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

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 hoc response, 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 9:9). 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. As appears above the consistent pattern in the NT is that ordained men are to do the teaching in the church. E.g., in 1 Timothy 5:17 it is elders (πρεσβύτεροι), who rule well and who are “working in the Word and teaching” (κοπιῶντες ἐν λόγῳ καὶ διδασκαλίᾳ). In 1 Timothy 4:6, it is Timothy, a pastor, who is presumed to be teaching. In 4:13 it is he who is to devote himself to the (public) reading of Scripture, to exhortation (or encouragement; παρακλήσει) and to teaching (διδασκαλίᾳ).

The closest one comes, in the NT, to an example of laity teaching is the example of Priscilla and Aquila, who explained to Apollos some important truths about the history of redemption (Acts 18:26). It is not entirely clear what whether Aquila held a teaching office (minister or elder) in the church. What we know is that Paul met him and his wife Priscilla in Corinth and that Aquila was a tent maker (Acts 18:1–3). We next see the couple sailing with Paul for Syria (18:18). Paul mentions them as “co-workers” (συνεργούς; Rom 16:3) along with Phoebe (Rom 16:1), whom he calls a “servant of the church” (ESV; διάκονον τῆς ἐκκλησίας),  which presumably reflects some status in the church. Again, the evidence is so limited it is difficult to draw a firm conclusion. Paul mentions them in 1 Corinthians 16:19 as sending greetings and he greets them in 2 Timothy 4:19. Clearly they played a significant role in support of Paul’s apostolic ministry and they were learned enough to instruct Apollos but it is not entirely clear what was their status in the church.

One of the reasons we find ourselves in a quandary over whether females may teach men in Sunday School is because we have taken for granted a set of quite modern, democratic (egalitarian) assumptions about lay “ministry” in the church. There is very little evidence in the New Testament for lay ministry or what is often called “every-member ministry.” The passages to which people sometimes appeal to support lay ministry or lay evangelism (e.g., Acts 8:1–4), when read in context, according to original intent, do not teach it.

The bias in the early church was largely against lay teaching. One of the most outstanding examples of lay teaching in the early church, The Shepherd of Hermas, was a disaster and is an argument against lay teaching in the church. In the 7th century one synod issued a ruling against it.

Part of the solution to the Sunday School problem is to recover the distinction between teaching offices (e.g., ministers, elders) and laity, i.e., those who are not ordained (set apart and installed) to special, authoritative, teaching office. This distinction is particularly difficult for those of us reared in the American context. Since the early 19th century, American culture has become increasingly egalitarian. Class distinctions have never operated in our context the way they have in Europe. That is one of the features of American life that the rest of the world finds so attractive.

The impulse, however, to flatten out social distinctions has its liabilities. One of them is that there is a seemingly relentless pressure to obliterate all distinctions, even to wipe out distinctions between the sexes. Another liability is that it can be very difficult for Americans to leave their egalitarianism at the church door. This is one reason why congregational churches (even if they do not call themselves congregational) seem to flourish. Congregationalism plays to the American bias against authority. This is why many Presbyterian and some Reformed congregations are at pains to play down their polity, to make themselves appear to be congregational. I heard a story some years back about an elder of a congregation who stumbled upon their book of church order and discovered that his congregation was presbyterian in polity. The pastor had so obscured his congregation’s polity and denominational affiliation that even one of the elder’s had no idea that the congregation was presbyterian.

Scripture, however, is unembarrassed about distinguishing between ordained teaching offices and unordained people (laity) in the church. Teaching function and authority is reserved for those offices. Scripture speaks of elders (πρεσβύτεροι) and overseers (ἐπισκόπους), and pastors and teachers (ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους; Eph 4:11) as those ordained to teach authoritatively.

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. Co-hosting a podcast with two ministers is teaching but it is not an exercise of ecclesiastical authority. Try as they may, Carl, Todd, and Aimee cannot discipline anyone who stops listening to The Mortification of Spin. Indeed, that would be true for all sorts of informal teaching (e.g., the Heidelblog, the Heidelcast, or Hodge’s Systematic Theology). All non-ecclesiastical or extra-ecclesiastical instruction is just that. It is has the status of opinion. The standard of discipline is not opinion but God’s Word as confessed by the churches. That has binding authority. A sermon, insofar as (quatenus) it is faithful to the Word, is authoritative. Sunday School and podcasts, helpful as they may be, do not meet that test.


