Is it OK for children to have separate Sunday School?

What do you do with children during your Sunday services? Some keep the children in with parents throughout. Others provide a creche throughout but nothing more for those over 3 or 4. Others still have children in for most of the service but their own time of teaching during the time the sermon is being delivered. Some try to separate their children out as much as possible while others try to keep everyone together as far as they can.

My purpose here isn’t to defend what we do at Oldham Bethel Church particularly. Nor am I trying to insist on a particular way of approaching children and their inclusion or otherwise in worship. I can see lots of advantages to different setups and I wouldn’t want to bind any consciences here.

But what I do want to do is lay out why I’m not convinced Ephesians 6:1-4 necessitates children remaining in the service and sermon. This is one of the sets of verses that some use to argue children must remain part of the service of worship with their parents. That is not to say there aren’t good reasons to potentially do that (I think there are), but I am going to argue that this isn’t what is necessitated by these verses.

Letter, not sermon

First, I would want to point to the medium. Whilst the letters were read in the public gathering, I don’t think we are to assume that the letters themselves replaced the sermon. It seems a stretch to me to insist that because the letter was read publicly that necessarily means that children ought to be present when the sermon is preached. I don’t want to keep making the same caveat (so will make this the last time), but there may well be good reasons to do exactly that. But I don’t see that it is demanded from these texts.

Direct address?

Second, some want to argue that because children are directly addressed in the letter there is an assumption that children would be present when it is read. That is certainly possible, but again, not demanded. If the letter would be read, or repeated, elsewhere it is entirely reasonable to expect direct address to be included. Even if we concede that it is more likely than not that children would have been present as it was read for the first time, it doesn’t necessitate that they were present throughout the entire service and doesn’t undercut the existence of specific provision for them. At best, it assumes only their presence whilst the letter is read. If the previous point is true, and the letter did not replace the sermon, there is no reason to necessarily assume that children remain present throughout the entire meeting. They may have done, but this doesn’t follow necessarily.

The instruction

When we look at what is being commanded, there isn’t anything in the verses themselves that seems to mandate being present for the duration of a sermon. It is certainly true that, for children to hear the instruction, it must at least be read or communicated to them somewhere. But, again, there is no reason to assume that is necessarily at the point the church were gathered. It is entirely possible to expect parents to convey this to their children apart from the public meeting. Equally, there is nothing to say that this couldn’t be communicated in another setting. The natural reading of the command is to view it as an instruction to fathers, particularly, to teach their children and for children to hear the instruction of their father.

Selling the principle

Most who advocate the position (though, I accept, maybe not all) still nonetheless often provide a creche. But there are no age limits placed on these verses. The question that arises is this: if we’re OK with a creche, have we not sold the principle? If we are saying it is acceptable for any of our children not to be present for any of the gathered meeting, the principle that children must be present at all times has been undercut. We are only consistent on this issue if we insist all the children, all the time, must remain present, including all the babies and toddlers.

It is my view that there is nothing in these verses that assumes that children cannot have their own teaching tailored for them, or classes during the service. That is not to say that we shouldn’t bring children into the main teaching of the gathered church nor is it to say we must send them off for separate teaching. There are good reasons we might choose to do either thing. But, for me, I don’t see a mandate to that effect.