The following translation was first printed in the March 12, 1895 issue of Der Lutheraner under the title “Die Christenlehre.” The author is Friedrich Bente, who was a professor at Concordia Seminary—St. Louis from 1893 through 1926. Bente also was editor for Lehre und Wehre, the main theological journal of the Missouri Synod.
The term “Christenlehre” is left untranslated in this article, as it is not neatly translated into English. We could call it the “instruction of Christians.” The Christenlehre was a notable feature of Missouri Synod congregations, especially in the German-speaking era of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. It was essentially a Catechism lesson, where the children would sit in the front pews and would be called on to stand up and answer questions asked by the pastor. If the children did not know the answers, the pastor would also call on the adults. The intent of the Christenlehre was that children would not forget the important doctrines and Catechism truths which they had learned, especially after Confirmation. The Christenlehre usually took place in the sanctuary after the regular morning worship or during Sunday afternoon, as Bente writes.
The Christenlehre was generally replaced by Sunday Schools after World War II as a means of teaching children. However, we can see from this article that the Christenlehre was a unique feature of our congregations with a specific purpose in mind for retaining the youth in the doctrine which they were taught. Mindful pastors and congregations might consider how they can incorporate elements of the Christenlehre into congregational life again today.
All spiritual life in the church is a fruit of Christ’s Word. Therefore God also wants every congregation to let this Word dwell within it richly. As in nature seed is sowed in lavish fullness, so also this sowing of the Word should not be lacking in our hearts. The bread of life should be richly distributed to the children of God. Young and old, great and small alike should be suckled and nourished with the milk of the Gospel. Neither the entire congregation, nor a part of it, nor any single individual of the same should suffer lack of the Word. Therefore the church has also established alongside the regular preaching the so-called “Christenlehre.” The Christenlehre makes its own contribution to congregational life, that the Word of God has free course and grows in the congregation. This practice gives dignity and value to the instruction of children. The same Word of holiness and power, of grace and God’s truth, which is poured out in a wide stream over the listeners in the Sunday sermon, should also find its way in smaller streams into the heart of the congregation through the individual questions of the Catechism examination. The very same things that inspire the congregation, especially the preaching of the Word, should also make the Catechism exercises precious and valuable to us. The glorious Small Catechism of Martin Luther, which is laid down as the foundation of the Christenlehre, is the most valuable little book. Our Formula of Concord says, “the Christian doctrine from God’s Word is comprised in [the Catechism] in the most correct and simple way, and, in like manner, is explained, as far as necessary for simple laymen.” The Formula calls the Small Catechism “the Bible of the laity, wherein everything is comprised which is treated at greater length in Holy Scripture, and is necessary for a Christian man to know for his salvation.”
The Catechism examinations have not been established by the church for the sake of mere change for change’s sake, as if we were trying to spend the Sunday afternoon in a different way, more pleasant and attractive than the morning worship. The Catechism examinations correspond much more to an actual need of the Christian congregation. They are not so easily replaced by the sermon, and certainly not replaced by the so-called Sunday School. The Word of God has much use and value for teaching, reproof, correction, instruction, and comfort [2 Tim. 3:16, Rom. 15:4]. But the most important is its use for teaching, the instruction for salvation. And exactly this use for teaching is, as in the sermon, the predominant use in the Christenlehre. While the Sunday sermon provides instruction according to the different festivals and times of the church year, as well as the special needs of the congregation according to its time, place, and circumstances, the Catechism examination treats the articles of the faith according to the six chief parts, in context and in finely ordered sequence. It moves step-by-step through all doctrines of the Law and Gospel, from the Ten Commandments to the Creed, from the Creed to Prayer, from Prayer to the Means of Grace: Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion. Here no piece of doctrine is overlooked, but every piece and every piece in its place is thoroughly explained. It is proven from the Holy Scripture and applied as necessary. Here every error which is dangerous to the congregation and its individual members is exposed on all sides by the light of Holy Scripture. Every error is repudiated and decidedly rejected. Here the specific duties of faith, love, and life are counted, addressed, and warmly set upon the heart of the congregation. No article is skipped over, no important question remains unanswered. If a Christian congregation wants its members to be well-grounded in all articles which pertain to the faith and life of Christians, it is exactly the Christenlehre which is the always repeatable, simple, and thorough instruction in the most holy faith. It should be held in highest importance and regarded as downright indispensable.
