Children and Worship

Karl A. Hubenthal

There exists in the church an unspoken tendency to treat children as second class citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the most sacred and vital function of the church—public worship on the Lord’s Day. Though all Presbyterians admit that children are within the covenant community, yet they are frequently excluded from the place where grace is most forcefully poured out. Doubtless this is not so much a deliberate and willful sin as it is an omission. It is probably due to the low regard that people these days have for the formal worship service and more particularly the low esteem that they have for the means of grace. If people fully appreciated the fact that it is in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments that Jesus issues his blessings, then people would, like the mothers of Mark 10, push through the crowd and even endure the reproof of the disciples to have their children brought into the presence of Christ to receive whatever he has to give them. The Westminster standards teach that parents are to provide for all things necessary for their children’s souls. One of the essential duties of the parent is to bring their children to the outward and ordinary means of grace in the fellowship of the worshiping body of Christ.


Now all this presents a problem to conscientious parents. It is not always practical to keep babies in the worshiping assembly. They cry, fidget, whine, and fuss with no regard to the solemnity of the occasion. Parents are embarrassed as others are distracted from the things upon which they should be intent. Granted that children should be present in the worship service, in practice it often becomes expedient to have certain children, especially infants and toddlers, removed from the congregation. And if there is anything that Presbyterians insist upon as much as infants being within the covenant community, it is that the worship should be carried out with decency and order. The dilemma may be concisely stated as follows: Do we have order in our worship, or do we have children? What is the church to do with this problem which is not going to go away?


Before we begin to suggest solutions from the top of our heads, let’s review two basic axioms which we know we cannot change. First, the church is composed of believers and their seed. Second, the church should worship together as a unit, and it is not right to regularly exclude someone from that worship where Christ is exhibited in Word and sacrament.

Now let us submit a third axiom which is equally cherished by Presbyterians. Pragmatism is a handmaid to effective government, not a mistress. We believe that God has wisely and fully furnished his church with all things necessary to the effectual worshiping of the saints. It becomes exceedingly proud and impious of us to think that we can improve upon that which God has established in his holy Word. this we understand and confess that part of “...the duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath established in his word...” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 108).

We would grant that difficulties which arise in the church may be overcome by whatever method is expedient, but we also insist that that expediency must always operate within the framework which God has clearly established. Thus, to use an expedient method of handling the bawling infant or active toddler which does not violate or omit the revealed will of God is acceptable, but to use an expedient method which lays aside what God has established is to favor the wisdom of man over against the wisdom of God. And in the long run, it becomes the most inexpedient method after all.


The incident in Mark 10:13-16 and its synoptic counterparts has been misused to prove a lot of things which it does not. For example, although it reflects on infant baptism, it does not teach it. But for whatever it does not teach, two things may be said with absolute certainty. It was a real incident and not just a parable. It involved our Lord in the flesh and real babies and everything you know about babies and little children. Furthermore, this singular fact stands out beyond refutation, namely, that Jesus Christ could not bear to see these babies prohibited from receiving his blessing. If we could erase the false euphoric portrayals of this scene which we sometimes get from vacation Bible school material, of children of representative nations standing in their own native costumes with beaming faces around a brown haired, blue eyed Jesus, we may more accurately imagine a bustle and skirmish of determined mid-Eastern women against a handful of equally determined fishermen. And perhaps a few of the infants may have been veritably screaming their lungs out as they looked up into the face of a man who was obviously not daddy! And on top of it all, there was the young Rabbi who became unjustly indignant with his disciples for trying in the way they thought best to facilitate smoother operations. We would not wish to portray an imaginary situation equally as erroneous as the common tranquil one; but for my part I cannot imagine Jesus saying to one or two of the women present, “Your children are crying or need changing, so please take them away—no blessing today.” For Jesus to prohibit the babies would be flatly contrary to what he had just told the disciples.


Today Jesus no longer walks the earth and lays his hands on little children. He has ascended to the Father and sits at his right hand. But that does not mean that he does not bless little children today. How does he do it? This is where paedobaptists insist that although this passage does not teach infant baptism, it certainly bears upon it. We firmly believe that babies should receive the sacrament of baptism. The Baptist objects on the grounds that it cannot have any meaning for them. Babies cannot apprehend its significance by faith; therefore, Baptists argue, it is invalid. Someone might suggest that it would be wise to take the little children aside and give them an object lesson on how water cleanses dirt. The lesson is that just as water cleanses dirt, so baptism by the Spirit cleanses the heart from sin. And we would say, Amen! Give them that lesson! And employ the most talented person in the congregation if you wish; but never, never, never should you give them that lesson in lieu of the actual sacrament.

But is water baptism the only element of worship adapted for children? What about singing? Many parents can testify about their children who learned to sing the songs of Zion before they ever learned to speak sentences. But that is not the real reason children should sing with the congregation. They might, after all, learn faster with the individual assistance of a teacher. Again, we think this is fine, but the training should never be simultaneous with the stated worship. Rather, we insist that the church as a congregation is to sing together as a chorus in worship. And by church we mean believers and their seed. Children need to learn that their little voices (however off key) are important to the corporate praise.

What about preaching? Surely the children, especially the very little children, get next to nothing from the sermon. (Note how this same reasoning when used by the Baptist against infant baptism is invalid, yet when used by paedobaptists against children hearing the Word is supposed to carry some force.) But don’t we agree that grace is administered through the sacrament of baptism, albeit the necessity of the work of the Holy Ghost in the heart of the recipient? Likewise grace is administered through preaching (again, albeit the necessary work of the Holy Ghost).

The Larger Catechism asks (Q. 154), “Where are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?” Answer: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation are all his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.”

