By Deheuol Diwygiad
It is a uniquely Christian perspective among the world’s philosophies to value one’s children. Indeed, no other worldview can even begin to provide a consistent and non-arbitrary basis why children ought to be valued at all, much less invested in. For this reason, within every strand of Christianity, covenant children have been, to greater and lesser degrees, considered a stewardship from God that must be nurtured and cared for in such a way as to maintain a successive generation among the covenant people.
Until the 20th Century, little controversy existed as unto how these covenant children were to be ministered and how covenant succession was to be facilitated. Covenant children, from creation onward, had always been entitled and expected to participate fully in the covenant life of God’s people, and thus from the earliest age, they began to be discipled or apprenticed in the finer points of covenant life. This occurred even before they were capable of cognitive discussion and certainly recitation of the basics of systematic theology, as they were daily, and especially every Sabbath, entreated to a demonstration by their parents as to what it means to worship and serve Jehovah. However, within American Christianity, this all began to change during the 20th Century as the newer child development theories of the previous century were beginning to not only take root, but become deeply embedded in the American mind. The premise of these new theories was that, for various reasons, children ought to be segregated by developmental stage, which generally corresponded with age. As these theories took root in American education, the “one-room school house” turned into the age-segregated assembly line we are accustomed to seeing today. By the 20th Century, many churches and denominations began to adopt this system as well, and the church’s youth were no longer seen as adults-in-training to be apprenticed in the faith, but rather a unique demographic requiring its own peculiar form and method of ministry. For decades, the conservative reformed churches held fast their covenant theology and eschewed the novel theories and their consequent practices. However, by the last quarter of the 20 th Century, these same churches began to succumb to the new theories and with increasing frequency have carved off their covenant youth, segregating them from the adult life of the church for the sake of establishing a unique youth life all their own. As we might expect, the results of the last century were disastrous for covenant succession. What I never expected was that the Reformed church would ever wonder why. There are numerous explanations for why the results are so poor. My intent here, however, is simply to list and discuss a few of the points I think ought to be considered before any church adopts such a novel and innovative paradigm.
The Argument From Sola Scriptura
The very fact that age-segregated youth ministry is nowhere seen or even hinted at in the pages of Scripture is, and ought to be, its most troubling and offensive aspect, especially for Reformed believers and churches who have affirmed the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as one of the primary and central tenants of their existence. Without descending into a protracted discussion of sola scriptura itself, suffice it to say that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches are built upon the confessional recognition that, as the Word of God, “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are…the only rule of faith and obedience.” 1 In other words, when it comes to all things pertaining especially to the practice of the church—its gathering, worship, congregational life, et. al.—the scriptures alone provide the standard and rule by which the churches of God are to conduct their affairs. Thus, before the church engages in a particular pattern of ministry or behavior, Reformed believers expect there to either be clear, explicit instruction regarding such behavior or a perspicuous case developed by good and necessary inference—either clear example or a collection of implicit principles or both. Instead, we find just the opposite. While the particulars of what I think are found in the scriptures will be discussed below, the argument from Sola Scriptura is simply that the age-segregated model of youth ministry is nowhere to be found by example in the pages of Scripture and is certainly not commanded either by explicit instruction or implicit principle. In fact, everything that is found there seems to militate against such a doctrine.
The Argument of Congregational Inclusion
The examples given to us in Scripture are always ones of congregational inclusion. The only exceptions are by explicit command when for example only the men of the congregation were to appear before the Lord for one reason or another. 2 Otherwise, apart from such explicit command, the biblical assumption is always that the entire congregation would participate together especially when it gathered for public worship and/or instruction in God’s law. An example of such an occasion is found in Deuteronomy 31:9-13 in which the people were to gather every Sabbath year for the reading of the Law during the Feast of Tabernacles This was to be done such that every individual in the congregation—man, woman, and child 3 — could hear the commandments of God in there entirety at least once every seven years. Another example is given as Joshua is leading the people into the Promised Land. In Joshua 8:34-35, he says that “he read all the words of the Law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded, which he read not before all the Congregation of Israel, as well before the women, and the children, 4” Matthew Henry’s Commentary Vol. 2, p.39.] as the stranger that was conversant among them.” This same pattern is seen even into the days of the kings. Upon the rediscovery of the Law of the covenant, King Josiah is seen delivering the Lord’s statutes to “all the people, from the greatest to the smallest… [reading] in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant.” 5 The expectation is very clear. At no time, apart from explicit command, was it presumed the covenant people ought to exclude any demographic within their ranks from the worship and assemblies or the gatherings for instruction in the Law.
