence,” AAP News (Nov. 5, 2018): Accessed 6 November 2023.

[17] Elizabeth T. Gershoff and Andrew Grogran-Kaylor, “Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Family Psychology 30.4 (2016): 453–469.

[18] Donald F. Walker, et al, “Changes in Personal Religion/spirituality During and After Childhood Abuse: A Review and Synthesis,” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy 1 (2009):130.

[19] Cf. R.L. Stollar, The Kingdom of Children: A Liberation Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023).

[20] See Mahlberg and Nessan, The Integrity of the Body of Christ.

[21] Nessan, ed., “Rationale for a Social Statement on Child Abuse and Child Protection,” 51.

[22] United Nations, “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Traffiking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime,” (New York: United Nations, 2000), Art. 3a Accessed 10 November 2023.

[23] UNICEF USA, “Child Traffiking,”  Accessed 6 November 2023.

[24] Teresa Huizar and Paul Dilorenzo, Child Sexual Abuse: Practical Approaches to Prevention and Intervention (Washington, D.C.: CWLA Press, 2023), 200-201.

[25] Rachel Naramore1, Melissa A. Bright, Nathan Epps, and Nancy S. Hardt, “Youth Arrested for Trading

Sex Have the Highest Rates of Childhood Adversity: A Statewide Study of Juvenile Offenders,” Sexual Abuse 29 (June 2017): 2.

[26] Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, “Human Trafficking of Children in the United States-A Fact Sheet for Schools.” Accessed 5 July 2023.

[27] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “A Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” (Chicago: ELCA, 2009), 34. Accessed 5 July 2023.

[28] Cf. Craig L. Nessan, “Liberation Theologies in America,” Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion in America, ed. John Corrigan (Oxford: Oxford University, 2018). Accessed 9 Nov 2023.

[29] Craig L. Nessan, “Child Liberation Theology,” Currents in Theology and Mission 45.3 (2018): 6-13. Accessed 9 Nov 2023.

Craig L. Nessan

Dr. Craig L. Nessan is Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics, and the William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.  He teaches courses in the areas of leadership and theological ethics. He holds degrees from Michigan State University, Wartburg Theological Seminary, and the University of Munich.  His theological interests include diakonia as a paradigm for the future church.