Teaching as a Ministry of the Church

One can learn to play the piano by oneself, but one cannot deny the obvious value of a knowledgeable teacher if one really wishes to excel. Books don’t talk back to us – a teacher very often will, and this makes all the difference. In some respects, the teacher is like a coach, spurring the athlete to run more efficiently. “Wake up!” “Pay attention!” Though the coach cannot do the running for the runner, the runner achieves his best when the coach does his job. So it is with us – if we are open and unthreatened enough to listen and hear.

…Certainly there will always be those who teach us skills and provide us with facts, but here we are speaking of a relationship in which someone can point out something about ourselves that we are blind to, who is experienced enough in life to see where we are going and to provide firm, effective guidance in the wilderness. Sometimes what they tell us will pierce us to the heart. We think of the arrogant monk who never listened or took to heart anything his abba taught him. One day, in the midst of a crisis of faith, he went to the abba and said, “Abba, give me a word.” The abba replied, “No.” The brother, shocked, retorted, “Why not?” The abba looked at him calmly. “‘No’ is not good enough?” And the brother repented.

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 54 & 55)

Jesus Himself had a relationship with His disciples – He taught them, he modeled behavior to them.  But He never wrote any kind of manual for them to cover every contingency they might encounter.  At the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t drop a book from heaven answering all questions or giving rules for every occasion.  Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world and live the Gospel and proclaim the Gospel through their own lives.  He never told them to write a book and hand out directions to people.

Jesus taught us to love which requires us to enter into every situation and every relationship with a heart united to His.  Some mistakenly think Christianity is just some information that is to be handed on from one generation to the next, unsullied by those receiving it.  But that isn’t what Jesus taught – for ultimately the faith is lived in the heart and is founded on the blood of the martyrs.  It is messy.  It is not law but wisdom and love. The Gospel has to be lived in new situations and requires us to constantly and continually interacted with, like salt on food.  The faith is not meant to be kept pure and pristine in a salt shaker.

Sin is an Offense to God

St. Nicholas Cabasilas points out that some people only hate sin because they don’t want to be punished for doing the sin – if there was no punishment for wickedness, they would gladly do evil things. He says that our goal as Christians is to love God, which means we want to do God’s will, not to avoid punishment but because we never want to offend God or be separated from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“Just as he who hates wicked men cannot properly be called a hater of mankind, so to feel abhorrence of sin merely because it brings punishment on its perpetrator rather than because it conflicts with God’s laws is not to shun wickedness itself but merely to flee from its punishment. It is quite clear that were it possible to sin without peril to oneself such men would not flee from evil.

But those whose affection for God exalts them to a philosophical life honour the law because they love its Giver. When they have offended God they condemn themselves and blame themselves for the sin itself and bewail it, not because they were cheated of the rewards of virtue but because their will was not in harmony with God.” 

(The Life in Christ, pp. 209-210)


God’s Sapience and Science

Some believers in God, especially those who read Genesis 1-3 literally, find their faith threatened by the discoveries and theories of science (especially evolution and genetics). I continue to believe in the aphorism that “truth is truth” and so we have nothing to fear from the discoveries of science.   But then I’m also not a biblical literalist when it comes to Genesis 1-3.   I find God does provide us a way to understand scientific truth and in fact all knowledge in the book known as the  WISDOM OF SOLOMON.

The Wisdom of Solomon is found in those Christian Bibles based in the Septuagint (for example, THE ORTHODOX STUDY BIBLE).  The Septuagint is the Greek language version of the Jewish Scriptures (which the Jews themselves had translated into the Greek a couple hundred years before the birth of Jesus).

The Septuagint is the version of Jewish Scriptures most often quoted and read by the New Testament and Post-Apostolic writers, and is the official version of the Old Testament accepted by the Orthodox Church.   In this scripture,  we find the Wisdom of God which says scientific knowledge too is given to us by the Lord.   Truth and knowledge, especially that of creation are not opposed to the Truth of God’s revelation – they are the same Truth!

Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.  (Romans 1:20)

It is not only scientific knowledge which has been granted to us from God, even the skills, arts and craftsmanship which humans have perfected are seen in the Scriptures as coming from God as well!  Proverbs 6:6-10 tells us we can even learn wisdom from the tiny ant.

Wisdom of Solomon 7:15-21

May God grant me to speak according to His purpose,

and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;

Christ the Wisdom of God

for he is the guide even of wisdom

and the corrector of the wise.

Wisdom and Lady Justice

For both we and our words are in his hand,

as are all understanding and skill in crafts.

Stone Carver Craftsman

For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,

to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;

Stalactites and Stalagmites

the beginning and end and middle of times,

the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,

the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,

the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,

the force of the winds and the thoughts of human beings,

the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;

And to know both what is hidden and what is manifest,

For Wisdom the artisan of all things taught me.

For a list of and links to other photo-blogs I’ve done go to My Photo Blogs.

The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church (PDF)

The blog series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church  is now available as a PDF at The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church (PDF).

This blog series is a preliminary look at the views of a few Post-Apostolic and Patristic writers on the topic of the teaching ministry of the Church, Christian Education.  It gives special attention to two writers of ancient Christianity who wrote a lot about education: Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom.

You can see a list of other Blog Series now available as PDFs.

Christian Education in the 21st Century

Ss Athanasius, Cyril & Ignatius

This is the 8th and final blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (C).

By looking at some of the patristic writers we can glean a few ideas or ideals which they held concerning Christian education. Christianity came into a world which was on the verge of great change and Christianity itself was to be a catalyst to that change. The religious world view was about to shift from what has been described by historians of religion as an archaic perspective to an historic one. This followed the axial period of religious development which had occurred some 500 years before the birth of Christ. This shift in perspective is not unlike the one in which (at least according to some interpreters of culture) we are currently experiencing (the shift from what has been termed the modern world view to what is being called post-modern is for some the new axial age). The early Christians were able to distinguish a theology of education with specific goals and methods which were different from that of the pagan world which surrounded them.    This is something which we must continue to do today in the changing world in which we live.

The Patristic period resisted a mass approach to education, rejecting a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Instead they emphasized the need to shape the educational endeavor to the individual needs and capabilities of their varied students.    Though their methodology focused on holiness and wisdom (a practical and practiced approach to Christian education), the bottom line goal was to know God.  A good amount of the training was practical, experiential, taught in the forum of a few disciples learning from their Master (even when it was children learning from their Christian parents).  Learning from example, imitation of the Lord and of the Saints, role modeling, and learning virtuous living from the lives of the saints (story telling), were all used to help attain the goal.

The task for Orthodox religious educators today remains discerning what are the methods, goals and underlying theology which we need as we face the Twenty-First Century. What can we learn from the early centuries of Christianity which will help us in our current situation? This means not simply imitating their methods but gaining the wisdom to know which methods to use today at the appropriate times, and also determining when creative solutions are called for.

This blog is based upon an article I wrote in 1998 which itself consisted of a few excerpts from a much longer paper I wrote on Christian education years earlier.  I hope in the near future to be able to “translate” this longer manuscript into a blog series.  Blog bytes are more digestible to most than long articles.  Bullet points might be even more acceptable to a greater number of people but I haven’t learned Power Point to be able to reduce all information to that level.

St. John Chrysostom (C)

This is the 7th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (B).   This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.   This is the third blog dealing with St. John Chrysostom.

The basic method of teaching which St. John Chrysostom advocated was the careful and creative use of biblical stories. First the parents take turns telling the child a biblical story on several different occasions. The story can be used to address a specific problem in the child’s life or behavior.  Then the parents tell the story asking the child to fill in details or asking them questions about the story’s details. Then, the child should be asked to tell the complete story in his or her own words. Then the lessons begin to focus on the story’s meanings for daily living.

Beside the use of story and repetition, Chrysostom relentless advocated teaching by example.  He believed that many things that Christ did as a human being were done as an example to us for how we are to behave as humans. Prayer and fasting were not “needed” by the Son of God, but as the perfect man, he shows us the way to perfection.

