Thoughts of a former evangelical Christian

Child Evangelism Fellowship’s “Life of David” Flannel Graph Series

In Child Evangelism Fellowship, Christianity as Tribalism: Initiation, Good News Club on April 22, 2010 at 5:09 am

Believers with whom I have shared my long-going crisis of faith and more recent deconversion tell me that I dwelled too much on sin and God’s justice and not enough on God’s grace and love.

Many believers don’t know – or refuse to acknowledge – how relentlessly and obsessively sin, shame, obedience, and eternal punishment are stressed in evangelical Sunday School and Bible Club curriculums.

Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club bible lesson books are particularly egregious.  As a child between the tender ages of 7 and 10, I must have gone to at least 50 Good News Club bible lessons.  I remember learning flannel graph stories from almost every one of the 12 different Old Testament lesson books (6 lessons each) available on Child Evangelism Fellowship’s online store.

Over the past week, I have looked over several Good News Club flannel graph bible lesson books handed down to us for the purpose of instructing our son.  We have six of them:

  • The Life of the Prophet Elijah, by Ruth Overholtzer (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1967)
  • Life of David, Vol. One, by Katherine Hershey (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1972)
  • Life of David, Vol. Two, by Katherine Hershey (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1973)
  • Ruth: The Story of Redemption, by Matilda Alexander (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1972)
  • The Life of the Prophet Daniel, by Ruth Overholtzer (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1974)
  • Esther, by Beatrice Holenbeck (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1964)

These lesson books are utterly disturbing.  The moral of almost every lesson is that complete and unconditional obedience is the highest good.  Every lesson relentlessly presses the concept that every little boy and girl is utterly sinful, unable unless saved to resist any sin, how much God hates sin, how sin must be punished, and how the punishment for sin is death and eternal separation from God.  These concepts are emphatically, repeatedly, and inappropriately stuffed into the explanation of every Old Testament Bible story.  Each lesson also aggressively emphasizes that to avoid eternal death, the child must believe he or she is a sinner and that Jesus died for his or her sins.

To illustrate, I share some excerpts from the twelve lessons – in two volumes – on the Life of David in CEF’s flannel graph series.

Lesson One discusses how Israel disappointed God by wanting a king (Saul), and admonishes children that to want their own way is sin, that the wages of sin is death, and that Jesus had to die for their sins (page 4):

God is always careful to warn us when we want our own way instead of His way.  Wanting our own way is sin.  It makes us lie and cheat and fight.  He warns us by saying, ‘The wages [or pay] of sin is death [to be away from God forever]….

God has given His own Son to pay for your sin.  He paid for it by dying for you.  He took the wages of sin (death) for you.  When men hung Him on a cross His blood flowed from the wounds in His body.  The Bible calls that His “shed blood.”  Because of the shed blood of the Lord Jesus, God can forgive your sin….  He warns you about eternal death.  (That is being away from God forever and ever in the place of punishment for sin.)  Then he offers you eternal life when you receive the Lord Jesus, so that you can someday be with Him forever and ever.

(Brackets in the original).  And at the end of the story, the teacher is instructed to conclude with a prayer that stresses the “awful wages of sin” (page 6):

If you have never received the Lord Jesus before this time, would you not like to do it now?  We learned about the awful wages of sin, and how the Lord Jesus Christ took the pay for your sins by dying for you.  Will you just say to Him, ‘Lord Jesus, thank You for dying to pay for my sin.  I receive You as my Saviour right now…

In a previous post, I described how in Lesson Two, CEF embraces God’s command to slaughter the Amalekites, and God’s disappointment in Saul’s failure to do so completely, as an object lesson on the critical importance of absolute uncompromising obedience (page 9):

Taking the kingdom from Saul’s family was a great punishment to the king.  But disobedience must be punished.  You can be sure that if you disobey God, you, too, will miss out on the best things He has for you….

Lesson Three describes Saul’s troubled heart and asks the boys and girls if their hearts, too, are “troubled with sin,” and just in case they weren’t, reminds them that the punishment for sin is death and eternal separation from God (page 14):

Perhaps as you think about your heart attitude toward God today, you know your sin still separates you from Him.  You have never received the Lord Jesus as your Saviour.  As God works at your heart, He sees that it is troubled with sin.  God’s Word (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 6:23) says your sin separates you from God and that the wages (or pay) for sin is death (separation from God forever).  The Lord Jesus took your punishment for sin that you might be forgiven.  If your heart attitude toward God is one of love for giving His Son for you, wouldn’t you like to receive Him as your Saviour today?

