I have always been fascinated by the idea of “the grandfather clause”. The phrase dates back to England’s King Henry II, who declared when he became king in 1154, “Let it be as it was on the day of my grandfather’s death.” His cousin Stephen had been king after a series of family conflicts and deaths, and Henry was glad to have the throne restored to his direct family line. Henry wanted several of Stephen’s decrees undone, which led to his declaration that things return to how they were at the end of his grandfather’s life.
Since those medieval times, the grandfather clause has been used in a variety of ways. An infamous grandfather clause was added to the constitutions of some southern states after 1890. This addition aimed to allow more white people to vote, while barring black people from the polls. Property and literacy rules were commonly part of voting qualifications at the time, and this meant that in order to vote, you had to prove you could read and that you owned property. At the time, many poor whites didn’t qualify to vote under those rules, so the grandfather clause was enacted, saying that if your grandfather could read or owned property in 1867, any of his descendants could vote in 1890—whether or not those descendants were readers or property owners. Since the grandfathers of almost all blacks in the south in 1890 were slaves, they didn’t own property and couldn’t read, which meant that black people could not vote.
Today, a grandfather clause looks backward in time in a variety of situations, typically exempting an organization or person from new rules and allowing them to continue operating under past laws. My husband and I had a Netflix membership for many years where we got one DVD per month in the mail, along with being able to stream content online. When Netflix stopped sending DVDs in the mail and no longer offered that kind of subscription to new users, we still received a monthly DVD because we had been “grandfathered in,” and Netflix wanted to keep us as happy subscribers–albeit technologically unenlightened ones. It was just a few years ago that Netflix cut us off from DVD deliveries. And we are still subscribers, so the grandfather clause worked!
John the Baptist came before Jesus, a voice who urged people to repent and be baptized in preparation for the Lord’s coming. I bet a lot of John the Baptist’s listeners were hoping to be grandfathered in to his movement. Some people wondered if John was the Messiah, but he told them,
John anticipated what many of the people were thinking, that because their ancestors had been devoted Jews, perhaps they didn’t need to repent of their sins or change their behavior.
The people that John the Baptist preached to wanted a grandfather clause for their faith. They wanted assurance that because they had a family or cultural lineage all the way back to Abraham—to whom God had promised land, descendants, and generations of blessing—they did not have to repent of their sins or seek the Messiah. But John the Baptist turned the Abrahamic covenant on its head, saying that Jesus is doing a new thing that you cannot be grandfathered into.
This was probably confusing for the Jews because their faith was so intertwined with family and generational continuity. Even as believers today, we are encouraged in the book of Proverbs to “train up a child in the way she should go, and when she is old she will not depart from it” (22:6). Similarly, as parents at the baptism of our children, we’re asked to promise to teach our child the Christian faith. While it is important to train and teach children about religious faith, Jesus represented a new way–both for the Jews of his time and for us today–one where his gospel surpasses family ties.
John the Baptist’s exhortation not to rely on family tradition is a good reminder for me that God values me and my children as individuals and not just as part of a family line of believers. The flipside of that is also true, that if you haven’t been brought up to know and follow Jesus, you need not feel that faith isn’t for you because it’s not part of your background. Jesus is continually doing a new thing, drawing people to him who are outsiders to the faith. There is always room in God’s family, and we should always be making room in our families for God.