Lutheran Foundations for Promoting Child Well-being and Addressing Child Maltreatment

[1] Children and young people today face a host of ongoing and newly emerging challenges.[1] In countries rich and poor, many experience poverty, malnutrition, maltreatment, abuse, and a lack of adequate education and health care. Children and families struggle to meet even their basic needs under difficult circumstances when they are fleeing political unrest or facing environmental disasters. In addition to these ongoing challenges, new ways of exploiting children through social media and corporate marketing contribute to global increases in childhood depression, anxiety, loneliness, and self-destructive behaviors.

[2] The Lutheran church worldwide has a long history of attending to children’s needs and a robust theological understanding of children and commitments to them. Martin Luther was one of the first Western theologians to have children. He and his wife, Katharina von Bora, raised ten children, and he wrote movingly about the sacred task of parents, and the responsibilities of educating children and raising them in the faith. Luther also articulated a robust theology of vocation, including the vocations of parents and children. Furthermore, Luther and the early Reformers were strong advocates for protecting and educating all children. Over the past 500 years, Lutherans around the world have been strongly committed to children in a variety of ways, especially in the areas of education, faith formation, and child advocacy. Various Lutheran educational institutions, medical facilities, and social service and relief agencies worldwide address the needs of children and the most vulnerable.

[3] Although Lutherans have a strong tradition of commitments to children, Lutheran individuals and institutions have at times neglected to build on their strong theological foundations and respect the full humanity of children. Children make up one-third of humanity and are members of families, neighborhoods, and faith communities. They are also among the most vulnerable people on the planet, and adults can easily disregard their needs and strengths. Lutherans care for children in a host of ways. However, if we take a closer look at almost any area of the church—whether its faith formation programs, justice initiatives, or theological institutions, then we find multiple ways that the church has neglected to listen carefully to the voices and questions of children, pay close attention to the specific ways they are suffering and exploited, or recognize their wisdom and creative contributions.

[5] Whenever our conceptions of children are too narrow, our child-related efforts are less effective, our relations with children are less meaningful, and our doctrines and practices are less inclusive and life-giving. In the Evangelical Church in America (ELCA), for example, we see how narrow views of children can stunt the ELCA’s commitments to children and even its theology and practice. For example, although the ELCA seeks to mitigate child maltreatment, congregations do not yet have in place strong child protection policies for preventing and responding to child abuse inside the church, let alone in the home, where it most often occurs. Furthermore, although ELCA congregations offer faith formation programs for children, many do not adequately engage parents, caregivers, and children or take seriously the questions, ideas, and contributions of children themselves. As a result, as multiple studies show, many young people end up feeling lonely or lost and eventually join the growing ranks of the “nones” or non-affiliated. Finally, although Lutherans in the ELCA and around the world address serious ethical issues and have articulated powerful and liberating theologies that help the church revise its doctrines and practices in the light of the marginalized and those who suffer, many Lutheran theologians and ethicists have not adequately paid attention to the suffering and voices of children.[2]

[6] The aim of this essay is to strengthen the church’s capacity to promote child well-being and address child maltreatment and, at the same time, to nourish and revitalize Christian faith and life by outlining a robust Lutheran understanding of children and our obligations to them. [3]  The essay claims that the Lutheran tradition expresses at least six biblically based, multi-dimensional, and paradoxical perspectives on children that remind us of children’s full humanity—their vulnerabilities and need for guidance as well as their strengths and contributions. By holding these six paradoxical perspectives in tension (rather than in isolation), Lutherans can broaden their conception of children and strengthen their commitments to them in several areas, from child protection and advocacy to spiritual formation and theological education. Furthermore, the essay illustrates how this robust theology of childhood benefits not only children but also the whole church and its work in the world. Multi-dimensional, biblically-informed views of children strengthen our commitments to them, rejuvenate the whole body of Christ, and empower our efforts to help people of all ages and our planet flourish.


PART ONE: Six Key Elements of a Robust Lutheran Understanding of Children

[7] By examining Lutheran theology and history, we find that the Lutheran tradition expresses at least six biblically based, powerful, and paradoxical perspectives on children and our obligations to them.[4] By holding together these perspectives, Lutherans can broaden their conception of children and strengthen their commitments to them. This list is not exhaustive, and there is much more to discover in this tradition about children.[5] Yet these six provide an overview of the depth of Lutheran commitments to and conceptions of children in the past and their potential for protecting children and promoting healthy child development and positive adult-child relationships today.[6]

First Perspective

[8] One common perspective on children emphasized in the Lutheran tradition is that children are vulnerable, and adults are to provide for, protect, and seek justice for all children—not just their own children but all children in need. The Lutheran tradition recognizes that children are among the most voiceless and vulnerable people on the planet, and they are often victims of injustice. The commitment to provide for, protect, love, and seek justice for children and the most vulnerable in our midst—widows, orphans, strangers, the poor, and the marginalized—is grounded in key biblical passages. Deuteronomy states, for example: “For the LORD your God “is not partial and takes no bribe,” “executes justice for the orphan and the widow,” and “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing”; and “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:17-19). The book of Isaiah begins with the plea, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:16–17). Woven throughout the text is a powerful vision of all children experiencing peace, well-being, and wholeness—shalom.[7]