Lesson Four is about David and Goliath.  The lesson analogizes Goliath to Satan and weaves Satan into CEF’s relentlessly asserted theme of penal substitutionary atonement (page 16):

Perhaps as you think about your heart attitude toward God today, you know your sin still separates you from Him.  You have never received the Lord Jesus as your Saviour.  As God works at your heart, He sees that it is troubled with sin.  God’s Word (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 6:23) says your sin separates you from God and that the wages (or pay) for sin is death (separation from God forever).  The Lord Jesus took your punishment for sin that you might be forgiven.  If your heart attitude toward God is one of love for giving His Son for you, wouldn’t you like to receive Him as your Saviour today?

Lesson Five describes David and Jonathan’s close friendship.  CEF finds a way to poison even that narrative by intoning that there is “is nothing … in you that should cause the Lord Jesus to love [you]” because “all that is in [you] is sin and selfishness and pride and hatefulness,” and that each boy and girl deserved (but of course could be saved from) the “punishment of death” for their sin (pages 21-22):

Jonathan was troubled.  He loved David very much.  He was willing to risk his life to save David.  The greater love of the Lord Jesus made him willing to give up His life for us (John 10:15, 17, 18).  He did not want us to have to take the punishment of death for our sin.  He took our punishment for us, so that our sin might be forgiven, and that we might have everlasting life.

The love of the Lord Jesus for us was even more wonderful than this.  The Bible says Christ died for us while we were sinners (Romans 5:8).  There was nothing in me, nor in you, that should cause the Lord Jesus to want to love us.  All that is in us is sin and selfishness and pride and hatefulness.  Yet, He loved us so much that he died for us!….

 God’s perfect Son died, taking the punishment for our sins….

(Emphasis added).

Lesson Six also finds a way to weave the theme of the boy’s and girl’s total depravity into the story of how David spared Saul’s life (page 26):

Do you love and honor [the Lord Jesus] for what He did for you?  Because of the sin in our lives we are selfish, unkind, disobedient, always doing the things that are wrong instead of right.  But the Lord Jesus gave his precious blood on the cross.  Dying there, He was taking the punishment for our sins.  We owe all that we are to Him.

Lesson Seven describes the strange story of how David his from Saul and joined and fought with the Philistine army.  CEF somehow extracts three sick principles from this story.

The first moral, according to CEF, is that humanity is divided between the righteous and the ungodly (Vol. 2, page 3):

Who are the righteous?  Do you remember in one of our lessons we talked about the Lord Jesus taking our sin and giving us His robe of righteousness?  God sees you as righteous if you have had your sins forgiven.  You are called ‘righteous’ if you have believed that the Lord Jesus died for you and have received Him as your Saviour from sin.  The righteous love God and want to please Him. 

The end of our verse – ‘but the way of the ungodly shall perish’ – means this: ‘The lives of the ungodly – those who do not love God and do not want to please Him – shall end in ruin.’  God speaks of two different kinds of people in our verse, righteous and ungodly.  Which kind of person are you?…

The second moral, according to CEF, is that good Christian boys and girls shouldn’t be “friends with the enemies of God” (Vol. 2, page 4):

David’s plan to hide from Saul in the enemy’s land seemed to be working.  But remember this: it is never a good thing for God’s people to be best friends with the enemies of God. 

With what kind of boys and girls do you spend most of your time?  Do your playmates honor God or do they make fun of you for going to Sunday School or Good News Club®?  Do they dry to lead you into ways that you know are wrong?  If so, it might be better for you to find some different friends….

The third moral, according to CEF, is that if you don’t make the right creedal commitment you are choosing to be “on Satan’s side” and are one of “Satan’s captives” (Vol. 2, page 6):

[T]his world has been captured by an enemy.  Did you know that?  His name is Satan.  But there is one who is stronger than that enemy.  That one is God’s only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Because God loved you so much, He sent the Lord Jesus from Heaven to earth to rescue you.  The Son of God paid with His own blood to have Satan’s captives set free.  When the Lord Jesus died and rose from the dead three days later, the price was paid to set every person – even you – free from Satan.  But some people choose to be Satan’s captives.  They never trust the Lord Jesus and follow Him….  Some boys and girls choose to stay on Satan’s side, when the Lord Jesus has set them free.  What about you?

