Is Your Sunday School Training Good Little Pharisees?

The entire Bible, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, is about Jesus, His saving work, His Gospel.

When our children are taught that God’s law is something that can be kept; when the commandments are presented to them as the means whereby they can get on God’s good side; when the impression is given that Jesus came to earth to help us be better people; then our kids are being spoon-fed the theological poison of the Pharisees.


Every night my son and daughter would snuggle beside me on the couch and listen as I read a story to them from a children’s Bible. On one page was colorful artwork depicting the Israelites walking between the high wet walls of the Red Sea, or Daniel in a den of sleeping lions, and on the facing page was a digest version of the account. Story by story we’d work our way through the tales of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, all the way to the parables and miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus. Then we’d start over again.

What I didn’t tell my children was a little secret: I was not really reading these stories to them word for word. Quite a bit of the time I was only pretending to read, since I was editing the stories on the fly.

You see, while many of these summaries accurately reflected the biblical story, others accurately reflected the unbiblical opinions of the people who put the book together. To give but one example, when the story of Cain and Abel was retold, the summary described the brothers in this way: “The first children of Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel…Cain was cruel and Abel was kind.” After telling of their respective sacrifices, the book continues, “When God saw that Cain’s heart was full of evil, He was not pleased with his gifts. But God was pleased with Abel’s gifts because his heart was full of goodness, and he offered his gifts to God with a better spirit.”

This retelling is not merely a simplifying of the account to a child’s level; it stinks of moralism. There is never any mention in the Scriptures of Abel being “kind” or having a “heart full of goodness” or a “better spirit” than his brother. The only biblical reason ever explicitly stated for God’s acceptance of his offering was that it was offered “by faith,” (Hebrews 11:4). The impression any child would receive upon reading this digest version is that if you’re a kind boy or girl, and have a good heart, then God will be pleased with you, too. If you’re good like Abel, God will accept you; if you’re like bad like Cain, God will reject you. In short, summaries like this one would provide excellent training material for Pharisees.

If such training material were isolated to children’s Bible story books, then at least we parents could edit the material as we read. But what happens when you send your child to Sunday School and they’re taught essentially the same moralistic version of the Cain and Abel story? Or that God chose Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the other big names of the OT because they were good men, while God rejected others because they were bad men? What happens, in short, when our children are taught to read the Scriptures as evidence that God is a heavenly Santa Claus, finding out who’s been naughty or nice, then rewarding or punishing them accordingly? What happens is that Sunday School becomes a breeding ground for the same twisted view of God made infamous by the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were the religious superstars of Jesus’ day. When our Lord called them hypocrites, He didn’t mean that they were mere pretenders. On the contrary, they were meticulous in their own brand of religious observance. They went out of their way to observe God’s laws; indeed, they were spiritual over-achievers, outwardly doing even more than the laws demanded. They were hypocrites (literally “play-actors”) because they were like actors on the stage, performing both for God and for their fellow men, doing all their deeds “to be seen by others,” (Matthew 23:5). They wanted heaven and earth to see what a fine job they were doing of being moral, upright, religiously observant Jews. They thanked God that they were not like other, less righteous men (Luke 18:9-14). And, most importantly, they believed that God’s acceptance of them, indeed, God’s jubilation over them, was based upon their observance of His laws.

The Pharisees thought they were good, and because they were good, God was good to them. What they failed to realize was that the very law that they thought justified them actually condemned them. They were like “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness,” (Matthew 23:28).

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