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Christian Education

Ray L. Diepenbrock

1987 Synod Convention Essay

  1. Introduction
  2. Definition of Christian Education
  3. God’s Standards for Education
  4. Luther on Christian Education
  5. Agencies of Christian Education
  6. Lutheran Christian Education
  7. Conclusion

What mental image does the term “Christian education” bring to you? Does it mean something related to the Bible? Is it somehow connected to the church? Do you get the image of a teacher and pupils? Does it imply the opposite of “secular education?” Could it mean something set apart from the world, embodying a philosophy different from worldly philosophies?

No matter what images come to your mind or to that of the person sitting next to you, one thing we can agree on is that Christ must fit in that mental picture, for Christ is the foundation in Christian education. The purpose of this essay is to narrow the focus of this term and to sharpen the image this phrase should bring to the minds of conservative Lutherans. We need to define this term as it is derived from Scripture and the writings of Martin Luther and to bring it into the context of its proper application to our present day situations, as members of congregations striving to meet the demands and conflicts of the age.


Christian education can be defined as comprising two basic concepts: (1) The efforts of Christians to transmit their Scriptural beliefs and practices to the next generation, and (2) the efforts of Christians to nurture and edify one another spiritually. This is done, as St. Paul affirms in Ephesians 4:13

“until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

We can look to the program of Christian education offered by Moses in Deuteronomy 4 as a model.1 He proposes that we (1) Let children hear God’s saving acts from the past, and (2) Let children keep God’s ten commands for their future.

In our definition, it is proper to determine what Christian education is not. Christian education is not only for the young. The children of the Heavenly Father are not only children of tender age, but includes everyone. Look at the average Bible class in your congregation and count the gray-haired participants, often a majority. It is to be a life-long process:

“But grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18)

Likewise, Christian education does not promote isolationism from the world, a modern day monasticism. We must avoid the premise that the primary purpose of Christian education is to produce a model Christian who is better than those who have not had such an education. This Reformed approach will only produce “little Pharisees” and when these little Pharisees fall short of the expectations set for them, the fall may be faith-destroying.

There are an abundance of publishers of so-called Christian textbooks and other instructional materials out there that we as Lutherans cannot accept, for their definition of Christian is not the same as ours and the use of Christian as the name for the product they market is as deceptive and devious to the Lutheran Christian as anything that is advertised in the commercial marketplace. To us, Christian education must be Lutheran education. At the core of Lutheran education is the concept of sin and grace. A number of Lutheran writers have defined the goals of Christian education. These statements of goals generally include the following: (1) The student is to become fully convinced and convicted of his sinful nature and his status as a lost and condemned creature; (2) is to be assured and comforted by the knowledge and belief of this forgiveness and redemption through Jesus Christ; (3) is to grow in a life of sanctification and Christian maturity.2


Christians are under a sacred obligation to educate as God directs. Holy Scripture specifically spells out the responsibility of the Christian to teach the Word. Just being a Christian involves an educative function:

“Feed my lambs … feed my sheep” (John 21:15, 16)

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:16, 17)

“These commandments that I give you this day are to be upon your hearts and you are to impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut. 6:6, 7)

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

God directs that such education is to be comprehensive:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19, 20)

It should be effective, emphasized in the command in Deuteronomy 6:6 “…teach them diligently…” (KJV). Christian education is to be nurture and admonition “in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). This involves instruction and disciplinary guidance. The Church is the educative community which makes the educational program functional within the circle of the home and the local congregation:

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)


Luther indeed had much to say about education, and though his views on the government’s role in Christian education were flavored by the times in which he lived, he is highly respected yet today by contemporary educators, especially for his views on compulsory education. Luther was centuries ahead of his time as a proponent of government supported schools and the formal education of girls as well as boys.

Here we focus our attention on Luther’s emphasis on the Christian training of children. In 1529, Luther, who was now a father, chided parents in the society at that time who did not believe it was their God-dictated responsibility to see to the religious training of their children. He scolded,

“No one wants to see that educating or training is the command of the Supreme Majesty, who will strictly call us to account and punish us for its neglect, or that the need to be seriously concerned about young people is so great. For if we want to have good and capable persons for both temporal and spiritual leadership, we must certainly spare no diligence, effort, or cost in teaching and educating our children that they may be able to serve God and the world… But He has given and entrusted children to us that we should train and govern them according to His will: otherwise He would have no need of father and mother. Let everyone know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God, and, if they are talented, to let them learn and study so that they may be of service wherever they are needed.