[9] Lutheran obligations to children in need are also grounded in Jesus’ command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). The neighbor includes all people, regardless of age or other distinctions, and all have equal worth. As Søren Kierkegaard (1833–1855), the Danish philosopher and Lutheran theologian, clarified: “One’s neighbor is one’s equal…and to love one’s neighbor means equality…[Every person] is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God,” and “absolutely” every individual has this equality and “has it absolutely.”[8] Jesus extends love of neighbor to everyone, including enemies, and shows compassion directly to children. He welcomes them, receives them, touches them, and heals them. He takes them up in his arms and blesses them.

[10] Luther emphasizes love of neighbor and attending to children’s needs in several works. In his famous essay, The Freedom of a Christian (1522), he argues that although believers are justified by faith alone, they freely love and serve their neighbors. As he says, “Faith is truly active through love, that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done.”[9] Luther also emphasizes that adults have a duty to provide not only for their own children but also for all children in need. Already in 1523, Luther helped to set up what was called a “Common Chest.” This chest pooled community resources to offer gifts and low interest loans “to all the needy in the land.” “There is no greater service of God,” Luther says, “than Christian love which helps and serves the needy.”[10] The ordinance for the Common Chest regulates funding not only for adults but also for poor children and orphans, including funds for their material needs, schooling, and even marriage dowries for orphaned or poor girls.

[11] This approach to neighbor love through shared civic responsibility continues to inform many activities and agencies of Lutheran communities worldwide. Lutherans around the world today help feed and clothe poor children and orphans, sponsor adoption agencies and support those who adopt, and advocate for children’s rights and political policies that protect children and families. This commitment to children in need is a task shared by Lutheran families, congregations, and a host of national and international Lutheran organizations, agencies, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and child advocacy and lobbying ministries. For example, although Lutheran’s make up only about 3% of the population in the United States and only about 1% of the population worldwide, organizations such as Lutheran Social Service, Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service are consistently ranked among the most highly respected not-for-profit organizations in the country and world.

Second Perspective

[12] Along with the notion that children are vulnerable, the Lutheran tradition affirms that children are fully human and made in the image of God, and adults are to treat them with dignity and respect. This duty is grounded in the biblical notion that all children, like all adults, are whole and complete human beings who are made in the image of God and possess God-given equality. The basis of this claim is Genesis 1:27, which states that God made humankind, male and female, in “the image of God.” All children (like all adults)—regardless of race, gender, age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or any other difference—are made in God’s image, have intrinsic value, and are equally worthy of dignity and respect.

[13] Although we might consider it self-evident that infants and children are human beings, in many places and times (including various contexts today), many children are not considered fully human. Children have been perceived and mistreated as ignorant, parental property, or economic burdens. They have been exploited as gullible consumers, sex objects, or child soldiers. Yet from the beginning of the church, theologians have emphasized the full equality and intrinsic value of all persons, including infants and children. In the third century, for example, Cyprian wrote that all people, even infants, are “alike and equal since they have been made once by God.” All share a “divine and spiritual equality.”[11]

[14] The biblical notion that all human beings, including children, are made in the image of God lies at the heart of Lutheran commitments to children and, more broadly, to human equality, dignity, and rights. Respecting children’s full humanity means we should not only attend to children’s vulnerabilities and needs but also their strengths and contributions. Children, like adults, are not simply victims but also agents with their own ideas, perspectives, and experiences. Taking their voices and experiences seriously strengthens our advocacy efforts with and on behalf of them.

[15] Given this understanding of children, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and World Council of Churches (WCC) have supported the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and have worked together with UNICEF and other child-focused secular agencies to develop common statements and practical strategies regarding child well-being and children’s rights. They have emphasized the importance of listening to children and honoring their ideas and full participation in decisions about their well-being. For example, the WCC actively supports a variety of local and global initiatives focused both on child protection and child participation.[12] The LWF has sought to prevent violence against children by working with the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children.[13] Lutheran faith leaders in the United States and abroad have also worked with the Zero Abuse Project, which aims to end abuse in all settings.[14] Since 2020, Sweden has incorporated the CRC into law, and the Church of Sweden’s Archbishop Dr Antje Jackelén and other faith leaders emphasize that children play important roles in both church and society; therefore “they should be invited, encouraged and empowered to participate and to be listened to.”[15]

