Jesus loves the little children, and he taught his followers to do the same. This is why churches have historically helped care for children in vulnerable situations, whether facing poverty, foster care, or abortion. Let’s explore what Jesus said about little children and how the early church followed his lead.
The littlest ones among us can’t do much of anything. They can’t control themselves, change themselves, or dress themselves. Yet they’re amazingly capable when it comes to perhaps the most worthwhile achievement, and no one else even comes close. More than anybody else, little ones have the ability to enlarge our hearts and shrink our selfishness. In other words, they are a marvelous gift: “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; The fruit of the womb is a reward” (Ps. 127:3, NASB).
“Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; The fruit of the womb is a reward.”
A few years ago, as I was driving through town, with the hospital on my right, I glanced up like usual at the screen outside the hospital. Like usual, it was circulating through photos of the week’s newborns. This time, I got to thinking: Why is it the baby who’s featured on the screen? It’s not a picture of the mommy who carried the baby or the doctor or nurses who delivered the baby, yet they did the work. Makes you wonder if the obstetrician ever drives by the hospital, looks up, and sort of shakes her head. Why in the world is it the baby that gets her picture up on the big screen?
But the doctor doesn’t look up and think that. Rather, she looks up at the photo of the baby—whose half-closed eyes don’t even inform her that her picture’s being taken—and smiles. Because the doctor knows. And we all know: it’s the tiniest members of our community that deserve the biggest celebration. The tiniest little bodies deserve the cutest outfits. It’s the babies that deserve the most pictures, the most inflated compliments, the sweetest kisses, the heartiest welcomes. It’s the littlest people who have the largest value. The most helpless among us are also our most precious.
“It’s the littlest people who have the largest value.”
How’d we come to know that?
Jesus loves the little children, but not everybody does…
The world did not always think this way. Rewind to the 1st century AD. The Greco-Roman world did not believe that the most helpless are the most precious. It was just the opposite. Babies, toddlers, and little kids weren’t necessarily that valuable at all. Often, rich people didn’t even want to have kids. After all, if you were rich and you didn’t have kids, then others were in the running to get your money when you died. So, to rich people without kids would flow a perpetual flattery of gifts, dinner invitations, and whatever else it took to get included in the will. The childless rich were treated as royalty.
While people who didn’t have children often felt lucky, people who discovered that they were having a child sometimes felt unlucky. By the 1st century, in many corners of the Roman Empire, married people weren’t expected to stay faithful to each other. One poet says that a chaste woman was essentially unheard of. No doubt the same could have been said about the men as well. Adultery was just what people did. So, it wasn’t at all uncommon for there to be inconvenient pregnancies.
When this happened, one could ingest certain potions that were intended to abort the child. There was no real stigma to abortion. Even the great ethicists Plato and Aristotle had stamped it as ethical especially if the State encouraged it. For if the lawmakers saw their realm getting too crowded, reasoned Plato and Aristotle, it was their responsibility to set limits on the number of children and impose abortion.
“If the lawmakers saw their realm getting too crowded, reasoned Plato and Aristotle, it was their responsibility to set limits on the number of children and impose abortion.”
As mentioned earlier, more frequent than abortion was the practice of “exposing” the child, dumping her or him, for example, outside of town. Sometimes this was part of a grief ritual (e.g., after the assassination of Emperor Caligula), but more often it was simply because the baby was inconvenient to care for. Baby girls were more likely than baby boys to be exposed, and babies that were deformed or crippled were routinely exposed, almost as a matter of principle.
It shouldn’t be assumed that discarded babies always perished as a result. For example, there was in Rome a state-run drop-off for those parents that wanted their discarded babies to survive (the Columna Lactaria). And sometimes these babies were picked up by childless couples or by traffickers in slavery.
Yet often the exposed babies died, and one searches Greek and Roman writings in vain for any guilt for what the culture saw as a commonsense solution. One of the most admired philosophers of the first century was Seneca the Younger who made infanticide seem principled: “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.”