Also the lovely, simple method of the Catechism examination—to make the divine truths clear to understand and warm in the heart—is an overall useful, salutary, and fruitful way to teach, especially for the weak in knowledge. Here the pastor relates well to the simple. He personally brings the difficult articles of doctrine to clear understanding and thoroughly clears away any slippery false teaching. The process is so simple, and yet it is so solid. When the doctrine is drawn into the light point for point through simple questions, when it is explained in clear answers and substantiated by God’s Word—it is minted like pure gold. Every particular article—the ones that even an attentive listener might miss in a sermon—may here come clearly into focus. The question spurs the listener on to use serious reflection in bringing to mind the great treasure of his knowledge, formed by God’s Word, to answer the questions. When an answer escapes him, the question makes him vigorously attentive to fill the gap in his knowledge. It offers him the opportunity to replace what is lacking. In the course of the questions and answers the preacher also notices where he must dig deeper, where he must connect better, and where he must follow up. A wrong answer shows him where the rays of God’s Word have failed to connect. This examination concerns all people. The easier questions are set before the weaker, the more difficult questions set before the more advanced. Words of special instruction, application, and admonition are woven in for the adults also. When the children answer in an orderly and respectful way with clear and lively answers, it is not only instructive for everyone who is present. It is also a delightful joy to be there.
The Catechism examination is especially important, necessary, and useful for those youth who are weaker and simple. It is especially for these that the Christenlehre is established. You can accurately call it a children’s instruction and children’s worship. Just like the adults, so also the children are members of the church, for in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, neither master nor slave, and therefore neither child nor adult. And as our Savior Himself, so also the church does not despise the children whom she has accepted into the kingdom of God through the washing of Holy Baptism in the name of the Lord. The church knows that she should give attention to the youth not only in school, but also in worship. In the Christenlehre the congregation wants to offer first of all to the youth exactly what it needs. Exposition of the chief parts of Christian doctrine in question and answer is correct and necessary instruction, exactly what the youth needs. What the children have learned from God’s Word at home and in school—this should be publicly confessed, strengthened, and expanded in the church. The children should know this and hear it repeatedly from their parents and teachers: the Christenlehre is a children’s worship which no child should miss, except in case of emergency. Also Christian parents should not merely hand this over to the school, but they themselves should see to it that their children are adequately prepared for the examination. This will only be lively and fruitful if the children are well-familiar with the material to be handled, and answer will follow question like an echo follows a sound. The swifter and readier the children are in their answers, the more their desire grows to be attentive and to participate in the Sunday Catechism exercise. Also the school should always hold the instruction of the church’s children in consideration, and from the beginning they should accustom the youth to answer with a clear and distinct voice. This way it does not become boring or drudgery for the congregation, where paying attention becomes impossible.
While the Christenlehre is important and necessary for the school children, it is still more important and necessary for the confirmed youth, who have special need for the motherly care and nurture of the Christian congregation. The saddest experience teaches this, that as soon as the flighty youth go into the world and experience temptations and dangers, they forget that they praised God in school and what they learned in Confirmation instruction. They deny their spiritual disposition, and worldly thoughts and desires gain the upper hand. The longer the confirmed youth grow, the more they should grow into serious, knowledgeable, and well-grounded Christians. As a rule they should grow into a mature age in Christ. They should no longer be children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, seduced by alluring human treachery to let falsehood enter in. They should become Christians, who are happy in and certain of their faith. Everyone should be able to offer a defense of the hope which is in him, to withstand the deceiver, to stop the mouth of the blasphemer, and to exercise their priestly duties and rights. Finally, they should be able to serve the congregation as loyal and well-regarded members with much blessing. This can only happen when the Word is held by the youth and the youth is held by the Word. This is why the Catechism examinations have been established, and they are especially suitable for this task. In these examinations the glorious and salutary knowledge, which our confirmed youth have taken into their lives from the school and their Confirmation instruction, which is a thorn in the eye of Satan and aggravating to the sinful flesh—this is refreshed, strengthened, grounded more deeply, more clearly explained, further expanded, and applied to every facet of life. The regular review of the chief Christian doctrines must result in inexpressible blessing in the congregation, especially for the confirmed youth. Parents, preachers, and congregations should hold the youth to the Christenlehre with care. They should allure and tantalize, plead and admonish, warn and discipline them all as a group and as individuals, and they should not grow tired of it. No measure should be left untried. They do it to this end—that the Catechism exercises remain dear and valuable to the youth.
If the Christenlehre is especially suitable for the needs of the youth, and if the preaching worship is especially suited for the needs of the adults, note that it does not in any way follow that the Christenlehre is only for the youth and the preaching only for the adults. Unfortunately it is too often handled according to the principles of the Old Adam. But for Christians who fear God, it is enough if they know that it is the same Word of God which is in both the Christenlehre and in the sermon. The milk which nourishes the children is also salutary and healthy for the adults. They operate according to the word: “Come, that you may hear,” where, when, and in whatever way the Word of God is publicly proclaimed. Even for experienced Christians, nothing gets lost easier than the simplest Catechism truths. Christian knowledge is no such thing, that a man can avail himself of it once for all and then never lose it.