That is God’s way. If we think we have a superior way of communicating grace to our children, then we have excelled God’s way. If another way is demonstrated to be effective, we reply that God is able to overrule the ignorance of man and sometimes uses impure means to bring sinners to repentance. If, on the other hand, the children’s being made to sit through the sermon is demonstrated to work poorly, we reply that probably it is because the church has sinned in not devoting itself to its task with heart, soul, and mind. But it is not for the church to delete, augment, or find functional substitutes for what God has established. His ways are altogether right and holy.


We said above that Jesus is not here; he is in heaven. That is true; he is bodily in heaven. But there is a mystical sense in which in which he is here on earth. His Spirit is here in his body, his church. And this is the most compelling reason of all why our children ought to be brought into the public worship of God. It is in the stated worship that Christ is present in a special way. In Psalm 22:22 the Lord says, “I will declare thy (the Father’s) name unto my brethren; in the midst of the assembly will I praise thee.” This teaches us that the Lord is in the midst of the worshiping congregation in a very special way. He is with his brothers when they are praising God. He, through the preacher, declares God’s holy name unto his brothers. He praises God with them when they sing the songs of Zion. The book of Hebrews quotes this verse in chapter 2 verse 12. There the reference is unquestionably to Jesus Christ who says, “I will preach thy name unto my brothers. In the midst of the church will I sing thy praise.”


Shall we refuse the little children to come to Jesus Christ as he is in the midst of the assembly, though he is not ashamed to call them his little brothers? Shall we, like the earlier disciples, arouse his indignation? They are his children. He wants to bless them. We must permit—nay insist—that the small ones come. We cannot keep them out except we bring down on ourselves the indignation of the Lord!

And of which of you that is a father shall a son ask a loaf, and he give him a stone? or a fish, and he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he give him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him? (Luke 11:11-13).

Which one of us pretends to provide something better for our children than the living presence of Jesus Christ as he declares the Father’s name to his brothers? Which one of us will substitute a nursery for our children in place of the presence of the Spirit of Jesus Christ as he sings praises to God in the midst of the church? We must never do it! We must suffer the little children to receive the blessing of our Lord as he communicates blessings to all his children. It is in his holy temple that he shall bless them. We would do well to hearken to the prophet Joel,

Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly; gather the people, sanctify the elders, gather the children, even those that suck the breasts; let the Bridegroom go forth out of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet (2:15-16).


What shall we do, then, with the child who disturbs worship? And by that, we mean the kind of scene wherein there is a real disturbance.

Virtually always a child cries or fidgets or yells because of one of two reasons: either he is uncomfortable (in the case of infants, hungry) or he is naughty. In either case, if he cannot be contained by the parents or another responsible adult nearby, he may be temporarily taken out, where he can usually be calmed down in three to five minutes at the most. He should then be brought directly back into the public worship where he belongs. To keep him out is to let him know that he has a lever by which he can control his parents to some extent. The parents should have control, not the children. The parent should know what is best for the child, though he may not like it.

It is commonly objected that by keeping the children in the service, they learn to hate the worship service. We reply by asking if you think you can teach your child to love the service by keeping them out. You cannot teach your children to appreciate the worship of God without disciplining them to witness and participate in it anymore than you can teach them to like spinach by giving them ice cream. There is a better way to teach. Appreciation comes by degrees. It takes time, patience, and skill. And because of that, many people opt for whatever method seems easy. But the work that is used in teaching little children to love the ordinances of Christ is well worth the effort. Even if it means that the parent misses most of the sermon himself, he can hardly have spent his time better if he makes his children sit quietly and listen. In the long run, he and those around him will hear more sermons.

Someone is bound to suggest that the parent’s taking a child out of the room for being naughty is essentially the same as having a nursery. It emphatically is not! The rule is that all the church should worship together as a body. The first remedy is an exception to the rule; the second is a substitution for the rule. The first is an emergency action for the sake of keeping the rule; the second is establishing an alternate pattern in lieu of it. The first is temporary and short lived; the second is a permanent fixture. The first is permissible; the second is unnecessary, detrimental, and prohibited. If there are problems with the parent’s taking the screaming or misbehaving child out of the service for whatever remedy will correct the problem, then there are greater problems with having a nursery simultaneously with the worship. If the correct procedure is abused, then we deal with the abuse, but if the procedure itself is an abuse, then on what foundation do we stand if we wish to keep things under control? It is significant that nurseries in a few years often open the door to “junior church,” because the children still do not know how to conduct themselves in the instituted worship. The rationale for having a junior church is exactly the same as that which is used for having a nursery. Then what happens when the junior graduates from junior church? Probably he still will not relate to the worship which our Lord instituted, and so the wise elders then find that they must make new adjustments or lose their young adults, who, by the way, are already lost, because at this point the church simply cannot compete with professional entertainers employed by some churches.

Perhaps that is going too far—or is it? Think for a moment: what is the rationale for a church showing a movie, or putting on a gospel rock opera in lieu of the biblical worship? Isn’t it that the plain ordinances of preaching, sacraments, prayer, and congregational singing have simply become irrelevant? And isn’t that exactly the same kind of reasoning by which people establish a nursery for the babies and toddlers who can’t appreciate what’s going on anyway?

Let’s be careful. The promise is to you and to your seed. The worship is also for you and for your seed. “Forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God.”

Copyright © 1980 by Karl A. Hubenthal
New Covenant Publication Society
116 West Hillcrest Avenue
Havertown, PA 19083

This publication is provided in electronic form for the convenience of our readers. Permission to publish on the Grace OPC website granted by the Rev. Karl Hubenthal and the New Covenant Publication Society.