Misrepresenting Christianity in a Public School


My son is a high school student who is currently taking his required World History class. The teacher is covering religions, and has recently been studying Christianity. While sometimes students misunderstand an instructor’s point when they tell others what happened in class, parents can gain insight into the class by what the teacher sends home as well as what their children report. These issues came up in our discussion:

Allegation 1 – Paul invented the doctrine of Original Sin

To address this allegation, we must first understand the word “sin”.  The Bible represents sin as a broken relationship between the Creator God and His creatures, human beings. The relationship was broken by the rebellion of man against the command of God in the original idyllic state, the Garden of Eden. Each individual commits sins, individual acts of disobedience to his Creator, but the human race as a whole is separated from God through our act of corporate rebellion. Whereas in other religions sin is considered a single act, usually involving breaking some taboo, in Christianity sin is a state of being. Since people are in this state, rebellion against God, they commit individual acts of sin. Stated another way, in other religions people may be sinners because they sin, but in Christianity people sin because they are sinners.

The doctrine of Original Sin is simply that due to the disobedience of the founders of the human race, Adam and Eve, all humans past, present and future are alienated from God. Because we are alienated from Him, we sin against Him. This is a hard doctrine to accept, but our task here is to identify its origins, not explain it.

Some people argue that this doctrine is not present in Islam or Judaism, and that “Original Sin” originated in the writings of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon.  The argument that Paul invented it comes from the fact that Paul taught that all mankind fell into sin due to the sin of Adam and can be saved from sin due to the work of Christ (Romans 5:12-21). He repeated the argument in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. However, Paul did not invent it.

While Original Sin may not be part of modern Judaism, it was certainly part of the religion of the ancient Hebrews. The story of Adam and Eve and their rebellion in the Garden of Eden is found in Genesis 3, the first book of the Torah (Pentateuch).  Moses specifically quotes God as saying that “the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth (נער na`uwr – early life, childhood) (Genesis 8:21).” The Scriptures of the ancient Hebrews included the Law (Torah), the Writings and the Prophets, and the first was the most important part of the Jewish Scriptures, written by Moses around 1400 BC.

David’s prayer for repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah (Psalm 51) includes “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me (verse 5)” did not refer to some moral lapse on the part of his parents. Writing around 1000 BC, David understood that he was a sinner even before he personally was old enough to commit individual sins. In Psalm 14:1-3 he wrote “there is no one who does good” and “they have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

Three centuries later, Isaiah wrote of the entire nation of Israel “no one sues righteously and no one pleads honestly, they trust in confusion and speak lies…their feet run to evil and they hasten to shed innocent blood.” All of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos to Zechariah, spoke of the inherent wickedness of man, and none lived later than 400 BC, 450 years before Paul wrote.

Paul was a prominent Jewish leader before he became a Christian. He was born a Jew, studied the Law under the famous Pharisee Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and was zealous in his Hebrew faith (Acts 8:1-3, Galatians 1:13-14, Philippians 3:4-6). What he wrote in Romans was an outgrowth of profound understanding of the religion of the Jews combined with knowledge of how the work of Jesus Christ completed the salvation story.

Paul did not invent the doctrine of Original Sin, for that doctrine preceded him by 1400 years. He simply showed how Christ freed men from its curse.

Allegation 2 – Because Jesus cast the money changers out of the temple, early Christians did not like merchants or money making activities

In first century Israel, every Jewish male over the age of 19 had to pay a temple tax (δίδραχμον didrachmon), one-half shekel annually (Exodus 30:11-16). Because Jews came to the temple from all over the Roman Empire, they often did not have the correct currency to pay their temple tax, so money changers set up in the temple grounds to exchange their money. Other vendors sold doves, goats, sheep and oxen to the Jewish visitors so they could sacrifice them in accordance with the Law of Moses, since it was impractical to bring live animals from such a distance. These entrepreneurs made a tidy sum for themselves and provided a needed service for religious observance of the day.

The problem was that they operated their businesses on the temple grounds rather than outside. As a result, the focus on God so necessary in a place of worship was replaced with the clinking of money, the cooing of doves, the grunting of goats, and the shouting of vendors. Quietude gave way to cacophony, and communion with the Holy One was inevitably lost. Twice during His earthly ministry, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and forced the others out, at least for a time (John 2:13-16, Matthew 21:12-14). People of His day spent almost all of their time dealing with the cacophony of life and little if any time with the Creator who loved them. Observant Jews gathered once (or sometimes twice, depending on distance) per year to worship at the temple. Is there any wonder that Jesus wanted the vendors to move off the temple grounds?

The Jewish Scriptures often praised buying and selling. The patriarchs bought and sold sheep and other livestock. The “excellent wife” in Proverbs 31 was a merchant, purchasing real estate and operating a clothing business, all the while caring for her family.

