When it comes to the question of whether or not to keep children in the church service, it is valuable to examine the historical practices of the church. Surprisingly, information on this issue is not as easy to find as one might expect. I must admit upfront that my research, to this point, has only taken me as far as Google searching will go. From this limited exploration I have gathered that no book has been written that provides a comprehensive overview of the historical practices of children’s ministry (I would love to be corrected on this if I am wrong). It is perhaps more difficult to find information on the specific topic of children’s presence in the church service.
However, I have found one particularly excellent source, an essay called, The History of Paedocommunion: From the Early Church Until 1500. This work aims to prove that infant participation in the Lord’s Supper was the ancient custom of the church. [bra_blockquote align=’right’]ancient Christian quotes that speak to the practices of the early church in regards to children’s participation in church services.[/bra_blockquote]Since the author, Tommy Lee, doesn’t aim to prove the rightness of a baby’s participation in communion (something I would unhesitatingly disagree with), but instead only focuses on the issue of whether or not it was practiced, I am unqualified to determine whether or not his conclusions are correct. However, the accurateness of his assessment is, for our purposes, unimportant. What is important is that the author provides us with ancient Christian quotes that speak to the practices of the early church in regards to children’s participation in church services.
Before I present those quotes, one piece of historical background is important: Communion, for most of church history, was the central component to a church’s gathering. It was held in such high regard that in the early church unbelievers were removed from the service before it was taken.1
In a book called Apostolic Constitutions, written in the late fourth century, we read what a deacon was supposed to say before communion was observed, “Let none of the catechumens, let none of the hearers, let none of the unbelievers, let none of the heterodox, stay here.” After removing these people the minister would pray “for those that are in virginity and purity; for the widows of the Church; for those in honourable marriage and childbearing; for the infants of Thy people…” (italics mine). The book goes on to show what should follow this prayer in a typical communion service by saying, “And after that, let the bishop partake, then the presbyters, and deacons, and sub-deacons, and the readers, and the singers, and the ascetics; and then of the women, the deaconesses, and the virgins, and the widows; then the children; and then all the people in order, with reverence and godly fear, without tumult.”2 These quotes, taken together, seem to indicate that infants and children were not removed from the service. Rather, the former were prayed for and the latter participated.
Augustine (who lived from 354-430 AD), in what is titled “Sermon 174,” said, “Yes, they’re infants, but they are his members. They’re infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are infants, but they share in his table, in order to have life in themselves.”3 Again, I do not agree with the practice of paedocommunion, but this quote indicates that it was practiced during the life of Augustine and thus, shows that children were present in church services.
One more quote from this essay is important for the purposes of this blog series because it speaks to an objection that is often raised when the topic at hand arises. The objection is that it isn’t beneficial for kids to stay in a church service because they won’t understand what they are doing and hearing. This argument is valid and something I am wrestling with in my own heart and mind. But, for at least one late fifth or early sixth century author, it wasn’t a good enough reason to prevent children from partaking in various aspects of a church service. In a work called The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, a man writing under the name Dionysius, says:
“The fact that children not yet able to understand divine things become recipients of the holy rebirth in God and the most sacred symbols of the supremely divine Communion seems, as you say, to merit the legitimate ridicule of the profane, for it is as though the bishops teach divine things to those who cannot hear, and in vain hand down the sacred traditions to those who do not understand…not all divine things can be comprehended by our intelligence, but many things unknown by us have reasons worthy of their divine character that escape us, but are understood by the superior orders. Many things are beyond even the most sublime beings and are known distinctly only by the all-wise God, the Source of wisdom. Nevertheless, we affirm on this matter what our godlike instructors, initiated in ancient tradition, have transmitted to us. “They assert, and it is the truth, that infants brought up according to sacred law will contract a habit of holiness, be guarded from all error, and be inexperienced in an evil life…The bishop gives the child a share in the sacred symbols in order that he may be nourished by them and have no other life than that of always contemplating divine things, sharing in them by holy progressions, acquiring a holy disposition for them, being educated to holinessby his godlike sponsor.”4[bra_blockquote align=”]in order that he may be nourished by them and have no other life than that of always contemplating divine things, sharing in them by holy progressions, acquiring a holy disposition for them, being educated to holiness[/bra_blockquote]
At this point I can hear the criticism that might be passed my way. If the early church practiced paedocommunion and I unabashedly disagree with it, why should I (or anyone else) care if the early church kept children in the church service. It is true that, as a Protestant Christian, I proudly claim sola scriptura, having no qualms about disregarding tradition when it contradicts with Scripture. However, when Scripture is unclear or makes very little reference to a topic, I believe that tradition is valuable. When it comes to offering communion to babies, its practice in antiquity doesn’t concern me because when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper he said, “do this in remembrance of me.” A baby cannot do this. But, when it comes to the topic of children’s presence in a church service, the Bible does not demand it or forbid it, making the issue adiaphora and elevating the importance of understanding the historical data in an effort to make the best possible decisions for our kids. It is short sited to make our decisions on this issue based solely on contemporary happenings. We must instead seek to understand what has taken place for the 2,000 plus years that the church has existed.
I will finish by iterating something from my first post; my goal here is not to persuade anybody that children should stay in a church service. Instead, my goal is to explore the topic and provide readers with what I find. To make this point let me offer one more quote from the aforementioned essay. Evagrius, a man who lived from 536-600 AD, said in his book Church History that one ancient custom was that “when there remained a good quantity of the holy portions of the undefiled body of Christ our God, for uncorrupted boys from among those who attended the school of the undermaster to be sent for to consume them.”5 Some might understand this to mean that these boys were not in the service to partake of communion.
In my next post I plan on writing about the history of Protestantism and children in the church (if I can find information). Until then, I would love to hear your comments and would be grateful if you pointed me to further information.[bra_border_divider top=’20’ bottom=’20’]
1. Julio Gonzales, The Story of Christianity (Peabody: Prince Press, 2006)
2. Tommy Lee, The History of Paedocommunion: From the Early Church Until 1500 (http://www.reformed.org/social/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/sacramentology/tl_paedo.html) pg. 7-8
3. Ibid., 9
4. Ibid., 9-10
5. Ibid, 3-4