In recent weeks, we’ve been talking about departures from the Bible pattern throughout the centuries. It is an important theme for our day and time because since the time of its establishment, the church has morphed into something unrecognizable to the church of the first century. We’re pleading for a restoration of the principles and practices of the early church because when Christ established the church, He placed within it the things He wanted there by means of divine revelation. The apostles, by their apostolic authority, revealed the things that Jesus desired for His church to be and to do. Jesus said one time that His word is the seed of the kingdom (Luke 8) and a seed produces after its own kind, of course.
Last week, we spoke about instrumental music in the church. We saw that it took more than 600 years for it to find its way into New Testament era worship. Today, we’ll look at an innovation that only goes back about 250 years: the Sunday School. Most churches conduct Sunday Schools and the innovation even found its way into the Restoration Movement. But does it matter? What is Sunday School and is it a scriptural arrangement for the church to come together for edification?
The apostle Paul corrected a number of abuses taking place in the church at Corinth in his letter to the Corinthians, where we’ll take our text for today’s study.
1 Corinthians 14:31-35 “For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
These verses contain some very specific guidelines and prohibitions for what is to take place when the church comes together for edification. Paul said that this is the way it was to be in the churches. We want to look at those principles today in our study about the origin and development of the modern Sunday School.
The Sunday School movement began in the 1780’s in England. As the Industrial Era dawned, England had a large number of poor families who moved from the country into the city to find work. Children as young as eight years old were made to work in the English factories in very dangerous conditions. There were no free public schools as we have today, and it was left up to families to provide education for their children. If a family had enough money, they could send their children to a school. But if the family was poor, their kids were usually raised unable to read and write, keeping the family in a perpetual cycle of poverty and illiteracy. The work week was six days long, leaving Sunday the only day off. Many of these poor children spent the day off roaming the streets, breaking into houses, and getting into other forms of trouble.
A man named Robert Raikes had an idea. He thought that churches should intervene and see to it that these children received an education, keeping them out of trouble and perhaps breaking the cycle to lift them out of poverty. He thought, why not start a school on Sunday when these children are off work, where people of high morals and spiritual values could teach them to read and write, and instill in them some moral principles? So, Sunday School was begun for the poor. Raikes reportedly donated the first money needed to get the school started and then he began to raise money for the cause. Raikes was a printer so he printed copies of the Ten Commandments and other scriptures to use as a curriculum to teach the children how to read and write.
It didn’t take long for the idea to spread to other cities throughout England and, eventually, the world. By 1811, we’re told there were nearly half a million children enrolled in Sunday Schools throughout Britain. The concept spread to America just before the turn of the 19th century by way of the Quakers in Philadelphia. Eventually, every church would have its own school, but it began as a cooperative effort among several churches and denominations. In each city, there might be one school to begin with, where poor students could go to receive an education.
A few years ago, students at Indiana Wesleyan University documented its spread throughout the nation. In New York City, two women names Isabella Graham and her daughter, Joanna Bethune launched an organization to promote the Sunday Schools throughout the country, which became a way of enabling women to take more of a leading role in religious society and in teaching the Bible in a more formal setting. As you might imagine, this drew a great deal of opposition from the preachers and other religious leaders of that day, some believing that it would soon lead to women becoming preachers. However, the women persisted, and the movement began to spread. Eventually, preachers began to gradually accept the schools, even with women teaching in them, and it wasn’t long until towns of just about any size had an interdenominational school that was mostly for poor children to be educated in.
As the country spread into the wild west in the mid-1800’s, the Sunday School was used to accomplish the same purpose for children in these untamed parts as it was originally designed for in England. By the last part of the 19th century, there were more than 65,000 Sunday Schools across America with ten million children enrolled in them. What began as a community effort to train children in secular education and basic morals soon became a work of individual churches to indoctrinate children with their own religious teachings.
By the late 1800’s, denominations had organized their own Sunday School organizations providing religious curriculum to their churches for their local schools. In time, practically every church had its own Sunday School, dividing people (particularly children) into classes to teach them the Bible. In the 20th century, these classes became an outreach for churches to expose children to their congregations. Many times, children had parents who didn’t attend church, and churches began sending buses into the community to gather up kids for their Sunday School. All of this finally opened the way for ‘children’s church’ where children could be sent to learn and worship while parents worshipped in another assembly.
