A number of modern Reformed Protestants say that Sunday-schools and youth groups are to be avoided. The LeClerc brothers have put together a documentary, intending to warn us of their dangers. And R.C. Sproul Jr. has suggested that Sunday-school is a recent innovation:
The Bible’s pattern, and that which the church followed for over 1900 years, is that the family together is taught and encouraged by the church, and that parents raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Divided Sunday Schools and youth groups were designed with the best of intentions, to reach out to the lost. What they have become, however, is a new tradition, and worse still, a ready excuse for parents to fail in their calling. God calls me, not the Sunday school teachers, not the youth leaders, to speak to my children of the things of God . . . (What is a Family-Integrated Church?, Sproul)
But is this an accurate assessment? Is it an innovation for parents to send their children to church for religious education?
According to church historian Philip Schaff, it is actually a practice which predates the Church itself. Even before the birth of Christ, God’s people faithfully entrusted their children’s education, in part, to the synagogue:
In this period a synagogue presupposed a school, as with us a church implies a Sunday school. Hence the church and Sunday school, not the church and the district school, is a parallel to the Jewish system. The methods in these schools were not unlike those of the modern Sunday school. Questions were freely asked and answered, and opinions stated and discussed: any one entering them might ask or answer questions. Such a Jewish Bible school, no doubt, Jesus entered in the temple when twelve years old . . . in the apostolic period teachers were a recognized body of workers quite distinct from pastors, prophets, and evangelists (see 1 Cor. xii. 28, 29; Eph. iv. 11; Heb. v. 12, etc.). The best commentators hold that the peculiar work of teachers in the primitive church was to instruct the young and ignorant in religious truth, which is precisely the object of the Sunday school. (A Religious Encyclopaedia, Schaff, 2262)
In America, it may be accurate to regard Sunday-school as a recent invention. Within Protestant congregations, children’s church classes became popular in America somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. But if we remove our American blinders, and look at the broad swath of Church history, we quickly learn that that this sort of prepubescent pedagogy is more ancient than the Church itself.
In the next post, we will take a look at how the Orthodox Church viewed Christian education in the early years, prior to the Council of Nicea.