Previous | Next

Spring 2007 · Vol. 36 No. 1 · pp. 93–98 

Ministry Compass

Teaching and Teachers in the Early and Contemporary Church

Richard Rawls

A Christmas conversation with some junior high school aged youth brought the sad realization that, at many levels, we have failed miserably in the role of Christian education. The “we” in the preceding sentence is somewhat ambiguous, but I shall address it in time. The conversation involved Luke’s birth narrative. I was trying to encourage the youth to engage in some basic textual exegesis through conversation, a subtle way of educating them without their knowing it. We discussed who was present, and they readily recognized the main characters in the plot: angels, shepherds, Joseph, Mary, and of course, the manger. With some prodding, we also discerned what was not there: animals in the manger, Christmas trees, etc. So far, so good.

In order to take seriously the notion that the entire church bears responsibility for Christian education, we shall need intergenerational dialogue, patterns of conversation reinforcing the content of Christian education, and an approach that is diverse in terms of content, people, and methodology.

However, when I asked them how this differed from Matthew’s account, they drew a complete blank. No problem, since they are only in the seventh and eighth grade and might not recollect immediately. Nevertheless, when we tried to get them to think of wise men, King Herod, terms like “king of the Jews,” and so forth, it was clear that they did not have the slightest clue. There was not even the faintest remembrance of gifts the wise men brought. In fact, the only light of recognition came when they realized that these were the source of a comedian’s spoof on other people.


Somewhat alarmed, I later resorted to self-recrimination and remonstration. How could it be that their parents failed in the basics of Christian education? Had they not read books, Bible stories, and discussed other items with them since they were children? These are bright youngsters whose parents mostly possess advanced degrees from impressive graduate schools. How could we have collectively failed to instill the basics of the Christian story in these twelve- and thirteen-year-olds? How could they not remember what their parents had taught?

Soon, however, I began to ask broader questions. If it takes a so-called village to raise a child, then how was it that the wider village (the church) had also not educated in the stories of Jesus’ birth? This resulted in a regression of helpful and unhelpful inquiries: what do they teach in Sunday school anyway? What is the content or even responsibility of Christian education? Is it moral development? Does it relate to instruction in the Christian story and history? Social development? Maintenance of friendships with other Christian children (not an invalid function, by the way)? Spiritual transformation? All of these are valid and significant but sometimes competing interests. And, just how is Christian education supposed to accomplish all of this in merely one hour per week, assuming that every child attends church every week? By this point my alarm had translated into keen intellectual interest.

It seems evident that some of the problem stems from the fact that we corporately spend less time at church than we used to. I remember the days when a week’s activity centering around the church involved not only the Sunday morning service but also Sunday evening gatherings and Wednesday night activities. By and large, these have fallen away. Moreover, people have come to expect different things from church as social and economic changes have made people’s lives far busier than they used to be. I remember my parents having the time for one night per week of bowling. This was the time (parenthetically) when my brother and I took turns terrorizing new babysitters.

It seems today that few people enjoy an evening to spare. As we have become increasingly isolated from others, one of the functions of the church has evolved to meet the social and support networks that people used to find in neighborhoods, work places, family, and other associations. Between the children’s soccer practices and other social and economic engagements, parents find themselves stressed. It is understandable therefore that people expect the church to fulfill a role (Christian education) that they themselves do not have the time, energy, and sometimes the inclination to perform.

Churches, in turn, find themselves stretched by their obligations. They fulfill far more functions than in the past. Today’s active congregation might well support groups for social action and justice, evangelical outreach, spiritual direction, social and emotional growth, world mission, and disaster relief. The logical way to manage such obligations is to form committees of concerned members to handle the duties related to a specific issue. Once this happens, many parishioners assume that something like Christian education is taken care of by a committee, so they do not have to worry about it. It becomes compartmentalized and forgotten by everyone else.


In this vein, Charles Foster identified several reasons why our children do not retain what lessons they do learn through Christian education: a lack of interinstitutional support, the scarcity of intergenerational encouragement, a noticeable decline in congregational conversation patterns reinforcing Christian education, information overload, and an inattention to diversity. 1

Although I concurred with Foster’s observations, I sought to investigate the underlying attitude behind this forgetfulness. We are doubtlessly not receiving the Christian education we want for ourselves and our children, but rather what Nicholas Wolterstorff described in reference to public schools when he declared, “we are getting the schools we deserve.” 2 This realization prompted further inquiries. What are we doing to deserve the Christian education we have? If our Christian education is an expression of the “spirit” of our religious community, then what does it say about us? 3 Why do we have this attitude of compartmentalization toward Christian education?

Since space does not permit an exhaustive explanation of all possible approaches and answers, I have focused on an underlying interpretive pattern which I think causes much of the problem: the modern ethos of compartmentalization allows the overwhelming majority of congregational members to think that Christian education is not their responsibility.


