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Is Sunday School Biblical?

November 16th, 2011


“Is Sunday school biblical?”  Usually such a question means: “Is it right, or should it be practiced?  Should we participate in it?  Is it the will of God?  Should it be supported, promoted and encouraged as an essential part of the ministry of a church?”

 

There has arisen in recent days a concerted effort by some groups in our country to cast aspersions on the ministry of the Sunday school.  This movement was, in part at least, inspired by some very real and legitimate concerns about what passes for “youth ministry” across the “evangelical” world. Much of what is called youth ministry is about as far from a biblical definition of ministry as one can get.  Young people do not need more entertainment with a pinch of religion thrown in for accent, they need to be challenged to step up, take up the cross and follow the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

The biblical format for a Sunday school ministry is one that seeks to reinforce and encourage whatever biblical training is taking place in the homes of the children and young people.  We parents are charged with the responsibility of teaching the Bible to our children, but a careful study of the Word of God will reveal that God raises up teachers in the church. He calls and equips them to teach others.  He uses them to be a blessing and help to children, young people and adults alike.

 

Certain groups, some with good intentions and some with wrong motives,  have attempted to denigrate Sunday schools using carefully chosen wording to provoke negative connotations for graded Sunday school classes.  Their charges are that the church seeks to divide the family and to drive a wedge between parents and children.  They will frequently repeat terms like age segregated and family division.  They make the charge that graded classes, secular or Sunday school, are a recent creation of secular humanists.  Further, they charge that classes tend to promote the institutionalization of children and the goal of humanists that they become wards of the State.  They insist that there is no support for the idea of such classes or schools in the Bible or in the record of history.  Just saying it loudly, angrily and often does not make it so.  They happen to be wrong on all the aforementioned counts.

 

New Testament characters make mention of schooling back through Old Testament history.   In Acts 7:22, Stephen refers to Moses’ schooling, saying he was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.”  Even in the time of our Lord’s sojourn on earth there were such schools and they did minister to age related groups.  In fact, the religious component in these schools was more prevalent than the other educational disciplines.

 

Historian H.H. Meyer, writing in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, said;

 

“Synagogues with attached schools for the young were to be found in every important Jewish community.  Public elementary schools, other than those connected with the synagogues were of slower growth and do not seem to have been common until sometime after Joshua Ben Gamala, (high priest from 63-65 A.D.), ordered teachers to be appointed in every province and city to instruct children having attained the age of 6-7 years.  In the synagogue schools the hazzan, or attendant, not infrequently served as schoolmaster.”

 

We find this well known office, schoolmaster, recognized in Scripture in the book of Galatians, where it is used as an analogy for the work that the Law of God does to guide men to Christ. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as follows; 1.“The man who presides over and teaches a school; a teacher, instructor, or preceptor of a school.  2. He or that which disciplines, instructs and leads.

 

Fred H. Wright in his book, Manners and Customs in Bible Times, wrote, “The archaeological expedition conducted by Sir Charles L. Woolley at Ur of the Chaldees, from 1922 to 1934 has proven there were schools in the city of Abraham’s youth.”  Wright goes on to mention biblical and historical references to the school of the prophets formed by Samuel.  He also writes of the synagogue schools that were prevalent at the time of Jesus’ childhood.  He writes, “When Jesus grew up as a boy in the village of Nazareth he no doubt attended the synagogue school.  The Jewish child was sent to school in the fifth or sixth year of life.”  And then he points out, “Until the children were 10 years of age, the Bible was the one textbook.  From 10 to 15 the traditional law was the main subject dealt with, and the study of theology as taught in the Talmud was taken up with those over 15 years of age.”  Wright later makes reference to the Rabbinical Schools common in Paul’s day.  He states, “As a young man of thirteen years of age, Saul of Tarsus came to Jerusalem to begin his training under the great leader, Gamaliel.”

 

Paul even makes reference to this influential teacher he had in the days of his youth:  Acts 22:3  I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.   I trust that it is becoming evident to the reader that the charge that there is no precedent for age related schools in the Bible or in the historical record is unfounded.

 

Wright goes on in his account, quoting from Camden Cobern in The New Archeological Discoveries and Their Bearing on the New Testament, “It is now known that there were 20 grammar schools in the great city of Rome when the Apostle Paul first visited the city.  Girls as well as boys were allowed to go to school, but there is evidence that more boys than girls availed themselves of the privilege.”

 

Wright explains that Paul’s reference to a “schoolmaster” in Galatians came from a commonly known position in these schools.  Among the schoolmaster’s responsibilities according to references in several ancient papyri, was the task of getting those children under his care to and from school.  Archeological discoveries in Ephesus indicate that the school of Tyrannus Paul mentions using as a meeting place for the church established there, was an elementary school.

 

The eminent historian Alfred Edersheim in The Life and Times Of Jesus The Messiah, gives us a portrait of the education of children in the Hebrew culture at the time of Christ:

 

“The regular instruction commenced in the fifth or sixth year (according to strength), when every child was sent to school.  There can be no reasonable doubt that such schools existed throughout the land.  We find references to them in almost every period; indeed the existence of higher schools and Academies would not have been possible without such primary instruction.”  He wrote, “It was deemed unlawful to live in a place where there was no school.”