The devil himself has ambitions upon the Catechism truths, to darken them for Christians, to mix them with errors, or to rob them from us outright. Satan himself tells someone that he knows it all and no longer needs the children’s teaching. Therefore it is worthwhile that even experienced Christians repeat the Catechism over and over and refresh it in their spirit. The gold of salutary knowledge must be maintained through regular exercise. And where can that better happen than in the Catechism examination, where you consider every question to be directed at yourself, and you seek to answer it! To go through the six chief parts attentively once a year with the congregation—this is not too much to do. And when you regularly and attentively attend the Catechism examination, soon you will find that you still have much to do. Yes, that even the children can answer some questions which you can’t. There will always be parts which are unfamiliar to you, others which you have forgotten. You will find points of doctrine which you do not thoroughly understand, phrases which you still have not impressed securely enough in your memory. You will learn about false doctrines, which you have not yet recognized sharply enough, and there will be applications which are new to you. And even if you could know everything, you will still have to learn until the end of your life how you can best share it with others—how to give a defense of your faith to the children of this world or false believers, or how to give comfort to a Christian brother on his deathbed. No scholar or theologian rises above the Lutheran Catechism and its simple doctrines, his whole life long! Luther himself and with him all the blessed theologians of our church have recognized it in their old age, even as learned and experienced doctors of holy theology, that they must remain children and students of the Catechism, and remain so gladly. Even as no one can become too learned by listening to a simple sermon, no one can become too learned through a simple Catechism examination. Experience also teaches us this. Exactly those people who think they no longer need the children’s teaching still go about in their children’s shoes. In the hour of temptation they become easy prey for the sects, or they even fall into manifest unbelief. But the very members who tend with care to the Christenlehre and are zealous to grow in salutary knowledge—these prove themselves as the keenest, most capable, and most reliable members of the congregation. These are those who, when it comes to difficult questions of doctrine and life, examine everything well and are able to make judgments according to God’s Word. Therefore they also may be safely entrusted with congregational leadership.
Parents who have children in the school and confirmed sons and daughters should for their own children’s sake take regular part in the Sunday Catechism exercise and not miss it. If they themselves stay home, while the youth are forced to go to the Christenlehre, the children learn from the start to see the Christenlehre as a coercion. They regard it as a burden and look forward in advance to the time when they also, like their parents, will outgrow the children’s instruction. Whoever Sunday to Sunday gives such an offense to his children must only indict himself when his children turn their backs on the church after Confirmation, fall prey to the world, and distress their parents with much humiliation and grief. But if the parents show in the act that the examination is dear and valuable and important to them, this establishes a good model for the youth, as well as a powerful encouragement. What an advantage, what salutary stimulus for a child, to be in the Christenlehre with a keen, attentive, and orderly attitude. If the parents also participate with zeal, son and daughter must say to themselves, “Father and mother are here, and they pay special attention to you. They gladden themselves or are disappointed over your answers and your behavior.” In the Christenlehre parents have then the best opportunity to observe whether their children are reverent and behave like Christians, whether they have a desire for God’s Word, whether they can give answers and make progress, or if they are still lacking in some ways. Then they must help them at home and spur them on to keep working at it. Parents will find so much opportunity for glad praise and thanks towards God, that the work in the home, in the school, and in the church will not be in vain. They will also find opportunity for fervent supplication and prayer, that the Lord bridle the flesh of their children and lead them in the good work already begun and bring it to completion. Through regular attentive participation in the Catechism exercises parents will also become more skilled to discharge their special duties as housefathers and housemothers, to use God’s Word for teaching, reproof, correction, instruction, and comfort of their loved ones. In this way they will exercise their spiritual priesthood in the home.
Would that all our dear Christians recognize here what is so right and necessary before God for the blessing and edification of our Lutheran Zion. And where the word “Christenlehre” touches a sore spot in congregation or family life, let one consider that this does not have to do with a false estimation of the value and importance of a merely Lutheran and churchly institution, but it has to do with the clear symptoms of a penetrating laziness, indifference, and satiation with regard to God’s Word itself. “Therefore I entreat you all for God’s sake, my dear sirs and brethren, who are pastors or preachers, to devote yourselves heartily to your office, to have pity on the people who are entrusted to you, and to help us inculcate the Catechism upon the people, and especially upon the young” [Small Catechism, Preface]. May everyone let these penetrating words of Luther be earnestly said among them, and preachers, teachers, congregation members, parents, and children accept the Christenlehre with ever-renewed seriousness and zeal, to the praise of God. May this be a blessing for the church, and temporal and eternal usefulness and godliness for our neighbor and for us all. — F.B.