“We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.”
That’s a lot of unwanted kids.
Jesus loves the little children and taught the church to do the same
Then, one day, an engaged couple living in poverty found out the woman was pregnant. The baby wasn’t his. There was talk of divorce. This sounds like another of those unwanted babies. Yet this one didn’t get aborted or dumped outside of town. They went ahead and had the baby, and that baby grew up to forever change the way the world sees babies. The mother’s name was Mary, the dad’s name (the adopted father) was Joseph, and they gave their baby the name Jesus.
Jesus grew up, started a movement, and his followers began looking around at the surrounding culture and shaking their heads. One Christian named Tertullian asked his culture how is it that they could throw their babies out into “cold, starvation, and [to be eaten by] the dogs.” Another Christian named Clement tried to get his culture to see their grotesque value system: they had tons of money, yet they threw away their babies while keeping exotic pets.
Jesus loves the little children: “Their advocacy exceeded talk.”
Their advocacy exceeded talk. The average life expectancy of the era was around 30 years old. Unsurprisingly, the empire was overrun with orphans. From early on, it was Christians who took up offerings to take care of them. Often, they’d rescue exposed babies and bring orphans in to live with their families. In the 300s, once Christianity was made legal, the Church had the funds to begin building orphanages, often connected to their cathedrals. Moreover, church leaders protested abortion and organized support for women with unwanted pregnancies. Eventually, their ethical positions were able to convince those at the empire’s helm and, by AD 374, abortion, infanticide, and child exposing were illegal.
How Jesus responds when people don’t love the little children
Why were so many babies unwanted? Well, you know. Babies take a lot of attention. They take tons of time. They plug up your schedule; they interrupt your timeline. Babies can be a real intrusion. Everybody knows that, even Jesus’ disciples. They knew that the one thing babies seem to do well on a regular basis is to get people wet. Soggy bundles of germs.
One day, moms brought their babies and toddlers to Jesus, as if someone as important as Jesus had that kind of time. The disciples intervened, as they were confident Jesus would have wanted them to: “People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them” (Mark 10:34).
And that’s when we find out that Jesus isn’t all smiles.
“When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’” (Mark 10:14)
Jesus loves the little children: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
He was angry they were angry. Spiritually, they were the ones still in diapers. It was the children who could teach the disciples a master class on how to enter the kingdom. Just like little ones know how much they need Mommy, so people in God’s kingdom have no delusions of self-sufficiency. Jesus continued, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Then Jesus went ahead and blessed the babies and toddlers. But he didn’t just put his hand on each head and pronounce a blessing: “And he took the children in his arms…” (Mark 10:16a). He scooped the babies up, holding them close. “[Jesus] placed his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:16b).
Jesus loves the little children: “He scooped the babies up, holding them close.”
Jesus loves the little children. When Jesus says, “Let the little children come,” here’s what we can deduce: There is no such thing as an unwanted child. There’s never been an unloved, undesirable child. Ever. Jesus took time for children, and so should we. After all, Jesus went even further to say that however we treat children is how we’re treating him:
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:33-37)
Jesus loves the little children: “Jesus went even further to say that however we treat children is how we’re treating him.”
Translation: We had better love children, because to love children is to love Jesus, and to love Jesus is to love God. Another translation: We had better want the unwanted children. We had better take care of them, for to want the unwanted children is to love Jesus, and to love Jesus is to love God.
Children need love in the Western world
Jesus loves the little children. And because he does, the church loves the little children. The church values babies—born or unborn, healthy or sick, disabled, and deformed. And in a post-Christian Western culture that more and more resembles the pre-Christian Roman Empire, it’s a good thing the church loves babies. Almost one in five babies in America is being aborted.
“Almost one in five babies in America is being aborted.”
