If you’ve walked into a church service lately with a baby in your arms, chances are you are well aware of the new anti-child atmosphere that dominates much of the modern American church. There are smiling men and women stationed at every door ready to “guide” you to the nursery where your child will “have a very enjoyable experience” and be cared for by the best childcare staff in the history of the universe.
Rebuff these helpful people and their smiles will soon be replaced with determined glares. Things escalate slowly at first, but eventually the truth comes out. These people are not here to help you and your child; they are here to protect the sanctity of the sanitized worship environment. Their job is to see that you –and people like you—don’t ruin the service for everyone else. They’ve been warned about people like you. You just don’t get it. For millennia Christians have been denied the privilege of enjoying worship the way God intended it (sans children); now we’ve finally arrived, and you want to mess it up by bring in your squawking baby! How selfish, inconsiderate, and unspiritual can you be?
Then along come churches like ours that don’t help things a bit. At Grace Family Baptist Church, we don’t have a nursery. Families worship together from the oldest to the youngest. We welcome the cooing of babies and consider the act of taking an unruly child out of the service as an invaluable teaching opportunity for both parent and child. What’s more, we think it is as important for children to learn to “endure” a service, and see worship modeled by their parents as it is for them to have an “age appropriate” lesson. As a result, our church (along with others like it) has been thrust into the middle of many a debate over whether or not the concept of the nursery is “biblical”.
In an effort to address this issue, some pastors have employed what I like to call the “Nehemiah’s Nursery” argument. These men feel the need to justify their use of separate spaces for children by appealing to Nehemiah 8 as “biblical” support for their practice. Unfortunately, this passage does not settle the issue. In fact, the passage in question, the broader Old Testament context, and several New Testament examples all serve as evidence against reading the concept of separating children in a nursery during worship into the words of Nehemiah.
The Passage in Question
The first problem with the “Nehemiah’s Nursery” argument is the fact that the passage in question does not suggest that children are to be segregated into nurseries during corporate worship.
“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:1-4, ESV)
A careful examination of what Nehemiah said, and what he did not say will make it clear that it is a stretch to argue for the modern practice of segregating children from corporate worship from this text.
What Nehemiah Said
The first problem with the Nehemiah’s Nursery argument is the fact that it goes beyond Nehemiah’s words. Nehemiah is emphasizing who came to the assembly. He is not making a statement about who didn’t come. The text reads, “So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard.” Is the phrase, “and all who could understand…” meant to exclude some? Or is Nehemiah merely emphasizing the fact that everyone came? He does not say, “only those who could understand.” He says all (läOk◊w). Every major English translation renders läOk◊w as all in verse two. The Nehemiah’s Nursery argument would be much stronger if Nehemiah had written, _JKAa (only) instead of läOk◊w (all).
Second, Nehemiah is emphasizing the scope of the meeting. Many official meetings in Israel included only men, or heads of household. In fact, Nehemiah notes that one such meeting took place the very next day. In verse thirteen we read, “On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:13-14) Thus, his words in verse four can be seen as emphasizing the scope and magnitude of the first meeting, and not necessarily declaring who did not come.
What Nehemiah Did Not Say
What Nehemiah said is important. However, what he did not say in this passage may be even more important. Nehemiah informs the reader as to who came to the assembly, but he does not say who, if anyone, was absent. That must be implied from the text. Therefore, making pronouncements about who is not welcome in corporate worship based on this passage is a tricky proposition. To do so is essentially to make an argument from silence.
Nehemiah Did Not Say “Children”
Nehemiah could have been referring to children, but not necessarily so. It is true that Nehemiah could have been referring to the absence of children in the assembly. However, it is not necessary to read the text this way. There is no precedent in the Old or New Testament for children being excluded from the general assembly of God’s people. In fact, quite the opposite is true. There are numerous instances where men, women and children are present in public assemblies and worship (see: Deut. 31:12-13; Ezra 10:1; Matt. 18:1-5; 19:13-15; Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20).
Nehemiah could have been referring to the mentally impaired. Nehemiah’s words, “all who could understand what they heard,” could just as easily be a reference to the mentally impaired, or the ignorant. People with a variety of mental disabilities have difficulty understanding what they hear. Should we have the equivalent of a nursery for those who suffer head trauma or brain disorders? Should we have a special room for those with a low IQ? Wouldn’t a consistent application of the nursery principle –based strictly on Nehemiah’s wording—call for such action?
Nehemiah could have been referring to foreigners. Foreigners, or those who speak another language, would also qualify as those who could not “understand” the words being read. Foreigners who have not mastered Hebrew sufficiently would definitely have had difficulty understanding what they heard, and thus (if we view Nehemiah’s words as precedent for the exclusion of such people from the public assembly), they would definitely have to be excluded.
