Sunday School as Open Forum?

Scott, Aimee and (here I tread in rake territory) Todd try to sort out the differences between Sunday school teaching and authoritative church instruction. I tend to sympathize with the point made (I hear) by Carl and Aimee that women can do whatever non-ordained men do (except of course when it comes to reproduction). And I think Scott’s points about the flimsy origins of Sunday school as a church institution should make all Christians re-think the mechanisms by which churches instruct the faithful. Need I remind folks of the fun that even H. L. Mencken had at Sunday school (even though the Christian religion didn’t really take hold):

The one thing I really remember about that Sunday-school is the agreeable heartiness of the singing. It is, of course, the thing that all children enjoy most in Sunday-schools, for there they are urged to whoop their loudest in praise of God, and that license is an immense relief from the shushing they are always hearing at home. . . .

My favorite then, as now, was “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” — a gay and even rollicking tune with a saving hint of brimstone in the words. . . . We grouped it, in fact, with such dolce but unexhilarating things as “In the Sweet By-and-By” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – pretty stuff, to be sure, but sadly lacking in bite and zowie. The runner up for “Are You Ready?” was “I Went Down the Rock to Hide My Face,” another hymn with a very lively swing to it, and after “the Rock” come “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “At the Cross,” “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer, Nearer, Blessed Lord,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Where Shall We Spend in Eternity?” . . . and “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Revive Us Again.” . . . It was not until I transferred to another Sunday-school that I came to know such lugubrious horrors as “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood.” The Methodists avoided everything of that kind. They surely did not neglect Hell in their preaching, but when they lifted up their voices in song they liked to pretend that they were booked to escape it. (Happy Days, 178-79)

Not sure Sunday school is the best method of delivery for passing on the faith.

The problem however goes beyond the qualifications posed. What session wants to deal with questions and complaints that arise from non-ordained teachers providing instruction on subjects revealed in Holy Writ? It’s one thing for a woman or non-ordained man to teach math, plumbing, banking or baking. But what about a Christian view of math, plumbing, banking, or baking? Doesn’t the Christian character of the instruction indicate some kind of normative (hence authoritative) instruction? I mean, if I offer a Christian view of history, should Christians not feel a certain pull in the direction of considering this is THE way believers should think about history? Or are Christian views of subjects simply optional for Christians (that’s accepting the premises of w-w thinking).

How much more is instruction seemingly normative if a woman or non-ordained man is teaching the Bible or confession related material? Do such teachers come with a disclaimer — what you are about to hear is just one person’s opinion? If advertised that way, what church members would come (if not for having to find a place to wait while children are in Sunday school)? And if Sunday school is just a place for Christians to opine, is that a good way to prepare for worship (if services follow Sunday school)? Can I really get another member’s objectionable opinions out of my head simply because the pastor invokes God’s presence?

So the issue isn’t one of office, ordination, or even the history of Sunday school as an institution. The issue is the content of the instruction. If that content includes material that comes from the church’s standards — Bible and confession — then the setting involves some version of binding address. At that point, a session will likely want the teaching to reflect the norms of the communion. And at that point we are in the ballpark of having officers who have been vetted and approved for teaching up front behind the podium for — wait for it — Sunday school.

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27 thoughts on “Sunday School as Open Forum?

  1. This post makes me smile, it’s so good, so pertinent. Sunday School is no doubt a favourite for those who also believe in ministries among women, young adults, teenagers, and wherever else they they want to exercise teaching authority. Maybe I’m thick, but I always thought teaching was done by elders, pure and simple. Maybe I need to get with the times, but read any evangelical magazine and they are full of teaching ministeries which have no warrant under Presbyterian (eldership) government. Once Sunday School is given the green light, where do we draw the line, if ever?

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  2. What if Sunday school teachers are selected and approved by the elders? I mean, I’m sympathetic to concerns about Sunday school, but what is bad about another opportunity for Christian education taught by qualified people? I’m not sure where Scripture or even the BCO says everyone with the gift of teaching has to be ordained? Does the OPC BCO say that?

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  3. You ask good questions here Darryl. The one behind all of yours is however, is whether formal ordination is necessary to the authority of the word. (and sacrament actually)

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  4. D.G.,
    IF the material deals with the Bible or the confessions, must an elder be the teacher regardless of the grade level of the Sunday School? If so, what should churches with a small number of elders do?

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  5. Curt, I think this is why we have GCP. The curriculum is vetted by both the PCA and OPC and seemingly teaches itself (of course it doesn’t). Denominationally approved curricula for primary and secondary aged children has been our solution. Not saying it comes without problems.

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  6. “Do such teachers come with a disclaimer — what you are about to hear is just one person’s opinion? If advertised that way, what church members would come (if not for having to find a place to wait while children are in Sunday school)? ”

    Now you’re getting it.

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  7. James Young, you mean like RCIA?

    After reading some other threads in this forum, I’m feeling very frustrated. I’m currently enrolled in RCIA at my university’s Catholic center, and I’m feeling more and more that, despite good intentions, the director of the formation is taking liberties that are not his to take.

    The Rite of the Elect was this weekend and, though myself and another person in the group were both baptized (legitimately) in other faith traditions, we were instructed to sign the Book of the Elect. Later that day, in the ceremony at the cathedral, we were also called forth as “individuals formerly known as catechumens.” And now there’s talk of re-baptizing us at the Vigil!