Today, most churches continue to utilize Sunday School or perhaps they call it “Bible Classes” as a means of teaching the Bible to young and old. Most congregations advertise a time around their primary worship time for the church to be divided up or segregated by age, spiritual level, or background into classrooms to be taught by various teachers–men and women–then come together for a sermon and the remaining forms of worship, perhaps.
Maybe that sounds like a wonderful idea originally born of the most noble of motives. An idea now used to teach the word of God. But is it according to the pattern? Its practice can only be traced back to 1780 and even then, it was for a different purpose. Is this relatively modern practice biblical? What does the word of God say about the assembly of the church and how the church is to edify its members when they assemble together?
In our text passage, Paul is not only regulating the public teaching of God’s word, but also the assembly as a whole. There were some major problems in the church at Corinth and many of them pertained to what was going on in their assemblies. Their gatherings had become confusing and therefore unedifying. They were reasons for pride, jealousy, and competition, instead of being for the good and edification of the church. With that said, do Sunday Schools and Bible classes follow the pattern for the assembly of the church as Paul laid it out in our text?
The Bible places emphasis upon the teaching of the scriptures and how that teaching is carried out. In the Old Testament dispensation, God made it clear how it was to be done. First, it was to be done by families in the home. It has always been the primary responsibility of mothers and fathers to instill not only secular but moral teaching within their children. That is still where the responsibility of teaching lies today, by the way. Then, God’s people were to come together under the Old Testament every seven years to hear the law read to them.
Deuteronomy 31:11-13 “When all Israel is come to appear before the LORD thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the LORD your God, and observe to do all the words of this law: And that their children, which have not known any thing, may hear, and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as ye live in the land whither ye go over Jordan to possess it.”
Several things stand out in this passage. First, the people were called together into one place to hear the law. There wasn’t a separate reading for women, children, or any other group within the congregation. They were to come together to all be taught at one time in one place. Second, it’s worthy to note that God said that ALL of the people could benefit from the reading of the law in that one assembly. Some will argue that children or perhaps new Christians cannot understand what’s being taught in the pulpit, so Bible classes are necessary to teach them. However, that wasn’t the case under the law. Notice that Moses says of the man, woman, child, and even the stranger in their midst, “that they may hear, and that they may learn” when they were all called together to have the law read to them.
This passage doesn’t establish a pattern for the New Testament dispensation, admittedly. But it DOES point to the fact that God wanted it done that way in the former dispensation, and that such an arrangement made it more than possible for all to come to a good understanding of the law of God. If that was the case then, it can just as easily be done that way today. If not, why not? So, the argument that Sunday Schools are necessary to adequately teach the Bible doesn’t stand the test. Parents are charged with teaching their children, and families should be worshipping together when the church is called together for teaching and for worship.
Well, what saith the New Testament about this? Did the early church come together only to be segregated into small groups for the purpose of being taught and edified? First, notice that much of the same language is used in 1 Corinthians 14 that was used in Deuteronomy 31.
1 Corinthians 14:23 “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place…”
1 Corinthians 14:26 “…when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.”
1 Corinthians 14:31 “For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.”
For the sake of brevity, I didn’t read all the verses in between, but I would certainly encourage you to do so. The idea is clearly set forth that when the church comes together, it is to come together into one assembly. And by following the rules for that assembly that Paul gives—that is, it being taught and edified by one man teaching at a time—the church as a whole can be edified. All can hear. All may be comforted. All can be built up in the faith. Sinners can even be converted. And God would be glorified in all of this. Notice that Paul said that all the prophets present in that assembly could prophesy, but only one at a time. Not simultaneously, but one at a time, and that all would learn as a result of those people teaching one at a time.
Consider what takes place in a Sunday School arrangement: you have the church coming together only to divide up into separate assemblies with each class assigned a teacher. Without the oversight of elders, in most cases, or other church leaders in those classes. Those teachers simultaneously teach the groups assigned to them. What some learn in one class is not necessarily what others learn in another class. But I ask again: is this the pattern that Paul puts forth in 1 Corinthians 14?
The New Testament speaks in other places about the assembly of the church, never so much as hinting at the idea that the church was divided into separate groups to be taught any more than it was divided for singing, praying, or communing. The church did all these things together.
Acts 20:7 “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them…”
Would it be in keeping with the Bible design for the Lord’s Supper if the church was called together only to divide into groups to commune? That’s not what happened in the first century church. The same language implies one assembly for teaching here and in 1 Corinthians 14.