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  1. Prof. Clark, I thought you were going to come to the opposite conclusion until the final paragraph! Two questions come to mind:
    What are the “schools” in the answer to Q103 of the Heidelberg?
    You mention ministers and elders as opposed to laypeople, but where do deacons fit in? I know in some traditions they frequently teach, perhaps after the example of Philip the Evangelist, but this does not appear to be the majority reformed practice.

    • The “schools” of HC 103 were actually what we call “seminary” today, for the training of pastors. Ursinus’ commentary makes this clear.

      Stephen and Philip had an extraordinary ministry. They did things that, as far as can be determined from the epistles, those whom Timothy and Titus ordained did not do. Philip and Stephen are presented as evangelists ministry but did they exercise a teaching ministry in local churches? That’s less clear. Stephen and Philip seemed to have an extraordinary ministry that, in Philip’s case, included being transported by the Holy Spirit. That creates significant discontinuity with what we see the Pastoral epistles. Further, there’s no indication in 1 Tim 3:8-13 that teaching is part of the deacon’s office.

  2. I’m confused, can you please clarify something.

    So are you saying having a woman lead Sunday School is acceptable because it’s “non-ecclesiastical or extra-ecclesiastical instruction”? However, you mention that attendance to something like “a Friday evening Bible study for the laity” by Calvin was not optional, and the “pattern of the Reformed churches was for ordained officers, usually ministers, to conduct authoritative instruction of the laity”. Wasn’t this Friday evening Bible study “non-ecclesiastical or extra-ecclesiastical instruction”, so why was attendance mandatory? Why is this Friday Bible teaching class authoritative – and thus led by ordained ministers, yet a Sunday School wouldn’t have to be?

    Would it be out of line to suggest the qualifications of teaching and preaching as an ordained office have application to forms of “informal teaching” as well – certainly a Friday Bible study is not the same thing as an internet podcast, or is it?

    Just thinking this through. Thanks.
    – Dwayne

    • Dwayne,

      Calvin’s Friday evening Bible study was an function of the church. The three main churches in the old city were veritable fountains of preaching and teaching. There were services during the week staggered so that people could attend and there was catechetical instruction and Bible instruction. Inasmuch as the Friday study was a ministry of the visible church it was official. Whether attendance was mandatory, I don’t know but certainly attendance to Sabbath day worship was mandatory.

      The question for me is whether teaching is ecclesiastically sanctioned and authoritative. Sometimes Sunday School fits one of those (sanctioned) but it rarely fits both categories.

      A podcast might be sanctioned but it’s not authoritative either.

      I’m not defending Sunday School. I think the whole system needs an overhaul.

  3. 1) Both links are to Aimee. Here’s Todd’s

    2) I think a competent woman may unquestionably teach any male member who is presently under a woman’s direct authority at home–as in Mom. Children are (ought!) used to obeying such a person; and typically they have good gifts for speaking to these little members.

    Get up into H.S. age, typically become a communicant member in submission directly to church authority, and S.S. leadership for young men should more and more reflect Paul’s authoritative teaching restriction. I’m willing to blur the line slightly for youth; but I draw the line at adult S.S.; unless, it is a Titus 2 special class: mature women teaching the less mature women.

    Finally, if a man wants to attend an unsanctioned study during the week led by a godly female instructor (a Priscilla-type), that’s his freedom. As far as seminary goes, I think ministers should be teaching future ministers, generally; so that means male professors almost (perhaps not quite?) exclusively.

    3) Lemme pull a few exegetical NT threads together, and suggest (jus’ my theory, ‘kay?) that Paul’s catechesis in the Hall of Tyrannus was the first “seminary,” from which men were sent, like Epaphras to Colosse, and others to elsewhere in the Lycus Valley from the leading city of Ephesus. It was Paul’s most mature effort at the organization and prosecution of visionary evangelism and church-planting.