There is nothing in Nehemiah’s words to indicate that he had to be speaking of children when he penned this clause. We must also remember that Israel was very particular about who could and could not participate in worship. There were segregated sections of the assemblies, and not everyone could participate freely. As Victor Matthews notes:
To determine those who could freely participate in the ritual activities of the temple, the entire nation was divided according to the pattern set in the genealogical list in Neh. 7:7-60. The population of Judah was therefore made up of the following classifications: priests, Levites, laypersons, converted Jews, men of uncertain descent, eunuchs, and non-Jews. To participate fully in the religious activities of the community, a person had to be able to provide proof of pure lineage (Ezra 2:59-63). (Victor Matthews, Manners and Customs in the Bible, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1988, 1991)
Hence, there is not only the question of whether it is appropriate to assume that Nehemiah was referring to children in chapter eight, it is also necessary to note that the New Testament church no longer employs exclusionary Old Testament patterns in worship. Therefore, even if Nehemiah was making a reference to the absence of children, that in itself would not be sufficient grounds to argue for the systematic exclusion of children from the gathering of the New Testament church.
Nehemiah Did Not Say Where the “Others” Gathered
Another key weakness in the Nehemiah’s Nursery argument is the fact that Nehemiah makes no mention of where the others gathered. Nor does he imply that there was such a gathering (i.e., a nursery). Why not say that those with young children should stay home and not come to church at all? Wouldn’t that be more in keeping with what actually happened in Nehemiah’s day? Is it even conceivable that there was an actual nursery on site with workers waiting to take little children from the arms of their mothers as they walked into the service?
Of course this raises another question. Who was watching the children in the nursery? If the gathering included “all who could understand what they heard,” that would leave only foreigners and those with mental disabilities, or low IQ to care for the children. Anyone else would have been able to understand, and thus “gathered at the square before the water gate.” This is simply an untenable position.
Children in Old Testament Gatherings
Another major problem with the Nehemiah’s Nursery argument is that it is inconsistent with what we see in other Old Testament passages. For example, Deuteronomy 31 paints quite a different picture than the one suggested by nursery advocates:
“Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13, ESV)
Remember, we do not have explicit instructions in Nehemiah 8 regarding the absence of children. This is an assumption read into the text. If children being absent from the worship of God’s people were to be understood as normative, one would expect to see the same pattern during assemblies in Moses’ day.
Not only do we see children in the assembly in Moses’ day, we also see them in Nehemiah’s day. In fact, in the book immediately preceding Nehemiah –the book often coupled with Nehemiah—we find a very different scene than that which nursery proponents describe:
“While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly.” (Ezra 10:1, ESV)
How can one argue that Nehemiah gives us a normative principle calling for children to be secluded in the nursery during worship when Ezra gives contradictory evidence? Was Ezra in violation of Nehemiah’s Nursery principle? Are there certain assemblies where children are allowed and others where they are not? Or have we simply read something into Nehemiah 8 that was never there?
Children in New Testament Gatherings
As stated earlier, even if Nehemiah had expressly forbidden children from participating in the general assembly, there would still need to be more than that in order to suggest a normative principle. Narrative is not normative; Scripture interprets Scripture; clear texts interpret obscure or confusing ones. Where is the didactic teaching that promotes the segregation of children? It is simply not there. Children were present in Old Testament assemblies. Moreover, children are also prevalent in New Testament worship. There are many instances in the New Testament where the presence of children is either stated, or implied.
Children In the Ministry of Jesus
The ministry of Jesus offers some insight into the disposition our Lord had towards the presence of children in the assembly. Jesus often used Children in illustrations. Sometimes, he used them as real-life object lessons. For instance, in Matthew’s gospel we read:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4; cf. Mk 9:36-37)
This is similar to an encounter in Matthew 19:
“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.” (Matthew 19:13-15)
In both instances Jesus acknowledges the presence of children. Moreover, Jesus does not give any indication that the presence of the children is in any way inappropriate in either instance. Evidently our Lord did not think children made listening to his sermons too difficult, nor did he think teaching children to behave in the assembly was too harsh or unreasonable. Far from supporting the Nehemiah’s Nursery idea, these passages seem to refute the concept directly.
Children in the Assembly for Public Reading
Another, more subtle, piece of evidence to support children in the assembly is found in the epistles. While there is no didactic teaching in the epistles concerning children in the assembly, there are hints. For instance, Paul addresses children directly in at least two of his epistles. He writes:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother' (this is the first commandment with a promise), 'that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.'” (Ephesians 6:1-3; cf. Col. 3:20)
The question, or course, is why would Paul address children directly in documents that would be read aloud in the public gathering unless he expected children to be present?
I agree with the proponents of the “Nehemiah’s Nursery” argument in the sense that I believe we should look to Scripture as our final authority for faith and practice. I applaud those who buck the modern antinomian trend and attempt to wrestle with the text instead of going with the cultural flow on such matters. Unfortunately, in this case, the text has been stretched beyond credulity. Nehemiah does not say that children were absent from the assembly. And even if that’s what he meant, he does not say that the children were in a nursery. Moreover, Nehemiah’s language would tend to exclude groups of people (the ignorant, mentally handicapped, the foreigner, etc.) that no church would be willing to isolate in a nursery.
Beyond all of this, other Old Testament texts –including Ezra 10—point to assemblies that included children. The New Testament also contains similar examples. Therefore, the “Nehemiah’s Nursery” reading of the passage in question simply will not suffice. I am not arguing that a church has left orthodox Christianity if they have a nursery. I am, however, arguing that such a decision would have to be based on something other than the eighth chapter of the book of Nehemiah. As we say here in Texas, “That dog won’t hunt.”