By Pastor Glenn Pease
The Jews loved to tell stories about the importance of choices. Nathan Ausubel tells one of the wealthy Jewish merchant who took his slave on a long journey leaving his only son behind. On the journey the merchant became very ill, and at the point of death he made a will leaving all this wealth to his slave. To his son he left only the right to choose one thing among all his possessions. It seems like a cold and cruel thing to do to his son, but the father counted on his son to be wise in his choice. When the slave returned with all his master's wealth, he and the son appeared before the judge to fulfill the terms of the will. The son made his choice. He chose of all his father's possessions, his father's slave. In possessing him he retained possession of all his father's wealth. A foolish choice would have lost him his inheritance, but a wise choice kept it all.
Wisdom is the ability to make right choices in life. Folly is the making of wrong choices. The goal of education in both the secular and sacred realm is to give to people the knowledge and awareness they need to make wise choices. Ignorance leads to making wrong choices, whereas, knowledge leads to making wise, creative, and helpful choices that lead to success. If you fail to bake a good cake, get your driver's license, win the ball game, pass your test, get the second date, or come up with an appropriate Bible verse to fit the situation, you can count on it, somewhere along the line you made a poor choice. You probably did so because you did not know the better way that would lead to success. Education is the process of learning the better way.
The Pharisees were not interested in the better way, but only in obscuring the way. The result is, they did not come to Jesus to learn, but to muddy the waters with complex but trivial questions. They tried to trick him into a corner with a complex example of a wife with 7 husbands all of whom died. The question is, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus, of course, has an answer, and informs them that the eternal relationship of persons will not be sexual as in time, but rather, like the relationship of the angels. Jesus rebuked them for their ignorance of the Scripture that led to wrong understanding of the plan and power of God.
One of the Scribes came forward and asked another question. He asked, which commandment is first of all? After Jesus answered him, and he gave a positive response, Jesus said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Here was a man who pleased Jesus, for he truly sought for light and truth. The Pharisees aggravated Him because they only asked questions in order to make things complicated, and not in order to learn. We see from this passage that education begins with asking the right questions. C. S. Lewis wrote, "Can a moron ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask-half of our great theological and metaphysical problems are like that."
One of the major problems all through history is that men keep asking the wrong questions. The result is, no matter how much they learn they never really get educated in a Biblical sense, for they never learn how to make the choices in life that really matter. The Scribe asked the right question, and in so doing he opened the door to the answer of Jesus, and that becomes the foundation of all Christian education. We want to focus our attention on one aspect of the first commandment about loving God with all of our mind. This is the alpha and omega of Christian education. There is no wiser choice in life than the choice to love God with all your mind.
No Christian can be anti-intellectual, for God is the Creator of the mind, and the Author of all truth. To believe anything false, or anything built on prejudice or superstition is inconsistent with loving God with all your mind. One can be brilliant and learned, as were the Pharisees, and yet be stupid because the mind and all of its knowledge is not devoted to loving God, but to self-centered purposes.
Hitler's companions in crime were educated men. Some of them were brilliant and had a well developed taste for high quality in culture. But with all of their education and brilliance they made the choice to be more cruel and brutal than the beasts, and they became tools of darkness rather than agents of light. They illustrate clearly that no amount of education, and no quantity of knowledge can make a man wise when the mind is not devoted to God. Only when men love God with their minds will they use the knowledge of their minds to make wise choices that are pleasing to God and beneficial to man.
Harold Bell Wright said, "I would rather receive a great, vital, and living truth from an illiterate backwoodsman who violates every rule of grammar than have a university president to lie to me in perfect English." Because the university president can lie to us in perfect English, and like the Pharisees use the brilliant mind to deceive and lead us astray, Christians have had mixed emotions about education. Some became anti-intellectual. They opposed education, for it only made bad people better able to be successfully bad. They were as skeptical as the little girl who said to her father, "I don't think mommy knows how to raise children." "Why do you say that," he asked? "Because," she said, "She makes me to go bed when I'm not sleepy, and makes me get up when I am sleepy." Sometimes even the right way does not seem right, and we have to trust in those who are suppose to know best. The problem is that sometimes, as in the case of the Pharisees, they don't know best.
We need to be constantly reminded that the abuse and misuse of any of God's gifts is never a valid reason for rejecting or ignoring the proper use of them. God gave us His Word in a book, therefore, it is God's will that Christians be people who learn to read, think, and grow in knowledge and wisdom. Jesus spent a great deal of His short life in teaching, and He expected the church to continue for all time to teach people. In His Great Commission He said, "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Christian education is not an elective, for the church it is required by both the first commandment to love God with all the mind, and by the second order of our Lord to be teachers.
People cannot make wise choices unless they know the truth God has given to man in His Word. That is why there is a strong emphasis on religious education all through the history of God's people. The Old Testament makes clear the importance of instruction, and that wisdom leads to all the values God wants us to experience in life. Josephus, the Jewish historian in the time of Christ wrote, "Our ground is good, and we work it to the utmost, but our chief ambition is for the education of our children. We take most pains of all with the instruction of children." The Jewish Talmud says, " So long as there are children in the schools, Israel's enemies cannot prevail against them."
This was the kind of culture in which Jesus grew up. Jesus grew in wisdom as a boy, and at age 12 we find Him debating with scholars in the temple. During His ministry He amazed people with His learning and wisdom, even though He never had the formal education of a Rabbi. Never did a man speak as He did was the comment that circulated, and He debated and outwitted the greatest minds of His day. Jesus set the example, and made it clear that growing in knowledge and wisdom is the wisest choice for the believer.
