“Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me”
The Case for Age Inclusive Corporate Worship
STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
Over the past 50 years, the church has been mostly sleeping through what is perhaps the fiercest battle yet of an age-old war. The battle is being waged by the enemies of God against that fundamental unit of society instituted by God at creation: the family. Satan’s goal in this battle is the destruction of your family. Family members are increasingly separated by today’s structures (school, business, church), today’s values (working moms, childcare, nursing homes), and today’s technologies (TV, movies, music, video games). The family is disintegrating into unrelated components that no longer have much to do with one another. That the church is one of today’s structures listed as emblematic of separating family members should come as a shock, but it is true. With all the other structures, values, and technologies separating family members most every waking hour of every day, the church, rather than succumbing to the external and internal pressures of conformity to the world, should be one institution where family members are actually encouraged to be a family. Sadly, many church calendars are filled with compartmentalized activities that separate the family throughout the week and then again during worship on Sunday mornings. Following the Biblical model, Providence Reformed Baptist Church is strongly committed to encourage and facilitate the whole family, including babies, worshipping God together at church and at home.
There is no example in Scripture of age-segregated worship.
In the Old Testament, the Jews were seldom required to come together to worship the Lord in the hearing and exposition of the Law, but when they did come together the children were normally included in the worship. For example, at the renewal of the covenant recorded in Deuteronomy 29, we are specifically told that the “little ones” (v. 11) were present. The word translated “little ones” literally means: “those who walk with quick tripping steps,” i.e., toddlers. Similarly at the sabbatical year convocation we are told that the men, women, strangers, and children were to be gathered and instructed. “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God (Deut.31:11-13). Then again, in Joshua 8:35, we are told that “all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them” attended to the reading of the Word by Joshua. And again we read of similar gatherings during the time of Jehoshaphat (2Chr.20:13) and during the reformation of Ezra (Neh.8:2-3; 12:43) as well as the revival of Josiah in which the king read aloud (long before the day of cushioned pews and air-conditioned sanctuaries!) “all the words of the book of the covenant” to “all the people both small and great”. Interestingly, segregated worship did become the norm during the inter-testamental period, but rather than age-segregated it was gender-segregated worship. Entering the temple from the outer court, the first inner court would be the Court of the Women, where all Jews including women could advance, but which was off-limits to Gentiles on pain of death. The man alone could continue to advance toward the sanctuary itself, entering the Court of the Israelites. This court was open to all ritually pure Jewish men, but none others. However, the New Testament church put an end to such segregation, and entire families worshipped Jesus Christ together. When the people gathered to hear our Lord, the young children were usually present too (see Mat.14:21; 15:38; etc.). On one occasion, we are told that the people began bringing their young children to the Lord to be touched by Him (Mk 10:13). For some reasons the disciples tried to stop them. Perhaps they were thinking of the tradition of segregated worship that was still being practiced in the temple. Regardless of the reason the disciples rebuked the parents, we are told that, “when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mk.10:13-14). The word translated ‘little children’ here is the Greek paidion, which means “very young child or infant.” This statement of our Lord is instructive, for how do we suffer the little children to come unto Christ in post-ascension Christian worship, but to bring them to worship with the body of Christ? There is little doubt that the practice of having children in the worship service was the norm in the early church. This is suggested by the fact that the apostolic epistles, which were read during congregational worship in the early church, addressed the children directly (Eph.6:1; Col.3:20; 1Jn.2:12; etc.). In general, the biblical pattern is that the Christian family ought to worship together. It is also a matter of historical fact that the exclusion of children from congregational worship is a very modern innovation.
Our children ought to be trained to revere and worship God.
The Scripture says in Deut. 6:4-9, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Jesus Himself used verse 5 to let us know the heart of all the Law of God. It was that we love God with everything we are and have (Matt. 22:37). As we grow in our relationship with God we learn to love Him and worship Him. When we praise Him and adore Him for His love, grace, mercy, and power we come to know more and more that to Him alone belongs all glory, honor, wisdom, power, and strength (Rev. 4:11).
According to Deut. 6:4-9 it is the responsibility of parents to make the topic of loving God part of daily conversation everywhere we look in our lives and even our homes. While the Jews took this literally and placed little boxes containing verses of Scripture on their doorposts we know that what is meant here is that our lives are to always testify to the glory of God. Everywhere we look in our lives and homes, every waking moment we are to be focused on God so much so that we are to teach our children about Him in every circumstance of the day. He is to consume our thoughts and our lives.
