Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Response to "Is Sunday School Destroying Our Children?"

Update: Dec-4-2014. Internet gunslinger Sam "they're not pince nezs so stop asking" Williamson has left a comment below graciously indicating I've misunderstood his point, which was (in my own words): "The classes are run by a bunch of semi-pelagians who stress an imaginary intrinsic worth of humanity. They have lost sight of man's depravity, and therefore God's grace." Can't disagree there. The fault is entirely mine since he says in his bio "start questioning your emergent unbeliefs you cods" so I've made some small changes to the article. If you're reading this for the first time then I'm sorry you've just wasted 10 seconds of your life on this first paragraph.
It's no secret that I have withdrawn from the interwebs a bit in order to work like a madcat on what might be a terrible fiction story, and the only consolation to these many hours I'm dumping into it might only be that I'm becoming a "better" writer. So that's why there's been no blogging lately. However this article pulled me out of sabbatical because I think it needs a response, and as someone who's just pulled his kids out of a mega-church Sunday school program, I have something to say on the matter.

Let's be gracious and start with what Sam gets right--a correct diagnosis that a sorry form of moralism is being taught to our kids during Sunday school which isn't helping spiritual development. (My oldest was being taught to dress appropriately for the weather during her Sunday school class, so I can validate this concern.) He asks the question (loose translation): "What are they getting there that's any different from Mormonism, or some kind of Janism? 'Be good, do good' isn't exactly a compelling reason to remain Christian, if it's even Christian at all." There's something rotten in the state of Denmark indeed.

He then adds that reducing the Biblical characters to their virtues is equivalent to lying. Well, okay. Half truth can indeed be a lie, although I'm not sure that little kids have a good capacity for abstract thought yet. Certainly this is a valid point for the high school aged.

Now Sam's not advocating this, but this is exactly the same wording used by the emergents, and their desire is for us to be genuine and teach the kiddies about hookers, sexual immorality, murder, and rape. Lets instruct them that we're all beastly, and it's okay to be beastly because God loves everyone anyway. In an amusing turn of irony they commit the same error they blast their Southern baptists forerunners for, just in the opposite way. Rather than reduce the characters to their virtues, they reduce them to their vices and say, "See? Sin's no big deal, God's cool man. Just look at all those people who were forgiven." Which is of course wrong. Gods love is not, in any way, unconditional; it's conditional, it's just that for those of us who are in Christ those conditions have been met, while for those outside of Christ the conditions haven't been. The wrath abides. Take away that bit of bad news and you've killed the gospel dead. Now to be clear Sam is calling for a fair telling of the characters in the Bible, not the slanted, law abiding portion only, but I'm on a soap box now and I'm not getting down until I have thoroughly dismantled the modern children's education movement and that means two more points.

Firstly, teaching the kids to obey the law in those simple terms is not just good, it's essential. Praise God it's absolutely, must-have critically essential, and they can't be saved without it. I'll say it more plainly still: lifting up the saints of the Bible for loving the law and trying their best to keep it is a necessary thing. It brings me great pleasure to hear my children running out of their new Bible class singing, "Brother won't you help me, sister won't you help me, building up the temple of the Lord" because they are learning essential truths for life. They're understanding the fundamental message of the gospel in an appropriate way for their age, even if that looks like a base moralism to an emergent fellow.
This is because the law doesn't just smell of grace, but is pure grace, run through a fine filter. It's the path that leads us to Christ, not phariseeism. The lighted sign that shows the way starts with "Do, and do not." Because what is the gospel? It's that we can't keep the law perfectly, we mess up so bad every time we try to keep it that it makes us want to flat give up, but there is someone who has kept it. We can't earn God's favor, but there is someone who has earned it. As Alistair says, "The law is not a ladder which we climb to forgiveness, but is a mirror in which we see our need for a savior." And once we give up on using the law as a means to be right before a holy God, we see that the law doesn't just lead us to the one who kept it, but that it also provides a way for us to please God once we're born again. Fail to teach the children the law and you've failed to give them the ability to understand the gospel. Take Romans 7 out of your Bible and Romans 8 goes with it. If we want kids that understand the gospel we need kids that understand the law so much that they realize they're sinners. He who has been forgiven much, loves much.