The only passage of which I am aware that might give some pause as to the normative nature of this pattern is found in Nehemiah 8. In this passage Ezra is seen gathering the assembly together for the restoration of the Sabbatical reading of the law as mentioned above in Deuteronomy 31. Nehemiah 8:2-3 reads, “And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the Congregation both men and women, and of all that could hear and understand it…” Nehemiah’s record of the events of this day has caused a number of commentators to suggest that perhaps young children were not in attendance for this reading, since they supposedly could not “hear and understand it.” However, this is an improper assumption. The entire passage in Nehemiah is a recounting of the rediscovery of the commandments and the neglected practice of the Feast of Tabernacles and its attendant sabbatical reading of the Law. Thus, the excitement of the whole occasion was located in the repentance of the people and the restoration of the commanded practice. It would be beyond reasonable interpretation to assume that Ezra, in restoring this lawful practice, somehow arbitrarily altered the command by suggesting that only those children who had sufficient cognitive development were allowed to the assembly. Such a glaring disregard for the explicit command as found in Deuteronomy is impossible to imagine from such a scribe as Ezra. Instead, Nehemiah’s reference to “all who could understand what they heard” is rather the parallel to Deuteronomy’s reference to the “sojourners within their towns.” This is substantiated by cross referencing Nehemiah and Deuteronomy with the passage from Joshua in which he addressed the “stranger that was conversant among them.” Nehemiah is simply referencing paraphrastically the whole “Congregation,” as found in the original commandment given in Deuteronomy. It was in no way Ezra’s intent to alter the commandment by subtly or implicitly excluding the covenant children. Nor could it be legitimately assumed that he segregated them to attend a youth or children’s sabbatical reading tailored to every developmental stage. Instead, we can see both by explicit command in Deuteronomy and established pattern in Joshua and Nehemiah that the children of the covenant people were, and are always, expected to be a part of the assembly of God’s people, and unless an explicit commandment or implied pattern can be offered to the contrary, the assumption of the scriptures is that covenant children are fully vested and participating understudies in the worship and instruction of the congregation.6
A post script could be added as well to the above discussion. There are two examples given in scripture of people attempting to treat God’s covenant children as a separate demographic. 7 The first is found in Exodus chapter 10, when Pharaoh finally acquiesces to Moses’ demands to let the people journey into the wilderness in order to offer sacrifice to Jehovah. In verse 9, Pharaoh asks Moses exactly who he expects to participate in this journey to which Moses replies, “We will go with our young, and with our old, with our sons, and with our daughters.” Pharaoh, however, did not wish to see the children observing the worship of their fathers and responded, “Let the Lord so be with you, as I will let you go and your children: behold for evil is before your face. It shall not be so: now go ye that are men…” Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry wrote, “…Satan does all he can to hinder those that serve God themselves from bringing their children in to serve him. He is a sworn enemy to early piety, knowing how destructive it is to the interests of his kingdom; whatever would hinder us from engaging our children to the utmost in God’s service, we have reason to suspect the hand of Satan in it.” 8 Pharaoh’s concern here is not that the children never hear of their fathers’ worship in the wilderness, but rather that the children not be allowed to observe their fathers in worship and definitely not participate alongside them. Pharaoh never said that the fathers could not return and tell their children all about the worship they experienced in the wilderness, nor could he have practically prevented it.
Henry’s comments are pointed, but they must be understood not against those who would prevent little ones from having any contact with the Christian faith at all, 9 but rather against those who would prevent covenant children from participating in and observing the worship of their fathers. 10
The other example is found in the gospels 11 when the disciples rebuked those who sought to bring their children to Christ that he might bless them. For some odd reason, the disciples broke from the biblical pattern and sought to relegate the covenant children to a subclass not fully qualified to participate in the ministrations of Christ. For this they received only rebuke the sternness of which was surpassed only by Jesus’ denunciations of the apostate Jewish leadership.
Now, it would in no way be appropriate for anyone to suggest that those who wish to adopt age- segregated youth ministry actually wish to exclude them from the benefits of Christ. Indeed, many who embrace this model do so with the absolute best of intentions. However, it is naïve and duplicitous to think we can deny Pharaoh’s 12 humanism ideologically and at the same time affirm it methodologically. Theology is incarnational not abstract. The law that is truly written on our forehead will always be betrayed by the law that is written on our hands.