But, as I was going to say to prevent you from suspecting that Christ had a lowly nature because of the lowliness of what he did, listen to what he said to them after he washed their feet. “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”  Do you see that he did many things so as to give an example.  A teacher who is full of wisdom stammers along with his stammering young students.  But the teacher’s stammering does not come from a lack of learning; it is a sign of the concern he feels toward the children.  In the same way, Christ did not do these things because of the lowliness of his essence.  He did them because he was condescending and accommodating himself to us”   (St. John Chrysostom,  On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, p. 248).

As teachers, we are to imitate Christ and be examples to our students.  As St. Peter wrote to church leaders, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  This is as true for bishops as for priests, teachers or parents.

Next:  Conclusion

St. John Chrysostom (B)

This is the 6th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (A).   This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

St. John Chrysostom strongly believed that it was primarily the responsibility of the Christian parent to raise the child as a disciple of Christ and so he directs his comments to parents.   He makes little mention of any type of “church school”, rather mentioning only the parents and perhaps a slave/tutor as the child’s teachers.  He strongly believed that parents could and should control both whom their children spoke with and to whom they listened.  Thus he believed parents could completely control the stories and language which their children heard and also what things their children saw.   Without a doubt such control today would be much more difficult considering the access that all families and children have to the culture through the mass media.   In general, he did not approve of the use of fables and stories from pagan sources as he thought they would only seduce the children into approving of a false world view and life-style.   Chrysostom felt it was possible for children to be influenced only by the righteous as presented by the parents and through the lives of God’s saints.  He strongly believed the creative use of Bible stories, presented to children in interesting or even entertaining ways, could counteract the effects of the pagan world or of peers.  He felt it even better if the children were simply kept away from such external influences.

St. John outlined specific issues which were to be addressed by parents in educating their children.  He chastised parents for failing to teach the essential issues.  “…no one takes thought for his children, no one discourses to them about virginity and sobriety or about contempt of wealth and fame, or of the precepts laid down in the Scriptures”  (M.L.W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire, p. 94).   Indeed, much the same criticism could be leveled at Christian education today.  Be that as it may, Chrysostom also advocates teaching children such things as proper and respectful speech and behavior, theology, humility, courteous behavior toward all including slaves, fairness, hymn singing, self control, control of idle speech, the rewards of the kingdom of heaven, patience, generosity, non-possessiveness, and godly wisdom.  In all of this we see a heavy emphasis on moral goodness, the fear and love of God, and the Divine Wisdom.  St. John also specifically mentions two things that must be directed to teenagers.  First, he saw children as rather tender souls.  Therefore he believed that teachings about hell should not be done until the child was fifteen years or older.  They could be taught the Old Testament stories of God’s judgment and anger after they were eight or ten years old, but no mention of the final and awesome judgment should be made until they were old enough to cope with this fearsome reality.   The other specifically teenage issue he mentions is the sexual passions.  He laments, “How shall we place a bridle on it?  I know none, save only the restraint of hell-fire”  ( Laistner, pp 109, 115).

St. John believed that if children were trained well from when they were young, they would keep to the path of salvation as they got older.  He believed the reason children abandoned the holy way was parents failed to persevere in teaching their children.  Chrysostom believed the formation of children was a work of art with the parent being the artist.  Like the sculptor or painter, parents must keep a clear vision of what they want to create in their child in order to achieve the goal of good parenting.  He also noted that whereas at one time he thought all should strive to make their children into monks, he eventually realized that this was neither possible nor desirable ( Laistner, pp 95-96).  Basically, Chrysostom saw the training of children as the means to help them overcome their self-centered tendencies, passions and behaviors – their anger, greed, desire for reprisals, judgmentalism and generally ego-centric behavior.

Next:   St. John Chrysostom (C)

St. John Chrysostom (A)

This is the 5th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is Clement of Alexandria (B).   This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

We will now consider St. John Chrysostom, the famed preacher and bishop of both Antioch and Constantinople (d. 407 A.D.), who is one of the greatest teachers in Church history.  His volumes of sermons and writings inspired Orthodox Christians from his day to our own.