Third Perspective

[16] A third Lutheran perspective is that children are developing beings, and adults are to instruct, guide, and bring them up in the faith, helping them to love God and their neighbors. The Christian tradition recognizes that adults have a responsibility not only to attend to children’s physical needs but also their moral and spiritual development. Several biblical texts address these responsibilities. Lutherans, like other Christians, and Jews, refer to the famous lines from Deuteronomy 6:5-7:

You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

In his Large Catechism, Luther said, “If we want capable and qualified people for both the civil and the spiritual realms, we really must spare no effort, time, and expense in teaching and educating our children to serve God and the world.”[16]

[17] Luther and his fellow reformers understood that both the church and the family are responsible for the faith formation of children. Luther’s emphasis on faith formation in the home is deeply connected to his understanding of parenting as a divine calling or vocation. For Luther, the main responsibility of parents is to nurture the faith of their children and to help them develop their gifts to serve God and the world, and he writes and preaches extensively on this task. Luther and other Reformers also wrote catechisms for use in the home to help parents teach children about the core beliefs and spiritual practices of the Christian faith. From a Lutheran theological perspective, parents and caregivers are more than “providers,” “educators,” “advisors,” “friends,” or “cheerleaders”; they have a spiritual relationship with and spiritual responsibilities for their children in daily life. As Luther claims, “Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel.”[17]

[18] Parents also have a duty to baptize their children and to remind them of its lifelong healing powers. For Luther, baptism offers salvation and forgiveness through water and the Word; infant baptism is a tangible sign of the graciousness of the gospel. Baptism also promises and brings “the Holy Spirit with her gifts.”[18] In addition, baptism provides lifelong comfort and renewal. It is not a one-time event. Baptism has a lifelong power and effect that helps to renew the daily life of children and adults. As Luther says, the way to regard and use baptism rightly is to “draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us.”[19] Ultimately,  “A Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after.”[20]

[19] Luther’s primary approach to faith formation focuses on exposing children to the Word and enlivening faith through teaching, worshipping, and reading the Bible. He also recommends daily prayers and helping children memorize the Commandments, Apostles Creed, and Lord’s Prayer. Luther hopes that in these ways and others that young people will be brought up in the faith and receive Christian teaching with “joy and earnestness.”[21] He encourages adults to teach children with kindness and warns that a kind and playful approach to teaching “takes root in [children’s] hearts,” whereas beating them comes “to no good end.”[22]

[20] In addition, Luther believes that singing and music are powerful vehicles of spiritual formation and renewal for adults and children alike. Luther himself was a musician, composed hymns, and promoted singing in worship, at school, and in the home. The value placed on music is reflected in his claim that “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.”[23]

[21] Since the Reformation, Lutherans have taken seriously the moral and spiritual formation of children. They have understood that faith formation is a cooperative task between home, congregation, and the wider church with a rich appreciation of the role of parents and caregivers in the faith formation of children. They also know that faith is cultivated through hearing the Word, reading and discussing the Bible, and carrying out a host of embodied practices, such as praying, worshipping together, singing, participating in communion, and caring for others. Lutherans have therefore created numerous faith formation programs, initiatives, and activities, such as youth and family programs, religious education programs, Bible camps, music camps, national youth conventions, campus ministries, mission trips, and service projects. Lutheran communities around the world understand that children and adults actively live out their faith and love of neighbor by serving others and promoting social, economic, and environmental justice. Since the Reformation, scores of Lutheran composers, hymn writers, musicians, choirs, and instrumental ensembles have also provided the church and the world with inspiring music, and Lutheran schools, colleges, and universities support strong choral and instrumental programs.

Fourth Perspective

[22] Although most Lutherans today and in the past emphasize that adults have a duty to nurture the spiritual lives of children, biblical texts and Lutheran theology remind us that children are spirit-filled members of the body of Christ and models of faith for adults, and therefore adults are to honor children’s relationship to God and listen to and learn from them. Adults have a responsibility not only to talk to and teach children but also to listen to and learn from them, honor their current relationship with God, and acknowledge their contributions to their families and faith communities.

[23] In a host of ways, the Bible and Christian theology understand children to be Spirit-filled, models for adults, and positive agents of change. Taking these biblical and theological insights seriously expands our perception of both God’s spirit and children themselves. For example, the Bible and Christian theology recognize that the Spirit moves where it will and can touch people of any age, including children. Theologians across various branches of Christianity, including the Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong, remind the global church: God’s Spirit is not limited by a person’s age; it is already working in children and young people.[24] Biblical passages depict children and infants praising God (Ps 8:2; Mt 21:15). In Luke, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:15). The book of Acts declares, God’s Spirit will be poured out “upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions” (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28–32).

[24] Moreover, the Bible depicts children and young people in striking and even radical ways as positive agents of change, prophets, and models for adults. Samuel was called as a boy to be a prophet (1 Sam 2–4). The young David prevailed over Goliath, the Philistine, with a sling and with a stone (1 Sam 17). Furthermore, in all three synoptic gospels, Jesus identifies himself with children and lifts them up as paradigms of receiving the reign of God, saying “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:13–16).