The Argument Of The Convenant Household
Intimately connected to the previous argument from the very explicit command to include our covenant children of every age when the church gathers for both worship and instruction in the Law is the doctrine of the covenant household. Possessing its own economy and jurisdiction even from Creation, the covenant household is asserted to be the fundamental unit within society. While its structure and centrality are assumed to be the defining context of life among the covenant people in both testaments, it is most clearly seen in two passages.
The first time the covenant family is explicitly outlined after Creation is in Genesis 17 when God explains to Abraham who is to receive the covenant sign of circumcision. This passage is rightly brought to the forefront when Reformed believers argue for the covenantal inclusion of children in the participation of the sacraments. Its definition of who is and who is not a member of the covenant community, and on what basis, can only be missed by those who have set out to miss it. In this passage, God tells Abraham that the members of the covenant household are all those who fall under his federal representation. Among them are of course his wife, 13 his children, and then his slaves whether born in his house or bought with his money. This pattern then serves as the primary context of life and worship amongst the covenant people throughout the Old Testament.
The second time this covenant unit is specifically outlined is by Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians. Not surprisingly, Paul assumes the paradigm given to Abraham in Genesis when he outlines his exhortations to the Christians in Ephesus. Very intentionally Paul addresses his exhortations first to husbands and fathers (heads of households), then to wives and mothers, then to covenant children, and finally to the covenant household slaves. This is important, because we can very clearly see that the abiding assumption in all of Scripture is that no one is outside of the covenant family context. 14 Paul even explicitly admonishes the covenant children in Ephesus to obey their parents in the same breath that he instructs the husbands (fathers), wives (mothers), and slaves. If this is the biblically provided pattern in both Testaments for covenant life including the gathering of the church, it would seem an odd thing to arbitrarily, if not autonomously, assume a pattern contrary to the one provided. Rather, consistent with the pattern given to Abraham and assumed by Paul, covenant children are to participate in the full life of the congregation in the very same context in which their mothers and slaves are to participate— alongside and under the leadership and authority of their fathers.
At this point, it may be important to answer an objection that occasionally arises from time to time. Some have suggested that if children are never out from under the leadership of their father (and mothers by economic implication), they are never able to “own the faith for themselves;” their faith supposedly remains only proximate and never becomes personal. Implicit in this objection, however, is a very unbiblical assumption, because if the principle is carried out consistently, it would be necessary to argue that no one can obtain a personal faith so long as they are under the leadership and authority of another individual. This of course puts us on the horns of a dilemma as we are faced with either obliterating all authority and leadership within the economy of the church (which will leave us with egalitarian chaos) or we are forced to suggest that anyone under the authority and leadership of another cannot develop for themselves a personal faith that truly belongs to them and therefore cannot be saved or become productive members within the covenant community. To suggest that children cannot “come of age” in the faith as long as they are under the leadership and authority of their fathers is simply naïve. Wives are certainly expected to be anything but proximate believers under the leadership and authority of their husbands, as are slave under their masters. Thus, if the church is going to segregate its youth on this basis, it needs to be consistent and segregate every identifiable demographic. This would make sure that no demographic fails to be instructed in the Law of God in the unique way with which only it can identify. Otherwise, on the objected presupposition, each demographic would be hindered from developing this so-called personal faith. The absurdity is obvious. Further, any youth minster who is also a father would be insufficient to minister to his own children requiring the church to hire a personal youth minister to minster to the youth minister’s youth. 15 This objection is not at all a sound one, and it certainly does not overturn the biblical context for youth ministry—the covenant household.
The Argument Against Segregated Integration
Related to the previous arguments is perhaps one of the more curious aspects of modern youth ministry. It is the idea that by segregating the youth away from the adult life of the congregation we can actually better prepare them to become an integrated part of the adult life of the church. There are at least two faulty assumptions being made by this line of reasoning. The first is that we have no warrant whatever to think that the covenant life of the church can be arbitrarily divided by demographic. We have already pointed out that the scriptures do not recognize such a division and anywhere it does, it establishes the division by explicit command. The scriptural picture of church life has always been one of covenantal unity. When arbitrary internal separation has arisen, it has been met with prophetic and apostolic rebuke.
