Sunday School, The Role Of Women, Authority, And Culture

All non-ecclesiastical or extra-ecclesiastical instruction is just that. It is has the status of opinion.

In the episode mentioned, Carl articulated a general rule, with some exceptions (e.g., a licensed seminary student who exhorts in public worship), that a female may do in the church what an unordained male may do. If we observe the distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative teaching, this rule seems sound. When Aimee writes books, she is clearly teaching. Does her teaching have binding authority? No. Does she do a good job in helping women and men think through issues? Certainly.


On the most recent episode of the Mortification of Spin, Carl, Aimee, and Todd had a disagreement about whether women can teach men in a Sunday School class. In the wake of the discussion both Aimee and Todd have published posts explaining their positions. You should read them as they model gracious, thoughtful, and intelligent interaction.

The Relative Novelty Of Sunday School
There is another approach to these questions, however: to question the validity of Sunday School. Aimee gives a helpful and brief account of the history of the Sunday School movement. In the history of the church it is a relative novelty. It was an ad hocresponse, in the 19th century, to the social crisis created by the industrial revolution. It has, however, become institutionalized in many churches and it may be assumed that there has always been Sunday  School or something like it. That is not exactly a sound assumption.

The church has long practiced Christian education but it has not always done it the way most churches do it now. There is no clear indication of exactly how Christian education was done in the apostolic church. There are hints that might be interpreted to suggest instruction outside the assembly for worship but they are ambiguous. E.g., When Paul speaks of the Episkopos (ἐπίσκοπον; Titus 1:7) or overseer being able “to exhort in sound teaching” (παρακαλεῖν ἐν τῇ διδασκαλίᾳ τῇ ὑγιαινούσῃ; Titus 1:9) is that in public worship or in some other setting? In Acts 20:20 Paul says that he taught in public (δημοσίᾳ) and “house to house” (κατ᾿ οἴκους).

We know that there was a school (ἐν τῇ σχολῇ) in Ephesus belonging to Tyrannus, in which Paul taught or disputed (διαλεγόμενος) daily (καθ᾿ ἡμέραν; Acts 19:9). This is one of the few clear instances, apart from Paul’s evangelistic preaching and teaching in the synagogue, of Christian instruction occurring outside the assembly of the visible church. There were schools prior to the NT period, of course, and there continued to be schools after the 1st century. Justin Martyr (c. 100–65 AD) was a trained, accredited philosopher who was converted to the Christian faith. He taught in schools before and after his conversion. Catechetical (instructional) schools certainly existed in the 3rd century. Origen (c.184–254) was master of a catechetical school in Alexandria. Those must have been some of the strangest catechism classes in Christian history.

In the middle ages, instruction of laity, elders, and the ministers declined fairly dramatically. The Reformation set about aggressively to reverse that pattern by instituting catechetical instruction of both ministers and laity. It was typically pastors who taught catechism to the young people and to the adults. For example, in Geneva, Calvin taught a Friday evening Bible study for the laity and he taught catechism to the children. The pattern of the Reformed churches was for ordained officers, usually ministers, to conduct authoritative instruction of the laity. Such instruction was not typically optional.

One of the discontinuities between the NT, the historic Christian pattern, and the modern practice is that the status of Sunday School is so ambiguous. In a rightly ordered Reformed congregation, were the laity (the people) to absent themselves from public worship repeatedly without excuse, they would find themselves giving an account of their actions to the elders and ministers (the consistory or the session). Should the pattern continue church discipline would begin.

We do not typically treat Sunday School the same way. Ministers and elders do teach Sunday School classes but so do laity. If Mom and Dad remove their child from Mrs Jones’ 3rd grade Sunday School class, it is not ordinarily a cause for discipline. This is in part because the Sunday School movement was an extra-ecclesiastical development that the church imported. Mrs Jones’ 3rd grade Sunday School has no ecclesiastical authority. The status of the pastor’s class or an elder’s class is more ambiguous but it would be unusual to find one’s self under discipline for not attending the class.

Against The Modern Democratic Assumption
If the reader paid close attention to the examples surveyed above he noticed that there is precious little evidence of unordained persons teaching in any public, ecclesiastical capacity. By precious little I mean none.

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