Some 40 million children, youth, and adults are receiving instruction in the Christian religion in Sunday Schools of America. What they are taught will largely determine what the Church of tomorrow will believe and be, and also the nature of its moral and social impact on American society.
What are these millions of pupils being taught? And who is determining the what?
TWO TYPES OF LESSONS
In general, we have two types of curriculum materials in the Sunday School: Uniform and Graded Lessons.
Uniform Lessons are designed to provide every age group with lessons based on the same passage of Scripture on any given Sunday. These lessons have been set up in six year cycles, and though designed to provide for “the fruitful study of the Bible as a whole,” have also been arranged to give “larger place to those portions of the Scriptures which afford greatest teaching and learning values.” In each year’s lessons opportunity is given for the “consideration of some aspect of the life or teaching of Jesus and some challenge to the Christian way of life.” It is amazing how little of the total content of the Bible is studied during the entire course of two or three cycles; also which doctrinal passages are dealt with, and which are omitted.
Graded Lessons are designed to provide Sunday School pupils with lesson materials more suited to their particular age group than Uniform Lessons.
There are differences between Graded Lessons.
One example of solid Bible study, provided in a Graded Lesson Series produced by the Methodist Church, may be found in Unit III of the Adult Bible Course for April–June, 1959, on “The Book of Romans.” The treatment of Romans is not altogether satisfactory. It leans heavily on liberal commentaries, and too easily espouses the views of critical scholarship. But it is a Bible-centered series of lessons.
An example of denominationally-produced Graded Lessons, prepared independently of the Graded Lessons Committee of the National Council of Churches, and having no Christian spiritual content whatsoever, is a book for three-year-olds titled “The Little Seeds that Grew.” It is one of the so-called Westminster First Books for Nursery and forms a part of the Presbyterians’ “Christian Faith and Life Curriculum.” Some of the other parts of this curriculum are among the finest Christian Education materials available anywhere. But this particular book, though widely used by other denominations, could be used equally well in any public school, or in any private nursery school enrolling Unitarians, Jews, and Moslems!
At present the Commission on General Christian Education of the National Council of Churches directs and controls the production of most curriculum materials now used in American Sunday Schools.
In 1955 the NCC issued “a guide for curriculum in Christian education” in which the following details as to the composition of the Uniform Lesson Committee and the Graded Lessons Committee appear: “The Committee on the Uniform Series is made up of persons appointed by their respective denominations which, although differing in certain elements of faith and polity, hold a common faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as Lord and Saviour, whose saving gospel is to be taught to all mankind. There are approximately 70 members of the Committee, representing 30 denominations in the United States and Canada … the committee works under the direction of a chairman elected triennially by the Commission on General Christian Education of the National Council and an executive secretary who is the director of the Department of Curriculum Development of the Commission on General Christian Education.
“The Committee on the Graded Series is composed of approximately 100 persons appointed by the denominations intending to use outlines produced by the Committee. The number of representatives which a denomination may have is determined by the needs of the denomination and its willingness to send persons to the meetings of the committee to work on outlines. The number of denominations participating in the work of the committee varies from time to time, but usually is more than 20. The officers of the committee include a chairman … elected triennially by the Commission on General Christian Education and an executive secretary who is the director of the Department of Curricular Development of the Commission on General Christian Education of the National Council.”
Several documents are available which disclose the theological principles that NCC materials are currently supposed to embody. Among these is a staff article published in the International Journal of Religious Education in February 1955. The Journal is the official publication of the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. On the subject of ‘the Word of God” the above-mentioned article states:
“Where does the Christian go for authority? Does he simply consult his own experience to discover his relation with God and God’s activity in life? Does he accept the dogmatic interpretations of an infallible Pope? Or does he find authority in an infallible Scripture? In wrestling with this question, theologians have rediscovered the Protestant concept of the ‘Word of God.’ God’s Word is neither an infallible book or Pope, nor individual experience. It is God’s action in human life, revealed partially in all human experience and fully in Jesus Christ. The Bible has authority insofar as through it God’s living Word is spoken to men. The Church has authority only as it speaks God’s Word.… According to this view, the Bible is a book which historical criticism must analyze. It witnesses to the fact that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ The Christian is not bound to particular words as God’s Word. The Bible is not simply history, but the record of God’s mighty action in history.… God speaks his living Word through the Bible and in the Church … the authority of the Bible and the Church rests in neither words nor creeds, but in their witness to the mighty act of God in Christ.” Other examples could be cited.