The second problem is that throwing out traditional programs is that it's already been implemented in church to disastrous consequence. The Sunday morning services across our country are filled up with this watery kind of self-help, feel-good-about-yourself drek that passes for sermons. I would gladly welcome a return to the proto-gospel days of old where the preacher used the word 'hell' to warn his hearers not to sin, not only in Sunday school but even in big church. Because sadly the damage caused by the feelie goodie gospel is almost irreparable. I can rebuke the atheist who holds up a straw man version of Christianity by telling him he's rejecting only something suitable for young children. I can even take what he's learned and build on it to give him the complete gospel message, but what can I do when the preacher gets up on Sunday morning and willfully passes out a weak sauce sermon about how God loves and forgives everyone for everything anyway? In the first case you can point out his immaturity as a remedy, but if the pastor is doing it knowingly and deliberately what can you do? The congregation becomes hardened in their babyhood, and soon thinks nothing about pooping their diapers and sucking on bottles when they should be teachers themselves, or at least eating meat.

I'll wind down by making my point this way: The law isn't the problem, we are. Teaching it to the children isn't where we go wrong, and driving it out of their lives in a misguided attempt to bolster their sinful self esteem is only going to ruin them. Take my word for it, I've seen it personally. In an attempt to gather as many people into the building on Sunday morning my old church diluted the message to the point where it no longer gave sustenance, and implemented that at all levels.
No, our mistake has not been in teaching the children the law, it's that when the time comes to complete their training and put the final piece in place we instead throw everything back in the box and say, "That was fun, now let's go listen to Tony Robbins or Rick Warren make us feel good about ourselves."
That my friend, that, is where we have gone wrong. We've settled for a Christless Christianity that our forefathers would find completely unrecognizable and allowed Theraputic Moral Deism to win the day. And that is why your kids don't attend your church when they grow up.


Sam Williamson said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for your comments on my article, Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?

Yeah, I know you disagree with much of it. I'm okay with that (I disagree with myself all the time). And I like the gracious way you disagree, and I like the way you point to Christ.

I won't disagree with your disagreements. Let me simply restate my purpose (which may have been lost in some of my prose).

I want people to remember grace, and that grace means God's love is undeserved, and grace means all the greatness must be attributed to God, not to us.

When we think of the gospel, it is always God's initiative and human's response. God doesn't choose us because we are great; we become great through his choice.

This is fundamental to our understanding of God an of ourselves. Like God calling his people Israel in Deut. 7:5, ". The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the Lord loves you."

If we believe that God only chooses the "good" people, we will either despair (because we honestly recognize our own faults) or we will become arrogant (when we see others who don't live as virtuously as we do).

God didn't choose Esther (or Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene) because of their greatness. He chose them to show his own greatness in making them great.

If my depictions of biblical characters distract us from glorifying God for his greatness, then drop my depictions like a hot potato!

At the same time, I simply ask us to look at our heroes of the faith and ask ourselves this: Did God choose them because of their greatness or because of his greatness? And therefore, does God choose us because of our innate greatness or so that his greatness can be shown through us.

Again, thank you for your thought-provoking response to my provocative article. You were gracious!


Sam Williamson said...


You keep outdoing yourself in grace.

When I named my article, "Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?" I was painting a big target on my chest. I think you just hit the bulls-eye.

I suspect we are in agreement though. 1) It is about Christ, 2) It is about Christ, 3) We are the undeserving (but deliriously thrilled) recipients of his grace, 4) So we want to live to glorify him (even when we don't understand all the reasons for his moral law), and 5) It is about Christ..