This pattern relates to biblical interpretation and hermeneutics. The chief issue is that many congregational members are not concerned about Christian education because they do not see it as their concern. It does not pertain to them because they are already active in another area of the church. To elucidate this insight further, I must resort to the Bible. Although the Bible is not a manual for ecclesiastical discipline, management, or education in the same way that later documents stipulated rules for each of these areas, 4 it certainly ought to inform how we think about the responsibility for teaching ourselves about our own faith. The passage immediately coming to mind is James 3:1.

Verse 1 seems to initially let people off the hook: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” Casual readers might be relieved. Since they do not teach, they have no worries and even less of an implicit obligation for Christian education. However, the term James uses for teacher, didaskalos, carried far more meaning than do our modern conceptions. 5

James referred not to public school teachers (who did not exist in his time) but to those in the church who held positions of instruction and leadership. James’ time was not so different from our own because public education was not available to instill religious instruction and values in children. In the Roman empire, education was largely a private affair with wealthy families either owning a slave (paidagogos) or sending their children to a private individual for instruction in rhetoric, which related to public speaking. Such training was extensive, and it prepared one for a career in politics, law, or civic administration, the only honorable pursuits for children of noble families. It was not until the end of the first century A.D. that the city of Rome appointed for itself at public expense a teacher of rhetoric. Even then, Quintilian (ca. A.D. 35-100) trained the children of emperors and senators.

James’ didaskaloi were different. They belonged to the church and occupied positions of importance which almost always intersected with issues of Christian instruction in individual congregations. This link between instruction and leadership was greater in the early church than in the modern because congregations were still attempting to create an identity, educate people who enjoyed little idea of and no experience with Christian tradition, and foster a religious and ethical ethos, a new sense of paideia (education, but more broadly the transmission of cultural values). Those who established the agendas of local congregations, and determined what both children and adults learned, thus occupied an important role in the life of the church.

James wrote to the primitive church, to first and second generation Christians in a time when few would have understood the complete implications of the gospel kerygma, and fewer still would have had the benefit of what we can now call a faith “tradition.” Those entrusted with teaching would indeed have been few in number. James would have also kept in mind the role of teachers in Judaism, a position of extreme prominence.

In contrast, the didaskaloi in today’s church would be anyone affecting the transmission and inculcation of congregational and denominational values. This includes pastors, members of church council, deacons, worship leaders, various commission or committee members, Christian education teachers, and even parents, who presumably know a lot more about their faith tradition than did the early Christians to whom James was writing. In sum, there is little stretch in declaring that James’ concern about teachers addresses and makes demands upon far more congregational members today than in the past. Our church members therefore make a category mistake when they assume that James’ statements about education do not apply to them. In fact, they do.


Solving the situation is not easy because contemporary families possess so little time. Any proposed solution must be descriptive rather than prescriptive because congregations, people, and situations differ. However, Charles Foster’s insights suggest that a multipronged approach is necessary. In order to take seriously the notion that the entire church bears responsibility for Christian education, we shall need intergenerational dialogue, patterns of conversation reinforcing the content of Christian education, and an approach that is diverse in terms of content, people, and methodology. I further propose that we consider the idea of creating pastors or ministers of Christian Education like some mainline Protestant churches have. I might also encourage parents to learn more about their own faith tradition so that they can better instruct their children. Another solution is for families to take seriously the option of a Christian university for higher education for their children.

People are creative, and I do not doubt their ability to learn and educate. The cost of failure is nonetheless high. As one of my professors once said, “To have a faith to live by is a great comfort and support, especially in times when there is great intellectual disagreement and rapid change.” 6 One of the outcomes that ought to be derived from Christian education is exactly the comfort that comes with an understanding of one’s identity in light of past, present, and future. We need to get busy learning and telling our story.


  1. Charles Foster, “Why Don’t They Remember?” in Forging a Better Religious Education in the Third Millennium, ed. James Michael Lee (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education, 2000), 90-94.
  2. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Schools We Deserve,” in Schooling Christians, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and John H. Westerhoff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 3.
  3. For a full treatment of education as a reflection of the spiritual values of a community or civilization, see Werner Jaeger, Paideia, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), vol. 1.
  4. See, for example, the Didache, in Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier, 1970), 161-79.
  5. Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “didaskalos,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 2:148ff.
  6. Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1989), 1.
Richard S. Rawls received his B.A. (History and Communications, 1987) from Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California, the M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1991), and his Ph.D. (Ancient and Medieval History, 2002) from Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He is Professor of History and Philosophy at Fresno Pacific, and Director of the Hiebert Library. He is a member of College Community Mennonite Brethren Church, Clovis.

Previous | Next