As we develop this series of blogs concerning the nature of Christian education, some historical perspective will give us a larger context for where we find ourselves today. Indeed, we may learn that our own embrace of government sponsored education is very much the exception for Christians down through church history. Let us consider a very condensed set of examples from the pre-Reformation church as cited by C. B. Eavey in his excellent book, History of Christian Education (Moody Press, Chicago, ILL, 1971):
The Waldenses were a group located in the central Alpine regions of Europe who stood against the corrupt practices of the institutional church. According to Eavey, they “Always and everywhere…observed the practice of regular reading of the Bible, regular daily family worship, and regular instruction of individuals, with special emphasis directed toward establishing children in Bible truth” (Eavey,p. 117).
The Albigenses – neighbors of the Waldenses – were located in the Italian and French alpine valleys. They were severely persecuted by the institutional church, but in spite of opposition, maintained their corporate faith as a result of a strong emphasis on Bible instruction by parents to their children and a system of itinerant teachers who directed their efforts toward the larger community of believers (Eavey, p. 119).
John Huss and his followers believed education to be vital to the spread of the Gospel and on-going nurture of its converts. They established a system of schools and a university with the express purpose of preparing young men as gospel workers. In addition, they published one of the first Bible translations in the vernacular of the people. Schools were considered essential in teaching the populace – especially the youth – to read God’s word (Eavey, p. 118).
The Brethren of the Common Life represented a strategic pre-Reformation movement. Identified primarily with its Dutch founder Gerhard Groote, this group emphasized the pure teachings of the Bible and their simple application to the common man and woman. They also emphasized teaching the general population to read in order to be able to study the Scriptures in their own language. As a result, they were devoted to education—especially focused on youth—whom they believed represented the future of the church (p. 118).
Of course, we must also emphasize that Christian education, until more recent years, has been very much at the heart of the Catholic tradition. Even today, conservative Christian scholarship is strongly represented in many Catholic institutions of higher learning.
These are but a few of the notable movements between the time of the early apostles and the Reformation, but the above serve as remarkable examples of what some call “the authentic” church. These believers stayed true to the fundamental doctrines and truths of Christianity, despite the persecution and opposition they experienced at the hands of the secular society and, sadly, the larger institutional church. While these groups may have had some contact with each other, for the most part they were independent movements and serve as testimony to God’s faithfulness in maintaining the early church traditions and purity of faith, despite much opposition.
It is noteworthy that each movement was characterized by a common reliance on education—with a special emphasis on the education of youth—as a primary means of spreading, maintaining and increasing the vitality of their faith.
How is it that the contemporary church has lost sight of this essential vision to provide our children and youth with a comprehensive system of Christ-centered education?