It’s really tempting to use a play on words with well-known phrase “Suffer the little children…” to focus on them actually suffering, either in reality or in perception. Many people do end up doing that. Lord knows I almost did it myself when I tacked the headline on one of my wife’s posts on this blog, Cry For the Little Children, which I did almost title Suffer the Little Children.
But we need to remember that Jesus came up with that line, and that wasn’t what he was getting at. When he said, “suffer the little children,” it was in this context in the King James version: But Jesus called them unto him, and said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” Here’s the full text, the New American Standard version of Luke chapter 18, verses 15-17:
And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”
In the more modern translations like the one above, we see suffer become something like permit or allow. But that misses the flavor of what I strongly suspect Jesus was trying to get across and that the King James version captured. He wasn’t just saying, “Let them come to me because they are important” (he was, of course), but he was also saying, “you will deal with them being around me…you will tolerate it even if you don’t like it…you will suffer it if you must but you will learn to cope with it regardless.”
So why is it that so many churches and churchgoers and church leaders want the children out of sight, out of earshot and out of mind?
I grew up in the Catholic Church. Whatever ill feelings I have for the Vatican leadership and many of the doctrinal matters of Catholic life that depart from scripture, I have nothing against Catholic places of worship; rank-and-file priests, nuns and brothers; or Catholic worshippers. In fact, one thing I recall fondly is that there wasn’t a single “children’s service” in any Catholic church I ever went to. I don’t know if that’s still the way things are; maybe things were different then. Or maybe I went to a whole lot of non-standard churches. But the kids were expected to be in the pews. If they acted up, they got taken out by their parents. If a baby cried, we all dealt with it until the baby could be soothed or the mother could move said infant to a more soundproofed area. But people didn’t get weird about them being there, because there place was there, alongside their families.
Yet, since becoming born again for real (instead of just being born into Christianity as a baby and raised in it) and attending mostly Protestant churches as an adult, I see a lot of churches—in fact, most of them I have attended—shuffling the kids off at some point, sometimes very early in the service, to a children’s church or to the nursery, depending on the age. If you are one of the “odd” sorts who doesn’t want to hand your baby off to a relative stranger and your child makes a fuss at all in the service and you don’t dart of your seat at light speed with kid in tow, people give you dirty looks.
They don’t want to suffer the children.
Look, I get the value of a children’s church. I know that in a lot of cases, the kids are being taught scripture in a more kid-understandable fashion. But I also know that in a lot of cases, kids are being indoctrinated into what that church believes kids should do. I don’t mind them teaching my child that he or she should obey God, but it’s fully my prerogative to tell my children whether, and how, they should obey other adults, including myself. Yet in many children’s church settings, kids are taught to obey and to do what they are told and not necessarily to think. That’s why I prefer my child next to me in church, because I want my child taught according to my priorities, particularly when she is still not even school age.
The church we’re in now has a great program for kids and I trust them, so I do send Little Girl Blue down to the nursery/playroom. She’s happier that way, and I’ll ease her into doing services as she gets older. I’ve seen them in action and they ultimately let the kids be kids. Also, our pastor at a recent meeting of new members didn’t ask parents to leave their kids with someone but welcomed them and thanked all those kids afterward for having been such good sports about the whole thing and letting us grown-ups talk.
But in so many other churches I’ve been to, you’re going against the grain if you bring your child, and God forbid you give special instruction like “don’t feed my child X” or “if he/she cries, get me immediately” or anything else, because in my experience, most of the people in charge of the kids don’t listen to what the parents tell them, or don’t care what the parents are saying.
Kids are people too. Trite as it sounds, it’s true. Jesus recognized them as children of God first and foremost, which is the same way he viewed the adults.
We should too. We need to suffer the little children.
And we need to suffer them gladly.