Covenant Worship: Part One
Part One: Children in the Corporate Worship Service
Why have reformed churches traditionally insisted on the importance of covenant worship? This post reviews four major pillars that have been used to support the practice of covenant worship: the biblical testimony, the status of the covenant child, the uniqueness of corporate worship, and the importance of the means of grace.
First, reformed churches have stressed the importance of covenant worship because the witness of Scripture leads naturally to the conclusion that children should be included in the corporate worship of the church. No single verse can be cited as commanding parents to keep their children in corporate worship, yet the entire scope of biblical revelation demonstrates that this was the practice of God’s people in both the Old and New covenant administrations. Many places in the Old Testament record the command to Israel to include their little children when corporately gathered before the Lord. Strikingly, when the prophet Joel called for a national fast, even nursing infants were to assemble: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants” (Joel 2:15-16). The New Testament demonstrates the presence of children as Jesus taught in the streets and probably also in the synagogue (Matt 18:2; 19:13-15), as well as Jesus’ displeasure towards those who would keep the children from coming to him (Mk 10; Matt 19; Lk 18). The apostle Paul directly addressed children in his letters, clear evidence that he expected them to be included in the corporate worship of the church (Eph 6:1-3; Col 3:20). It is fair to conclude with Jeremy Walker: “The constant presumption of Scripture is that children were present in the worship of the people of God” (“Attendance of Children in Public Worship Services”).
A second consideration that undergirds the reformed emphasis on covenant worship is the status of children in the church. Unlike traditional Baptist theologies, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have recognized that God’s covenant promises both in the Old and New Covenant extend to the children of believers, and thus have properly regarded covenant children to be members of the church. This position is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 25:2: “The visible church…consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children.” As members of the covenant community, the children of believers are to be accorded certain rights and privileges. The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO), for example, states that: “The children of believers are, through the covenant and by right of birth, non-communing members of the church. Hence they are entitled to Baptism, and to the pastoral oversight, instruction, and government of the church” (6-1). As Richard Bacon observes, these privileges certainly include the right to gather with the people of God and to hear the Word of God preached (Revealed to Babes, 27).
A third consideration flows out of the nature of corporate worship itself. In contrast to many evangelical churches today, reformed churches believe that what happens in corporate worship is unique and cannot be reproduced by any other church ministry regardless of how well executed it might be. This uniqueness is based on the promise of Jesus to be present with his people in a special way when they are gathered together in his name. Again the PCA BCO makes this point well:
“A service of public worship is not merely a gathering of God’s children with each other, but before all else, a meeting of the triune God with His chosen people. God is present in public worship not only by virtue of the Divine omnipresence but, much more intimately, as the faithful covenant Savior” (47-2).
Further, the BCO identifies this uniqueness as a central reason that covenant children ought to be included: “Public Worship differs from private worship in that in public worship God is served by His saints unitedly as His covenant people, the Body of Christ. For this reason the covenant children should be present so far as possible as well as adults” (47-4). The implications for the importance of covenant worship are obvious. If Christ has promised to be present in a special way during the corporate worship of God’s people, then removing children from worship would cause them to miss this special blessing.
A fourth reason for the importance of covenant worship is the centrality of preaching and the ordinary means of grace in giving and sustaining faith. Scripture is clear that the ordinary way that our children come to faith is by hearing the gospel preached to them. Paul wrote in 1 Cor 1:21 that God uses the “foolishness” of preaching to save those who believe. The Apostle Peter described Christians as those who had been “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet 1:23, 25). Recognizing this scriptural emphasis, reformed churches and parents expect that God will call their children to faith through the preached Word and have not wanted to remove them from this means of grace.