Our Children in the Ecclesia

Let no man despise thy youth; be thou an example of the believers.

When the apostle Paul developed the analogy, under the inspiration of God, of the ecclesia being like the different parts of the human body, he did not specifically reference how the range of ages in an ecclesia contributes to the body's wholeness and health. That extension of his reasoning, however, seems appropriate to make because all ages, from the very young to the very old, contribute to the richness and strength of a body of believers. For the body is not one member, but many...If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every of them in the body, as it hath pleased him (1 Corinthians 12:14,17-18). While children and young people, until the time of their baptism, are not part of the body, they can make an important contribution to the well-being of the ecclesia. Many times we have observed how a small child gladdens the hearts of the older members at the ecclesia. A child's innocence and eagerness to learn refreshes the ecclesia and reminds us of the apostle's words: Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children... (1 Corinthians 14:20).

Just as we desire that our homes provide a place of sanctuary and security for the little ones with whom we have been blessed by the Almighty - a place where both their temporal needs for food, clothing and shelter are sufficiently met and their emotional needs for love, affection and discipline are administered to - so we intend that our ecclesias, on a larger scale, can provide a place where the spiritual needs of our children can be nurtured. The role of the ecclesia of the living God was stated by the apostle to be the pillar and ground of the truth and it was needful that young Timothy learn how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God (1 Timothy 3:15). Ecclesias serve as a place where the truth can be passed down from one generation to the next and where the coming generation can train in a supportive and loving environment.

The first and most obvious principle is that our children cannot benefit from the ecclesia, and the ecclesia from the children, unless they are present there. Thus, it is absolutely essential that the family priority be established right from the beginning of the marriage, even before the arrival of the first child, for husband and wife to be on hand at ecclesial services. Parents who are keen to have their children participate in sports would not expect them to 'make the team' if they were frequently absent from practice and considered by the coach to be 'hit and miss' in their attendance. Ought not the standard we practice for the ecclesia to be higher than that which a secular organization would require? Our children need to be at Sunday School consistently from week to week so that they get the benefit of lessons that are given sequentially for their learning. It is also important for parents to arrive at Sunday School on time and not to fall into the habit of being chronically late. The example of arriving habitually late is one that conveys to the children that the function is just not important enough to make the effort to be there on time. Being late distracts the attention of others and embarrasses the children by breaking into the opening exercises or their classes when they are already underway. Sporadic attendance also prevents the children from forming the same constancy of friendship with other children in the Sunday School.

We recently heard a man who had spent all his life-time in senior levels of public school administration refer to students as "bodies in seats," a kind of head-count measure of enrolment. Our interest at Sunday School is not in having a body to fill a seat but in having a mind intent on learning the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. That is to say, while attendance at the ecclesia is necessary, just being there is not sufficient. The student's mind needs to be prepared at home. If there is a verse assigned as homework memorization, the parents need to take an interest in the child's mastery of the verse and help them with reciting and understanding it during the course of the week. This kind of parental engagement and encouragement does not end when a child reaches the age of seven or eight - it is even more necessary and important in the early teenage years. In Sunday School classes for older age groups, if there is homework assigned, the parents need to take an interest in the work and encourage the student to answer the questions. Care needs to be taken not to end up doing the assignment for the student but to be a guide so that the student gets the benefit from the learning and discovery. Then the parents need to ensure that the child has a schedule on Saturday evening that allows them to get to bed at a reasonable hour. A child that comes to class on Sunday morning with only a few hours sleep is not geared to learn. Baby-sitting, other part-time jobs as well as social activities that involve late hours on Saturday night need to be approached with great caution, if not avoided altogether.

One of the more frequent complaints, when parents ask children in the early teenage years "How was your Sunday School class today?" is hear to an answer something like, "Boring." Such an answer by the child may be a way of testing the parents' mettle to see if at least one parent will agree and take the child's side. Agreeing with such an answer, as if to sanction the waning interest of the child, is a big mistake since boredom is, to a very large extent, an attitude. There are a number of ways by which a student who gives this answer can be challenged in a positive way. For example, the student can be asked to think of one question that would be relevant to ask the teacher at the next class. Questions have a way of engaging the class and raising the level of interest among all participants. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions (Luke 2:46). This example of the Lord at age twelve is one that can be applied by our children. As parents, we cannot look upon Sunday School as the teacher's job alone. It is a job in which we share responsibility with the teacher and must be informed about the class and engaged with our child-student. As parents, we need to speak with the teacher frequently, to enquire about the class, to learn about our own child's progress and to offer support and encouragement to the teacher. Teachers may be reluctant to come forward and tell us if our child is being disruptive to the class (out of concern for sparing our feelings), but if we ask the teacher and give them the opportunity, they may be more inclined to share with us what they are experiencing with our child. Sunday School is a partnership between the ecclesia and the home.

One of the most important qualities for a child to learn in his or her relationship to the ecclesia is that of respect: respect for the meeting itself as a time and place for reverence and respect for the members of the ecclesia, as people to be loved, looked up to and cared for. Respect can be learned by observing parental examples. If children have heard their parents describe a certain brother's talk on a previous occasion as "boring," they are more likely to pick up on the parents' own criticism and play it back to them. Thus, it is important that if parents have any negative observations to share about the ecclesia with one another, they do so in strict privacy and not in front of their children. A critical, negative attitude towards the ecclesia by the parents is almost certain to rub off on the children and therefore it is important that we, as parents, take a positive attitude toward our ecclesia. As our children grow older, they will come to understand that, owing to the imperfections of this flesh, ecclesias will not be perfect, but they must come to see the strength of God's truth as greater than the weaknesses of those earthen vessels who profess it. They must come to see that their task, together with their parents, is to contribute to the spirituality of the ecclesia by their own examples and conduct. They should not be running the ecclesia down, but rather determining how they can contribute to building it up. It is also important that parents be united in their shared commitment to the ecclesia, as children are quick to discern and exploit differences between mother and father.

