If there is a “dean of Christian education” in the Christian church, it is Eleanor Daniel. In a career spanning nearly five decades, Eleanor has served as either staff member or Christian education consultant to dozens of churches across the United States, taught in mission stations around the world, written five books on Christian education, taught Christian education on the graduate and postgraduate level, and served as dean at both Cincinnati Christian University and Emmanuel School of Religion. A graduate of Lincoln Christian College and Seminary, she currently teaches at Emmanuel and serves part-time as adult education director at First Christian Church, Johnson City, Tennessee.
How would you define “Christian education” today?
It is the work of the church to form disciples of Jesus.
How is the church doing?
Not as well as it should. I just presented a paper on Christian education in the Stone-Campbell Movement. It seems that the early years of our movement had a strong emphasis on discipling and leadership development. More recently we have not done nearly as well as we should to prepare lay leaders to carry out the tasks of Christian education. Earlier in our history there was clearly strong emphasis on churches preparing and motivating teachers and leaders to communicate the gospel in an effective way. We seem to not be doing that same kind of focused thing across the board, however there are certainly churches who do.
What are those churches doing?
They’re preparing people with biblical content, so they know what they’re teaching and have support on how to teach it as well. Through the years the thing I’ve heard the most from would-be teachers is, “I don’t know enough to teach.” Churches must have some kind of ongoing systematic way to equip people with biblical knowledge and how the Bible fits together so they can present the gospel and biblical information effectively.
What is the most significant change you have seen regarding Christian education in your career?
I think we have much better curriculum and materials than we have ever had. That’s a very positive change. There’s a much greater understanding of the importance of teaching children, especially preschool children. When I started in Christian education we provided babysitting to preschoolers, thinking they didn’t have the capacity to learn. Now we’ve gone to more age-level specialists in teaching. People can really focus on children’s education or youth or adults and not have to know the wide range of teaching.
I have a concern about the professionalization of Christian education. Churches hire the people to do the work for them and haven’t focused as much on developing volunteers as I would hope. The specialization, on the one hand, has been good, but the expectation that we hire people to do it is disappointing.
Has the emphasis on small groups in churches had a negative or positive effect on Christian education?
Small groups are a very positive part of Christian education. I lead a small group myself. We have small groups in our church. At the same time, I don’t think small groups can do everything in Christian education for adults. They do a wonderful job of providing fellowship, personal support, and a certain amount of biblical study. At the same time, I think it’s harder for small groups to do a really continued, systematic study of Scripture. But they have a significant part in Christian education.
Are young people as biblically literate as they were 25 years ago?
No. Definitely not.
Why is that?
In part we haven’t paid much attention to how we guide people through a curriculum experience so they get a systematic understanding of Scripture. Cultural diversions and tensions have distracted people. Some of it is external and some of it is inherent in what we do in the church itself.
How have Bible colleges responded to training in Christian education to match the needs, and culture, of the local church?
Schools that once would have had very strong Christian education majors don’t seem to have people with the same passion for it leading those programs. Students come to college these days with so many issues. It seems like counseling programs take more precedence because students are trying to resolve many of their own issues.
Is the church in America keeping pace with the spiritual growth of other parts of the world?
We have way better methods and facilities and materials, but there appears to be a higher rate of biblical literacy, a higher desire to learn Scripture, and a greater commitment to the piety practices—prayer and spiritual development—among Christians in the places where I’ve been. I was in India one Christmas and people were in church services praying all night for the church. That’s a little hard to conceive in the American church. The Eastern European church had to rely on prayer and the practice of piety to make it through the communist regime.
What can the American church learn from our brothers and sisters elsewhere?
To pray fervently, and when they pray, to pray for the church at large. I think God answers prayers for our health, but sometimes I get weary of the things we talk about in prayer—just people getting well, and the moaning that we’re so oppressed. Somehow we have a notion that Christians are persecuted in this country. People in Eastern Europe prayed for years for freedom or for their friends who were in prison. People in India pray for relief from oppression when they baptize people. I think it’s hard for people here to understand or see that.
You’ve been a consistent leader in the church for years. What does it mean for a woman to be in leadership at a local church?
If we take the notion of leadership as one who influences another, then obviously at most any church there are women who influence other folk. On the church staff, there is a place for women to provide influence and give direction for a church. That’s not necessarily always easy. Certainly it’s happening in some places and women are just recognized as leaders in their own right.
Does this issue have the potential to split the church at large?
It always has that potential, but I would hope our long history of congregational autonomy would let churches do what they feel they should do. The churches with women elders created a great deal of concern around here. I would hope that we could live with freedom of congregational autonomy.
Is the church today where it needs to be with the way it uses the talents and gifts of women?
No. I think that many, many churches would profit a great deal by allowing some of their very capable women to utilize their talents in many ways. In some churches they simply wouldn’t abide that. I don’t think it necessarily means a church has to have women in eldership for women to use their skills in a variety of ways. They can teach Bible classes, serve on church staffs, serve on finance committees, or use their skills in many other ways.
Has the church frozen women out of critical leadership roles?
Certainly. In too many cases. There are a good many denominations who are permitting women to be pastors, elders, college presidents—serving in ways we could not have imagined 35 years ago. To me it seems that it has not happened very rapidly for us in the Stone-Campbell Movement.
Has it become easier or more difficult for women to be involved in ministry?
It’s really interesting. In many ways I thought when I started in ministry it was a whole lot easier for women to enter into ministry and be engaged in leadership, but that was pre-Equal Rights Amendment. After the ERA kind of fizzled out, in some ways, it became more difficult. The ERA, for people who were committed to Scripture and wanted to retain values that were important to them, seemed like another challenge to everything they had held dear for a long time. There was a lot cultural change in the 1970s. We came out of the stuff with the flower children and the hippie movement so people were unsettled feeling their values were challenged a lot with that generation. Some of those issues are probably not as important to younger leaders in the movement these days.
Are things trending positively for women in leadership?
If I were to sit with a group of women here at the seminary they would say it’s not true, but I would say “yes.” They can’t see it from where it was 30 years ago—before they were born—to see how we had to work through these processes. Generally it’s a lot more positive. It kind of makes me wish I could start again!
How do you structure an argument for women in leadership from Scripture?
If you take all of the passages in Scripture, you see variety. The book of 1 Timothy would sound very opposed to women in leadership, and you have First Corinthians about women being silent in the church. Then you have Romans with all of the women in leadership there. There had to be some key women in leadership. I read Galatians, and it seems the differences between men and women are obliterated. I don’t think Paul was schizophrenic! One way or other there seems to be some key that was hidden to us and we haven’t been able to unlock that lock. I wonder if it has a lot more to do with particular, local situations and particular problems Paul was talking about, which would mean that in some situations the principle would hold, where in other situations it would not.
What do you say to folks who believe they have a biblical ground for contradicting your position on this topic?
That’s been a debate for 2,000 years that we have never totally agreed on. On either side we better be careful about being too sure that we have all of the answers to the issue.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.