[25] Although one might argue that Lutherans past and present have not sufficiently emphasized children as spirit-filled and models of faith (or paid enough attention to the Holy Spirit), key Lutheran principles stress that God’s grace and Spirit are available for people of all ages, including children. For example, in his discussion of baptism, Luther emphasizes that in addition to forgiveness and salvation, baptism promises and brings “the entire Christ” and “the Holy Spirit with her gifts.”[25] Luther also affirms infant baptism is “pleasing to Christ” and bestows the Holy Spirit, which by God’s grace gives the power “to interpret Scriptures and know Christ.”[26]

[26] If we take seriously a Lutheran understanding of the priesthood of all believers, we must also affirm children are full and equal members of this priesthood. According to Luther, through baptism, all are priests and kings in Christ:

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 [:12–13] that we are all one body, yet every member has its own work by which it serves the others. This is because all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people…We are all consecrated priests through baptism, as St. Peter says in 1 Peter 2 [:9], “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm.”[27]

Thus, baptized children are members of the royal priesthood. We cannot exclude them based on their age, just as we cannot exclude anyone else based on class, gender, or race. All are equally priests in Christ. As part of this priesthood, children are also interpreters of the Word.

[27] Although Luther and the early reformers respect the authority of parents, they recognize that a child’s ultimate obedience is to God and therefore parental authority is limited. Luther warns parents, for example, citing Ephesians 6:4, not to provoke their children to anger. He recognizes that parents are not perfect and can sometimes be unjust or even tyrants. Thus, he claims that parental authority is always limited and never absolute because a child’s ultimate loyalty is to God. “Parental authority is strictly limited;” he says, “it does not extend to the point where it can wreak damage and destruction to the child, especially to its soul.” Parental authority is for “building up” not “for destroying.”[28]

[28] The conception of children as both spirit-filled and models of faith encourages us to listen to and learn from children, thereby strengthening faith formation and child-adult relationships. By listening more carefully to children, adults cultivate more meaningful and mutually rewarding conversations with them. By recognizing children’s strengths, adults more intentionally honor the ways that children and young people already enrich family and congregational life. By realizing that the Holy Spirit is already moving in children’s lives, adults pay more attention to their ethical and spiritual questions; they become more open to listening and learning from children’s experiences. This perspective deepens respect for children, creates stronger adult-child bonds, and enriches the spiritual lives of both children and adults.

Fifth Perspective

[29] The Lutheran tradition perceives children as social and moral agents who are endowed with strengths, gifts, and talents that contribute to the common good now and in the future, and thus adults are to provide children with a strong education and honor their current vocations. Lutheran understandings of children are closely intertwined with education and vocation. At a time when it was primarily the rich or those entering the monastery who learned to read and most children did not attend school, Luther and his followers believed that parents and the community have a duty to educate all children (poor, rich, girls, boys). This commitment is based on the understanding that children and young people have been blessed and endowed by God with unique strengths, gifts, and talents, and they are called to serve God and the world. By providing children with schools and a solid liberal arts education, both parents and the community help children not only to read and interpret the Bible but equip them to use their gifts and talents in service to others, thereby contributing to the common good.

[30] Luther appealed many times to parents and civil authorities to support education for both boys and girls. In a letter to councilmen of German cities, he writes, “A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety, and strength consist…in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens.”[29] He lamented that “In the sight of God none among the outward sins so heavily burdens the world and merits such severe punishment as this very sin which we commit against the children by not educating them.”[30]

[31] Both Luther and his colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, were strong public advocates for the liberal arts and for universal schooling. Many other Lutherans during and after the Reformation have been leaders in educational policy and reform, even central figures in histories of education, such as J. G. Herder in Germany or N.F.S. Grundtvig in Denmark.[31] Lutherans around the world have established a vast network of educational institutions, including preschools, parochial schools, public schools, seminaries, colleges, and universities.

[32] Lutheran understandings of vocation and calling emphasize that children and young people have callings here and now. Adults should honor their current contributions to our homes, congregations, and communities. A robust Lutheran understanding of vocation affirms that everyone has a calling, including children. Everyone has “roles” or “offices”—whether given or chosen. In addition to our professional roles and duties, even our social and familial relationships are places where God calls us to serve God and the neighbor. As Luther states:

Every person surely has a calling. While attending to it they serve God. A king serves God when he is at pains to look after and govern his people. So does the mother of a household when she tends her baby, the father of a household when he gains a livelihood by working, and [pupils] when [they] apply [themselves] diligently to [their] studies…Therefore it is a great wisdom when human beings do what God commands and earnestly devote themselves to their vocations without taking into consideration what others are doing.[32]

Children, teenagers, and college students have a calling here and now—even before they get a job or land a career. Whatever their age, they already have certain duties, roles, and responsibilities that benefit the family and the community. Moreover, young people inspire positive change, such as we see in local and global initiatives to address racism, gun violence, and climate change.