 

He went on to say, “For a long time it was not uncommon to teach in the open air; but this must have been chiefly in connection with theological discussions, and the instruction of youths.  But the children were gathered in the synagogues, or in School-houses, where at first they either stood, teacher and pupils alike, or else sat  on the ground in a semicircle, facing the teacher, as it were, literally to carry into practice the prophetic saying, ‘Thine eyes shall see thy teachers.’”

 

He added, “Thus encircled by his pupils,…the teacher should impart to them the precious knowledge of the Law, with constant adaptation to their capacity, with unwearied patience, intense earnestness, strictness tempered by kindness, but, above all, with the highest object of their training ever in view.  To keep children from all contact with vise; to train them to gentleness, even when bitterest wrong had been received; to show sin in its repulsiveness, rather than to terrify by its consequences;  to train to strict truthfulness;  to avoid all that might lead to disagreeable or indelicate thoughts; and do this without showing partiality, without either undo severity, or laxity of discipline, with judicious increase of study and work, with careful attention to thoroughness in acquiring knowledge—all this and more constituted the ideal set before the teacher, and made his office of such high esteem in Israel.”

 

Concerning the particulars of class structure in the Biblical era Edersheim writes;

 

“Up to ten years of age, the Bible exclusively would be the textbook…The Talmud was taught in the Academies, to which access could not be gained till after the age of fifteen.  Care was taken not to send a child too early to school, nor to overwork him when there.  For this purpose the school hours were fixed, and attendance shortened during the summer months.  Teaching in school would of course be greatly aided by the services of the Synagogue, and the deeper influences of home life.”  He adds, “Besides, a school for Bible study was attached to every academy, in which copies of the Holy Scriptures would be kept.”  He said, “Certain sections were copied for the instruction of children.  Among them, the history of the creation to that of the flood; Lev. 1-9; and Numbers 1-10:35, are specifically mentioned.  It was in such circumstances and under such influences, that the early years of Jesus passed.”

 

John Stambaugh and David Balch point out the following in their book, The New Testament in Its Social Environment, “The synagogue was a place of prayer, where the congregation gathered on the Sabbath and on holy days.  It was also a school, where the Torah was studied; some of the excavated synagogues included separate rooms for instruction.” (It sounds a lot like Sunday school doesn’t it?)

 

Ample evidence for the Biblical basis of a Sunday School ministry is provided in the above citations.  In addition, any diligent researcher can produce a ponderous volume of such evidence for the following facts; that schools have long existed; that Sunday schools, or Sabbath schools in various forms have long existed; that these schools gave attention to distinctions in ages of pupils; and that having classes with children in them was not viewed as an attempt to divide families.

 

Some 20 different terms in the Scripture  show a distinction in age and  indicate differing levels of maturity, development and understanding.  Searching the Scripture you will find at least the following age related terms: a suckling, an infant, a babe, a weaned child, a little child, a child, boys and girls, a little lad, a lad, a stripling, a youth, a young man, a man, a man of full age, an old man, an aged man, a very aged man, a man well stricken in years and finally, a man as good as dead.  The contention by some that the Bible does not use age based distinctions is clearly groundless.  Age graded Sunday school classes simply recognize these distinctions in an organized fashion.

 

Parents who teach their children the Scriptures do well.  Parents who teach their children the scriptures and give them the opportunity to grow up in Sunday school classes do better.  Parents who provide a biblical example for their children to follow are wise.  Parents who provide that example and allow their children to experience the example of godly Sunday school teachers demonstrate the greater wisdom.  Adults who faithfully attend the church preaching services do well.  Adults who also are found faithful to their attendance in an Adult Sunday school class do better.

 

When the Psalmist declared he had more understanding than all his teachers, (Psalm 119:99 I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation.), he stated two truths that have been missed by those administering the recent blows to the Sunday school ministry.

1. The Psalmist had many teachers.

2.  That fact provided him the great opportunity of receiving the combined wisdom of all his teachers.

The production of an airliner is the combined understanding of many minds rather than the wisdom of one mind.  The best equipped for life and ministry are those whose training is the result of many godly influences from the lives of preachers and teachers.

 

Cliff Schimmels, in his book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Sunday School, wrote of going to speak at a small country church on an icy blustery winter’s day.  He was surprised to find it crowded full even on such a bad weather day.  He reflected on his own upbringing in Sunday school as he watched the children going to their classes.  After the services he sat visiting with an elderly man.  He told Mr. Schimmels fondly of his seventy plus years in that very Sunday school and of his blessed memories of many Sunday school teachers.  Then Mr. Schimmels wrote, “I asked him why, after seventy years of being in this Sunday school, he had chosen to risk life and limb to come out on a treacherous morning like this.  Surely he had heard all the lessons by now and wasn’t expecting anything new.  ‘Paul told me to come,’” he told me.”  Schimmels tried to recall someone named Paul who would have spoken so highly of him as a guest speaker that this man would come out in such inclement weather.  Schimmels asked, “Paul who?”   With that the old man took out his well worn Bible and began to read, “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus”  2Timothy 3:14-15. He closed his Bible and said, “I learned those verses in Sunday school before I learned to read.”  We do right as parents when we allow the influence and instruction of godly Sunday school teachers to come alongside our own training of our children as we raise them up to love, honor and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.




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