In Matthew 18:7, right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching about children, he makes a sobering statement.
“…for it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come…”
Jesus, who also warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15), of the certainties of persecution (Matt 10:16-18), and of tribulation in general (John 16:33), here speaks of the harsh reality that there are people in this world who will cause “little ones who believe in Me to stumble” (Matt 18:6).
Some translations of Matthew 18:6 say “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin...” However, the Greek implies more than that. Stumbling is not the same as sinning. It is falling in a way that damages the faith of that person, sometimes beyond repair (cf. 1 Cor 8:7-14). Countless testimonies of abuse within the walls of the church, a place that should be a safe haven for the vulnerable and an expression of God’s love for all, confirm that this can often be the case. It is not uncommon that one of the results of the abuse is a permanent rejection of the gospel message. Thus, to seek the protection of minors is important not just for their physical and emotional well-being, but for their spiritual well-being. Their faith is literally at stake.
After a warning to potential offenders (Matt 18:7-9), Jesus closes with this charge:
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My father who is in heaven” (Matt 18:10).
The word “despise” in the Greek can have two meanings. It can be to actively look down upon someone and treat them with contempt. We see the disciples doing this in the very next chapter, when they rebuke children being brought to Jesus that he might pray for them (Matt 19:13-15). It seems that Jesus’ own followers were slow to learn this lesson. Yet, the word can also mean to “care nothing for, disregard.” Jesus’ words carry with them the challenge to not overlook even one of the little ones. They are of value to God, and thus should be of value and the subject of care and protection for those professing faith in Christ as well.
There is a general responsibility for us as believers to seek the good of children in many ways, especially those who are more vulnerable. For instance, many scriptures speak of care for orphans, along with widows, foreigners, and the poor. God himself defends and loves them (Deut 10:18). He calls for their care through tithes (Deut 14:28-29) and their consideration during festivals (Deut 16:9-17). He decrees that they not be deprived of justice (Deut 24:17; Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3) and curses those who would deprive them (Deut 27:19; Isa 10:1-2). James picks up on the importance of this theme from the Old Testament for living out our faith, and goes so far as to say, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
Without downplaying this general call, Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 and 19 on caring for and protecting children, especially with regards to their faith, tasks the modern church in a very specific way. We must be zealous in our attention to them, in not overlooking them, in seeing that they are protected and that their faith is allowed to thrive in a safe and loving environment. We must strive to lead them to Christ, rather than keep them from him. We must be diligent to keep them from predators who would and do hide within our ranks as volunteers and even at times as ministers. Jesus did not shy away from the harsh realities of a fallen world, and neither can we. We must not be slow to learn as the disciples were. Too much is at stake.