The topic of children in the worship service is, in some respects, a very mundane one. What does the Bible say about nursery, childrens’ church or Sunday School, or keeping your children with you during the service? This is something which we all deal with every week; what light if any does the Bible shed on the subject?
First, we need to remember the perennial issue of principles and methods. It is very easy to fall into the trap of mimicking the externals of anything which we respect. Thus we imitate a friend’s hair style, and not her charity, a preacher’s hand gestures and not his prayer, an educator’s textbooks or methods, and not his wisdom. This should be a concern in many areas of life, and not surprisingly, it also matters here. Remember the parable of the two sons. One said he would go, and did not. The other said he would not, but then did. The second one was the obedient one (Matt. 21:28-32; also 1 John 3:18). This sort of thing is a species of lying and hypocrisy; we must guard our hearts against it. Just having your children physically present with you in worship is not nearly sufficient. That said, here are some principles to consider.
The first is that children are not to be automatically and routinely excluded from the public worship of God. This is true in both the Old and New Testament. First, the Old:
“Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and nursing babes; let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, and the bride from her dressing room” (Joel 2:16).
In the New Testament, Paul delivers his instruction to the congregations of Ephesus and Colossae in a way which simply assumes the presence of the children there. Children, obey your parents . . . (Eph. 6:1). A significant reason many churches take all their children out of the service as a matter of course is that they have bought into the modern pattern of “dumbing down” everything, including the message of salvation, for our children. This is not a biblical assumption. “Justification? My kids aren’t ready to hear about that.”
The second principle is that in the Scriptures, little children were not universally included in public worship as a requirement either.
“Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month.Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (Neh. 8:1-3)
And in Ex. 23:17, we see that the “pilgrim festivals” of Israel, held in Jerusalem, required only the attendence of the adult males. If the men, women, and older children were all there, this meant that somebody was babysitting. Some one had nursery duty.
The third principle is that parents are primarily responsible for the religious nurture of their children. They are themselves under the pastoral instruction of the church, but with regard to their own children, they are certainly to be regarded as pastors and teachers themselves. We see this principle in Deut. 6:4-9, and Eph. 6:4. This is not a “Sunday-only” kind of instruction, but neither does it exclude Sundays. Apart from express instruction from the Lord, the decision concerning the application of the first two principles should therefore rest with the parents. And it is not just simply a matter of “in” or “out” of the service. Many parents may want to bring their children “up to speed.” That is something they do before the Lord — the one main exception would be when the children are being disruptive to the entire service, and the parents are oblivious to the squalling.
And last, the public worship of God is a solemn and joyful event, requiring preparation of the heart, as well as preparation of the family. And, because we function in a body, this means that the necessary discipline involved in teaching your children to worship God must necessarily be conducted outside the place of meeting. For much of this, the kids need practice. Let all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40).