Many early Christians were and remained merchants. The apostles Peter, Andrew, James and John ran a fishing business (Luke 5:1-11), and Lydia of Thyatira was a dealer in purple fabrics (Acts 16:14). The Christian couple Priscilla and Aquila, and even the Apostle Paul after he stopped being a Pharisee, made and sold tents. Jesus Himself was a carpenter, and over the course of His 33 year life spent ages 12-30 in the workshop and 30-33 at the pulpit.

There is no evidence that early Christians did not like merchants or disapproved of money making activities. Actually, with the exceptions of jobs like harlot and sorcerer, there are few occupations of which the Bible does not approve.

Allegation 3 – Early Christians believed that women were not created in the image of God

My son did not report that the teacher said this, but it was on a handout that she said was from “early Christianity”. It included the statements “The natural order for mankind is that women should serve men and children their parents, for it is just that the lesser should serve the greater” and “woman is not made in God’s image.” The source is an excerpt from the Decretum, a systematization of Church law written by Gratian, a jurist from Northern Italy around 1140 AD.

There is a problem with the teacher’s choice to use this document to represent early Christian thought; the document is not early. The Roman Catholic Church produced the Decretum over 1100 years after the death of Jesus Christ, and over 1000 years after the death of the last surviving disciple. There is nothing “early” about that document.

Assuming that the Decretum is correctly quoted above, the second problem is that these teachings are false. No where does the Bible support the idea that women are somehow less than men, or that women are not created in God’s image. The account in Genesis 1:27 states:

“So God created man in his [own] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

The word “them” is clearly plural in the original Hebrew and refers to both the man and the woman.

Jesus treated women with respect rarely accorded to them in contemporary Israel, Greece or Rome. Women played important roles throughout His ministry.  Women, not men, were the first ones to discover His resurrection. Paul clearly stated in Galatians 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Further, the role of the servant in the Bible is not reserved for the “lesser”, but for the “greater”. Nowhere did Jesus demand to be served, but instead He served others, stooping to the level of the lowest slave when He washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). Jesus was explicit, “the greatest among you will be the servant of all (Mark 9:35).”

My son’s teacher chose this passage, rather than several earlier and more accurate ones, to represent Christian beliefs.  It would be unfortunate if she intentionally wished to defame Christianity, and as an educational professional with a commitment to objectivity, it is more likely that she simply didn’t know of any others. Soon she will.

Allegation 4 -Early Christians wished destruction on those who left the church.

A 10th century decree on excommunication that was sent home is replete with curses and evil that will befall those who are excommunicated from the Church. The first problem is that this document also is not early; it was written at least 900 years after Christ. It is true that excommunication at that time resulted in isolation from family, church and community. Some excommunicants ended up losing their lives.

Jesus told His disciples how to handle people who sin against the church in Matthew 18:15-17.

15“If your brother sins against you,b go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’c 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

However, five verses later He also said to forgive without limit (seventy times seven). James 5:19-20 is clear that even those who turn away need our compassion and prayers, even if we no longer associate with them at church or on a social level.  Fellowship with other Christians can be broken by unconfessed sin, but Christian compassion cannot. Of everyone who ever lived, Jesus had the most reason to withhold love and forgiveness, but He never did.

The Old Testament, as much as part of Christianity as the New Testament, also teaches forgiveness. Manasseh was the most evil king in the history of Judah, yet when he repented, God forgave him (2 Chronicles 33:12-23). Nebuchadnezzar persecuted the Jews, God’s chosen people, and poured the cup of death and destruction on tens of thousands. Yet when he repented, the Lord forgave him (Daniel 4:31-37).

What Christians really believe is that, while they may be forced to break fellowship with someone because of their bad conduct, they always long, and pray, for their wayward brothers’ repentance and return. Believers in Jesus are not in the business of calling judgment by fire from heaven down on their enemies (Luke 9:52-56).

Conclusion

There were more than four allegations but these were the most substantive.  As we have seen, my son’s high school teacher has misrepresented Christianity. She either knows that she is misrepresenting it or she does not. If she knows then she is doing it out of malice and deserves censure. If she does not know then she is doing it out of ignorance and needs education. No one can be expected to know everything and teachers, like most people, do the best they feel that they can. As a result I believe that she simply does not know, and in this blog I have attempted to shed light on these difficult questions.

I have neither identified the school nor the teacher; mostly because I do not wish to invite comment, either applause or ridicule, on anyone involved. Further, I have not yet communicated with her about this. When I do I hope that we will enjoy a friendly and spirited dialogue rather than sullen acrimony. The end result I seek is that we gain a good relationship, and we both move closer to the Truth, and the God who embodies it.

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