Sixth Perspective

[33] A sixth important conception of children in the Lutheran tradition is that children are gifts of God and sources of joy, and adults are to enjoy them and be grateful for them. Many biblical passages speak of children in this way. Sarah rejoiced at the birth of her son, Isaac (Gen 21:6-7). In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (John 16:20-21). Luther also writes about the value, joy, and blessing of children. He and his wife had three sons and three daughters, and they raised four orphans. He speaks about children as “treasures from heaven,” “blessings from God,” and “great gifts.” Luther loved and enjoyed his own children and wrote movingly about his daughter Magdalena when she died at age 13. The 19th Century Lutheran pastor, philosopher, and “happy Dane,” N.S.F. Grundtvig, wrote beautiful poems and hymns about children and our delight in and with them.[33]

[34] All children, whether biological or adopted, are “gifts” to families and our communities in a host of ways. Even though scientists know much about reproduction, they are still exploring the mysteries surrounding conception. There is great wonder and awe in the process of adoption as well. Children are members of communities from the start, and they play various and complex roles within it. Viewing children as gifts of God to the whole community radically challenges common assumptions of them as “property” of parents or “economic burdens” to the community.

[35] This perspective is valuable to recall when children are born and as they age. At every stage of their lives, we can delight in children and be grateful for who they are. Cultivating a sense of delight in and gratitude for children helps to navigate the ups and downs and twists and turns of the lives of both children and adults. These sensibilities help us to be curious and responsive to young people’s thoughts and feelings instead of judgmental and reactive. It keeps us nimble in our relationships with them, ready to offer wisdom from our experience and, at the same time, prepared to lean in, listen to, and wonder with them.

[36] The Bible, faith leaders, and social scientists today recognize that “delight” and “joy” help cultivate deep and meaningful connections. The Bible speaks about God’s “delight” in us and our delight in God. Psalm 37:4, for example, states “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Social scientists claim that children’s attachment to their caregivers is strengthened not only by loving them but also delighting in them.


PART TWO: Benefits of A Robust Theology of Childhood for Children, the Church, and the World

[37] When held in tension (rather than in isolation), these six biblical and Lutheran perspectives provide a full-bodied and powerful theology of childhood that broadens our conception of children and strengthens our commitments to them. By holding together these six perspectives, we are able see children in a multi-dimensional and paradoxical light as those:

  • Developing and in need of instruction and guidance as well as already fully human, made in the image of God, and worthy of dignity and respect.
  • Vulnerable and in need of protection as well as strong and insightful models for adults.
  • Sources of joy as well as creative social agents with gifts and strengths that contribute to our families and communities.

Such a multi-dimensional and holistic perspective honors the full humanity of children and young people, thereby helping us cultivate closer and more meaningful relationships with the children in our midst and empowering stronger advocacy with and on behalf of all children. We can protect and provide for children as well as accompany and be inspired by them; guide them as well as learn from them; and educate them as well as delight in them. We can take the physical, intellectual, emotional, ethical, and spiritual development of children seriously even as we honor children’s rights and their current contributions to our families, congregations, and wider communities.

[38] A robust theology of childhood not only strengthens our commitments to and relationships with children but also nourishes and revitalizes Christian faith and life more broadly. Becoming more child-attentive rejuvenates the whole body of Christ and empowers the church to help people and the planet flourish. For example, when we recognize children as spirit-filled and endowed with strengths and talents to contribute to our communities, we more readily welcome and incorporate children into worship, thereby enriching worship for the whole congregation. Furthermore, if we recognize children’s unique vulnerabilities and creative capacities, then we are bound to strengthen the church’s humanitarian aid and social and environmental justice initiatives. Finally, just as we have seen with other liberation theologies that recognize the full humanity of marginalized groups, paying attention to the full humanity of children deepens and expands theological reflection and spiritual practice for the whole church. No matter what doctrine, practice, or ethical issue we seek to strengthen, we find that paying attention to children helps us raise new questions and to see more clearly the depth and breadth of both human suffering and creativity.

[39] Another important benefit of keeping in mind the full humanity of children is that we will more readily create multi-layered, effective, and collaborative strategies for living out our shared commitments. By paying attention to children, we see more clearly than ever that achieving our goals and priorities, whether at home, at church, or in civic life, most often requires a multi-pronged and multi-layered approach. We quickly recognize that no single approach addresses a complex problem because children, like other human beings, are complex. As we learn from the popular “Swiss cheese model” or “cumulative act effect,” each approach to a solution, like each slice of Swiss cheese, has holes. One single “slice” (or approach) rarely solves a complex problem. But when we add “slices,” we can cover up the limits of each layer and have a better chance of success.

[40] Here are just three examples from the ELCA of how robust theologies of children can help promote more multi-layered and effective strategies for addressing shared concerns and commitments.

