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FIRST-PERSON: Does your child’s cell phone preach another gospel?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–I’m afraid I’m not the most popular pastor with the 10- to 14-year-old demographic in my church right now. I took on an issue, parenthetically, last month that caused frenzied looks and agape mouths. I dared to question the theology of text-messaging.

Rifling through some things I had found some church bulletins from my home congregation from the 1980s. All over the back of them I can see my teenage handwriting, interspersed with that of my youth group friends. There’s some tic-tac-toe there, and some plans being made for after-church Capture the Flag games, and so on.

I realized that the pre-teens and teenagers in my congregation won’t ever have such things, not because they’re too holy to ever pass a note in church, but because cell-phone technology has made it as easy, and as temporal, as a text-message.

Text-messaging is easy, and can easily break the boredom of a classroom or a family dinner, and it can put one in touch with people one’s parents never know one is “talking” to. That’s easily enough remedied by Christ-following parents, but I wonder if the cell phone isn’t being used as just one more opportunity to preach a misleading gospel to our kids.

The formation and discipline of children, after all, is built on the pattern of God’s fatherly discipline of His people (Hebrews 12:3-11), seen in His discipline of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:1-20) and, ultimately, in His discipleship of the incarnate Christ (Luke 2:20, John 5:19-20; Hebrews 2:10). Our discipline of our families is rooted, then, in the Fatherhood “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15).

I wonder, then, when it comes to cell phones, how many parents do precisely what our Father never does, and never will do. James tell us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). The Apostle Paul tells us that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

That’s why our God, through the Law of Moses, treats His people as a tightly-governed child “under guardians and managers until the date set by his father” (Galatians 4:2). He carefully works us toward maturity, seeing that we’re faithful in small things before putting us over many things. That’s what a good and loving Father does.

A pre-teen or a teenager with unrestricted cell-phone usage (or Internet or television consumption) is being placed in a very, very difficult place of temptation. The company of that young man or woman is now away from the scrutiny of parents, and is now left only to his or her discretion or conscience. Are there some young Christians who can handle such? Of course. Should you assume your child is one of them? Your Father is more careful of you than that.

First of all, pre-teens and teenagers, simply — brace yourself — don’t need cell phones. I know you’re immediately responding with safety issues, etc. Nonetheless, for thousands of years pre-teens and teenagers have safely grown to adulthood without having communication devices in their pockets. Pre-teens and teenagers all over the world do it right now, and they survive.

Second, if your child does have a cell phone, then your responsibility is to know about every call, and the identity of every person text-messaging your son or daughter. You don’t have time to monitor this? Then you don’t have time for your child to have a cell phone.

This doesn’t mean you have to turn your house into an Inquisition hall. It simply means your child knows that you love him or her enough to check in frequently to see what’s going on in life. It also means that you communicate clearly that the child doesn’t have a personal cell phone, autonomous of your authority. It’s your cell phone, and your child is using it.

Communicating your love to your child means communicating your involvement. The Gospel message is one of Fatherhood and sonship, of a Father who knows the hairs on our head (Luke 12:7), who fights for his children when they’re tested, tempted or mistreated. Picture that kind of God to your children, even if they grumble and complain at first. So did we, and all those before us, when we were first delivered from our respective Pharaohs into a Father’s house.
Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Russell D. Moore