The early church provides a unique look at the development of a system of religious education fairly recently in history. With the death of the apostles, believers who were still alive had to face the reality of two major problems.
- What do we do with our children in terms of their education?
- How do we educate people who want to join the church?
The answers to these two questions intersect in many ways. This post will examine education in the early church.
The education of children was a problem for the early church. Children needed an education but state-run schools were not really an option. The reason has to do with the difference in philosophy of Christian education and state education.
Christian education is focused on character development and being prepared for eternity. In contrast, state education is focused on skill development and the here and now as eternity is often not a concern. As a result of this, Christians did not consider state-controlled schools as an option for their children.
In addition, it was common for state-led schools to mix Roman worship with education and for the Christians this was unacceptable. It is also important to realize that Christians were frequently persecuted as atheists during this time so it was impossible to go to school when one’s life was in danger.
The solution to this was the one that the Jews used, which was homeschooling. The focus of the child’s training was to develop a trust in the Christian God. By keeping the child at home he or she was protected from the influence of the world for a time. This led to a simplicity of taste that non-Christians found bewildering.
The Bible was the sole book for most children. The stories within it served as nursery tales. Scripture was memorized and the Bible was even used for learning to read.
With the focus on character development and a sense of morals, Christian education was vastly different from the education of other societies. Even without the focus on the classics and even technical training Christians were a spectacle to the world at this time. In terms of the results of this education among women one heathen author exclaimed “What wives these Christians have” indicating his awe in how these people conducted themselves.
As the church grew, it became difficult to address the needs of new members. In particular, there were concerns over how to prepare prospective members for church membership. One answer to this problem was the development of Catechetical schools which were a place for prospective and current members to receive training in Christian beliefs.
For people considering baptism, the training could last anywhere from a few months to as long as three years. The curriculum consisted of learning the Ten Commandments, Lord’ Prayer, other parts of scripture, and as well as a confession of faith.
For people who were already Christian, they could receive advanced training that would prepare them for ministerial work as a teacher or leader. Some of the subjects covered for believers included philology, rhetoric, math, and philosophy.
The most prominent of these schools was found in Alexandria, Egypt. For several centuries after this, Alexandria has a powerful influence on the Christian church.
The purpose of education is to meet the needs of the people in the context in which it is needed. The Early Christian Church had the dilemma of having to be separate from the world while still developing skills needed to survive in it. This led to the development of the homeschool for children and the Catechetical School for new converts.