What is perhaps the most revealing, most frequently quoted and widely used statement of NCC’s theological principles and objectives appeared in The International Curriculum Guide, Book One issued by the International Council of Religious Education in 1932. These statements were based on the work and recommendations of Dr. Paul Vieth, and though adopted by the International Council of Religious Education, they have never been changed or repudiated by its successor, the Commission on General Christian Education:
1. Christian Religious Education seeks to foster in growing persons a consciousness of God as a reality in human experience, and a sense of personal relationship to him.
2. Christian Religious Education seeks to develop in growing persons such an understanding and appreciation of the personality, life, and teaching of Jesus as will lead to experience of Him as Saviour and Lord, loyalty to Him and to his cause, and manifest itself in daily life and conduct.
3. Christian Religious Education seeks to foster in growing persons a progressive and continuous development of Christ-like character.
4. Christian Religious Education seeks to develop in growing persons the ability and disposition to participate in and contribute constructively to the building of a social order throughout the world, embodying the ideal of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.
5. Christian Religious Education seeks to develop in growing persons the ability and disposition to participate in the organized society of Christians—the Church.
6. Christian Religious Education seeks to lead growing persons into a Christian interpretation of life and the universe; the ability to see God’s purpose and plan; a life philosophy built on this interpretation.
7. Christian Religious Education seeks to effect in growing persons the assimilation of the best religious experience of the race, pre-eminently that recorded in the Bible, as effective guidance to present experience.
Though objective No. 4 clearly states that it is an avowed purpose of Christian Religious Education “to develop in growing persons the ability and disposition to participate in and contribute constructively to the building of a social order throughout the world, embodying the ideal of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” and though intimations of this philosophy may clearly be seen in most of the materials which the NCC is presently sponsoring, the full implications of this objective are not always apparent. In the Church and Home Series of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, however, one may find excellent examples of the ends to which this objective leads. Among numerous examples are two courses of study designed for Junior and Senior High pupils for the months of April to June 1959, titled “Bridges to Brotherhood,” by Julia Wilke, and “Sore Spots in Society,” by Dorothy W. Kinney and Charles B. Kinney, Jr.
Two lessons in the series “Sore Spots in Society” are of special interest. They urge the winning of recruits for the extension of “economic democracy,” endorse the strike as a “necessary economic force,” and also commend the labor movement, especially the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. They present with full approval “A Personal Economic Platform for a Christian,” as set forth by the “United Christian Youth Movement,” and endorse certain social and economic pronouncements of the NCC in 1954.
The theological views of NCC leaders in the field of Christian education are a matter of serious concern. Who are the curriculum builders and lesson writers employed by the NCC or its affiliated denominations? What theological beliefs have they expressed? Not all of these persons are well known. Many have published very little besides Sunday School materials. One who has written a great deal, however, and is held in high esteem by her colleagues is Dr. Mary Alice Jones. Miss Jones is Director of the Department of Christian Education of Children, Methodist Board of Education. She has been a member of the Committee on Graded Curriculum, and was present at its 1958 meeting.
In 1953 Dr. Jones wrote a book published by the Abingdon Press bearing the title The Faith of Our Children. On page 15 of this book she states: “The Bible is the Word of God to those who through it hear God speak to them … what we are saying is that the text of the Bible as we hold it in our hands may be or may not be the Word of God to men.”
Of Jesus Christ she wrote on page 60: “Let us be careful not to set Jesus off from all other revelations of God, as though he were unrelated to them … he was one in whom sonship to God had been perfected.”
Of the death of Jesus she said on page 66: “With all its goodness and beauty, the life of Jesus ended in the most ignominious death that could be inflicted upon a man in his day. He was condemned to be executed, publicly, by crucifixion. How can we interpret this fact to boys and girls? Of course, we shall not tell the little children about the crucifixion of Jesus … but after they go to school we could not keep it from them if we would; so we must be prepared to interpret it to them. The basis of our interpretation must be the fact that people suffer for being good as well as for being bad.”
Of Jesus’ resurrection she wrote on page 70: “We shall be equally unwise, however, if the story of the resurrection is emphasized to the neglect of the simpler phases of the life of Jesus.… For a life such as his could not be ended when his body was broken by sinful men. His life has expressed abiding values, deathless love, and so we may teach our children that Jesus lives today, not because of some isolated, wonder-inspiring event, but because there was in his life that quality, that spirit, which is of the very essence of eternity.”