The second faulty assumption is that the best way to bring two things together is to separate them. This is a rather odd if not irrational line of thought. No one attempts to become acclimated to a particular environment by avoiding that environment. Alaskan winters cannot be prepared for in South Texas. Frankly, there is simply no other area of life that I am aware of in which such a method is practiced. That alone does not discredit the idea, but one must at least wonder why it does not even dawn on anyone to embrace such a practice in, say, the business world, where even unbelievers have great motivation to follow sound wisdom, because their beloved financial gain is at stake. Even if someone suggested the university as a possibly equivalent model, it is common knowledge that the university scarcely prepares one for the proverbial “real world.” Thus, for the same wage, very few managers wish to hire a “green” college graduate whose experience has been limited to the wisdom of academicians and other equally inexperienced students over an experienced high school graduate who has learned his trade “in the field,” especially if he has been well apprenticed by a “master” of his trade. Just the same, the church does not need more adult congregants who have spent the years of their youth learning from other youth how to be more youthful. She needs her youth to be mentored by the current adult generations, learning about congregational life by participating in it, and learning how to perpetuate it. Not surprisingly, this is precisely the method Christ used to prepare his disciples to perpetuate his church, allowing them to observe his every move and participate in every aspect of his life and ministry. Continuing in their Master’s footsteps, the apostles used the same method. 16
The Argument Against Supposed “Socialization”
This is a common red herring also used against advocates of biblical home schooling. However, this argument too is naive and logically severely flawed, as it should be apparent that it assumes a number of premises which it has not proven.
Its first unproven assumption is that social skills cannot be learned apart from pooling children by age demographic. This however, is simply not the case. Social skills most certainly can be gained through interaction with those of age demographics other than one’s own.
The second unproven assumption is that the social skills a child learns while engaging his own demographic are superior to those gained while interacting with both older and younger demographics. This too is not the case. It ought to be profoundly apparent that a six year old who acquires the social skills to engage not only other six year olds, but 8 year olds, 12 year olds, 30 year olds, and 65 year olds as well, has developed his social skills far beyond that of his piers who can only relate well to those who are just like them.
The third unproven assumption is that apart from an age segregated youth group, the acquisition of whatever social skills are desired cannot be accomplished. This assumption is equally false. Within our own congregation, it is currently common place for youth minister (father) A to lead his youth ministering helper and their youth to socially engage youth minister (father) B and his youth ministering helper and youth. This can be accomplished with any number and/or combination of youth groups (families) within a given congregation, and social interaction between all age demographics can be fostered according to the desires of the God-appointed youth ministers and under their God-ordained supervision and guidance.
The Argument Against Subsidizing Derelict Fathers
It is also often objected that, since some covenant fathers simply are not willing to biblically raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord by diligently discipling them in Reformed and biblical patterns of worship and instruction in the Law, it is necessary that the church hire an individual to fill the father’s shoes. It is generally presented as analogous to caring for the church’s widows and orphans, but on further reflection, the analogy is not apt at all. While the church is indeed charged with the care of its widows and orphans, and indeed, all its members who are truly in need, providing surrogate fathers for the church’s neglected youth 17 is not equivalent. An example will be helpful. When an otherwise diligent head of household loses his job and is for a time unable to provide for his family, the Law of God provides a number of ways by which the church may step in and help provide for such a family. Conversely, when a head of household has proven to be derelict in his duty to provide for his family, it is entirely inappropriate for the church to subsidize this man’s sin by using its resources to fulfill this man’s duty. Instead, the scriptures are clear that a man who will not work shall not eat, and anyone who rebelliously refuses to provide for his family, especially his own household, is worse than a n unbeliever and thus ought to be disciplined as such. The church never has the right to sanction its members’ sin, and that is exactly what it does when it fails to properly shepherd, and if needed, discipline derelict fathers. By providing a surrogate, the church unwittingly subsidizes, and therefore perpetuates, what it ought to condemn and eliminate.
The Argument Against Supposed “Supplementation”
In response to the previous argument, it is commonly suggested that even if fathers were properly leading their families in accord with the biblical mandate, there is nothing wrong with the church supplementing the work of fathers. This sounds extremely noble on the surface and if properly understood, it would be correct. Properly understood, it would be entirely appropriate for the leadership of the church to “come alongside of” the fathers in order to instruct them in how to properly fulfill their leadership role as youth minister within their own household. Indeed, a healthy church’s teaching ministries should already be saturated with the biblical doctrine of strong, faithful heads of households—husbands and fathers. This, however, is not the sense in which most suggest the church ought to provide supplementation. Instead of training the biblically appointed youth ministers to establish a biblical context for youth ministry within their own households, they rather go outside the scriptures and provide what amounts to a surrogate.