    I plan to go to the priest later this week to get everything sorted out, but I’m genuinely concerned that the formation director will recommend another year of classes for me if I question the way he is doing things. This man and several of my good friends had an issue last year over the establishment of a Knights of Columbus council on campus, and I worry that last year’s politics have colored his opinions of me.

    Before I began RCIA, I read about what I would need to do in order to become a member of the Catholic Church. Being re-baptized was NOT on the list.

    Just when the swelling was going down (from the rakes).

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  8. DGH,

    These questions apply as much to small groups as Sunday School. They are often elevated to the level of Sunday worship. Those who host/lead small groups are usually authorized by church leadership, but that’s about where it ends with oversight.

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  9. D.G.,
    The wife and I run the high school class differently. When we study books, we get approval from the session. Otherwise, we let the kids pick which book of the Bible they want to study

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  10. Except small groups are worse because they normally grow out of the mega-church, seeker-driven model where the pastor shares “the gospel” from the pulpit and people “go deeper” in the small groups. For some reason I’m thinking the pastor is actually equipped to teach doctrine, and I imagine more laymen are equipped to talk about the gospel than about the Greek words for baptism.

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  11. Walton says:I imagine more laymen are equipped to talk about the gospel than about the Greek words for baptism.

    Oh Walton, first of all sheesh. Secondly, that is not such a good way of persuasion.
    You’re OPC right? Maybe you could read this http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/NH00/0007b.html and then revise your method accordingly, explaining the words ‘baptism’, ‘into’, ‘out of’, (and of course, as always, what the word ‘is’ means).
    Please note though: BIG WARNING, the method suggested requires your own participation and not ‘go ask a pastor’

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  12. Ali, let’s make a deal. I won’t ‘go ask my pastor’ if you don’t ‘go ask a commentary.’

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  13. Also, one time my pastor told me to listen to this Sunday School series by the same William Shishko if I wanted to learn more about baptism. So at best I would just be giving a less sophisticated and accurate version of his arguments.

    But I was actually convinced though by covenant theology and the relation of baptism to circumcision. So really I’d rather read Jeff and McMark’s conversations about the continuity of the covenants than learn less Greek than people who disagree with me.

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  14. Walton: people “go deeper” in the small groups.

    …and, not sure why your quotes on go deeper, Walton, as if you might be mocking that. Strange.
    Did you know that there are people who actually want to study God’s word, and alot, and even together, and not under compulsion; nor just to be able to know just talk ‘about the gospel’, but desiring to know God more, even believing this is eternal life: to know the only true God – Father, Son, Spirit (John 17:3.)
    Some might even say it is part of the regulative principle of worship – ie. – worship regulated by the authority of and whole word of God – in spirit and truth -from the heart – the chief end of it being to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

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  15. The Mortification of Spin podcast about the validity of Sunday School teaching is quite an interesting listen for a number of reasons. Todd seems to be ok with women teaching in church, except on Sunday, if I understand him properly. Is that “Odd, but fine” Todd? The complete absence of any reference to the guidance of the WCF regarding to teaching and authority is telling, remarkable and frankly disturbing but doesn’t surprise me in these PCA laden podcasts. At least Carl refers to the vital input of the local Presbytery and session for vetting and validating teachers. What does Aimee really believe?
    I sense, rightly or wrongly, even some genuine tension as these folks discuss their views. In answer to Jeff, I would rather see more reference to elders not delegating teaching to today’s plethora of so called ministeries which may well gradually erode the focal point of public worship which is the preached Word.

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  16. and notice the theme here Walton…..

    How blessed are those who seek Him with all their heart…Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path…. I rejoice at Your word, as one who finds great spoil… Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You…Your testimonies also are my delight; they are my counselors…. I shall run the way of Your commandments, for You will enlarge my heart……Establish Your word to Your servant, as that which produces reverence for You… And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts….this is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has revived me….I have remembered Your ordinances from of old, O LORD, and comfort myself…. I will never forget Your precepts, for by them You have revived me…Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies…from Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way… the unfolding of Your words gives light, it gives understanding to the simple… Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your law is truth…. Those who love Your law have great peace, and nothing causes them to stumble.. Let my soul live that it may praise You, and let Your ordinances help me. etc Psalm 119

    ..and you want to measure and have the word sparingly doled out, Walton?

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  17. If the Greek you’re learning allows you to impute your meaning to other people’s words, then I’ll pass.

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  18. This will be a short brazen hijack because I don’t know where else to put it. This is has been consuming a lot of my time lately. A FORUM SITE for a friend of the family. Ali, she’d love to have you, Though of course anybody else is welcome as well. Including the Catholics. You too Darryl 😀 I am obviously the lead tech admin and honcho so you can feel free to beat up on me. OR… everybody can ignore this comment. Just throwin it out there.
    /PSA

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  19. thanks for the link, Greg – hope to check it out further – clicked on it quickly, so a quick suggestion – retitling to make clear: No Other God….. but Father/Son/Spirit

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  20. Yes, I know Ali. It sounds Sabellian 🙂 I didn’t pick the name, but I did make clear which God we’re talking about in the Sound doctrine area HERE to address that very thing. I’m going to suggest to her again changing the name. Thanks.

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