By Barksdale Pullen
During the Perimeter Conference lunch panel discussion, John Kwasny referenced teaching by Dr. Barksdale Pullen on the issue of children in corporate worship. Many of you have asked about this, so here is a wonderful article he wrote on this several years ago. (Remember, there are many different views on the subject and this perspective should be considered if your leadership is trying to make a decision about children’s worship.)
Recently, there has been discussion concerning the role of children in the worship service. What follows is a brief summary on what I perceive to be the Biblical position of children in worship. Simply stated, I believe that children, as part of the covenantal community, are invited by God to worship him in the assembly of his people. To encourage parents, in any form, to be separate from their children during corporate worship is a violation of God’s Word. More important is the question of why having children in worship matters. Is worship really all that significant in the formation of Christian children?
Fundamentally, we must recognize that every action of our lives molds our character. An environment of humility, reverence, obedience, and eagerness (some of the most prominent reactions of biblical characters when they encountered God or his messengers) will train children in essential aspects of a faith-full disposition.
‘The only thing that the Church does that no one else can do is worship the triune God. Therefore, if we want to raise children to rejoice in being members of the Christian community, what we do in worship is critically important. Both parents and congregations have enormous – but enormously worthwhile – work to do to train our children in the habits and practice of worship’
This brief will consists of three parts:
What is the church?
What is Worship?
Answering objections to children in church
WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
The fundamental theological issue in question is the nature of the Church. Of what does the Church consist? Does the church consist of a collection of individual believers? The Reformed/Presbyterian view is that the church is composed of believing families. As we refer to our confessional standards, which are built upon the Bible, we see that children are considered a part of the covenantal community at baptism. They are part of the covenantal community based not on their own belief, but on the belief of their parents. (WCF XXVIII) Thus as members of the covenantal community, under their parent’s authority, they are entitled to the rights and privileges. (WCF XXVII, LC Q62))
Much has been made that in the Reformed/Presbyterian view the family is central, not the individual believer. (That is not to imply the individual believer is not important.) The Biblical evidence supports the traditional Reformed/Presbyterian view. Children participated in the Passover meal, and in various feasts (Ex. 12:1-4; 16:9-17). Parents were to ensure that their children kept the Sabbath holy, which included Sabbath worship (Ex. 20:8-11). Children were to be instructed in the law of the Lord, particularly by their parents (Deut. 6:7). Entire families were commanded to listen to the reading of the law every seventh year (Deut. 31:9-13). In Joel 2:16 the Lord invites “nursing children” to gather with the rest of God’s people in sacred assembly. To refuse this invitation is an insult to the One who issues it.
Turning to the New Testament, children heard Jesus preach (Mt. 14:13-21; cf. Mk. 6:30-44). Jesus encouraged people to bring their children to him and indignantly rebuked those who prevented children from coming to Him (Mt. 19:13-15; Mk.10:13-16; Lk. 18:15-17). Several facts are particularly significant about this episode. First, the Greek word for little children (paidion) may mean “infant;” the same word is used of a newborn in John 16:21. This word is important because there is another Greek word for child (teknon) that refers explicitly to an older child. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that the use of paidion in Matthew 19 and its parallels includes very young children, perhaps even nursing infants. Second, the parents brought these very young children to be blessed by Jesus, even though the children themselves would not understand the blessing. And Jesus did bless them, objectively, even though the children did not understand a word that he said. More will be said on this point below. Finally, this episode is significant because Jesus uses children as a model for adult believers. Children’s church implies the opposite! It implies that children must become like adults before they can enter fully into the life of the kingdom.
The rest of the New Testament corroborates, at least indirectly, these conclusions. Peter’s words on Pentecost may imply that children were present during his sermon (Acts 2:38-41). Moreover, Paul’s letters, which were read to the Churches during worship services, include specific applications to children (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20). The quite obvious implication is that the children were present to hear the exhortations.
Nehemiah 8 states explicitly that only those able to understand listened to the reading of the law. Several observations may suffice to show that this does not refute the earlier analysis. First, this passage deals with a renewal of the covenant; it was not a “normal” worship service. Second, the text calls attention to the fact that only those able to understand were included.(If this passage is taken as the norm, than this would imply that unbelievers should be excluded from the service since they are incapable of understanding until they have been converted.) This may imply that such a practice was unusual. Third, nowhere in this passage do we find a criterion to determine who is to be included in “those who understand.” Thus, there is no way to determine how old the youngest participants were. Even this assembly, in other words, may have included rather young children. We simply do not know. In any case, the example of Nehemiah 8 is very shaky grounds on which to establish a permanent practice in our worship.
WHAT IS WORSHIP?