As a great thinker and pastor, St. John was concerned with the educational upbringing of his flock.  He constantly exhorted his people to know God and live according to God’s teachings and commands.  Chrysostom, like other Patristic writers believed salvation was achieved within the Church community “through the process of making the kingdom of God present to an unbelieving world”  (Vigen Guroian, “Family and Christian Virtue in a Post-Christendom World: Reflections on the Ecclesial Vision of John Chrysostom”,  St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol 35, No. 4, 1991, p. 330)    As Chrysostom said:

“When we teach our children to be gentle, to be forgiving, to instill virtue in their souls, we reveal the image of God within them.  This then is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment seat?… How can we be worthy of the kingdom of heaven?”  (St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life, tr. Catherine Roth & David Anderson, p. 71).

St. John Chrysostom’s AD­DRESS ON VAINGLOR­Y AND THE RIGHT WAY FOR PARENTS TO BRING UP THEIR CHIL­DREN cannot be dated with certainty.  Historians now generally agree that it was written some­time around 400 AD.  It is one of few Patristic documents directly envisioning the goals and purposes of education, though it is limited by its focus on the responsibility of parents in educating their children.

Chrysostomus Bauer, St. John’s Twentieth Century biographer, has written of this work:

“In its substance, the little book enjoys the distinction, from the first page, of being a history of Christian pedagogy.  It is actually the oldest comprehensive teaching on Christian education which is not exclusively directed to Christian children….   It may well be that other writers have incidentally inserted shorter or longer discussions of children’s education in their writings; but no one had yet supplied a complete and independent treatise on this subject.

So this little book occupies a special place of honor in the history of Christian catechetics.  The author has brought together in his treatise (Chapters 39 and 43) two standard catechisms for children, in order to demonstrate to parents, by means of these two examples, how they should train their children from early youth onward in the Holy Scriptures….”  (Chrysostomus Bauer, John Chrysostom and His Time, p. 172).

St. John’s main theme, which he repeats three times, is “We are raising an athlete, let us concentrate our thought on that”   (M.L.W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire, p. 112). He envisions education as a great training process in which we form and condition the Christian.  From Chrysostom’s point of view this task is not an easy one and requires diligence and perseverance on the part of parents.  St. John places heavy emphasis on studying the Scrip­tures and teaching virtues.  His methodology is repetition and storytelling.  St. John is quite compassionate toward children and is very concerned about their sensitive souls.

Next:  St. John Chrysostom (B)

Clement of Alexandria (B)

This is the 4th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog Clement of Alexandria (A).     This series  is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.  This is the conclusion of the blog looking at Clement of Alexandria (d. 215AD).   Clement was one of the first Christians to write enough about education as to give us a sense of what he saw as the goals of Christian education.   Basically Clement argued that we follow Christ by learning to live virtuously.

The content of religious education for Clement is the virtues, carefully taught and applied to each learner in each unique set of circumstances.  His plan is to form a system of wise discrimination in which each Christian’s failures are diagnosed and then the appropriate remedy in the form of training is applied (Geraldine Hodgson, Primitive Christian Education, p. 131).   Ultimately for Clement, the Christian community itself is the schoolhouse for learning.  Everything we see and experience and learn about in the Church becomes an encounter with Christ who is the Word of God, the right reason of the Father, and the true Educator of mankind  (Hodgson, p. 129).

Christ’s chief goal is to train and form our inner being (Clement, Christ the Educator, p. xiv). In Clement’s own words,

Let us call Him (that is Jesus), then, by the one title: Educator of little ones, an Educator who does not simply follow behind, but who leads the way, for His aim is to improve the soul, not just to instruct it; to guide to a life of virtue, not merely to one of knowledge…. As Teacher, He explains and reveals through instruction, but as Educator He is practical.  First He persuades men to form habits of life, then He encourages them to fulfill their duties by laying down clear-cut counsels and by holding up, for us who follow, examples of those who have erred in the past (Clement, p. 4).

