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A Tradition of Education

by Tim O'Hearn

Even among the churches of Christ there is controversy about the tradition of education. There are those among the congregations that call themselves conservative who refuse to participate in the tradition of Sunday school, or separate Bible classes in conjunction with the assembly of the church. They further deny that the tradition is acceptable in any congregations of the church. Others might support the use of these Bible classes but deny the support of colleges (in part because they teach more than just the Bible), or even preacher schools that teach only Bible. Still others support all of these traditions. Nevertheless, for over a hundred fifty years the Church of Christ has been noteworthy because of a tradition of education.

Why or Why Not?

Education is important. Without properly educating those in the church, divisions and heresies abound. Education of members has been a vital part of the life of the church since the first century. All of Paul’s letters to the churches are instructional. Some, most notably 1 Corinthians, are primarily practical instructionBible classes should supplement, not replace, parental teaching on how the church should be. Others instruct on more theological topics. If the tradition of education were not a practical part of the existence of the church, we would not have the New Testament. Even before the written scriptures (which is a redundancy), the gifts, which included speaking in human languages not learned in the normal way (commonly called “tongues,” were primarily instructional. (1 Cor 14) Those who practice some form of glossolalia today miss that important fact. “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.” (1 Cor 14:28)

Few would argue that education is not essential. Where some balk is with a formal educational program conducted by a congregation (Sunday school). If is, apparently, acceptable to include instruction in the assembly of the congregation as a whole, but it is apparently not acceptable to do the same thing with the congregations divided into separate classes. One argument for this is simply a tradition that has no basis in scripture. Interestingly, some of the congregations that object to separate Bible classes have no problem with a sermon in the general assembly, even though that is as much a tradition as Sunday school is.

Relinquishing Responsibility

A more common argument against Bible classes separate from the assembly is that the training of children is the responsibility of the parents, not the congregation. Few would object to this line of reasoning. It seems correct.

One flaw with the argument, though, is that not all Bible classes are for the children. There are adult classes as well. This argument says nothing to prevent those classes. If the only reason not to hold them is that it is giving the family responsibility to the church, then provide babysitting for the children while the adults learn together. But some would object to that as well.

It is certainly the responsibility of the parents to “bring them [children] up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Eph 6:4) It is also dangerous to put forth the argument that the church can also do everything that the family can do. Nevertheless, there are a couple of arguments in response to the idea that the church should not teach the children because that is the responsibility of the parents.

First, what do you do when parents relinquish that responsibility? Do we lose a whole generation just because the parents choose not to teach the children? According to one study by the Barna Group, 85% of parents acknowledge their responsibility for the moral and spiritual education of their children. More than two-thirds, however, abdicate that responsibility. (George Barna, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, pp. 109-110) Properly done, the Bible class is supplemental to the Bible education given by the parents. Ideally, in the case of children’s classes, the Sunday school teacher works with the parents to create a total learning environment. If, however, the parents relinquish their responsibility to teach their children, then for their spiritual growth the church may have to step in and offer training.

More and more, children and adults are coming to Bible classes from homes where nobody else chooses to follow God. This is not a case of the parent giving up the responsibility to teach the children; it is a case of them not even recognizing the need to do so. In these cases, the Sunday school often becomes a ministry of outreach. As the one family member comes to faith, that person in turn teaches the rest of the family. That is not to say that the primary purpose of separate Bible classes is ministry to the lost, although there is a tradition of that. Nevertheless, it has happened many times that whole families are saved as a result of a child going to Sunday school with a friend.

If a fear of taking responsibility from the parents is a valid reason for not having separate Bible classes in conjunction with the assembly of the church, then perhaps some congregations might be better served with having a separate Bible class for parents. This need not be at the time of the assembly, although that is when most parents would be gathered together. The purpose of such a class would be to teach the parents to teach the children. Even in congregations that allow Sunday school classes, this might be effective. Many parents feel that they don’t know enough about the Bible or about teaching in order to help their children. Whether it be math and history in the public schools or Bible in private, parents are afraid that they are not equipped to teach. A class just for parents to help them realize their responsibility and their ability could help overcome these fears.

Children’s Worship

Some congregations have a practice of holding a separate children’s worship. Sometimes this is totally separate from the “adult” assembly; sometimes it occurs only during the sermon. Other congregations or individuals are militantly in opposition to a separate children’s worship. Because the children’s worship is generally for those who have not been immersed for forgiveness of sins, it could be argued that the children’s worship is actually separate from, and independent of, the worship of the church. And yet, there are also strong arguments for the inclusion of children in the assembly of the church.

There was a time that kindergarten and first grade teachers in the public schools could identify within days of the beginning of the school year which students were church-goers and which were not. Those who regularly attended church were able to sit still in class, while those that did not were constantly moving. With the advent of children’s worship this distinction is no longer as clear. Many children’s worships do not teach the children to sit quietly for a period of time. When children are included in the assembly of the whole church, this behavior is more readily learned, because children will, as much as possible, model their parents and other adults.

Those who oppose children’s assemblies point to this modeling behavior as one of the strongest reasons that children should be kept in the overall assembly. Children learn by observation not only how to act, but how to sing and pray, the significance and importance of the Lord’s Supper, and, most importantly, the importance of God in the lives of their parents and other adults. Some argue that one reason for the decline in musical sophistication in the churches of Christ is the advent of children’s worship.

In some places the biggest reason for having a children’s worship is simply to get the kids out of the general assembly. The main arguments are that the children take up space (as if this is really a problem in many churches) and are distracting. While the latter may be true, neither is a strong enough reason to deprive the children of the opportunity to see their parents’ faith and worship.

On the other hand, some will make the very valid point that most “adult” worship (particularly the sermons) is geared to adults and bores the children, because they don’t understand what is being taught in the way it is taught. Many congregations make children feel that church is for adults and not for children. Some preachers also like the freedom to discuss topics that might not be suitable for young children. Yet, even this is not necessarily a reason for isolating the children. Perhaps it just points up the problems with our traditions in the assembly. Even most adults are not as able to sit through a traditional sermon as they were several generations ago. If a sermon is boring for the children, it is probably equally so for many adults. Rather than separating the children, perhaps this should be a call for reform in the traditions of our public worship. Rather than a long sermon, which is itself a tradition, perhaps we should model the “adult” assembly to some extent on the children’s assembly. Use the songs to teach a consistent lesson. Have prayers thatRather than separating the children, perhaps this should be a call for reform in the traditions of our public worship. come from the heart, regardless of how long or short they may be. Make the Lord’s Supper more than simply a quiet time of passing trays down each row. Most of all, change the tradition of preaching. Most modern preachers are truly more properly called teachers, and yet their method of teaching is sometimes suspect. Interactive lessons, where the congregation takes part, or multiple short lessons (perhaps from multiple teachers) would engage the adult and child in the congregation much more than sitting through a 30-45 minute lecture. When children and adults are actively involved in the worship, they feel that worship is valuable.

We necessarily have our traditions in education. Some are good; some not so good. Some have a passing basis in scripture; others not so. We need to be teaching children and adults, preferably in a way that enhances actual education. This cannot be accomplished effectively in a church without the active involvement of parents and spouses. We cannot abdicate a personal responsibility to teach within the family. And yet, the church has a responsibility to teach as well. We have our traditions of education. As with other traditions, it might be beneficial occasionally to review them and see if we might not be able to alter them, slightly or significantly, to accomplish the purpose for which they are intended.