The Christians who came to America recognized that a Christian education was crucial to the survival of this free land. Many are not aware that most of the great schools of our land were founded by Christians. Thy Presbyterians founded Harvard, and in the 17th century 52% of its graduates went into full time Christian service. Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, Dartmoth, Brown, and many other schools were schools where Christian theology was a basic part of the curriculum. Up to 1850 25% of the students went into full time Christian service.
9 out of every 10 college and university presidents before the Civil War were theologians, and the majority of the teachers were clergyman. In 1851 the great evangelist Charles G. Finny became the president of Oberlin College, and it became the first college to admit women, and one of the first to admit blacks. The point is, Christian education thrived in our land at one time, and had such powerful influence in our culture. In 1795 Bishop Asbury of the Methodist Church could say, "The president of a superior college has it in his power to do more harm or good than the president of the United States."
Times changed and the universities got so involved in politics that theology was pushed to the side, and secular interests dominated education. A little over a century ago Emerson and Thoreau were in Emerson's library. Thoreau had just graduated from Harvard, and the talk naturally turned to the school they both had attended. Emerson remarked that Harvard now taught all of the branches of learning. "Yes," said Thoreau, "all the branches but none of the roots." If America ceased to be a Christian nation, it was because it ceased to love God with all of its mind. The mind was devoted to other things which were good and valid, but which left God out. That is what secularism is. It is the good with the best left out. It is knowledge about everything that can lead to many values in life, but cannot lead to the best choices, because they are not made available as an alternative.
Christian education deals with all of the same things as secular education, but with this major difference: It gives the student the light from God's Word so that he can use all that he learns in a way that is consistent with the will and plan of God. This enables the student to make the best choices, for they are choices that enable them to love God with all their minds. This is why Sunday School is such a vital part of the ministry of the church. It is the teaching arm of the church, and it is the missionary arm of the church, for as Jesus said in His Great Commission, the goal of missions is to teach disciples to observe all He has commanded. Sunday School teachers are the missionaries of the local church, and what they do is just as much a fulfillment of our Lord's command as going into all the world.
In my case, Sunday School fulfilled the whole commission, for it was in a Sunday School started in the air base where I lived as a young boy that I came to know Christ. It was in Sunday School where I got excited about reading and memorizing the Bible. Without the influence of Sunday School in my life I know my education would have been a tool for evil rather than for the cause of Christ. I was anti-education most of my young life. I can identify with the boy who, when his father asked him how he liked school said, "closed." I disliked school and considered it a bore, and visualized the end of high school as the beginning of paradise. I could not conceive of how anybody could deliberately waste four years of their life by going off to college.
Then in my last year of high school everything changed radically, and it all revolved around loving God with all my mind. At the same time that I was being motivated by Sunday School to get into the Bible, I was being motivated by a high school teacher to read world literature. She made it so interesting that I developed a love for reading. Before this I seldom took a book home. I read only the basic requirements to get by. Now I was motivated to read and to see how all of history, like all of life, is related to God's Word. I fell in love with all learning because I could see how everything that can be known can illustrate the truth of Scripture.
It was in the midst of the process of coming to love God with all my mind that I sensed the call to the ministry. I could now tolerate the thought of 4 years of college. I went off to Bethel never dreaming I would be student there for the next 9 years. I spent 4 in college and 5 in the seminary. Christian education has dominated my life, and I am convinced that all Christians must be involved in Christian education in order to obey the first commandment, and to obey Christ's final orders to the church.
When a Christian stops learning he stops loving God with all his mind, and, therefore, stops being what God wants him to be. There is no way to be a good Christian if you stop exposing your mind to new light from the Word of God. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." Truth liberates but ignorance puts you in bondage. The only way to remain free is to keep growing in your knowledge of the truth. I already had a liberal arts education before I discovered what liberal meant in that context. It goes back to Aristotle who divided education into liberal and illiberal. If you teach a slave to pick cotton that is not liberal. It is illiberal education, for it makes him a better slave, and of more value to his master. But teach him to read and write, and about history and psychology, and you make him free to develop his own potential as a person. This is liberal education, for it liberates and makes a man free to be more of what he is capable of becoming.
This is the goal of the Sunday School as well. It is the purpose of all Christian education to help Christians see how the Bible relates to all the issues of life so they can make choices that are truly Christian. We need to see ourselves as children of God, and see ourselves like we see our own children and grandchildren. The one thing we all want for them is that they add new territory to their empire of experience and knowledge. We want them to walk and talk, and keep learning all they can as soon as they can. We want them to learn to take risks so they can grow. Nobody wants a child to live the life of a one year old over and over, for life is full of too many possibilities to be content with that, or any other level of limitation.
A couple of weeks ago we were swimming at a pool, and I was trying to get my granddaughter Sarah to take the plunge of faith and try to swim to me. She was full of fear and trembling, for it was new territory for her, and it seemed risky. But I had a strong desire for her to discover she could do what she had not done before. She had potential that could become actual, and she could learn something new. So my theme song was, let go and let grandpa-have faith-trust me-it won't hurt-and you won't drown-I'll be there to lift you up. It was a thrill to her and me when she took the leap of faith and launched out into a new adventure. This is what Christian education is all about. It is to entice us to let go and let God. Take the leap of faith and believe you can be more and do more than you ever have.
In Christ, this process of education never ends for the finite can never become infinite. There is endless potential for growth. We can be always pressing on to a higher level. To decide you no longer have to decide is to decide to die on the vine, for when you chose to stop making choices, you chose to end the life process which is choosing. That is what it is to be alive. It is to be free to make choices, and when we cease to seek more light to make wise choices, we cease to live the life of a believer, because we cease to love God with all our mind. Paul said Christians are to prove all things and hold fast to that which is good. Sunday School is designed to give you the opportunity to do just that. To learn is to love.