First Example: Child Protection

[41] The ELCA seeks to prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect. In the light of child sexual abuse cases in the church, faith leaders understand they need to have in place and enforce child protection policies in their congregations. However, many have not yet done so. Furthermore, those who have a policy in place should not stop there. Minimally, the church must listen more carefully to children and address the multiple layers of harm (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) that children who are abused in the church suffer. In addition, because predators seek out vulnerable children in our midst (in churches, schools, sports facilities, etc.), and because most cases of abuse and neglect occur in the home, the church needs to broaden its approach to child protection, for example, by:

  • Building congregational awareness of the short and long term risks of child abuse and neglect.
  • Teaching and preaching about child abuse and neglect, including maltreatment in the home.
  • Offering more support for families.
  • Recognizing the significance of faith formation and spiritual and religious life for child resilience.
  • Paying attention to child abuse and the spiritual care of children (instead of just adults) in seminary courses on violence, abuse, and trauma.
  • Working more intentionally with diverse organizations and policy makers to prevent maltreatment and support children’s rights.

In these and other ways, the ELCA shows its respect for children’s needs and voices and can more effectively and boldly address child maltreatment.

Second Example: Faith Formation and Spiritual Life

[42] The ELCA also seeks to nurture the spiritual lives and faith formation of children, parents, and caregivers. The ELCA’s church-wide office and congregations offer a host of faith formation programs and resources. Yet if we more intentionally honor the role of caregivers in children’s formation, respect children’s full humanity, and recognize they are spirit-filled members of the body of Christ, then we will develop much more robust approaches to faith formation, such as by:

  • Attending more intentionally to the spiritual formation of young children (ages 0 to 6) and their families.
  • Engaging parents and caregivers, supporting them, and encouraging them to share faith at home.
  • Listening to the questions and ideas of children and youth and seeing them as spirit-filled and models of faith.
  • Respecting children’s agency and engaging them in service projects and leadership roles.
  • Building greater congregational awareness of the significance of spiritual and religious life for child well-being and resilience.

In these and other ways, the ELCA shows greater respect for children’s spiritual development and their contributions to families, congregations, and communities.

Third Example: Lutheran Theology, Ethics, and Theological Education

[43] The ELCA has a rich and respected tradition of theological and ethical reflection, and Lutheran ethicists and faith leaders seek to address urgent ethical issues of our time. The ELCA supports theological education and regularly develops social statements and messages that address ethical challenges. Nevertheless, in the areas of both Lutheran theology and ethics we find signs of the marginalization of children.

[44] For example, the ELCA supports the child-related work of the LWF and the WCC, yet thus far says little directly about child maltreatment and protection. Of course, some ELCA social statements include attention to children under broader justice-related themes, such as race or poverty. The ELCA’s Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action, for example, addresses gender justice for girls along with women, and Our Calling in Education advocates supporting education for all children. [34] Yet statements on other social and environmental issues that greatly affect children rarely highlight their unique vulnerabilities. Fortunately, some individual ELCA faith leaders, who have been working diligently on child protection, are currently helping the ELCA draft a social message on child protection.[35]

[45] Furthermore, although Lutheran ethicists address human rights and a range of injustices, most of their work is adult-centered. Few pay attention to the unique and especially harmful ways that injustices affect infants and children or to the creative and inspiring ways that children and young people are addressing social and environmental problems. Furthermore, few Lutheran ethicists have addressed children’s rights and the CRC. All countries in the world have ratified the CRC except the US. Even though the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and highly respected scholars have taken seriously critiques of the CRC and persuasively argued that it is worthy of qualified ratification,[36] some outspoken conservative Protestants still fear that its ratification, or even the acceptance of selected children’s rights, might threaten religious liberty and erode parental authority and rights. Lutheran ethicists and the ELCA remain mostly silent.

[46] We also find the marginalization of children in theological education. ELCA seminaries usually offer courses on children, youth, and family ministries, yet these courses are frequently only electives. Furthermore, even though children are agents and members of the church and communities around the world, we see little attention to children in theological education beyond religious education or pastoral care. Even in many courses on abuse, trauma, and pastoral care, the experiences of children and the long-term effects of abuse and other adverse childhood experiences are marginalized or ignored.[37] Even though attention to children and childhood is growing across disciplines and in interdisciplinary childhood studies programs worldwide, seminary courses on Christian ethics, the Bible, or church history rarely include attention to children.

