On Scripture’s Sexual Ethics and Children in Worship

Ephesians 6:1-4 communicates several things about the nature of scripture, preaching, and worship. Growing up, my experience was that this passage was typically used as a way of instructing parents on instructing their kids. Yet Paul is not addressing parents until 6:4. In 6:1-3 Paul is directly addressing children, and the assumption held by the text is that the children of the church are present for the reading of the letter (see Colossians 4:16). The expectation of the letter is that when it is read and preached in worship that the people to whom it is addressed are present. To put it plainly, the expectation is that children are present in the worship service, not just for singing, but for the ministry of the word.

Embedded within 6:1-3 is the citation of the 5th commandment from Exodus 20:12: “honor your father and mother.” Paul is not simply providing new insight to the kids of the church, but reminding them of what they should know from scripture already. He presumes that the children already know their Old Testament, which in turn presumes that they have been taught the scriptures and are sitting under the ministry of the word. This is evident from Paul’s description of the 5th commandment as “the first commandment with a promise” – this qualification is meant to remind the kids of the distinction the 5th commandment holds in contrast to the other commandments, which is only necessary if they already know the other commandments.

This tells us that Paul was not inconsistent when he says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all of scripture is for all of the people of God (the symbolic “man of God”). 2 Timothy 3:16 is immediately followed by Paul instructing Timothy on how to make use of scripture in ministry: by preaching. Personal study and parental discipleship are certainly important, and are ways in which scripture is profitable, but the primary way in which scripture is profitable is through its preaching in worship (see WLC 155).

So scripture, preaching, and the corporate worship of the church are all fully intended for the children of the church. This is the expectation of the Bible.

And this challenges a number of assumptions up-tight evangelicals frequently bring to church in regards to sex. Oftentimes the belief is that the children need to reach a certain age (kindergarten?, 3rd grade?, 6th grade?, high school?) before sexual ethics are addressed. But Paul’s presumption that the children know the 5th commandment, and need to have its features distinguished from the other commandments, indicates that they actually know the other commandments, including the 7th, “you shall not commit adultery.” There is no way to meaningfully teach the 7th commandment without addressing sex, as the Old Testament makes abundantly clear. Paul was no prude, unafraid of discussing sexual ethics in the presence of children. Preceding 6:1-4, he addresses sexual ethics in detail in 5:3-20. If the assumption of 6:1-4 is that the children are present for its reading, the assumption is that they were present for the reading of 5:3-20.

Now, Paul does not go into lurid detail, and his command that these things “must not even be named among you” should not be ignored or twisted. But what is demonstrated by the content of this passage, along with its context, is that the Holy Spirit intends for all the body of Christ to be exposed to scripture’s teaching on this. In other words, removing kids from worship so the adults can deal with a topic frankly, or sheltering kids from this subject until they are “mature enough” to hear it, misses God’s intent for the use of scripture. We can feel squeamish at the idea of children being alongside adults when these segments of scripture are taught, but that discomfort reveals a difference in cultural values from scripture’s teaching. That squeamishness is indicative of a sense of cultural propriety, which is being challenged by God’s word. The full counsel of God should be preached in worship, and that worship should include even the littlest of God’s children.