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.