Men who assert their belief in the inspiration of the Bible, but who deny its inerrancy, its infallibility, the accuracy and authority of the written record, and who hesitate to say of any of the words of Scripture that “these are the words of God,” are among the writers who have commended themselves to the NCC, as presently constituted, in the production of its curriculum materials. Many of the leaders of the NCC are undoubtedly saddened and disturbed over this condition. No doubt there are writers and other persons engaged in the production of NCC materials who would prefer to take a more vigorous stand for traditional Christianity, and who themselves do so. But the materials produced indicate that at this moment their influence is not very great. At present time their views are definitely not the policy of the NCC as a whole.
The methods by which the National Council exercises control over the production of Sunday School curriculum materials are both direct and indirect.
VARIED NCC CONTROLS
By the very nature of its organization, its common philosophy and ideology, and by reason of the cooperation which its boards and committees of Christian education maintain one with another, the NCC often exerts a controlling influence over the educational materials of all the denominations affiliated with it. There are large areas of agreement between all the materials produced by all the churches in the NCC, and this similarity is in part a direct result of NCC influence.
The NCC wields direct influence on the production of curriculum materials through its official organ, the International Journal of Religious Education. This is the only magazine of its kind in the field, and it forcefully projects NCC thought and policy in Christian education.
The NCC also exerts direct influence on the production of curriculum materials of a large number of Protestant churches not in the NCC orbit through numerous conferences on Christian education which it sets up and directs, and to which representatives of these other (non-NCC) denominations are invited, and whose participation in them is encouraged.
A further direct influence on curriculum materials is well known but difficult to evaluate. We refer to the highly centralized and interlocking departments of Religion and Christian Education in America’s institutions of higher learning. Through systems of accreditation, the requirements and restrictions placed on the obtaining and recognition of advanced degrees, the whole field of Christian education at a professional level is becoming more and more like a guild or union. It is from informed and trained persons moving in this sphere that curriculum materials are obtained. And here are found the so-called “scholars” and “theologians” to whom the lesser writers refer as “authorities.” The organization of these persons within academic circles is still formative, and is sometimes more implied and invisible than evident and actual, though no less effective. Everything involved in religious education is coming more and more under NCC control.
UNIFORM LESSON MONOPOLY
The NCC exerts indirect controlling influence on the production of Sunday School materials through its unique position with reference to the Uniform Lessons.
Due to the long history of the Uniform Series, it is no doubt the most widely used system of lessons among Protestants. The use of the series is extended through license agreement beyond the member denominations of the Commission on General Christian Education of the National Council to other denominational and non-denominational publishing houses and to individual writers. At least 80 denominations make use of these lessons. Several commentaries on these lessons are published each year. The outlines are used in the preparation of church calendars, radio programs and syndicated newspaper columns. Under the direction of a committee of the National Council of Churches, syndicated treatments of the Uniform Lessons are provided for both weekly and daily papers. In cooperation with the World Council of Christian Education, the outlines are made available for curriculum work in more than 50 other countries (A Guide for Curriculum in Christian Education, published by the National Council of Churches in 1955).
It is widely assumed that no one can copyright the Bible or any part of it because it is part of our common heritage. This is true of the King James Version. Other versions, such as the RSV, can be and have been copyrighted. The NCC and the International Council of Religious Education preceding it have copyrighted versions of the Bible and also copyright the Outlines of the Uniform Lessons. Through this copyright the Council exerts tremendous influence and control.
There is no charge made to member denominations for the use of the Outlines. All denominations outside the Council (numbering some 23 million American Protestants), independent publishers, and other groups who wish to use the outlines for any purpose whatsoever must obtain permission to do so from the NCC, and pay a royalty for the privilege. Reasonable as the copyright-royalty agreement may be, it provides a means by which the NCC can influence Sunday Schools using the Uniform Lessons.
Many evangelicals and fundamentalists use the Outlines. Some of them serve on the NCC Uniform Lesson committee. These good people are of the opinion that since the basis for the Uniform Lessons is the Word of God, and since every verse in the Lessons is the Word of God, the Lord will bless its use; and whatever interpretation the liberal wing of the Committee on Uniform Lessons may place on the Scripture passages selected, the truth of God will still prevail, and will be blessed by him in those churches and schools expounding the Word faithfully.