If this advice were put into practice, God would also richly bless us and give us grace to bring up the sort of people who might benefit the country and its inhabitants, likewise well-trained citizens, chaste and domestic women, who in turn might rear godly children and servants. Now think for yourself what deadly damage you are doing if you are negligent in this respect and fail on your part to tram your child to usefulness and piety.”

In a letter to the councilmen of Germany in 1524, Luther wrote about the importance of religion in education:

“But where the Holy Scripture does not rule I certainly advise no one to send his child. Everyone not unceasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt; therefore we must see what people in the higher schools are and grow up to be … I greatly fear that schools for higher learning are wide gates to hell if they do not diligently teach the Holy Scriptures and impress them on the young folk.”

Once, in autographing a Bible, he wrote thus:

“True it is that human wisdom and the liberal arts are noble gifts of God, good and useful for all kinds of things, wherefore one cannot do without them in this life. But they can never thoroughly tell us what sin and righteousness are in the eyes of God, how we can get rid of sins, become pious and just before God, and pass from death into life.”

Luther thought highly of teaching and teachers, and this remark in 1530 he compared the relative merits of being a minister or a schoolmaster:

“In fact, I do not know which of the two is the better; for it is hard to tame old dogs and to make old rascals pious. Yet this is the task at which the preacher must labor and often labor in vain. But one can bend and train young trees more easily even though some of them break in the process.”

He also thought that this education could not begin too early:

“…if the kingdom of God is to come in power, we must begin with children and teach them from the cradle. What would it avail if we possessed and performed all else and became perfect saints if we neglect that for which we chiefly live, namely, to care for the young? There is no outward offense that in the sight of God so heavily burdens the world and deserves such heavy chastisement as the neglect to educate children.”3


We tend to think only of the Church and the agencies within the Church when we think of Christian education. However, the family is the initial agency of Christian education and remains so for a lifetime. Just as in Bible times, the home of today bears the greatest responsibility (yea, even challenge) to carry out Christian education. The family is the child’s first school. His parents are his first teachers and the teachers who have the most lasting impression. The child learns more in those first five years at home than he does during any other equal span of time. He acquires a language, he begins to actively explore his environment, and he has begun to practice social skills. Long after he has become an adult, that first school and those first teachers are very much a part of him.4

The changes facing the structure of today’s family presents both a challenge and an opportunity to the Church which is to lead, support, and reinforce the Christian training given at home. In this day of working parents and single-parent families, the agencies of the church must adjust to fill the void caused by less time devoted to the parent-child relationship at home.

Consider these statistics on the family in the United States:5

One out of every five children lives in a one-parent household.

Families are begun later and are smaller.

One out of every four Americans is over the age of 50. There are now more persons over 65 than there are teenagers.

Single persons now account for nearly 1/4 of the households. As many as 8% of today’s adults will never marry.

The average American family moves once every five to six years. (nearly 20% each year)

The obvious implication of these statistics is that the proportion of persons in the various age groups who receive Christian education has changed and will continue to be subject to change. While we hear of high schools cutting back on faculties and even closing, kindergartens and primary grades in elementary schools are hard-pressed to find enough space to handle the boom arriving on the formal education scene. And though it is commonly agreed that the concept of pre-kindergarten programs are counter-productive to the role of the home in the lives of four-year-olds, in the real world that is no longer considered a viable option.6 Since pre-school programs and day-care centers are a “necessary second choice,” the Church (by means of its local congregations) should stand ready to make it an avenue of Christian education. At the other end of the spectrum, the increasing numbers of senior citizens need to continue to grow in grace, to be edified, to be nurtured through Christian education.

