When is it okay to correct the Sunday School teacher?

I remember an experience I had as I became old enough to attend grown-up gospel doctrine class.

One Sunday, sitting with my parents, we were listening to the lesson. A couple of the old high priests really dominated the discussion by always speaking and dropping in all the extra fascinating facts that the lesson didn’t cover. “Did you know they found an altar with the world Nahom on it?” “Well the lesson doesn’t mention it, but there’s a chapter of Isaiah which applies directly. I’ll read it aloud now.”

After a few of these types of informative comments my mother leaned over and whispered to me, “just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to share it.”

For some reason I have remembered that moment vividly for years. It was a perfect teaching moment and I think about it every time I’m tempted to share a random fact in Sunday school.

She later became a teacher in that class and told me that she never prepared a lesson. She didn’t need to. She would “throw them a bone and let them gnaw on it for an hour.” (Her words.  Sorry, Mom, guess you can’t share this one on facebook.)

Sunday School corrections

“I’d like to point out that the Joseph Smith translation goes against the teacher’s interpretation in the following ways…”

Self Restraint and the Learning Experience

The idea of self restraint as being valuable to the learning experience hadn’t occurred to me before, but she was right. That class was eventually divided into 2 classes: one for the older crowd intent on dumping the whole load of hay, and one for the younger crowd where actual discussion could happen.

Despite the fact that an immense amount of data and insight was being shared by these more vocal (and knowledgeable) members, the good desires and enthusiasm of the old folks had stifled the learning environment because it had not been tempered with self restraint.

Elder Maxwell, in his final talk, put it this way:

Having virtually no quantitative skills, I was seldom if ever able to help our children with math and scientific subjects. One day our high school daughter Nancy asked me for “a little help” regarding a Supreme Court case, Fletcher v. Peck. I was so eager to help after so many times of not being able to help. At last a chance to unload! Out came what I knew about Fletcher v. Peck. Finally my frustrated daughter said, “Dad, I need only a little help!” I was meeting my own needs rather than giving her “a little help.”

We worship a Lord who teaches us precept by precept, brethren, so even when we are teaching our children the gospel, let’s not dump the whole load of hay.

I believe that the spirit can prompt us to share appropriately, but always in the right setting, and in the right moment, never simply to teach what we want to have taught; and especially never in an effort to gratify our pride.

Our education, and our responsibility towards others.

Speaking of pride as a motivator for sharing, I know I have this problem.  I enjoy teaching, but part of my motive is certainly to entertain and to be seen as an authority. Sometimes that has led me to range far afield from the lesson, and usually meets with scowls and confusion from the class. What I forget, in my enthusiasm for sharing my knowledge, is that the Holy Ghost is the true teacher, not me.

Elder Hafen put it this way:

I have seen some of these people try out their new intellectual tools in some context like a priesthood quorum or Sunday School class. A well-meaning teacher will make a point that they think is a little silly, and they will feel an irresistible urge to leap to their feet and pop the teacher’s bubble. If they are successful, they begin looking for other opportunities to point out the exception to any rule anybody can state. They begin to delight in cross-examination of the unsuspecting, just looking for somebody’s bubble up there floating around so that they can pop it with their shiny new pin. And in all that, they fail to realize that when some of those bubbles pop, out goes the air; and with it goes much of the feeling of trust, loyalty, harmony, and sincerity so essential to preserving the Spirit of the Lord.

If that begins to happen in your ward, in your home, or in your marriage, you might have begun to destroy the fragile fabric of trust that binds us together in all loving relationships. People in your ward may come away from some of their encounters with you wondering how you can possibly have a deep commitment to the Church and do some of the things you do.

I am not suggesting that we should always just smile and nod our approval, implying that everything is wonderful and that our highest hope is that everybody have a nice day. That is level one. I am suggesting that you realize the potential for evil as well as good that may come with what a college education can do to your mind and your way of dealing with other people.

