The primary fact about little children in the Bible is that they are helpless and dependent on adults for their life. We have to give them food, clothing, shelter and protection. Otherwise, they will starve or freeze or choke or fall. A little child knows nothing of self-reliance. He relies on his parents for everything, and, for a while at least, he doesn't mind this at all. He loves it. And good parents love it.
Since the main fact about little children is that they are helpless and dependent, the Bible has two general things to say about how adults should relate to them. On the one hand, their helplessness means that we are called upon to help them, and on the other hand, their helplessness means that they are an example for us in our relation to God. Perhaps we can sum up the total picture like this: Be like children in relation to God and be like God in relation to children. Or to put it still another way: Rely on God's fatherly care to supply all your needs and use all that supply to meet the needs of the children.
That, I think, is a summary of what the Bible teaches about children and their relation to adults. But what I want to do is use some specific Scriptures to spell out in more detail these two admonitions: 1) help the children, and 2) be like the children. Let's begin with the first: Children come into the world utterly helpless and God commissions us to meet their needs. He does not do it apart from us, but only through us.
Help the Children
The first thing to get before us is the cruciality of the younger years. Ecclesiastes 12:1 says, “Remember also your creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw night, when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.'” Truly I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for an old man to be converted and enter the Kingdom of God . It is very hard to teach an old dog new tricks. It is even harder when one of those tricks is admitting you have thrown your life away.
On the other hand, what strength of soul can emerge in a person who cuts his teeth on the Christian faith, whose hope is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from as far back as he can remember. Psalm 71 is written by an old man looking back over a lifetime with God. He says:
O God, from my youth thou hast taught me, and I still proclaim thy wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim they might to all the generations to come … Thou who has done great things, O God. Who is like thee? Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again…” (verses 17-20).
It is a magnificent thing when an old man can stand and say, "God has been my hope from my youth on. I have seen sore troubles, but have never been forsaken, and by God's grace have never forsaken Him." That is what I want my sons to say in 70 years. I don't want them to have to give any glowing conversion story. I want them to say, just like I hope to say myself with the Psalmist, “For thou, O Lord, art my hope; my trust, O Lord, from my youth” (71:5).
Children Need Training
After that goal for the children becomes clear, then we hear God's commission to us to train the children in the faith. Here I am going to leave a big hole in my message to be filled up at another time, namely, the responsibility of parents—especially fathers—to train their children in the faith at home. Suffice it now to hear Moses say, “These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by that way, and when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6,7). These words cannot honestly be paraphrased as, “You shall drop your children off at Sunday school for religious training.” Parents who do only that are simply disobeying God. But more on that another time.
What I want us to focus our attention on instead of that are two less common teachings of Scripture. Two Sundays ago all the children in the first grade and over started attending the Sunday morning worship service with their parents or some other responsible adult instead of having a special children's service. I think this came about mainly at my urging, so I thought it would be good to tell the larger assembly why I feel this way, just as I told the C.E. Board.
After Joshua had led the Israelites into the Promised Land and captured several cities, he built an altar at Mount Ebal and read the law at a big ceremony. Joshua 8:34-35 says,
He read all the words of the law, the blessing and the cursing, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel , and the women and the little ones and the sojourners who lived among them.
At least some of the time the little children were included in worship in the Old Testament.
Why Should Families Worship Together In Church?
There are three reasons, at least, why I have urged that, at the latest, from first grade on the children join their parents in worship. First, we live in a day in which pressures from all sides are on the family to be fractured and atomized. Fathers are worked to a frazzle and so are too dogged to spend quality time with children; mothers are lured away from their little children to the work force; children have their own activities, and the one thing that pulls them all to the same room makes zombies out of them all: the television. Stir into this a general cultural mood of “me first,” and my rights and my self-realization, and you have got a powerful anti-family milieu. In this atmosphere, the church, as the preserver of biblical principles, must find ways to say “no” to these pressures and affirm the depth and beauty of familial bonds. But where and how? It seems to me that the high point of our corporate life together is the place to start. Let's make worship a family affair as much as we can.