In Christian education the cooperation between home and Church should be a two-way street: there should be no contention between the family and the Church concerning this nurture. The gifts and responsibilities of the home and the Church are inter-related. Luther says, in a sermon on the First Commandment in 1528:

“Every father of a family is a bishop in his house and the wife a bishopess. Therefore remember that you in your homes are to help us carry on the ministry as we do in the church.”7

The church and its educational agencies, therefore, cannot replace the home or be as effective as the home in Christian education. The Church can and should provide assistance to parents in their work of nurture, however. This is often best accomplished by serving as a resource and reference center and in an ever-increasing way, as a provider of child development knowledge and parenting skills acquisition. This service may include the formation of “support groups, a catch-word of growing proportions in society today. A support group is based on the assumption that the membership provides the resource of wisdom and experience which can guide and assist the individual member on a continuing basis. Discussion and the sharing of experiences and techniques are the major activities of such groups. It is also intended that such groups provide reassurance and emotional help to the members by helping them realize that the problems they face are similar to those faced by others in the group. Church-sponsored support groups also help create a fellowship which shares not only a common situation but also a common faith.8

I must put in a plug here for the Christian Day School. Many Lutherans are convinced that the mutual obligations of the home and the Church are best discharged in the full-time Christian school, the most effective agency available. Because of their theological base, the goals of Lutheran schools have always been different from those to which the public schools aspire. Though the public school may take a positive attitude toward religion and toward moral and spiritual values, it cannot give a positive Christian education. The public schools do not teach that positive Christian truth which rightly motivates moral and spiritual values and conduct. Obviously, they cannot substitute for the task which home and Church must do in Christian education. The church-related school, which does not face the problem of religious pluralism and is free to teach Biblical doctrines, can do much more specific work in Christian education.9 Removing children from the conflicting influence of the public schools to be with teachers and other students who share a common Christian faith and where there exists a Christian atmosphere in conduct, goals, and discipline greatly aids the work of Christian education in the home and Church. This school enables the child to experience a totally Christ-centered program, a program which focuses the application of God’s Word on him and on all areas of his life. Daily instruction in God’s Word encourages him to struggle against sin, to seek forgiveness in Christ, and to grow in love and service to God and man.

The relationship of science, social studies, language, art, music, and other subjects to Biblical truth may be taught without limitation. The absence of any formal educational influence that is strange, foreign, or antagonistic in any way to the positive Christian educational process permits the building of one stone on another without destructive influence. Time and opportunity are available to study the needs and activities of the Christian church and to prepare the individual to be an intelligent, active member of a Christian congregation or a full-time servant in the Church’s public ministry. Time and opportunity are also available to study the Christian’s role in occupations and civic affairs, thus undergirding society and public welfare with intelligent, righteous, Christian citizenship. Luther said:

“In order outwardly to maintain its temporal estate, the world must have good and skilled men and women, that the former may efficiently rule the country and its people, and the latter may efficiently keep house and train children and servants aright… Above all things, the principal and most general subject of study both in the higher and lower schools, should be the Holy Scripture.”10

Whether or not you have a day school in your congregation whether your congregation is large or small, its membership comprised of a majority of young people, or of senior Christians, whether situated in a rural or urban area, whether you have many different agencies within the congregation for the Christian education of the membership or just a few, it is how you use what you have that is important (Matthew 25:15). The agencies of Christian education in your congregation are only the vehicle whereby you carry out God’s commands to educate; the means whereby your zeal is put into action and, through the Holy Spirit, yields results.


I am sure that you have understood that, up to this point, when I used the word Christian I intended it to be synonymous with Lutheran. But as conservative Lutherans, you know as well as I that we cannot assume others who would use this term as it relates to themselves, to their church or to its teachings are speaking about the same things or from the same Biblical perspective. Do Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson speak for you? The term “Christian” has become too generic. If we as Lutherans are truly convinced that our beliefs are Bible-based and context-correct dogma, should we not then be willing and outspoken in extolling them? This, too, makes us Christians, and doesn’t diminish our effectiveness as we witness to the world around us, plus it will embolden others within our midst for the role they must play in the Christian life. We must give special attention to the role we and our children must play as LUTHERAN Christians in this world. This role is never one that is assumed by accident:11

“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

“We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” (Ephesians 2:10)

It must be our job as Lutheran Christians to tell others exactly what we believe and just how we came to believe it. This is especially important as we seek to properly equip our members to deal Scripturally with the issues of the day. For example, when others claiming to be Christian, improperly refuse to denounce homosexuality, they are not cognizant of what Scripture states on the matter. A common argument is that being a Christian is loving your fellow man, therefore it follows that any condemnation of another’s sexual orientation is hatred (that antithesis of love), hence to condemn unequivocally such a lifestyle is not Christian. We scoff at such logic, yet are we doing anything about it within the agencies of education in our churches?