Acts 11:26 tells us that Barnabas and others assembled themselves with the church for a whole year and taught the people. Paul later exhorts us not to miss the assembling of ourselves together:
Hebrews 10:25 “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
We are to assemble together for the purpose of exhorting one another to faithfulness. Bible classes, as practiced by churches today, create a situation and arrangement that the Bible says nothing about. In fact, it is contrary to what the Bible DOES say. In Acts 20:20, Paul spoke of teaching publicly and from house to house. That tells us that there are two kinds of teaching that took place: Paul taught them publicly or in a public place, when the church came together, AND he taught them from house to house, or in a private setting, family to family. Those are the two kinds of teaching spoken of in the Bible: public and private.
The only example of public teaching that we have is of one man speaking to an assembly of people. So, where would Bible classes fit into those categories? Classes are not conducted by individuals from house to house, as Paul did teaching families. So, they must be public. And indeed, they are public in every way. They are advertised to the public. Church leaders call people together for these classes and exhort people to attend them. They are under the oversight of the leadership of the church. So, what is there about them that would make them private? All are invited, all are encouraged to attend. They are public. More specifically, they are a method of assembling the church that the Bible says nothing about.
Another rule that governs the assembly involves the Christian woman. Paul issues a pretty unpopular commandment beginning in verse 34.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
Here, Paul forbids women from teaching or preaching in the assembly and they’re not even allowed to ask questions within the assembly. That is to be done in a private setting away from the assembly.
1 Timothy 2:12 “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
When Paul says that he suffers not a woman to teach, he used a Greek word that refers to a speech or a public discourse. The scriptures make allowance for a woman to teach others in a private, informal, one-on-one setting, such as when a mother teaches her children or a believing wife instructs her unbelieving husband in the gospel. But what is forbidden in this passage is women taking a public role in teaching God’s word. Some falsely interpret this verse to be saying that a woman can teach publicly as long as she’s not teaching a man; she can teach anybody in public, but she can’t teach a man. That’s not what Paul is saying. For one thing, where a woman is allowed to teach by God’s word, she can teach anyone–including, as I said, her unbelieving husband.
1 Corinthians 7:16 “For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband?…”
There is a case of a woman teaching a man, but in a private, home-type setting. A man who is not her husband can be taught as well.
Acts 18:26 “And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.”
This verse tells of the time when Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos, the teacher, aside and into their home, in a private setting to teach him the way of the Lord more perfectly. So, what Paul is condemning in his letter to Timothy is women teaching publicly. The prohibitions against her teaching and usurping authority over the man are separated by the disjunctive conjunction nor, meaning that two things are being forbidden: a woman teaching in public AND a woman usurping the authority of the man.
When a woman stands up and teaches a Sunday School class, she is publicly teaching the Bible regardless of who is in her class. Whereas the Lord says that she is to learn in silence when the word of God is being taught in public. Friend, is your church following the instruction of the apostle Paul? Lord willing, we will talk more about that in greater detail next week.
I want to summarize today’s study with five points:
- Examples of any kind of public teaching under both the Old and New Testaments always involve one undivided assembly. Again, you have house to house teaching involving individuals on a private level. Then you have public teaching, when the church comes together in one undivided assembly.
- Bible classes, as practiced by churches today, create a situation the Bible simply does not authorize.
- Paul said that women are not to teach publicly nor to usurp authority over the man but are to learn in silence when the word is being taught.
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 instructs the women to keep silence in the churches because it is a shame for her to speak when the church is assembled.
- Bible classes are certainly public assemblies that would fall under the scope of these verses. Thus, by their very arrangement, they violate the principles contained in 1 Corinthians 14.
Friends, the Sunday School arrangement was unheard of in the church for almost 1800 years, and it’s not merely that modern date that makes them objectionable; it’s the fact that they replaced God’s design for the church assembly with something else. The question today is, are we going to follow only what we can read in the Bible and be unquestionably right, OR are we going to follow the doctrines and practices of men? You can’t go wrong following Paul’s teaching for the assembly of the church in 1 Corinthians 14. No one is questioning the good intentions of those who practice the Sunday School arrangement of teaching. I’m certainly not. I realize that most see it as an honest effort to teach the word of God, but ironically in doing so, it employs a method that is contrary to what the Bible teaches.
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