by Phil Skellie
A former missionary kid reflects on what it means to “lay one’s children on the altar” for service to God.
When I was growing up as a missionary kid (MK), I would occasionally hear missionaries say that they were “laying their children on the altar” as they sent their children off to boarding school. As one of the “sacrificed,” (having attended boarding school from first through tenth grade), I have always been curious about the implications of that pious phrase. My curiosity deepened to a committed search for understanding when I learned of abuses at various MK schools that went beyond the “necessary discipline” I had experienced in school. As I listened to the stories, I wondered what motivated parents to “lay their children on the altar.” The answer seemed obvious: they looked to the story of Abraham and Isaac, found in Genesis 22.
The story is familiar. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, the child for whom Abraham had waited for nearly one hundred years. Abraham obeys without hesitation. Wood is gathered, an altar is built, a son is laid out, a knife is poised to strike and God intervenes: “Abraham! Abraham!….Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him” (Gen. 22:11-12). A ram is substituted. The child of promise is saved.
Despite the fact that God stayed Abraham’s hand, it is obvious that God was delighted with Abraham’s obedience, his willingness to slay Isaac. The Lord said, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Gen. 22:12). This perception is further strengthened by the writer of Hebrews:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. (Heb. 11:17-19)
What are the implications of this story for modern day missionary parents? Are we to pattern our lives after Abraham by unquestioningly laying our children at the foot of the plane, train or van and carrying on with our ministries without questioning the personnel or policies provided by our missions to care for them? Abraham didn’t question God. What warrant is there for us to drag our children off the altar by asking mission administrators or surrogate parents hard questions about the care of our children? After all, don’t we believe God can bring our children safely back home, which is certainly less difficult than raising them from the dead?
If the passage suggests that God expects us to be willing to figuratively, if not literally, sacrifice our children in the pursuit of his will, then we, like Abraham, should obey immediately. After all (as some of us were taught in Hermeneutics 101), if the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense. Case closed. Or is it?
Before pursuing this issue, let me state that I am not inherently opposed to boarding school. It was a positive experience for me in many ways: I developed friendships which are still valuable, I was positively shaped by some excellent teachers and I had a number of boarding parents who I still affectionately refer to as “Uncle” and “Aunt.” Two of my three children have had, by and large, positive experiences in boarding school.
All this said, I do question a theology which promotes an unquestioning “sacrifice” of children in order to follow God. Unfortunately, such a theology has at times been inappropriately built on a one-dimensional understanding of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.
GOD’S PURPOSES IN GENESIS 22
First, the Abraham/Isaac story must be balanced with 1 Timothy 5:8 and Ephesians 6:1-4, which state that care of one’s family is a priority in God’s eyes. Scripture does interpret scripture. Whatever we may make of the story in Genesis 22, it cannot be used to justify a pseudo-pietistic approach which implies that those who are truly spiritual and consumed with completing the Great Commission can transfer the care of their children to others without holding the caregivers accountable. Further, the story should not be used by mission leaders to stifle parents who raise legitimate questions about inappropriate care or discipline.
Second, we must seek to understand what God was really trying to teach Abraham. Indeed, God was teaching Abraham obedience, but there is more to the story. Think for a moment of the precedent that would have been set if God had not stayed the plunge of Abraham’s knife into Isaac. The nations among whom Abraham lived practiced child sacrifice. If Isaac had indeed been sacrificed it would have validated an approach to God that was practiced by the people most opposed to the one true God. In Leviticus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 18:10 we are told that God warned the descendents of Abraham not to profane the name of their God by participating in child sacrifices. If Isaac had been sacrificed, the King of Moab’s sacrifice of his son to gain a military victory would have followed a divine precedent (2 Kings 3:27). Yet God abhors the practice of child sacrifice as evidenced by the fact that Manasseh’s sacrifice of his children in the fire was a central reason to why God laid waste the ten northern tribes of Israel (2 Kings 21:6, 10-15).
