What is a catechism? What does it mean to catechize? Does the mere mention of these words mean that one is Roman Catholic? Does catechizing one’s children save them? Is this an unbiblical practice? The word catechism isn’t in the Bible! Are we brainwashing our children? Inquiring minds want to know!
Misconceptions and misunderstandings about this time-honored tradition abound. I have been asked many of the questions posed above or heard similar doubts about the practice in various contexts and conversations. I would like to address some of these misconceptions.
First, let us define some terms. I pulled these from Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.
- catechize (verb)
- to ask questions concerning the doctrines of the christian religion; to interrogate pupils and give instruction in the principles of religion.
- catechism (noun)
- a form of instruction by means of questions and answers, particularly in the principles of religion.
What is a catechism?
The definition above says it all – a catechism is simply a series of questions and answers meant to teach a particular topic. In our Christian family context I would define it as follows: Catechism is a method of teaching simple truths about who God is, who we are, and how we are to live as Christians based on Holy Scripture. The best explanation would be an example. We use the First Catechism by Great Commission Publications with our “littles”. The first questions are as follows:
- Question: Who made you?
- Q: What else did God make?
A: God made all things.
- Q: Why did God make you and all things?
A: For his own glory.
So, how does this work out in everyday life? In the mornings, my wife gets the little children up to the table for breakfast. After breakfast they all get a vitamin and then they brush their teeth. After that she goes through catechism with them. She will just say, “OK, are you ready for catechism?” And the children all squeal with delight (sometimes). Then she just asks the first question, “Who made you?”. Then they answer, “God!” And on it goes.
The other way we use this is during family worship. This takes place in the evening before the “littles” go to bed. We’ll all sing a few worship songs. If the attention spans are holding I may read a Psalm or other passage of Scripture. Then we go through the catechism. Finally, we pray together as a family.
Is This Unbiblical?
I suppose if teaching your children about God is unbiblical, then yes. Otherwise, no!
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESV)
God is telling his people through Moses that they need to be people of the Word. The first part of the passage is a summary of the entire law given by God. Jesus affirms this in the New Testament (Matthew 22:40). He then explicitly says that, “You shall teach them diligently to your children.” What is the “them” here? It’s not only these words that were just spoken, but the entire law… indeed, the entirety of Scripture. And when should this happen? Basically at all times. Continually. Most Christian parents certainly will have heard the Proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6, ESV) .”
Thus, teaching your children the Word of God is biblical.
Is This Roman Catholic?
No. And no, we are not Roman Catholics. However, the Roman Catholic church does use catechism as a means of teaching. They also believe in the Trinity, but that doesn’t make that particular belief Roman Catholic. There are many faith traditions that use catechism as a means of passing on the “faith once delivered”.
In fact, the Protestants who penned the Westminster Confession of Faith also produced the Westminster Shorter Catechism. You certainly wouldn’t charge the men of the Protestant Reformation of being Roman Catholic!
Does Catechizing Children Save Them?
No. We firmly believe that there is one way of salvation for ALL people, without exception. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8), and as the Psalmist writes, “Salvation belongs to the LORD (Psalm 3:8)!”
I hope by now you are convinced that using a catechism is not an unbiblical practice, or at a minimum have convinced you to investigate further before casting judgment. But why use this method?
You certainly are not required to use this method of teaching. I think that it is a wise method, though. Children, especially young children, are extremely good at memorizing things. That’s why they can recite their ABC’s without understanding what an alphabet is. That’s why (in the South) they say, “Yes ma’am” and “No sir”. It’s not because they fully understand the value of respecting your elders (though, this is the lesson we are teaching). In fact, this is how they learn to talk! Can a six month old infant understand the relationship between a mother and her child? Well, no. But you can teach a six month old infant to say “mamma” and to whom that refers. Little babies hear you saying words and they mimic them. You correct them. They keep trying until they get it right, and all the while they are just memorizing how to make this sound. They also are learning that this particular sound refers to this or that object, or activity, or person. But they can’t explain the difference between a noun and a verb.
Little children are lousy rhetoricians. They cannot explain the why or the how of things. They don’t make compelling arguments. They don’t win debates. This is not their fault. It’s biology. Their little brains have not developed these skills yet. They must grow and be taught, the teaching being our jobs.
Take for example, a reading of the book of Genesis and the first question in the catechism example above. We know from Genesis 1 that God made the heavens and the earth. In fact He made everything, including the first man and woman. You and I, being serious Bible students and having fully developed brains, can deduce that God, in fact, made you and I. God is the author of life. This will not be immediately evident to a small child. However, a small child can be taught that the answer to the question, “Who made you?” is “God.”
Does this mean we should not read the Bible with our children? Absolutely not! We should read the Bible with our children and teach them the stories of the faith. We should teach them about David and Goliath, about Daniel and the lion’s den, about Noah and the ark, about Jesus and Zacchaeus. They should grow to love those stories and know them well. But they won’t be getting any systematic theology from those stories anytime soon. That’s where the catechism comes in. Catechism is a method of teaching simple truths about who God is, who we are, and how we are to live as Christians based on Holy Scripture.
Go Forth and Catechize!
I hoped I have at least piqued your interest in the topic of catechisms. And I hope I have allayed any fears that this is some weird cultish practice. It is a wonderful way of teaching and I would commend it to your own family practice. If you have any questions or testimonies, please leave a comment below.