Love is Not Blind Bruce C. Hafen [emphasis added]

To build on what Elder Hafen said, it’s important to recognize that our knowledge must be balanced with our charity – love for others.

On knowing and caring

learning in sunday schoolAn example exists in the scriptures, when the Corinthian saints had written to Paul. They asked him about eating food that had been used in religious ceremonies – specifically, was it okay to eat food that had been “sacrificed” to idols?

Paul’s response was basically “Look, you and I both know that the sacrificing to idols is just a sham and it’s just meat.It literally doesn’t matter because the idol isn’t real. We know that.”

His exact words:

We all have knowledge. . . .

As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.

For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth . . . ,

But to us there is but one God, the Father. . . .

But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. [1 Corinthians 8:1, 4–6, 8]

This response would have made the Greeks very happy, since knowledge was so highly prized in their culture. Bible Scholar Richard Hays says the Corinthian inquirers might well have thought that “the strong Christian, armed with the appropriate gnosis, [knowledge] can go without compunction to the pagan temple and eat whatever is offered there; indeed, doing so may be a way to demonstrate one’s spiritual maturity and freedom.” Further, Hays theorizes the inquirers “probably appealed to Paul to set the record straight by encouraging the weak to overcome their qualms and enter the world of spiritual freedom enjoyed by those who possess gnosis.”

This, of course, has echoes in our own society. The pride of the intellectual or enlightened is well known. I imagine that you, like me, could easily name a dozen people who love to engage in acts meant to demonstrate their maturity and freedom. Many of them are no doubt happy to share their enlightened opinions with you on facebook at a moments notice.

But Paul isn’t done with the saints. Knowledge, maturity, freedom, enlightenment – none of those things are as important as the world makes them out to be.

Kevin J. Worthen tells what happens next:

Paul first reminds them, in chapter 8, that “there is not in every man that knowledge” and that “some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol” (v. 7). He then warns them to “take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak” (v. 9), explaining that

if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;

And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? [vv. 10–11]

Paul thus appeals to the Corinthians who thought they had full knowledge concerning the subject to consider the impact of their actions on their fellow Saints. Although the “educated” might well understand that there was no religious significance to the consumption of meat offered to dumb idols, others might not have the same knowledge, and seeing the well-educated Saints eating at the idol’s temple, these so-called “weaker” Saints might well assume that there was something to this idol worship. Thus the knowledge of the inquiring Corinthian members of the Church might lead to the destruction of their fellow Saints for whom Christ had given his life.

Given the differences in these two perspectives, Paul informs the Saints of the course that he will follow: “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth” (v. 13). Having the perspectives given by both knowledge and charity, Paul apparently opts for the course indicated by the latter. He seems to be saying that although knowledge may teach that one can eat meat offered to idols without incurring any spiritual damage, charity demonstrates that such conduct may constitute a “sin . . . against the brethren” (v. 12). Given that choice, Paul not surprisingly decides that he will eat no meat offered to idols, even if he “knows” in one sense that it does not really matter whether or not he does.

Although Paul saves his personal resolution of the issue until the last verse of chapter 8, he had clearly indicated to the inquirers where he was headed with his summary of the matter in verse 1 when, in answer to their assertion that “we all have knowledge,” he stated, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.”

Therefore, what?

So the Sunday school teacher just flubbed. What do you do now? Do you correct his mistake?

Knowledge alone would say that you absolutely must, for if knowledge is the greatest virtue, then error is the greatest sin.

But Charity says that what’s most important is how your words will affect others in the room. Will your contributions edify? Will your words drive out trust and the spirit? Is the subject so important that accuracy is vital to the principle being taught? You’ll need the guidance of the Spirit to come to the best conclusion, but with a pure desire to do what is charitable, you’re starting out on the right foot.


Greg is a business owner, writer, husband and father. (not in that order, though.)

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Posted in humility, my thoughts, Questions

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