Second, five-, six-, seven- and eight-year-olds will gain tremendously from being in worship. Many six-year-olds have made professions of faith after sitting through a worship service. But even where most of the sermon goes over their heads, the children profit. They learn more theology and piety from the hymns than we realize, they come to be comfortable and at home with the form of the service, they experience from time-to-time the large and awesome moments of quietness or the blast of an organ prelude or fervor of an old man's prayer. Week-after-week they see hundreds of adults bowed in worship, and unless we teach them otherwise, they will grow up thinking, “This is where I belong on Sunday morning, and this is the way one behaves in Sunday worship.” It will never enter their heads that not being there is a possibility if we expect it of them and insist on their right behavior.
Which leads me to my third reason for wanting the children in worship. I want us, as a church, to say, “No!” to the lackadaisical attitudes toward child training and the harmfully low expectations placed upon children in our day. Paul said in I Timothy 3:4 that a bishop or elder must “manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.” And if it is required for elders and deacons (v. 12), it is an ideal for all. Children are to be kept submissive and respectful in everything. The opposite of submissiveness is insubordination or disobedience. Therefore, little children ought to be trained to obey implicitly, with no back-talk and no dawdling. It is a travesty of biblical parenthood when children are told to do something or stop doing something and then disobey, but nothing happens, except perhaps an irritated repetition of the command and then maybe after two or three of those, a burst of anger. Children who disobey ought to be spanked, without rage or vindictiveness or humiliation, but swiftly, consistently and severely, according to the circumstances, until they obey. The proverb will never cease to be wisdom: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” The expectation that a six-year-old sit quietly to the honor of God one or two hours a week is not a high expectation, and we should demand it of our children.
For those three reasons, I would like to see our worship services become family affairs. I think it accords with the principles of Scripture, and is needed especially in our day.
Now let me bring you into the clear where we are. I started by dividing biblical teaching into two parts: 1) We are to help them, and 2) we are to be like them. Under the first part we have looked now at helping them through training them for worship and in worship. There is now one other text I want to look at under the first division of helping children: Luke 9:46-48:
An argument arose among the disciples as to which of them was the greatest. But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, He took a child and put him by His side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me, for he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
Who are the greatest people at Bethlehem Baptist Church? The pastor who gets to speak to all those people on Sunday? The trustees who keep watch over the flow of funds? The deacons, “the chief coordinating body of the church,” responsible to formulate plans and goals? According to Jesus, the great people are the people who receive little children in His name. The people who open the doors of God's house and welcome all the precious little rascals into their clubs for Christ's sake – these are the great people. And if we are like Jesus, we will never forget these people; we will thank them and pray for them and help them. We will get all excited, like the kids are, and bring a neighborhood flock in. And while the kids are whooping up a storm, we'll be praying up a storm. And when God sees that combination—the little children being received in His name and big children praying in His name—then He will bless up a storm in Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Be Like the Children
Now that phrase “big children” brings us to the second half of what the Bible says about the Chosen and the Children, namely, we should be like the children. In Matthew 18:1-4 Jesus says,
At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven ?” And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven . Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven .”
The church is not just an assembly of the chosen, but also an assembly of the childlike. Jesus zeroed in, in verse 4, on humility, “He who humbles himself like this child…” We all know children aren't humble. They are selfish and demanding and in general think the whole world should revolve around them until you teach them differently. But there is a sense in which they are humble, and that is they are helpless and very dependent on parents for what they need to live and they don't (at least when small) try to deny or escape this dependence. As a rule, they accept it and are glad for mommy's and daddy's provision, and in those earliest years, they are virtually carefree because they know mommy and daddy always take care of them. They sleep when everyone else is shaking; they laugh when everyone else is grumbling; they lie limp in the stroller when everyone else is tense. And at these times they are the picture for us of the childlike trust we should have in God, our Father. You have to be humble to acknowledge your helplessness before God and accept the status of a child in a stroller. But the result is fantastic: All God's jealous fatherly love is stirred up for us then and we are free from anxiety.
To summarize, then, what I think the Bible mainly teaches about us and the children: We should rely on God's fatherly care to supply all our needs and then use all that supply to meet the needs of the children at home and church. Be like children in relation to God and be like God in relation to children.