[47] Equally puzzling is the near absence of serious attention to children in systematic theology. Lutheran theologians around the world have brought attention to both the suffering and inspiring voices of the marginalized. They have articulated powerful and liberating theologies that help us rethink and revise doctrines and practices in the light of the marginalized. However, even Black, feminist, womanist, Dalit, and other liberating theologies at times have not paid adequate attention to one of the largest and most vulnerable groups on the planet—children.[38]

[48] One of the most powerful lessons that liberating theologies have taught the church worldwide is that recognizing the full humanity of marginalized groups means we must revise theological education. We cannot limit attention to marginalized groups in one or two elective courses. Once we truly acknowledge their humanity, we realize the significance of honoring their concerns and contributions in courses across the curriculum and in every corner of theological research and education. In this way, we deepen our interpretations of the Bible and Christian traditions, promote fresh understandings of Christian doctrines and practices, and strengthen our advocacy and engagement in the world. If the ELCA seeks to strengthen child protection and well-being, then theological education must make more room in its research, course offerings, internships, and institutional mission statements for serious attention to children.

[49] In these ways and more, we see how we can strengthen Lutheran theology, ethics, and theological education simply by:

  • Recognizing children’s unique vulnerabilities and the specific ways they are suffering, maltreated, and exploited (in families, faith communities, schools, shelters, refugee camps, etc.).
  • Recognizing their creative strengths, listening carefully to their voices and questions, learning from them, and taking seriously their ideas and contributions.
  • Paying more attention to insights from both the Lutheran tradition and current scientific research about the significance of spiritual and religious life for child development and human flourishing.



[50] These challenges in the ELCA together with the six Lutheran perspectives can remind Lutheran and other Christian communities around the world to reexamine their conceptions of and commitments to children and youth in the light of their full humanity. A robust theology of childhood that honors children’s full humanity not only strengthens our commitments to them but also enlivens congregational life, deepens our understanding of Christian beliefs and spiritual practices, and strengthens theological education. Once we begin to recognize the full humanity in one context—whether in our families, congregations, seminaries, or the church’s national and international institutions—we strengthen our capacity to see, honor, and support children in other contexts. By simply honoring children’s full humanity, we deepen Christian faith and life, enliven the church locally and globally, and experience more fully the abundant life in Christ.

[51] Furthermore, a multi-faceted theology of childhood opens our eyes to the multiple and intersecting efforts required to genuinely help all children thrive. We can see more clearly the depth and complexity of challenges facing children, and we are more eager to work creatively and collaboratively across areas of expertise and lines of difference to promote positive change in church and society. Safeguarding all children from maltreatment involves not only establishing and enforcing child protection policies but also supporting families, listening to children, and building children’s resilience and sense of belonging. Educating all children requires not only building safe schools and training competent teachers but also learning from children and ensuring they have clean water, nutritious food, and a safe place to live. Humanitarian aid requires not only attention to the basic needs of all those suffering but also to the specific neurological, physical, and other developmental needs of infants and children. Solving urgent social and environmental injustices requires not only taking seriously the unique needs and suffering of children but also their concerns and ideas and their creative and courageous activism. By recognizing children’s full humanity and working with and on behalf of them in these ways and more, we help children, people of all ages, and our planet flourish.


[1] For a brief introduction to strides and challenges, see Michael Freeman, “Children’s Rights Past, Present, and Future: Some Introductory Comments Michael Freeman,” in The Future of Children’s Rights, ed. Michael Freeman (Leiden: Brille, 2014), 3–15.

[2] For an introduction to the specific task of child-attentive theologies, including child liberation theologies, see Marcia J. Bunge and Megan Eide, “Strengthening Theology by Honoring Children,” in Child Theology: Diverse Methods and Global Perspectives, ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021), xiii–xxv; and Craig Nessan, “Attending to the Cries of Children in Liberation Theologies,” in Bunge, Child Theology, 1–20.

[3] This essay builds on elements of a longer chapter entitled “Lutheran Commitments to Children and Child Well-being: Theological Foundations and Contemporary Challenges” in the forthcoming volume, Here we Stand: A Lutheran Response to Child Abuse, co-edited Victor I. Vieth and Craig L. Nessan (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2025).

[4] I have discussed these and other perspectives on children in several articles related to theologies of childhood, including and Marcia J. Bunge, “Beyond Children as Agents or Victims: Reexamining Children’s Paradoxical Strengths and Vulnerabilities with Resources from Christian Theologies of Childhood and Child Theologies,” in The Given Child: The Religions’ Contribution to Children’s Citizenship, ed. Trygve Wyller and Usha S. Nayar (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 27–50; “Conceptions of and Commitments to Children: Biblical Wisdom for Families, Congregations, and the Worldwide Church,” in Faith Forward: Launching a Revolution through Ministry with Children, Youth, and Families, vol. 3, ed. David M. Csinos (Lake Country, BC: Wood Lake, 2018), 94–112; and “The Vocation of the Child: Theological Perspectives on the Particular and Paradoxical Roles and Responsibilities of Children,” in The Vocation of the Child, ed. Patrick McKinley Brennan (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 31–52. Sections of this chapter also build on Marcia J. Bunge, “Christianity, Child Well-Being, and Corporal Punishment,” in  Faith in Law, Law in Faith: Reflecting on the Work of John Witte, Jr., ed. Rafael Domingo, Gary S. Hauk, and Timothy P. Jackson (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2024), 540-567.

