Is Your Sunday School Training Good Little Pharisees?
Every night my son and daughter would snuggle beside me on the couch and listen as I read a story to them from a children’s Bible. On one page was colorful artwork depicting the Israelites walking between the high wet walls of the Red Sea, or Daniel in a den of sleeping lions, and on the facing page was a digest version of the account. Story by story we’d work our way through the tales of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, all the way to the parables and miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus. Then we’d start over again.
What I didn’t tell my children was a little secret: I was not really reading these stories to them word for word. Quite a bit of the time I was only pretending to read, since I was editing the stories on the fly.
You see, while many of these summaries accurately reflected the biblical story, others accurately reflected the unbiblical opinions of the people who put the book together. To give but one example, when the story of Cain and Abel was retold, the summary described the brothers in this way: “The first children of Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel…Cain was cruel and Abel was kind.” After telling of their respective sacrifices, the book continues, “When God saw that Cain’s heart was full of evil, He was not pleased with his gifts. But God was pleased with Abel’s gifts because his heart was full of goodness, and he offered his gifts to God with a better spirit.”
This retelling is not merely a simplifying of the account to a child’s level; it stinks of moralism. There is never any mention in the Scriptures of Abel being “kind” or having a “heart full of goodness” or a “better spirit” than his brother. The only biblical reason ever explicitly stated for God’s acceptance of his offering was that it was offered “by faith,” (Hebrews 11:4). The impression any child would receive upon reading this digest version is that if you’re a kind boy or girl, and have a good heart, then God will be pleased with you, too. If you’re good like Abel, God will accept you; if you’re like bad like Cain, God will reject you. In short, summaries like this one would provide excellent training material for Pharisees.
If such training material were isolated to children’s Bible story books, then at least we parents could edit the material as we read. But what happens when you send your child to Sunday School and they’re taught essentially the same moralistic version of the Cain and Abel story? Or that God chose Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the other big names of the OT because they were good men, while God rejected others because they were bad men? What happens, in short, when our children are taught to read the Scriptures as evidence that God is a heavenly Santa Claus, finding out who’s been naughty or nice, then rewarding or punishing them accordingly? What happens is that Sunday School becomes a breeding ground for the same twisted view of God made infamous by the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were the religious superstars of Jesus’ day. When our Lord called them hypocrites, He didn’t mean that they were mere pretenders. On the contrary, they were meticulous in their own brand of religious observance. They went out of their way to observe God’s laws; indeed, they were spiritual over-achievers, outwardly doing even more than the laws demanded. They were hypocrites (literally “play-actors”) because they were like actors on the stage, performing both for God and for their fellow men, doing all their deeds “to be seen by others,” (Matthew 23:5). They wanted heaven and earth to see what a fine job they were doing of being moral, upright, religiously observant Jews. They thanked God that they were not like other, less righteous men (Luke 18:9-14). And, most importantly, they believed that God’s acceptance of them, indeed, God’s jubilation over them, was based upon their observance of His laws. The Pharisees thought they were good, and because they were good, God was good to them. What they failed to realize was that the very law that they thought justified them actually condemned them. They were like “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness,” (Matthew 23:28).
When our children are taught that God’s law is something that can be kept; when the commandments are presented to them as the means whereby they can get on God’s good side; when the impression is given that Jesus came to earth to help us be better people; then our kids are being spoon-fed the theological poison of the Pharisees.
It is imperative, therefore, that when we are teaching biblical stories—at home, in Sunday School, in children’s sermons, from the pulpit—that we train our own minds to have the mind of Christ, that through our words the Spirit might form that same mind in our children. Jesus showed His disciples how all of Scripture, everywhere, deals only with Him. Beginning with Moses and continuing to all the Prophets, He interpreted all the Scriptures in relation to Himself (Luke 24:27). The entire Bible, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, is about Jesus, His saving work, His Gospel.
In order that we might teach the Scriptures in this way, here are three questions that help orient our minds in that direction, questions that we ought to ask of every biblical story.
- Where does this story fit within the framework of God’s larger story of salvation that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Every narrative in the Old Testament is part of the story of Jesus. God is guiding history towards the defining moment when, in the fullness of time, He sends His Son. No story, therefore, stands alone. It is part of a larger narrative. Rather than isolating each story, help children see where it fits in the bigger picture of salvation. The story of Cain and Abel is part of the story of “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,” (Hebrews 12:24).
- How does this story exemplify our need for salvation? In other words, how does it reveal what the commandments themselves reveal, namely, that we have not and cannot keep God’s law? Rather than focusing upon how good or bad a biblical character is, focus instead of how we see ourselves in each character. How am I, too, like Cain, plagued by jealousy or anger? Cain was a murderer, but I am guilty of the same offense, for “everyone who hates his brother is a murderer,” (1 John 3:15). The Bible is not an instruction manual, a moral guide, full of stories that help our children grow up to be good citizens. It is the Spirit’s word whereby He reveals our sin, calls us to repentance, and gives us Jesus. Let us ask every story, therefore, how it shows us all that we need Christ and His saving work.
- How in this story is Christ speaking of Himself to His church? In other words, where is the Gospel in this account? It doesn’t matter if the story is about Cain or Abel, Ruth or Sarah, David or Methuselah, it is really about the crucified and resurrected Christ. The Good News is just as much in the Old Testament as in the New Testament. Teach the biblical stories in such a way that children learn that in Christ they have a righteousness that is not based on the law but on Him. Teach them not that they are good, but that Christ has been good for them, and in Him, they are declared good and holy before God in heaven. Each story, even those that seem to be full of nothing but darkness and dread, proclaim Christ and His salvation in their own way. Read this article for one example of how Christ is hidden within a difficult OT story. And read this article for further ideas on how to teach that Christ is speaking of Himself in OT narratives.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” (Matthew 19:14). Let the little children who gather around the Sunday School table come to Jesus through every story they study. Let them come to Jesus when reading about Cain and Abel, Moses and Joshua, David and Goliath. Rather than training good little Pharisees, let us rear our children as forgiven sinners, justified saints, sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, who come to Jesus and find in Him rest and comfort and love.
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The poems and hymns in my book, The Infant Priest, give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. Here there is praise of the crucified and risen Christ, dark lamentation of a penitent wrestling with despair, meditations upon the life of our Lord, thanksgiving for family, and much more. If you’d like to purchase a copy, you may do so at this website or on Amazon.com. Thank you!