This is an entirely inappropriate usurpation of the duties and jurisdiction of the fathers in which very subtly the church is not offering a supplement at all but a competitor instead. Two things commonly result from this scenario. First, to the degree that anyone captures the hearts of the youth in this scenario, it is for various reasons generally the surrogate youth minister not the father. Consequently, children fail to see their father in the proper light of his offices as prophet, priest, and king within his household, and therefore they fail to understand or appreciate their father’s authority, wisdom, and leadership. It actually works against what it claims to support, as the surrogate youth minister becomes a competitor to the father who might otherwise like to (re)establish a biblical youth ministry within his home. A good example of what naturally happens when a welfare program is portrayed as a supplement might be the American Social Security System. Such a system is fraught with practical and ethical problems, but the point is that it was originally sold as a supplement to individual savings not a substitute. Instead of providing greater motivation for Americans to become more responsible and self-sufficient, it has caused them to become increasingly dependent on the production of their fellow citizens and more accustomed to having their needs provided by others. Subsidies sold as supplements always make individuals dependent and end up undoing what they claim to accomplish. Coming alongside fathers in a way that actually competes with them will have the same long-term affect. Fathers who wish to engage in biblical household youth ministry will be faced with the competition of a contracted youth minister, and lazy fathers who ought to be working toward that end are encouraged to avoid their responsibility and live off the surrogate provided by his fellow congregants. At the end of the day, ecclesiastical welfare programs are no different than State welfare programs. If they are concocted outside of the Law of God, they will inevitably be counterproductive.
How can age-segregated youth ministry ever expect to receive the blessing of God? It is nowhere found in the pages of Scripture. We do not read of Isaac and Ishmael or Jacob and Esau attending youth group functions. Titus is nowhere instructed to establish youth ministers in every city nor is it hinted to Timothy that he should provide a surrogate for his congregation’s fathers. In fact, I am not aware, though willing to be corrected, of any such practice in church history before the twentieth century. It was certainly nowhere to be found among the covenantal churches of the Reformation. No, age segregated youth ministry is a primarily 20 th Century phenomenon arising from Marxist child development and education theory. It found its way into the church via the early Sunday School movement and logically morphed into what we know today. It is not a product of biblical orthodoxy or by consequence the Reformed faith. It is rather the egalitarianism that came out of the Enlightenment and the French revolution, and it is diametrically opposed to the biblical context for worship and instruction in the Law—the covenant household under the leadership, authority, and example of its head—the father. May the churches of God, especially those that call themselves Reformed, return to their rule of faith and life and ask themselves why they are rejecting the counsel of their king by rejecting his standard simply to satisfy a desire to be like the other churches round about them. May he graciously grant them repentance and wisdom for the sake of the future of His youth.
- WLC Question #3, emphasis mine. ↩
- Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:16 ↩
- The Hebrew word taph translated variously in each of the discussed passages as children, little ones, etc. finds its primary force in referring to the family including the smallest of children. ↩
- Matthew Henry’s comments on this passage include: “Every Israelite was present, even the women and the little ones that all might know and do their duty. Note, Masters of families should bring their wives and children with them to the solemn assemblies for religious worship. [emphasis original ↩
- 2 Chronicles 34:30 ↩
- This same principle holds true for the entirety of congregational life. ↩
- Segregated from full participation in the otherwise “adult life” of the congregation ↩
- Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Vol. 1, p.246. ↩
- It is not enough that fathers tell their children about the law of God and the worship commanded in it. Children
must be allowed to watch and observe their fathers as they worship and study the Law of God. ↩
- This includes observing the reverence with which their fathers receive instruction in the law. ↩
- Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17 ↩
- And the disciples in the referenced occasion… ↩
- Wives and daughters did not partake in circumcision of course, but they were full covenant members by virtue of their membership in a covenant household and indeed later partook of other covenant sacraments — washings, feasts, etc. ↩
- Except widows and orphans for which the Law of God in both testaments makes very consistent and detailed
- The tongue twisting is not for mockery or silliness but simply to shed light on the inadequacy of this objection and the convolution into which it ultimately falls. ↩
- Objecting that Jesus was not the father of any of the disciples is only to become distracted. The point is to observe the nature of biblical discipleship and the fact that the obvious normative context where such discipleship can take place during one’s youth is the covenant home. ↩
- I am not referring to youth who have unbelieving fathers or who have lost a father due to abandonment or divorce. Such youth would fall under the Law’s protection and provision as orphans. I am speaking of those confessing fathers who are either simply too lazy or have misprioritized their fatherly calling. ↩