If it is in the very nature of God to abhor child sacrifice, why would he ask Abraham to do just that? Does God play games with his children? Does God ask his children to sin, while all along planning to stop them from sinning? According to James 1:13, God tempts no person to do evil. The sovereign God can do anything but contradict his own nature and commit sin. In light of this, what do we make of God’s request to Abraham?
A LESSON IN GRACE FROM GENESIS 22
God was teaching Abraham the first lesson in Grace 101. There is nothing we can do or give to earn God’s favor. This revolutionary truth was revealed through a dramatic command to sacrifice the child of promise, thereby creating a situation that served to highlight the priority of grace over works.
Abraham’s pagan neighbors were seeking favor with their deities by sacrificing plants, animals, and for larger requests, their own children. Through God’s intercession of child sacrifice, God is in essence saying, “Enough of this nonsense.” The counter-cultural precedent God set in his dialogue with Abraham was that the sacrifice of a child was not the necessary measure of one’s faith. True, God did command a temporary extension of the sacrifice of plants and animals, but only to prepare the way for the sacrificial lamb who would put an end to the sacrificial system.
In this light, we must look at the sacrificial death of Christ, to which the Abraham/Isaac story clearly points. Does not the Father’s willingness to sacrifice his Son for us model our need to sacrifice our children that others might have eternal life? No! Christ was indeed a sacrifice, but most definitely not a “child” sacrifice. Jesus Christ was not a boy bound by his father. He was a mature man, God incarnate, who freely chose to sacrifice his life on our behalf (John 10:17-18). He was not sacrificed by the Father; rather, he was asked by the Father to sacrifice himself for us.
Neither the Abraham/Isaac story nor Christ’s death on the cross mandate that parents “sacrifice” their children to follow God’s will. God was teaching Abraham that no sacrifice on our part is sufficient to earn his favor or gain power for service. God is the provider, the author of our salvation and the sustainer of our faith.
Does it mean that we can kick back, relax and forgo a life of sacrifice because “Jesus paid it all?” Hardly. The Gospel of Matthew states unequivocally,
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matt. 10:37-38)
Luke 14:26 states the same point negatively: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” Following Jesus demands sacrifice, perhaps even the sacrifice of our lives. Our love for God, as demonstrated through obedience, will lead us to places and situations that are dangerous for ourselves and our families. The world will think we hate our families when we take them to difficult places. While scripture warrants taking precautions to ensure the safety of our loved ones, there will be times when we are in danger because of where and how we serve. Ultimately, our protection rests in our shield of faith.
The sacrifice of separation (whether from parents, a spouse or children) is also inevitable when serving the Lord. More than once I have wept as I have hugged my children as they left for boarding school. Thankfully, virtually all mission organizations view boarding schools as an option, not the option, for missionary parents today. Local schools or home schools may be used instead.
Yet while separation from children may not be necessary today, separation from loved ones is a painful necessity in cross-cultural service. I have often felt the pain of parting as I kissed my wife before leaving on a long trip which included some dangerous destinations.
However, never have I believed that such sacrifice involved laying my loved ones on the altar and forgetting them. The sacrifice involved in serving God does not prevent me from making certain my loved ones were being properly cared for. Asking questions and taking precautions does not mean I am dragging my children or wife off the altar. If God would not allow Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, would he allow me to figuratively or literally sacrifice my children to please him?
Even as I write this, I have received word of a past incident of child abuse at an MK school. This article is written to provide a rationale for current missionaries, committed to a sacrificial lifestyle, who are struggling with the implications of sacrifice as it relates to their children. Be assured that the God who abhors child sacrifice, who provided his Son, who was not a child, as the supreme and final sacrifice for us all, will provide a way for us to fulfill the call he has given us and appropriately care for our loved ones.
Phil Skellie is director of Compassion and Mercy Associates (CAMA). He is a missionary kid from the Philippines and has served with his wife and three children in New Zealand, Thailand and Russia.
Copyright © 2006 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.