We are all part of an ecclesia. Even those brothers and sisters who live isolated from the nearest ecclesia are part of the ecclesia of God. The ecclesia is made up of families. One need only read the closing greetings to the various households in the letters by the Apostle Paul to establish this point. In fact in earlier times there were home ecclesias, each consisting of a handful of families who met in the house of one of their group. The point is this; each ecclesia is made up of families and is only as strong as each family.

Family obligations toward others

Whereas the father has the responsibility to bring up his family in godly ways, there is no such control imposed by the ecclesia on its constituent parts. Simply put, the ecclesia does not (and should not) tell families what to do, or seek to enforce certain behaviours. Such responsibilities lie with the parents of each family or with brothers and sisters who are individually accountable to Christ. Because neither the ecclesia as a whole nor its elders have authority to dictate behaviour to families, they are then at the mercy of each family as to what spiritual tone is set. This, for each ecclesia, is at the same time a weakness and a strength. A weakness, because if the individual families fail in their obligations the ecclesia will be weakened, and a strength because the ecclesia will never feel obliged to adopt the authoritarian model which rules by fear, not love. Now that is not to say that the elders are not bound to provide wise counsel and instruction for families, for we know that they must; what it does mean is that the counsel is primarily advisory and not regulatory. An ecclesia must have rules to govern its operations, though it is a difficult balance to achieve between rules and advice for families; we tend to either be too regulatory in our approach or too lean on advice.

What this means for families, yours and mine, is that we have a tremendous responsibility towards others for their welfare. In the context of eating meat offered to idols Paul said “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbour” (1 Cor 10:23–24 ESV). It is not enough to say that what our family is doing is lawful; we must ensure that it builds up and promotes good. It will simply not do for the ecclesia to be an association of families who all do their own thing with little regard for one another. We must each submit and co-operate together in love.

We all know that different families allow different things. There is nothing sinister in that. However, we must not try and enforce our family’s choices (whatever they are) upon the ecclesia. If our family allows a thing, then we must be sensitive to the conscience of those who may not. If our family abstains from a thing and we know others allow it, then we must not judge. A good example would be drinking alcohol at picnics. There cannot be an ecclesial policy, for that would exceed the mandate of the ecclesia and usurp the role of the family. Each family must choose for themselves, but they must make their choice sensitively with regard to the needs of others. While one may not see harm in it and it is not precluded by Scripture, it would not edify all and might rather be a cause for stumbling and so it ought not to be brought, even if it might be drunk at home. On the other hand we should not judge our brother or condemn our brother for drinking at home, or try to squeeze him into our mould just because he might allow a thing that we have chosen not to. The onus rests with those with the stronger conscience (those who accept the freedom to do or have a thing) to bear with those with weaker consciences who prefer to abstain. So sensibly, by common consent, we all choose not to have alcohol at ecclesial gatherings. (As an aside I think that we would all choose well not to have it in our families either, but that is another subject.) One might argue, if the result is the same as having an ecclesial rule, why not have the ecclesia decide and enforce it, and the matter would be simply dealt with? The answer is that families who make up the ecclesia must learn to be individually responsive to the needs of the whole for the ecclesia to flourish. We each need to care for one another. An ecclesia cannot take this role from families; it must support them in it. Each and every family has an enormous responsibility to be sensitive and responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of all. This is not something that may be devolved centrally to the ecclesia or its elders – we must shoulder it individually. We do not wish to have a situation where the ecclesia served God (at least outwardly) all the days of Joshua and the elders who outlived him. We need individual families to have a conscience toward God and then share it collectively.

Attendance at ecclesial gatherings

If you value the things of God in your family there is every reason to (and no cause not to) participate fully as a family in all the gatherings of the ecclesia. When we participate we make it obvious that it is a delight. Children have extraordinarily sensitive hypocrisy radars and they will learn that if Dad can’t be bothered with Bible class then neither should they. Take the children with you as soon as you can and keep taking them with you always. I have heard all the arguments as to why it can’t be done, and few of them have any merit. It may be especially difficult for parents of disabled and chronically ill children, and they must learn what works for them, but for the rest of us (barring sickness) we can and should be at the Sunday meetings and the Bible class as a family.

