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How to Determine Whether or Not a Practice is Biblical

Today I am beginning a three part series that seeks to answer the question, “Is age segregated Sunday school Biblical?” But in order to answer the question, it seems to me that we must begin by establishing what we mean when we ask it. We must think about what we will accept as Biblical in the first place and why we will accept it as such. In my opinion, much of the confusion in discussions about the subject of age segregated education in the local churches starts with conflicting assumptions about this very issue.

For example, I have heard many people from within the Family Integrated Church Movement (FICM) adamantly assert that age segregated Sunday school is most definitely not Biblical, but I don’t think they mean what I mean when I speak about whether or not something is Biblical. For the most part they seem to mean that the practice of age segregated education of our children is not Biblical because it is not specifically prescribed in the Bible. That is, they often appear to operate with the assumption that the local church needs a specific command in Scripture in order to justify a ministry practice as Biblical. But I do not think that we should restrict our assessment of whether or not a practice is Biblical to such a narrow parameter, even if it is a very important parameter. So, in this post I would like to begin to set forth a more complete set of parameters under four main headings:
1. Biblical Prescriptions
To begin, I certainly agree that a practice should be accepted as Biblical if we have a Biblical prescription to do it – that is, if we have a positive command to do it. Examples of such prescriptions would be the practice of baptizing believers (Matt. 28:19) and the observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26). We know these practices are Biblical because the Bible clearly teaches that we must do them. This is not the case, however, with the practice of age segregated instruction of our children on Sunday mornings, as opponents of the practice are quite fond of pointing out. But, as I have already indicated, I do not think the discussion should end here.
2. Biblical Prohibitions
Just as we know with certainty that a ministry practice is Biblical if we have a positive command in the Bible to do it, we know with just as much certainty that a ministry practice is not Biblical if we have a prohibition in the Bible against it. One example of such a prohibition would be women teaching or having authority over men in the churches. The Apostle Paul clearly says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:12). Yet we have no such prohibition against age segregated instruction of children. In fact, if we are seeking either a prescription or a prohibition for the practice, we find that the Bible is silent on the matter.
3. Biblical Precedents
But there is yet another way in which we can discern whether or not a ministry practice is Biblical, for we can look to see if a practice has a Biblical precedent. One example of such a precedent would be the practice of worshiping on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). Another example of such a precedent would be the inclusion of children in the worship gatherings of the church. It would appear obvious, for instance, that the apostle Paul assumed that children would be present with their parents at church gatherings when he included instructions for them in at least two of his epistles (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20), epistles which he expected to be publicly read when the church gathered for worship (Col. 4:16). So, we have a clear precedent for age integrated instruction of children in the churches, but in the case of age segregated instruction of children we find no such clear precedent in the Bible (although there does seem to be a precedent for the general concept and practice of age segregated instruction, which I will address in part three of this series).
4. Biblical Principles
However, we still haven’t exhausted our means of ascertaining whether or not a practice may be considered to be Biblical, for we haven’t yet addressed the matter of whether or not a practice is in keeping with Biblical principles. Yet it is through the application of Biblical principles that we ascertain whether or not many practices are to be accepted as Biblical. Indeed, the Church throughout her history has recognized that much of what we do is informed not by clear Biblical prescriptions, prohibitions, or precedents, but rather by the thoughtful application of Biblical principles. Consider what the Baptist Confession of 1689 says in this regard:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture, to which nothing is to be added at any time, either by new revelation of the Spirit, or by the traditions of men.
Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.
There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and church government which are common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word which are always to be observed. (Chapter 1.6, italics mine)
Notice that the Confession first of all refers to those things which are essential and which are either expressly taught in Scripture or may be derived therefrom by way of good and necessary inference (the meaning of “necessarily contained” in the first sentence of the text cited). Yet it also recognizes that not all matters faced by the Church are so directly addressed. Thus, when we are dealing with an issue or practice for which we have no explicit teaching in Scripture, the Confession recognizes that we are to rely on our wisdom and experience as informed by “the general rules of the Word,” which in this context must refer to the application of the general teaching or principles of the Word.
One example of such an issue or practice that is not addressed directly in Scripture would be the type of music used in corporate worship in the churches. The Bible simply doesn’t indicate a particular style of music or song writing that should be utilized by Christians when they meet to worship. But that doesn’t mean that we must be silent about the matter, does it? Absolutely not! For there are a number of principles that we may employ in addressing the issue. Thus we would want to see what the Bible says about God, about how God works in His people through the Word, about the role of the Word in worship, about the nature of the Church as the body of Christ, about attitudes we should display in worship and how music might affect these, about the unity we should seek as we worship God together, etc. So, for example, if we believe that we should seek to worship God in a unified way and with one voice (as Jesus and His disciples apparently did, Matt. 26:30), we will want to choose a style of music that is written to better enable and enhance congregational singing rather than a style of music that is written to be performed for an audience.
At any rate, I think we should all be able to agree that there are any number of ministry practices that may not be directly addressed in Scripture in terms of a prescription, a prohibition, or a precedent, but for which we may find many principles that apply. And insofar as we seek to faithfully, wisely, and prayerfully apply these principles, we may indeed say that our practice is Biblical.
It is precisely here, it seems to me, where we can say that age segregated instruction of children by the Church is indeed a Biblical concept, since I think that this practice it is in keeping with the wise application of Biblical principles. In setting forth these principles, perhaps it would be best to begin with the Biblical teaching about the nature of the Church as a spiritual family and how this relates to the Biblical teaching about the biological family. This I will attempt to do in the next post in this series, followed by a third post that will focus more specifically on Scriptural teaching about the nature of physical, mental, and spiritual maturation and even the idea of age segregated instruction itself.
I will just say in conclusion that it was not my intent in this post to be exhaustive in delineating criteria for how to determine whether or not a particular ministry practice is Biblical. My intention was merely to demonstrate that the matter is not so simple as some appear to think and, hopefully, to help many of my brothers and sisters in Christ to think a little more clearly about this important issue.
See Part 2 here.