Worship is central to our Christian faith. Worship is not for us, the people, but it is our service directed toward God through the words and actions of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and commitment. Worship is composed of individual acts, usually combined in group experience, in which we respond to God as reveled to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in which we recognize God as holy, loving, and present with us. The essence of worship does not change with the age of the individual.’ My presupposition is that everything done in worship must have a biblical/theological basis. However practical a certain practice may seem, it ought not be included in worship unless it is consistent with Scripture. This is simply the Reformed regulative principle of worship. (WCF XXV,2) If we add anything to Worship, then we must prove that Scripture, by example or explicit teaching, approves the practice. For example, if we adopt children’s church without Scriptural warrant, we are doing one of two things. First, we might choose to deny the validity of the regulative principle. Or, second, we might accept the regulative principle, but adopt a practice that Scripture nowhere allows. Both of these alternatives involve serious acts of disobedience to the Lord of the Church, whose Word is our only rule of faith and practice. (WCF I)
Worship, as defined by our confessional standards is giving glory to God. (WCF XXI) The stress is giving praise to God, not what we receive from God. Who is to Worship? Again the WCF XXI and LC Q118 guides us in that families, individuals, and the assembly are to engage in Worship of God. One aspect of Worship can be seen as the gathering of the Church. Again, who is the church? The church is a collection of believing families.(LC Q62) Therefore, corporate Worship involves the assembling of believing families. To have children’s church, even if it is voluntary, implies that the children are not full members of Christ’s Church. Children’s church creates fissures in the familial structure of the Church. Thus, children’s church is inconsistent with a Reformed/Presbyterian view of the Church.
I believe that children, as part of the covenantal community, are invited by God to Worship Him in the assembly of His people. To encourage parents, in any form, to be separate from their children during corporate Worship is a violation of God’s Word.
ANSWERING OBJECTIONS TO CHILDREN IN CHURCH
1. One pragmatic justification for children’s church is basically that children cannot understand the “adult” service. My response to this is threefold. First, the Scriptural pattern is not “Understand, then obey;” rather, the Scriptural pattern is “Obey, in order to understand.” The Lord gave detailed regulations for Israel’s worship, and explained very little. They were to learn the meaning of the worship in the midst of the practice of worship. So also with children. We train them to obey the Lord’s command to worship Him at the same time they grow to understand what they are doing in worship. Parents should review what goes on in worship to help them grow in their understanding. Second, children do understand much more than we give them credit for. The view that children cannot understand the things of God is without foundation in Scripture. On the contrary, Scripture teaches that God ordains that praise should come from the lips of children and infants (Ps. 8:2). Even in the womb, John the Baptist leaped with joy at the greeting of Mary, the Mother of God. Children sang praises to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Mt. 21:12-17), and Jesus’ answer to the chief priests implied that the children were wiser than the religious leaders. And we have already seen that Jesus uses children as models for adult believers. Finally, if children do not understand our worship, perhaps this says something about Reformed/Presbyterian worship. More on this below.
2. Another justification for children’s church is that the children need to be taught. The concern for teaching our children is good, but there are ample opportunities in the Church’s other ministries to teach them. Biblically, the main responsibility for teaching children falls on the parents, not the Church. Children’s church may be an excuse for some parents to neglect their responsibilities to teach their children at home and to review the worship service with their children. A much more Biblical way to teach children on Sunday mornings would be to include specific applications to children in the sermon, as Paul did in his letters.
3. One objection to the foregoing line of argument is that the children in children’s church are only missing part of the service, namely, the sermon. And they are being taught. The only difference is that they are not being taught by a minister of Christ in the assembly of God’s people. But this apparently slight difference is of enormous significance. Is there no difference between preaching in a worship service and teaching in Sunday School? If not, why do we let women teach Sunday School, but deny them access to the pulpit during worship? I believe that the difference lies in the priestly nature of the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 15:16). However we formulate this, I think it clear from Scripture and from the Reformed understanding of preaching that preaching in the context of worship is a special means of grace different from the general teaching of the Word that would take place in children’s church. Thus, when children are removed from the preaching, they are being cut off from a means of grace.
4. Another objection is that children in worship are distracting. I will not begin to deny this. But if the Lord commands a certain practice, any practical inconvenience is clearly a secondary consideration. Moreover, the Lord has revealed to us how we are to deal with distracting children: we are to use the rod of discipline. Simply put, we can train our children to sit still during worship, just as we train them not to pull books off the coffee table. This approach may sound harsh, but no more harsh than the language of Scripture (cf. Prov. 23:13-14). It has been suggested that this treatment might be a negative reinforcement for the child. But God kills people for worshipping Him wrongly. If the Lord disciplines for wrong worship, we must do so as well. Indeed, by training our children to worship obediently, we may be saving them from death (Prov. 19:18; Lev. 10:1-3).
5. The fact that a Reformed/Presbyterian worship does not appeal to children may be a reflection of the weakness of Reformed/Presbyterian worship. Worship is for children. By this I mean two things. First, that children ought to be included. Second, that true worship involves our becoming as little children, nursing infants, before a majestic and gracious Father. We come as infants, relying for food on the merciful provision of our King and Savior, admitting our total dependence on His mercy. A worship service that is characterized by a grave, sober, “adult” atmosphere is missing something. Biblical worship is characterized by joy, awe, wonder; in other words, it’s characterized by child-like qualities. Worship, after all, is celebration.
Again this is a brief on the role of children in the corporate Worship service and is not meant to answer all questions. But, I believe that the basic position is clear, that children, as part of the covenantal community, are invited by God to Worship Him in the assembly of His people. To encourage parents, in any form, to be separate from their children during corporate Worship is a violation of God’s Word.
 Dawn, Marva. Is It a Lost Cause? (Eerdmans), p68
 Dawn, Marva. Is It a Lost Cause? (Eerdmans), p 65
 Sandell, Elizabeth. Including Children in Worship, (Augsburg), p. 23