Medical research concludes that the best safeguard against contracting AIDS is to follow God’s command for a heterosexual and monogamous relationship within the bonds of marriage, but are we proclaiming that Bible truth adequately from our pulpits, in our classroom, in Bible classes, and at youth meetings?

It seems that much of the world and even most Christians today equate being Christian with being permissive. As modern day Christians, we are to be tolerant of others and to be reconciled with all of society. The television evangelists would have everyone put aside denominational differences and join in being one big happy family. When you hear their preachings, do you inwardly (and outwardly) bristle? If you do, are you doing something about it, both in your home and in your church?

Do your children pressure you to allow them to go to ‘R’ rated movies or to bring them home for the VCR? Are you saying NO! Are you explaining why they as Christians cannot indulge in such, even though they may say all of their friends are doing it and their parents don’t see anything wrong with it? Do you consider carefully what you and your family watch on TV? When situations arise in the course of a TV program that promote or condone practices contrary to your Christian beliefs and practices, do you just slouch down in your favorite chair, grit your teeth, and bear it, or do you witness to your faith by taking a stand, making sure your family doesn’t miss the fact that the world and its entertainment industry are not the ways of a follower of Christ? The computer-age axiom “Garbage in; garbage out” will surely come to pass among us unless deliberate and constant Christian witness alters it.

It would appear that the most effective weapon in the arsenal of the Great Deceiver today is secular humanism. Though secular humanism is nothing new, the technology of today makes it easier to promote and for society to accept. It is a religion of itself. As Christians, we know it is there, we recognize the inherent dangers in it (though we may not always immediately recognize the “face” in which it is presented), and we know we must do something to combat it. It is in the battlefield strategy that we find so much difference of opinion. Some would argue that it is best fought by treating it as we would treat a contagious virus, by isolating oneself from it. This idea would be carried out by teaching the young from textbooks which have no reference to any of the tenets of secular humanism. The obvious shortcoming of this approach is that one cannot remain isolated from the philosophies of secular humanism indefinitely and the clash of Christian beliefs and humanist philosophies could be faith-destroying.

Others (I include myself in this group) believe that we can best deal with humanism by informing ourselves and those we are teaching about its creed, methodologies, and implications, and then being equipped with the message of the Word, we may evaluate each form and facet of secular humanism as we come face to face with it in our daily lives. We must keep in mind, however, that when we teach God’s Word, every word must be seen in our actions. When Christ is not proclaimed in our daily and personal and professional routines by the confession of our lips as well as the example of our lives, then our stance against humanism loses its substance. Though an unbelieving world prefers to be placed on that pedestal which makes man the measure of all things and casts God and his Word aside, we Christians are on a pedestal of far greater worth–God’s Word. From there we can boldly confess, “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.”12


The painting we all know so well of Christ with the children requires no caption to express its meaning. The picture is one that expresses well the theme of this convention, a perfect model for Christian education. I encourage you to keep this mental image as you return to your congregations and strive there to carry out your God-assigned task of educating your members for time and eternity. If the job seems overwhelming and you have trouble determining which way to go or how to proceed, perhaps you could print out and put in a conspicuous place this little motto which a colleague of mine in California had taped to the desk in her classroom, “Only that is important which is eternal.” May God bless your every effort in the cause of Lutheran Christian education.


  1. Braun, Mark, “Moses Offers a Program of Christian Education” The Lutheran Educator Volume XXII, October, 1981.
  2. Isch, John, Train Up A Child: An Introduction to Christian Education, DMLC 1986.
  3. Luther, Martin. All quotations from Luther are from Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Concordia Publishing House, 1956.
  4. Isch, op. cit., p. 5.
  5. Barnes, G. and J. Isch, Profiles of WELS Lutherans, DMLC 1981.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Luther, op cit.
  8. Isch, op. cit., p. 84.
  9. Stellhorn, August. Schools of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, CPR 1963.
  10. Luther, op. cit.
  11. Zimmerman, Fred. “Devotion on Proverbs 22:6” The Lutheran Educator Volume XXV, October 1984.
  12. Sievert, Erick. “Humanism: A Few Words of Introduction.” Essay presented to a WELS Teachers Conference, 1980.
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