It is common during meeting for many parents to engage preschool children with toys and snacks to amuse them while they learn to be quiet. As the child reaches school-age, it might be books or electronic devices that are on 'mute.' At what age do children cease to be occupied with their own amusement and begin to follow the readings, sing the hymns, stand reverently and quietly during the prayers? Our answer would be, at the earliest age possible. It is heart-warming to watch little ones pick up a hymnbook, find the hymn number, even if unable to read the words, and try to sing along. Children want and need to emulate adults. They do not learn respect by ignoring the hymns and prayers and carrying on with their own alternative activities. If children have been taught the words and tunes of hymns in their home, their capacity to join in at the ecclesia at an early age will be that much more developed.

For many generations, the process of learning about divine things has followed an order in which the elders pass on their understanding of the Scriptures to the younger generation. In many orthodox Jewish yeshivas, this practice is still largely followed today even as it was in the time of the apostles. The younger generation would sit and learn at the feet of the older generation, much as Paul did under Gamaliel's guidance (Acts 22:3). One of the challenges in our ecclesias is finding the right balance between the participation of the young and the leadership of elders. Young people have energy, idealism and a desire to do things. Stifling it will discourage them. Elders have wisdom and maturity that, when matched with the zeal of youth, can serve to channel it in ways by which the interests of the ecclesia, in giving glory to God, are best served. If a young person is given too much ecclesial responsibility too quickly, it may lower their respect for their elders, as they come to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think (Romans 12:3). There is no substitute for the maturity that comes with life's experiences no matter how much understanding of the Scriptures a young mind may have gained. Therefore, it is important to teach our youth to defer to their elders, looking up to them as sources of wisdom about life and learning in the Word.

One of the most important things for children to learn, beginning at an early age, is the principle of service to Christ. Our children need to learn that when they do things for the brothers and sisters of the ecclesia, they do it unto Christ (Matthew 25:40). Children today are more self-centred than in previous generations, as much of their upbringing revolves around indulging their needs and their pleasures. The ecclesia is an ideal place for our children to learn that our high calling involves service to others. Thus, the more this commitment to service can be inculcated at an early age, the better. Service may be small details, like holding a door open for an elderly member, gathering up hymnbooks after service or patiently waiting until the senior members of the ecclesia have gone through the food line. Another important form of service is teaching young children to know all the members of the ecclesia and to greet them by name each Sunday. Addressing a brother or sister as "Uncle" or "Aunt" is a habit that we believe ought to be encouraged, as it expresses endearment and emphasizes that we are an ecclesial family. Children are naturally shy and older members may appear gruff and stolid in a child's eyes, but parents can help break through those perceptions and help the child and their elders become friends.

It is our view also that there needs to be gender distinctions made at an early age. Boys should learn that their service to Christ will involve different activities than that offered by girls. This is a distinction that is no longer made in the broader society - in fact, every effort is made to erase it - but there will be aspects of ecclesial and family life in which the male and the female roles are complementary but different. Taking a public speaking role in the ecclesia is not the pinnacle of our service in Christ. Girls do not need to feel that they are somehow less able to contribute to the ecclesia because they do not take this role. Overmuch weight should be not be attached to boys publicly speaking, lest it eclipse other forms of service that need to be offered and which may be more suited to a young believer's place in the ecclesia. Being encouraged to read from the Bible at home and at Sunday School - both in classroom settings and in front of the congregation, is very important to young students to increase their workmanship with its message.

Our Christadelphian ecclesias have many relationships among natural families. Although these connections are not emphasized in the pages of the New Testament, it was no different in the first century ecclesias, as we learn from the few hints that are offered (Example: Romans 16:7). The term nepotism refers to the advancement of family interests in a way that shows partiality. As it is often the case that we, as parents, will have our own natural children in our Sunday School or Bible School class at some point, we need to take care to treat all the students equitably and not show favouritism to our own flesh and blood. For example, it might be tempting for a parent-teacher to cast their own son or daughter in the lead role in the Sunday School play. Children that may have few natural family ties in an ecclesia are particularly disadvantaged if such a spirit of partiality becomes established. Some children, especially in their mid-teenage years, go through a stage where they are embarrassed to have one of their own parents as their instructor. As parents, we need to take that stage of adolescence in stride, as it will pass. According to the wisdom, In the multitude of counsellors there is safety, our children benefit from having relationships with many members of the ecclesia and receiving instruction from a variety of teachers in the course of their development. There are times in a child's development when a bond may develop with an older member of the ecclesia who is neither a parent nor a close relative. That bond may be valuable in providing the child with a mentor to help in time of need.

In summary, the most important thing to remember is that the ecclesia's role in contributing to raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is intended to supplement the parents' role but it can never replace it. While the ecclesia can be of great benefit to support and augment the parents' work in raising their children, an hour's instruction in Sunday School on a Sunday morning can never take the place of their constant daily interactions with their children. When the apostle Paul wrote to the ecclesia in Corinth, Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men, (2 Corinthians 3:2), he used an analogy that has an application to our role as parents in particular and the ecclesia in general. Just as our children have personal access to the word of God as they develop literacy in their early years, we - the parents and the ecclesia - are the epistle that they are first able to "read" and which they will study for example all their lives. May what they read there be that which contributes to their call to glory and virtue in Christ (2 Peter 1:3).

James and Janet Farrar, Grimsby, ON