If we are teaching these things to our children daily, moment by moment, then we must understand the importance of conveying truth to our families about the God we worship and how we are expected and commanded in Scripture to worship Him. Children who are taught to sit still during worship when young are likely to grow up understanding the importance of reverential worship. More than one godly person has expressed their gratitude to their fathers for disciplining them to keep them still and quiet during worship when they were young. Matthew Henry, who was himself trained from a young age, explains: “Little children should learn betimes to worship God. Their parents should instruct them in his worship and bring them to it, put them upon engaging in it as well as they can, and God will graciously accept them and teach them to do better” (Comm. on 1 Samuel 1:19). Also: “It is for the honour of Christ that children should attend on public worship, and he is pleased with their hosannas” (Comm. on Luke 2:41). Christ Himself said, “Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise.” (Mat.21:16). It is true that very young children are unable to sit for the duration of the sermon without becoming a distraction to their parents and fellow worshippers, but we believe this problem can be best overcome by gentle and persistent training, with the cooperation of a sympathetic congregation.
Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
The ordinary means by which God calls His people is the preaching of the word of God. Those who do not hold to the Doctrines of Grace generally insist that there is such a thing as an “age of accountability”, before which a child would not be held accountable for his or her sins or for rejecting the gospel. They reason that before such an age of accountability, which is generally arbitrary, the child is incapable of conceptual thoughts. However, this “age of accountability” is an unscriptural idea based on secular psychology and popular morality. The Scripture declares every child of Adam to be guilty before God from the moment he is conceived (Ps.51:5). Conversely, the Scripture also indicates that it is possible for a child to be regenerated at a very young age and so come to faith and justification. John the Baptist was apparently regenerated while he was still in his mother’s womb. The angel Gabriel had foretold this when he prophesied that “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). When Mary came to visit John’s mother, the baby, sensing the presence of Christ, leapt for joy (Luke 1:44). It is the consistent teaching of Scripture that regeneration precedes faith. Surely a regenerate child would benefit from the preaching of the word. The Puritan pastor John Willison writes this: “Though children be young, yet bring them with you; for they are capable of getting good by the word sooner than we are aware. … If we lay our children by the pool-side, who knows how early the Spirit of God may help them in, and heal them?” (Works, 77). It has been demonstrated that children as young as a year and a half could understand adult conversation reasonably well. For all we know, such comprehension could come even earlier. Would it not be exceedingly strange for parents to pray for the salvation of their infants and then remove them from the ordinary means ordained to call them unto Christ?
We acknowledge that unregenerate children are little bundles of total depravity, disobedient by nature and at enmity with God. They will demand to have their way, often loudly. We acknowledge that infants up to about the age of three have great difficulty staying still and quiet through an entire worship service and often need special attention. Perhaps sleep is necessary. A child that continues to cry surely requires help. Diapers often need to be changed. We have made available a “Cry Room” for just such occasions.
We further acknowledge that children can be a distraction to their parents and a hindrance to their being spiritually fed from the preaching of the Word. We have some suggestions below, and we empathetically join you and ask that you join us as a church in praying to God in faith for His solution to this very important issue.
Routinely hold family worship services in your home during the week. Husbands, it is your high privilege and solemn duty to lead your family at home in godly worship, praying and teaching and reading aloud the word of God. How can you expect your children to become worshippers if you yourself are not the model worshipper in your home? If Sunday morning is your one spiritual meal of the week, then your Christian life is certainly as weak as your body would be on a diet of one meal per week. Family worship and its preparation is worth the time and work because it feeds you and your family, it holds you accountable to what is taught (a very healthy benefit!), and it helps to train your children to be reverent worshippers of God.
To assist each family in our church we record our Lord’s Day messages and offer these free online. Especially on those Sundays when you may get distracted to the point of not being fed, we suggest you listen to the sermon again at a later time.
Foster a biblical or theological attitude rather than a pragmatic attitude toward worship. If a mother tells a child to keep quiet during worship service for no other reason than not to disturb other worshippers, she is exhibiting a pragmatic attitude toward worship. Thus, entertaining a toddler by playing during worship service so that the child will not cry for attention undermines the training of the child to revere and worship God.
Other recommendations include the following:
- No toys – this is worship, not play time.
- No running around or playing – our goal is to teach reverence and respect for the worship of God.
- Soft Activity Bible Story Books – these are soft material (quiet) and can be looked at during church. Set these aside during the week as only for use “in church.”
- Participation – the children should be expected to participate as best they can in the singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, praying, and other aspects of our worship services. Parents must involve the children in these activities so that they can learn how to worship.
- Discipline – if it becomes necessary to remove your child from the service for correction, as soon as you are able return to the service with the child.
If you have questions or need help, members of the church will be happy to assist and encourage you in training your children in the worship of God.
Yours in Faithful Service to the Glory of God,