Samuel, Jesus, and Paul are sometimes brought forward in response to the family-integrated rejection of age-segregated Sunday Schools and youth meetings. Are the descriptions of what happened in the case of these children normative for us? Let us remind ourselves of what actually happened in each case.
Samuel was taken to Eli to be raised and instructed by Eli when very young (1 Samuel 1-2). 1 Samuel 1:24-25 records: “Now when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with a three-year-old bull and one ephah of flour and a jug of wine, and brought him to the house of the LORD in Shiloh, although the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and brought the boy to Eli.” 1 Samuel 2:11 adds: “Then Elkanah went to his home at Ramah. But the boy ministered to the LORD before Eli the priest.”
Jesus was instructed by the priests in the temple when accidentally left in Jerusalem by his parents (Luke 2). Luke 2:46-47 records: “Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.”
Paul was apparently sent to learn from Gamaliel when a very young man. Acts 22:3 says: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel…” The word, educated, in this verse is usually translated brought up and everywhere else in the NT and LXX is used of the bringing up of children. It, thus, suggests—along with the very wording of the verse—that young Saul was sent to be educated by Gamaliel as a child.
A number of observations on these examples tend to suggest that should have some normative significance for the subject of the religious education of children.
First, though the story of Samuel does come from the out-of-kilter era of the Judges, yet it is not found in the Book of Judges and not governed by its theme. Judges 21:25 states that theme: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Rather, it is presented as the beginning of a new era of blessing in the life of Israel marked by the raising up of the first, theocratic prophet, Samuel. Samuel’s devotion and service to Eli throughout the relevant passage seems to be commended. Furthermore, God blesses Hannah’s dedicating of Samuel to serving Eli in the holy place by giving her five more children. To put it differently, Hannah is presented very positively by the narrator both as to the nature of her piety and the results of it. Part and parcel of this piety was her dedication of Samuel to the Lord’s service and to being reared by Eli.
Second, A Weed in the Church actually seems to some degree to acknowledge that the example of Samuel is not merely descriptive. Scott Brown says this example may be “legitimately” brought up and calls it an “exception” which is not to be thought of as the “norm” for child-rearing. (65) Still, if I hear aright what Scott is saying in his paragraph on Samuel, it seems to me that he draws back from saying that what Hannah did was morally wrong. It was not wrong—merely exceptional. But if this is the case, then one may not argue that parents who do what Hannah did are necessarily sinning! Hence, something as comparatively minor as sending your child to an age-segregated Sunday School class cannot be sin.
Third, when the example of Samuel is set alongside those of Jesus and Paul, it is hard to resist the impression that the Jews did not interpret the commands about raising their children in the same way that the family-integrated folks do. They quote the passages addressed to the Jews and Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Bible and conclude that letting your children be taught Christianity by others in your absence is generally wrong. It seems that Hannah, the Jewish teachers in the Temple, and Paul’s Jewish parents were unaware of this implication.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.