Lesson Nine is entitled “David’s Sin.”  It retells the terrifying story of how God burned with lethal fury against Uzzah for reflexively using his hand to steady the ark of the covenant when the oxen pulling its carrying cart stumbled.  (I remember this flannel graph lesson as a child.)  The teacher’s manual defends this awful killing as the rightful punishment for an inadvertent mistake (page 13):

David made great plans for moving the ark….  But David made a mistake.  Either he did not remember the command of God or he thought his way was better than God’s way.  A long time before … God had given directions for moving the ark.  It was first to be covered with the blue cloth.  Poles were to be placed in rings attached to the sides.  Then it was to be lifted to the shoulders of certain men who were to carry it like that.  David did not pay attention to the command of God. 

It is always wrong to ignore God’s commands.  (Teacher, hold up Bible as you speak).  We must know what the Bible says, for only then can we know what God has ordered.  Our own way may seem right.  But God’s way is the only right way.  As our Bible verse says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.”  (Isaiah 55:8)….

God’s holiness is something which we do not understand as we should.  When we think about things like this it does make us fear God.  But it also helps us to be more thankful for His love.  God, who is so holy, wants us, who are so sinful, to live in Heaven with Him – this is just too wonderful to understand!  It is because of the holiness of God that sin must be punished.  God gave His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross and take the punishment for each one of us.

(Emphasis in the original).  Yes, “David made a mistake,” and CEF assures the boys and girls that God, in his “holiness,” rightly killed Uzzah for it.  After all, “sin must be punished” with death, and that includes careless mistakes.   Later, the same lesson describes David’s sin with Bathsheba, and explains why God took a baby’s life to punish David’s sin (page 14):

But sin always brings punishment.  Immediate punishment for David was that the baby boy born to Bathsheba would die.  In seven days the baby was dead.  Even though Christ died for our sins, you and I can expect to suffer in this life when we choose to sin against God.

The word that seems to stand out in our lesson today is SIN.  The way that seems right to us is so often the way of sin.  Sometimes you and I sin because we do not remember God’s words, like David in the first part of our story.  Sometimes we sin because we plan to sin – to lie and cheat and deceive – as David did in the last part of our story.  Our way, which is not God’s way, ends in punishment.  How dreadful to take our way!

Lesson Ten is about one of the most touching stories in the Old Testament – David’s honoring of Mephibosheth, who was lame in both feet.  It is one of the few passages in the Old Testament that affirms the equal dignity of the disabled, and is in striking contrast to the Levitical injunction against any “man who has any defect” or “who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed,” or having “a crippled foot or hand” or “who is hunchbacked and dwarfed,” etc., from “com[ing] near to present the offerings to the Lord by fire,” because their presence would “desecrate [God’s] sanctuary.”  (Leviticus 21:17-24).

Yet CEF finds a way to distort that heartwarming story too, instructing the teacher to tell the boys and girls that they were born unkind and cannot become “kind” unless they get saved (page 22):

How do you get His kindness into your heart?  You must admit to God that you cannot be kind yourself.  The sin in your heart makes you want to be unkind.  That sin is just there.  You were born that way.  God’s Son, the Lord Jesus, died because sin had to be punished by death.  Because he took your punishment, your sin can be forgiven….

Lesson Eleven, entitled “David Flees and Returns,” instructs the teacher to instill the following self-doubting fear into the hearts of trusting little boys and girls after discussing a lie Absalom told David (page 24):

It is a sin to lie.  Do you ever pretend to be something that you know, in your heart, you are not?  Perhaps you are pretending to be a Christian, because most of your friends are Christians. Well, you know the truth, and God knows.  You had better stop pretending….  When the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross, giving His life’s blood, it was so every sin of your life might be forgiven.  He was punished for all of your sins. 

Have you believed this?  Have you received the Lord Jesus as your Saviour from sin?  Remember, you cannot fool God.  He already knows everything about you, but He wants you to tell Him about it.

Lesson Twelve, entitled “God’s Forever Promise,” discusses God’s promise to David to “set up your throne and your kingdom forever.”  In this final lesson on the life of David, CEF predictably stresses the themes of obedience, sin, and punishment (page 29):

God said if David’s family would obey him their kingdom would continue.  He also said if they disobeyed Him, He would punish them.  The very night that God told about the “forever kingdom” He said this.  “When your son does what is wrong I will correct him with a rod.”  That means punishment.  Kings from David’s family who followed him did do wrong – they sinned.  One way God punished those kings was to let enemy nations invade the land of Israel. …

The main principles CEF draws out of the Life of David series (and all the other Old Testament series too) are the authoritarian virtues of obedience, distrust of self, and distrust of outsiders.  There is no moral value to be gained from exposing your children to this.

  1. Please send me the CEF flannelgraph that you hate. I willl cheerfully purchase it from you.

  2. […] posts on this blog–see here and here and here–have discussed the dark gospel of Child Evangelism Fellowship’s […]

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