[5] For more on biblical and theological perspectives on children, see Marcia J. Bunge, ed., The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); Bunge, Terence Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, eds. The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008); and the burgeoning work on theologies of childhood by theologians across the globe and branches of Christianity.

[6] For more on specifically on Luther’s perspectives of children, see Jane E. Strohl, “The Child in Luther’s Theology: ‘For What Purpose Do We Older Folks Exist, Other than to Care for… the Young,’” in The Child in Christian Thought, 134-159.

[7] All biblical passages quoted in this chapter are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Isaiah declares, “Great shall be the prosperity [shalom] of your children” (54:13). For more on Isaiah’s vision, see Jacqueline E. Lapsely, “’Look! The Children and I Are as Signs and Portents in Israel’: Children in Isaiah,” in The Child in the Bible, 82–102.

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (New York: HarperCollins, 1962), 72.

[9] Freedom of a Christian (1522), in Luther’s Works (LW), ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955–86), 31: 365.

[10] Preface to the “Ordinance of a Common Chest” (1523), LW 45:172.

[11] Cyprian, Letter 64.3; in Letters, trans. Sister Rose Bernard Donna (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1964), 217–18.


[13] Learn more about their partnership here:



[16] Martin Luther, The Large Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther, 1529, in The Annotated Luther, Study Edition, ed. Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 326.

[17] The Estate of Marriage (1522), LW 45:39, 46.

[18] Large Catechism, 395.

[19] Large Catechism, 396.

[20] Large Catechism, 399.

[21] Large Catechism, 414.

[22] Large Catechism, 310.

[23] Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae [Delightful Symphonies] (1538), LW 53:323.

[24] See Amos Yong, “Children and the Spirit in Luke and Acts,” in Bunge, Child Theology, 108–28.

[25] Large Catechism, 395.

[26] Large Catechism, 397.

[27] To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520), LW 45:127.

[28] Martin Luther, That Parents Should Neither Compel nor Hinder the Marriage of Their Children, and That Children Should Not Become Engaged without their Parents’ Consent (1524), LW 45:386.

[29] To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (1524), LW 45:355.

[30] To the Councilmen, LW 45:353.

[31] See, for example, and Marcia J. Bunge, “‘A plain and cheerful, active life on earth’: Children, Education, and Faith in the Works of N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783–1872, Denmark),” in Nordic Childhoods 1750-1960: From Folk Beliefs to Pippi Longstocking, co-edited by Marcia J. Bunge, Reidar Aasgaard, and Merethe Roos (Routledge, 2018), 111-130.

[32] Lectures on Genesis 17:9, LW 3:128.

[33] Bunge, “‘A plain and cheerful, active life on earth’: Children, Education, and Faith in the Works of N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783–1872, Denmark).” See also Living Well-Springs: The Hymns, Songs, and Poems of N.F.S. Grundtvig, translated and edited by Edward Broadbridge (Aarhus University Press, 2015).

[34] For these and other social statement see

[35] See, for example, the work of Victor Vieth and Craig L. Nessan, including Nessan’s “Grounding Child Protection in Six Core Commitments: Theology and Ethics” in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics 23, Issue 6 (December 2023/January 2024).

[36] See, for example, John Witte, Jr., Church, State, and Family: Reconciling Traditional Teachings and Modern Liberties (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), especially his chapter on “Why Suffer the Children? Overcoming the Modern Church’s Opposition to Children’s Rights,” 238–73. See also Kathleen Marshall and Paul Parvis, Honouring Children: The Human Rights of the Child in Christian Perspective (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 2004); and John Witte, Jr., and Don S. Browning, “Christianity’s Mixed Contributions to Children’s Rights: Traditional Teachings, Modern Doubts,” in Children, Adults, and Shared Responsibilities: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives, ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 272–91.

[37] See Victor I. Vieth, “The Least of These: The Urgent Need for ELCA Seminaries to Prepare Called Workers to Minister to Survivors of Abuse and Develop Trauma-Informed Congregations,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 23, Issue 6 (December 2023/January 2024).

[38] See Bunge and Eide, “Strengthening Theology by Honoring Children,” and Nessan, “Attending to the Cries of Children in Liberation Theologies.” See also R. L. Stollar, The Kingdom of Children: A Liberation Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023).

Marcia J. Bunge

Marcia J. Bunge is Professor of Religion and the Bernhardson Distinguished Chair of Lutheran Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College and Extraordinary Research Professor at North-West University in South Africa.  She has published six volumes on the topic of children and childhood in world religions including, Child Theology: Diverse Methods and Global Perspectives (Orbis, 2011), The Child in the Bible (Eerdmans, 2008) and The Child in Christian Thought (Eerdmans, 2001).