Behaviour at ecclesial meetings

Children don’t intrinsically know how to behave in an ecclesial context. If it was necessary for Paul to write to Timothy so that he might “know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God” (1 Tim 3:15) it should not come as a surprise that our children have to learn how to behave in ecclesial meetings. We cannot say that since they don’t know, we will leave them at home until they are older. If we don’t take them they will never learn. Karen and I often walked the streets (literally!) with a perennially fractious, screaming and stubborn child during home Bible study classes in the early days of our ecclesia. It was months of misery and seemingly fruitless endeavour … but the reward came at length and by age three or so we ha substantially won the war. She is now baptised.

Parents, please do not think that the hardship is not worthwhile. True, it may be a challenge, and there will be times where it seems barely of any point, but persevere with patience; the reward is well worth it. The value of immersing your family in ecclesial activities cannot be overstated.

There are some simple tips to forming good behavioural habits in ecclesial meetings which can assist long suffering parents of young children and I will share them with you.

  1. Try to get very young (< age 3) children to have a morning sleep everyday at a time which precisely coincides with the commencement of the memorial meeting.Three Sundays out of four you will find your child simply sleeps the meeting away. The same pattern of bedtime will work for evening meetings also.
  2. Resist the temptation to take myriads of toys, food etc to the meeting; they will only become a distraction or opportunity for mess, and it is hard to stop once commenced.
  3. Don’t allow your child to get away with making noise in the meeting from the earliest age. Take them straight out and settle/discipline as appropriate. In this way they will not distract others and quickly (some quicker than others) learn to behave.
  4. Reward a young child’s good behaviour in meetings with small gifts. This provides incentive and counterbalances the discipline for bad behaviour. Young minds learn consequences very quickly.
  5. Get young children involved in taking notes at simple presentations and help them and talk with them about the meeting. We still cherish some classic notes written by a five year old which read “Nowa was a pirsn who bleved in God” taken from a talk about the Flood. Reward such interest and activity generously.
  6. Resist the notion of a cry room or separate hall. Parents tend to allow children greater behavioural licence from which they seldom retreat. Consider – what is distracting for you also distracts them. Try rather sitting towards the rear of the main gathering. You will find that your children learn to behave faster and are well behaved more often.

General advice

If we make the effort with our children, and make no mistake – it is often an effort – we will be well rewarded. If our children see that ecclesial meetings and gatherings are things that we choose not to attend, we can hardly be surprised when they don’t. If we focus our lives around the ecclesia and find our friends within its embrace then our family will be strengthened. This is a lovely win/win scenario. Strong families benefit ecclesias and they in turn strengthen families.

Make it your business never to be seen or heard by your children to be disparaging or condemnatory of the ecclesia. Children will pick up on any thoughts or even bad vibes and instinctively translate those into the concept that the ecclesia is not a place where they want to be. If you must discuss matters of concern, then be sure that little ears are not listening.

Encourage participation with other families who have children the same age as yours. Have (and be) frequent visitors. Paul recommends that bishops be “given to hospitality” (1 Tim 3:2) and this is advice we might all do well to adopt. Two passages of Scripture provide adequate instruction on this point: “Do not be deceived: bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor 15:33 ESV), and “Iron sharpeneth  iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Prov 27:17). Make and take opportunities for friendship and companionship with other families from an ecclesia. Good friends will keep us strong and bad friends will corrupt us.

Sunday School

It is likely that your ecclesia has a Sunday School; most do. If not, there is a correspondence Sunday School in which you can enrol your children and they will be adequately catered for. There are few things you can do that will help your child more than to actively co-operate with Sunday School activities. The role of the parents needs to be much more than a taxi service to get the children to Sunday School on time, though it must at least be that. Tardiness to Sunday School or other meetings conveys to our children that the things of God are not of great importance. Parents need to be involved and supportive of the work of the Sunday School. The child needs to learn to respect the teachers and to obey, even if your personal thoughts on either content or structure are at times at variance with the Sunday School or a teacher. The discipline of Sunday School and the attendant homework are good for children, despite what they might think or at times say. Plan for Sunday School homework, help them, correct them and learn together.