This is not the whole picture, however. Believers in the plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible have somewhat been “taken in” a snare by their modernist colleagues. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Andrews Norton, a Harvard professor, pointed out that “if every word is equally inspired, isolated proof texts can be assembled to support almost any preconceived system of doctrine.” Modernists, neo-orthodox, and social gospel advocates have taken him at his word, and some believers in the verbal inspiration of the Bible have fallen into the trap. To illustrate what we mean, and to show the manner in which the NCC exerts this kind of influence over the Uniform Lessons by cleverly selecting the “proper” passages of Scripture, omitting others, and arranging them in such a fashion as to imply their own doctrines and policies, reference is made to the lesson prepared by the NCC’s Uniform Lesson Committee for May 3, 1959.
Special attention is called to the last verse of the lesson: “And David reigned over all Israel; and David executed judgment and justice unto all his people.” It has been introduced into the lesson entirely out of context. The purpose of citing this verse is suggested in the title: “Wise Management.”
An examination of a number of lesson commentaries revealed interesting facts. Some evangelical lesson writers exercised their liberty and omitted this verse altogether from their discussion of the lesson. Other writers dealt with the main passage of the Scripture and expounded it faithfully, but practically none of them took occasion to discuss the significance of David as a forerunner of the Messiah, a type of Christ, or the covenant God made with him concerning Christ, and the reasons for it. Social gospel, liberal lesson writers used the passage as it was intended to be used with the result that millions of Sunday School pupils were “properly indoctrinated.”
Ignoring all the prophetical, theological, and truly spiritual aspects of the life and reign of David, the persons engaged in the construction of this lesson outline, as agents for the NCC, slanted the Scriptures, merely by a skillful selection of Bible verses, so as to make them appear to show that the secret of David’s greatness and success was his “wise management” and especially his devotion to social justice. This example of mishandling Scripture could be multiplied.
SOLUTION OF THE PROBLEM
What is the solution of the curriculum problem confronting the evangelical Protestant churches? This is a question which deserves careful consideration beyond the purview of this article. Despite the seriousness of the present situation, it is not without encouraging aspects. Discriminating Christian teachers and leaders in the local church schools can choose from a wide variety of Uniform and Graded lesson materials which are thoroughly trustworthy. There are satisfactory commentaries and quarterlies of all types and for all ages, with various methods of treatment, exhibiting different degrees of education, skill, editorial competence, and artistic attractiveness, and at a wide range of prices. One has but to recall the excellent Peloubet, Arnold, and Tarbell Commentaries and the publications of such well-known houses as Standard, Cook, Scripture Press, Gospel Light, and many others, to realize the rich possibilities.
But there should be no need for denominational disloyalty or rejection of all NCC materials in order to attain a very excellent group of lessons and lesson materials. We know of no set of materials which is entirely good. Even the worst are not entirely bad. What we should strive for is a dedicated, concerted effort to improve the materials now being offered. When the NCC and denominationally produced lesson aids are not satisfactory, they can be supplemented by sound materials. Untiring efforts should be made to encourage all who produce Sunday School lesson materials to develop a better product. No denominational board of Christian Education, or the Commission on General Christian Education of the NCC can withstand the concerted pressure of determined Sunday School teachers dedicated to this end.
SOME NEW DEVELOPMENTS
Some bold new developments in local church education give cause for optimism.
Protestant parish schools and parent-community Christian Day Schools are “mushrooming” in various parts of the country.
The Sunday Evening School is a significant development, especially among the Southern Baptists. It presents an opportunity for far more extensive and intensive Christian education than anything ever attempted in the old-line Sunday School. It invites the production of good lay religious textbooks which for the most part are now lacking for Protestant churches.
The National Sunday School Association, organized in 1946 as a protest against the curriculum policies of the International Council of Religious Education, now produces a series of outlines for Uniform Sunday School lessons entirely independent of the NCC. It seeks to “revitalize the American Sunday School” along strictly evangelical lines, and now serves more than 40 denominations and evangelical elements in many other Protestant bodies.
The church schools of America are entering upon a new era of improvement and progress. Buildings and equipment are more adequate. Teachers are better trained. Programs are more effective. Materials are closer to the needs of both the learner and the teacher.
We must firmly face the curriculum difficulties that beset us. Pastors, teachers, and others charged with the selection of lesson material hold the future of the Church in their hands. May they look beyond the imprimatur of denomination or publisher to be certain that faith in Christ is kept inviolate. This faith is the code of Christian teaching and it must be nurtured until it controls all of life.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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