4 thoughts on “Is Age Segregated Sunday School Biblical? – Part 1

  1. My brother and I have discussed this issue over the past year and a half. I come from the view that the practice of children going off for age segregated ‘sunday schooling’ isn’t prescribed but neither prohibited, but principally, it doesn’t fit in with a Deuteronomy 6:7-9 model, nor a Titus 2:1-8, nor Eph 6:1-4. Then on the ‘natural light’ side of things, it just practically makes sense for children to see the act of worship and teaching modeled out in corporate family worship, that includes both preaching and dialectic teaching, so that fathers, who being the heads of families, are able to demonstrate biblical headship both in the home and corporately in church, as they are the shepherds of their individual clans (as per Numbers 1:2-4), and women are able to demonstrate biblical submission corporately in support of scripture (1 Cor. 11:1-16) and in this way children can better understand the God of order as the church models out 1 Cor. 14:26-40.

    Really interested to read part 2 and 3!!

    1. As you can tell already from the first post, I think that age segregated instruction does fit “principally” with Scripture, so, for the time being at least, we will have to agree to disagree in love on the matter … unless my further posts win you over. If they don’t win you over, then we can still agree to disagree in love. For now, I will just point out a few things to think about as you continue your reading and prayerful consideration of Scripture on the matter.

      First, you will already have noticed that I do not advocate “children’s church,” which parts children from their parents and the rest of the congregation during the worship time, which in our case would include the entire service along with the pastoral teaching. In fact, I have already argued for a Scriptural precedent for keeping children with their parents at such times. However, I see no reason why churches cannot have additional times of instruction that would include age segregated instruction of children. I go on to argue that such additional times do reflect the wise application of Biblical principles.

      Second, as for the “model” you mention, while I do not disagree that Deuteronomy 6:7-9 contains parenting principles that still apply to Christian parents in their training of their children, I see nothing in the passage or the larger context that disallows our children being taught by others as well. For example, the passage does not rule out other family members helping to instruct children in the Word of God, nor does it rule out the role of the Levitical priests helping to instruct them (Deut. 33:10). I obviously do not understand Titus 2:1-8 and Ephesians 6:1-4 as disallowing such a practice either. In fact, in the next two posts, I argue that the overall context of Scripture, especially of the New Testament, suggests that age segregated instruction is actually a good idea, in addition to, not instead of, the usual corporate time of worship and instruction. This is a point upon which I disagree with the practice of many churches today.

      Third, while I agree with your basic point that keeping families together for the public worship of the church helps to reinforce the roles of men and women in the home, I’m not sure I can agree with the entirety of your argument. For example, I’m not sure what you mean when you assert that fathers, as “the heads of families, are able to demonstrate biblical headship both in the home and corporately in church.” Being the head of the home does not make one a leader in the church, so what does this statement mean? Also, in apparent explanation of this statement, you go on to add that “they are the shepherds of their individual clans (as per Numbers 1:2-4)” (emphasis mine). But I don’t understand the appeal to this passage in this context, since it speaks of individual leaders from each of the tribes of Israel who were to serve as heads over each tribe. It does not speak of individual family units. Yet you seem think that this passage indicates a shepherding role of some kind and appear to be using it to imply a shepherding role for fathers over their individual family units. Am I understanding you correctly? If not, please explain so I can understand your point. If so, then I would have to disagree and say that this is a misappropriation of the passage, which really has nothing to do with the issues at hand. I would also add that I have often heard proponents of family integrated churches argue that fathers are the “shepherds” or “pastors” of their homes, and I have even encountered some who claim that pastoral authority in the church must be mediated through the fathers as the shepherds of their homes. However, this is not a Biblical use of language, and it confuses the distinct roles that God has given both to fathers and to pastors. I’m not entirely sure where you stand on this point, but this is an issue that is addressed in the following posts, especially in part two.

      In closing I would add that I suspect we are not really too far apart on the most important points at issue, since, unlike far too many churches these days, I am not arguing for separating children from their parents during the primary gathering for worship and instruction. In fact, I would argue against such a practice, and for many of the same reasons my brethren in the family integrated churches would argue against it.

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