  4. Thanks for interacting on this topic, Dr. Clark. I agree that we should work through and be more clear in teaching what the function of Sunday school is nowadays. The non-ecclesiastical or extra-ecclesiastical instruction distinction is an important one. One thing that interests me even more from this discussion now, and the responses I’ve received on both sides, is that while we all want to uphold the authority given to the officers of the church, we’ve so elevated a classroom setting of Sunday school that it diminishes the sacrament of preaching, and the authority that is attached to that as the pastor represents Christ to us. I think that’s something I may write a little more on.

    Enjoyed reading this, thanks.

    • I’m not sure what Aimee Byrd means by ‘the sacrament of preaching’. Is this an expression in common use among the Reformed in the US?

      • Crawford,

        The expression “sacrament of preaching” is not one with which I am familiar. It may come from speaking of preaching and the sacraments as means of grace, which they are, which then might lead one to think that preaching is also a sacrament. Or perhaps it was just a slip of the keyboard?

    • Thanks for the grace there, didn’t even realize I wrote that! Lazy typing or frazzled brain. What I meant was that it diminishes the means of grace that conveyed to us in the preached word and the sacraments, and the authority attached to that as the pastor represents Christ to us.

  5. Sabbath School should be limited to children of school age. This would clear up all the problems being discussed: women can quite legitimately teach them (although an elder should be supervisor over the whole curriculum as it is a teaching arm of the congregation).

    Adult Sabbath School is a strange phenomenon and I just don’t understand it. If there must be adult “classes” why not just have a Bible Study? Any such teaching groups for adults should be lead by the minister or elders.

  6. Genuine questions: Does the prohibition of women teaching men (1 Tim 2:12-15) not also forbid women teaching propositional religious truth to women (i.e. the problem not being that Eve ‘fell’ before Adam, but that she was deceived)? Is there a biblical example of women teaching the Bible to each other? Does Titus 2:3-5 encourage other kinds of teaching emphasis instead of biblical instruction? And how do we fit Priscilla’s instruction to Apollos into this? Thanks!

    • I did not address 1 Timothy 2 because I wanted to focus more on the official teaching/lay teaching distinction rather than on the male/female distinction but that passage does seem to be relevant here. As I understand it, Paul is speaking about what are sometimes called stated services official, called congregational worship services. Paul, in my view, unequivocally forbids females from exercising ecclesiastical teaching authority.

      The question then comes whether Sunday school meets that test. In order to make that determination I set another test, namely would one be disciplined for failing to attend? In most cases, the answer is no. Were it to be determined that teaching, e.g., an adult Sunday school class is the exercise of the sort of teaching authority that Paul envisions in 1 Tim 2, then the prohibition would apply. It would mean a significant restructuring in the way Christian education is done, however. To that end my purpose was to suggest that ordained officers and not laity should be doing the teaching in the churches.

      I addressed Aquila and Priscilla in the post. I am not sure what I can add here. I also tried to address the question of private instruction and discussion as distinct from public and authoritative.

    • Thanks, Scott. I appreciate all that. My question is: if women are forbidden to teach Scripture to men because Eve was first deceived, does that also preclude women teaching Scripture to women? In other words, should any Christian woman have a Bible teaching role in any circumstances? I appreciate the generosity of this blog in preserving anonymity (in case my wife finds out I typed this …).

      • Dear Anonymous,

        I doubt that Paul’s intent to forbid all female teaching under any circumstances. Paul himself says in Titus 2:3 that older women are to teach the younger. The prohibition on females teaching, as I understand it, has to do with public worship. Apparently the creational ground for that prohibition doesn’t create a universal ban.

  7. Mr. Clark,

    I would propose the preaching and catechetical teaching at home for Christian teaching. You know, the things which have always been used for teaching the faith. As you have said yourself often enough: Sabbath School is a modern invention and was originally intended to teach the unchurched children of the parish. The idea of “adult Sabbath School” is a strange, infantilising development.

    The Scottish church did quite fine without “adult Sabbath School” after the Reformation. Require catechism and daily family worship in the home, and preach the Gospel in the pulpit, and you’re on pretty strong ground.

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