And yet there is no substantial difference between an unborn and a born baby to justify killing one and not the other. “Precisely,” argue some powerful pro-choice voices of our time, turning a standard pro-life argument on its head. For example, Francis Crick, Nobel Prize winner for helping to discover the structure of DNA, has said, “No newborn infant should be declared human until it passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment, and that if it fails these tests, it forfeits the right to live.” Someone asked the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins whether a person ought to abort a baby with Downs Syndrome, to which he tweeted, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”
History professor Glenn Sunshine explains, “In practice, a serial killer on death row has more advocates than a newborn baby with a serious, debilitating illness. We are approaching the point where smoking in public is greeted with more social condemnation than killing crippled children.”
That’s a lot of unwanted kids. Or is it?
Jesus and the church love “unwanted” children
The American Humanist Association published an ad in the Denver Post which declared, “We believe that the world would be a better place if every child born was wanted.” Then it went on to list all the times when it is moral to abort the baby: 1) victims of rape and incest, 2) poor women, 3) women whose birth control didn’t work, 4) minors who get pregnant, 5) women with uncommitted partners, 6) women who discover that the baby is disabled, 7) women for whom the baby might interfere with work. A better place if every child born was wanted.
But every child is wanted! In 1994, Mother Teresa stood before a roomful of Washington politicians including the President at the National Prayer Breakfast. She chose to talk about abortion, calling it the “greatest destroyer of love and peace.” But not wanting to merely curse the darkness, she continued,
“I will tell you something beautiful. We are fighting abortion by adoption—by care of the mother and adoption for her baby. We have saved thousands of lives. We have sent word to the clinics, to the hospitals and police stations: ‘Please don’t destroy the child; we will take the child.’ So we always have someone tell the mothers in trouble: ‘Come, we will take care of you, we will get a home for your child’…
Jesus loves the little children: “Come, we will take care of you, we will get a home for your child.”
Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child. I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted and to give that child to a married couple who will love the child and be loved by the child. From our children’s home in Calcutta alone, we have saved over 3000 children from abortion. These children have brought such love and joy to their adopting parents and have grown up so full of love and joy.”
How beautiful to see an ethic fierce enough to beat an empire yet tender enough to cradle an infant.
Want to follow Jesus’ call and join in the church’s historic care for vulnerable children? There are all sorts of important ways to get involved: Elementary education. Foster parenting. Pro-life ministry. Child sponsorship. Adoption. Pregnancy clinics. Mentoring. Children’s ministry. Ministry to children of prisoners. As Jesus said, “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matt. 18:5).
Jesus loves the little children: “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matt. 18:5).
 Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 55.
 Schmidt, 55-56.
 Schmidt, 52.
 Schmidt, 49.
 Albert A. Bell, Jr., Exploring the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Jesus and the First Christians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 241.
 Schmidt, 131-132.
 Schmidt, 59.
 Elizabeth Nash and Joerg Dreweke, “The U.S. Abortion Rate Continues to Drop: Once Again, State Abortion Restrictions Are Not the Main Driver,” September 18, 2019, https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2019/09/us-abortion-rate-continues-drop-once-again-state-abortion-restrictions-are-not-main.
 Glenn S. Sunshine, Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 207. Emphasis mine.
 Richard Dawkins, “Abortion and Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar,” 21 August 2014, https://richarddawkins.net/2014/08/abortion-down-syndrome-an-apology-for-letting-slip-the-dogs-of-twitterwar/ (accessed July 22, 2016). In this article, Dawkins apologized, not for what he said but how, since, in trimming his thoughts down to Twitter-size, he had to frame the response down to a blunter form. He finished the article by explaining, “To conclude, what I was saying simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most us, I presume, espouse. My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.”
 Sunshine, 208.
 “Blessed Mother Teresa on Abortion,” Catholic News Agency, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/abortion/catholic-teaching/blessed-mother-teresa-on-abortion/ (accessed July 22, 2016).