He (The Word) educates us in fear of God, for this fear instructs us in the service of God, educates to the knowledge of truth, and guides by a path leading straight up to heaven…. The education that God gives is the imparting of the truth that will guide us correctly to the contemplation of God, and a description of holy deeds that endure forever…. so the Educator, in His concern for us, leads His children along a way of life that ensures salvation (Clement, p. 49-50).

According to Clement, religious education must not only instruct souls, it must form and improve them as well.  True education leads to virtues, not simply intellectual knowl­ed­ge.  It must provide not just facts but examples of how to live.   Education teaches us the fear of the Lord in order to lead us to heaven.  Its goal is the salvation of souls.  Clement was not alone in his understanding of Christ the Educator in terms of virtuous living.   Writing almost 50 years before Clement, St. Justin the Martyr (d. ca 165AD) in his Apologies had taken the viewpoint that

Christ is preeminently the Teacher who enables his disciples to live rationally.  Taught by Christ, they become chaste (chapter 15), gentle, patient and free from anger (chapter 16), and obedient to civil authorities (chapter 17)” (Robert Sider,  The Gospel and its Proclamation, p. 70). 

In Clement of Alexandria, we see several of the goals for education found in the Holy Scriptures being emphasized.  Clement strongly believes instruction should focus on the fear of God, obedience to God’s teaching, and on holiness.  All of this results from the (new) relationship we now have with God in Jesus Christ.

Next:  St. John Chrysostom (A)

Clement of Alexandria (A)

This is the 3rd  blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is  A Curriculum Geared Toward each Believer.     This series  is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

Apostle Philip instructs the Ethiopian

While no one Patristic writer left us a theology of education, we gain some insight from their writings about the purpose for religious education. “The term `Christian education,’ was first used by Clement of Rome (A.D. 96) in his letter to the Corinthians: `Your children should partake in Christian education.'”  (Elias Matsagouras, The Early Christian Fathers as Educators,  p. 27)   It has already been noted that the first Christ­ians did not establish specifically Christian schools for teaching their children.  They relied more on the community and life itself as the school for learning God’s ways.  They believed there was a certain knowle­d­ge which was specifically Christ­ian.  This knowledge is to be conveyed by life in the Church community.

Not until about 200 A.D. does another Clement, this one of Alexandria (d. ca 215AD), give us a vision for Christian education.   He focuses on the title frequently given to Christ in the New Testament – Teacher.  He wrote his book, THE EDUCA­TOR, to help form a person totally in the image of God.

Clement of Alexandria believed that anyone can be trained to regulate his thoughts, will, emotions and actions according to the teaching of Christ.  (Igino Giorgani, The Social Message of the Early Church Fathers  pp. 186-187;  see also Clement of Alexandria, p. 91).  However, before this training can take place, every human soul must be healed of the sickness of sin.

“In fact, if a person is sick, he cannot master any of the things taught him until he is first completely cured …  Just as our body needs a physician when it is sick, so, too, when we are weak, our soul needs the Educator to cure its ills.  Only then does it need the Teacher to guide it and develop its capacity to know, once it is made pure and capable of retaining the revelation of the Word.” (Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, p.  5)

For true education to take place,  there must be first the healing of the human made sick by sin.  This notion is found in the Old Testament.

When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against You, when they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin because You afflict them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your servants, Your people Israel, that You may teach them the good way in which they should walk; and give rain on Your land which You have given to Your people as an inheritance. (1 Kings 8:35-36)

No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” says the LORD. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)  

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me with Your generous Spirit.  Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You.  (Psalms 51:12-13)

In each of these passages, we find first a forgiving encounter with the living God, and only then an ability to learn from the Lord.  This healing is accomplished in Jesus Christ, the true Educator.  Human nature itself is healed by Christ, in addition to the inner being of each person.  Christ Jesus, the Word of God, does not limit his activity to healing that which is infirm in us.  Christ the Educator, being perfect God, heals us by forgiving our sins.  Then as a man, Christ educates us in how to avoid sin  (Clement, p. 9). For us, “Salvation is the follow­ing of Christ” (Clement, p. 27).  Education becomes that sound training that teaches us how to follow Christ by living a virtuous life (Clement, p. 17).

Next:  Clement of Alexandria (B)