Thinking Out Loud

May 1, 2014

Teacher Troubles

Every once in awhile I will cross-post an article from Christianity 201 here, to remind my larger readership that the other blog exists, or because I simply put a lot of work into a post that is deserving of wider exposure…

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly. ~James 3:1 NET

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! ~Matthew 18:6-7 NIV

As I listened to both these verses in a sermon last weekend, I was reminded of a something that happened many years ago. The church secretary’s ten-year-old son announced at lunch that his Sunday School teacher believed in reincarnation. There’s a family mealtime conversation for which I would love to have been a fly on the wall.

Needless to say, an investigation ensued, the child’s report was accurate, and the teacher was relieved of responsibilities.

I’ve probably shared this story about a dozen times in the twenty years since it happened, but only today did I ask myself, “I wonder if anybody ever set the woman straight?” Obviously, removing the teacher from the classroom was the first thing that needed to happen, but someone also needed to set her straight on why Christians don’t see themselves as having existed before in another form and then, at the end of this life, returning to earth in another life-form.

About a year ago, I discovered something I had previously overlooked; namely, that in the various doctrines which join together to form a systematic theology (or as I prefer, a cohesive theology) there is a doctrine of man and for that the term used is anthropology, the same term we normally use to describe a particular discipline in the social sciences alongside things like psychology or sociology or philosophy. Perhaps you took ‘anthro’ in school but never thought of it in a doctrinal sense.1 In the list of branches of theology at Wikipedia, it’s listed as “Theological Anthropology”

  • Bible – the nature and means of its inspiration, etc.; including hermeneutics (the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts and the topic of Biblical law in Christianity)
  • Eschatology – the study of the last things, or end times. Covers subjects such as death and the afterlife, the end of history, the end of the world, the last judgment, the nature of hope and progress, etc.
  • Christology – the study of Jesus Christ, of his nature(s), and of the relationship between his divinity and humanity;
  • Creation myths
  • Divine providence – the study of sovereignty, superintendence, or agency of God over events in people’s lives and throughout history.
  • Ecclesiology (sometimes a subsection of missiology)—the study of the Christian Church, including the institutional structure, sacraments and practices (especially the worship of God) thereof
  • Mariology – area of theology concerned with Mary…
  • Missiology (sometimes a subsection of ecclesiology)—God’s will in the world, missions, evangelism, etc.
  • Pneumatology – the study of the Holy Spirit, sometimes also ‘geist’ as in Hegelianism and other philosophico-theological systems
  • Soteriology – the study of the nature and means of salvation. May include Hamartiology (the study of sin), Law and Gospel (the study of the relationship between Divine Law and Divine Grace, justification, sanctification
  • Theological anthropology – the study of humanity, especially as it relates to the divine
  • Theology Proper – the study of God’s attributes, nature, and relation to the world. May include:
    • Theodicy – attempts at reconciling the existence of evil and suffering in the world with the nature and justice of God
    • Apophatic theology – negative theology which seeks to describe God by negation (e.g., immutable, impassible ). It is the discussion of what God is not, or the investigation of how language about God breaks down (see the nature of God in Western theology). Apophatic theology often is contrasted with “Cataphatic theology.”

But we’re digressing from our Sunday School teacher. I’m not sure at this point that it would be helpful to revisit a 20-year old discussion, nor to reveal I was party to something that might have been considered confidential at the time.2 But I am reminded of this verse:

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness… (Galatians 6:1 NRSV)

Brothers and sisters, if someone in your group does something wrong, you who are spiritual should go to that person and gently help make him right again. (same vs. NCV)

 

The context is more overt sin and wrongdoing, but the principle is the same: To gently guide that person to the right path, using scripture. (See my treatment of II Timothy 3:16, especially the final paraphrase.)

The chorus of the old hymn, “Brighten the Corner” describes this. While you might not fully understand all the nautical imagery, it’s easy to see the gist of the sentiment:

Brighten the corner where you are!
Brighten the corner where you are!
Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
Brighten the corner where you are!

Our responsibility is threefold:

  1. To identify (discern) false teaching
  2. To remove the person caught in error from public ministry3
  3. To try to restore that person to sound doctrine

1Not having engaged in this study formally, I would suspect that at the most elementary level, it would entail some notion of the teaching that “It is appointed onto man once to die, and after that the judgement” Hebrews 9:27 KJV, italics added. A Christian theological understanding of man would assert that we don’t come back in some other form as taught in Spiritism or Hinduism.

2I have however in my limited contact with this person over the years encouraged them along the lines of deeper Bible study. It grieves me to think that someone could be in church for so many years and hold to views that are so far from orthodox. However, there are times when spiritual confrontation is appropriate.

3This is for their benefit (to avoid being under judgement, as in today’s opening verses) and to prevent them from causing “little ones”(which can be literal in terms of children, or figurative in terms of people new to the faith) to stumble. 

Note: Wikipedia is not the best place to go for Christian theology. Better to check out a textbook like Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology or Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology, reviewed here. Even browsing the table of contents will give you a list that, while similar to the one above, will provide a more authoritative list of areas of emphasis.

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3 Comments »

  1. Hi! Interesting post. Part of the problem of ‘putting people straight’ is of course that there is a range of issues where there is no concensus among Christians. Reincarnation is obviously _not_ one of these, and when someone is this far from the basics of the faith we need to be speaking to them. But in other cases we have to be careful to distinguish between our confessional understanding and ‘the truth of the gospel’. I had to read Wayne Grudem for dogmatics classes, and found it pretty problematic because my church is Arminian and basically we couldn’t have used him as a Sunday School teacher because of his strong views on predestination. But I wouldn’t feel led to ‘restore him to sound doctrine’ – this is just one of those areas where Christians must agree to differ. So we need a great deal of wisdom here …

    Comment by Paul Martin Waters — May 1, 2014 @ 10:51 am

  2. I can still remember my Sunday school teacher once saying something like, “Some people think the stars determine everything that happens. But we know that isn’t true. The stars do cause some things, but God causes most things.” I suppose if that happened today some kid might be able to get her fired because she wasn’t sufficiently rejecting of astrology. She was a very kind and sweet old woman and I was blessed to have her be a part of my life. Thinking back on that I can’t help but feel a little pain thinking about whether the teacher in your story was hurt by what happened to her (or him).

    Recently I saw a good man who has devoted much of his life to teaching and helping kids, and who was loved by his kids, removed from his position as a volunteer Sunday school teacher because he was going through a divorce. I’m sure that was a loss for the kids.

    I’m not saying the teacher in your story didn’t deserve to be fired. Maybe she did. But I hope that she was shown love and grace whether someone “set her straight” or not.

    Comment by Bill — May 1, 2014 @ 9:16 pm

    • And that was the point of the third of the three steps I ended with; they certainly did the first two, but I don’t know that they addressed the third step and helped the person understand why orthodox Christianity rejects reincarnation.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — May 1, 2014 @ 9:42 pm


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