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Donald Eugene Miller

By Donald F. Durnbaugh


Donald E. Miller (b. 1929). A member of the Church of the Brethren, Miller is known for the integration of his theological, sociological, ethical, and historical expertise, bringing all of them to focus in his theoretical and practical writings on Christian education. A catch phrase to sum up his orientation is the “faith community as teacher,” paired with an emphasis upon conscience and its incumbent ethical function.


Education and Teaching

Donald Eugene Miller’s life has traced a parabola from a family background in the conservative, plain-dressing Old German Baptist Brethren, a sectarian body in southwestern Ohio, to a position of worldwide ecumenical leadership. Reared in a tradition that frowned on education after high school, and led by untrained farmer-preachers, Miller pursued higher education, first at Manchester College (1947-1949), which he left to enter a master’s program at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1952. After study at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH (1955-1956), he graduated from Bethany Biblical Seminary 1958. His further graduate study found him at Harvard University, where he received his PhD with honors in 1962. Post-graduate study was accomplished at Yale University (1968-1969), Cambridge University (1975-1976), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (1982).

Donald E. Miller was born in Dayton, OH, on December 2, 1929; his parents were Daniel and Eliza Coning Miller, who farmed near Trotwood, about ten miles west of Dayton. Both came from Old German Baptist Brethren families, known to themselves and to more liberal Brethren bodies as the “Old Orders;” this identified those determined to maintain the simple patterns, strict moral paths, and unadorned lives which had characterized until the late nineteenth century all members of the Brethren movement since its inception in Germany in 1708 and transplantation to North America before 1740. Non-conformity to the world, non-resistance (pacifism) in the realm of militarism and other coercion, and, above all, humility were benchmarks for the Christian life in this tradition. The nickname “Dunkers” referred to the practice of three-fold immersion of adult converts. When Daniel and Eliza married, they agreed that they would join the Old German Baptist Brethren; although they attended regularly and observed church teachings, they never actually joined and thus stayed somewhat on the periphery.

The family finally broke with the Old Orders because of the church ban on radios, which device they found acceptable and useful. They, and some like-minded friends and relatives, transferred their allegiance to the Church of the Brethren, part of the same Brethren movement but one that had moved toward acceptance of many of the usages of the broader society. In terms of church practice, this meant that the denomination had Sunday schools, revival services, educated and supported pastors, and choirs with musical instruments for the worship services. Though still stressing simplicity in life patterns, this denomination permitted members to own comfortable homes and engage in public social activities. After considerable delay, by this time this Brethren body fervently sponsored missionaries in Asia and Africa and higher education, with six colleges and a seminary. All of these developments were anathema to the Old Orders.

Donald and his sister Joann (one year younger) enjoyed the Sunday schools, youth programs, and church camps sponsored by the Church of the Brethren. They were both talented and gladly took training with musical instruments. His sister studied the oboe and he studied the clarinet, in time achieving professional facility, a skill that he maintained and developed throughout his life. Their parents encouraged these involvements even before their actual shift in church membership took place. A close friend at this time and later was Dale Aukerman, whose parents were also involved in the denominational transfer. The lives of all three young people were thereafter connected during adulthood with the Church of the Brethren.

Despite this fateful change in church orientation, and notwithstanding experience that veered markedly from his restricted early upbringing, there was much in his Old Order childhood which marked the entire course of Donald E. Miller’s life and achievement. He has never lost a strong attachment to community, a leaning toward simplicity in life style, and, especially, a personality that is essentially reserved, persistently displaying a genuine sense of humility. Old Orders frown especially on those who push themselves forward and “put on airs.” They favor dependability, hard work, and discipline. All of these virtues are marked in Miller’s life over the decades. A journalist reported that Miller stuck with a manual typewriter (“that looked as if it was from about 1925”), even when all of his seminary colleagues had adopted word processing computers, because the old typewriter still functioned adequately for his use. The reporter used this oddity as a metaphor for Miller’s blend of traditionalism and progressiveness. In Miller’s words, “I grew up Old Order, and I have a very liberal education, but I haven’t repudiated either of them” (Fitzkee, 1987).

Matched with these qualities, it must be said, are impressive strengths. A brilliant intellect, the ability to absorb complicated data, skill in oral and written articulation, a knack for clarifying complex ideas without over-simplifying them, administrative competence, and, especially, an inborn gift for teaching – all mark an unusual person who has achieved greatly. When matched with a keen and bubbling sense of humor and a readiness to regale others with self-deprecating tales, his is an attractive and winning personality and character.

Young Donald did well in public school and was encouraged by his teachers, many of whom were members of the Church of the Brethren. During high-school years, he competed in state-wide examinations and scored high in algebra, chemistry, and French. As a senior he placed third in the entire state of Ohio in advanced algebra, notoriously demanding a high level of analytical expertise. Not surprisingly, he graduated as valedictorian in a class of sixty students, while also editing the class yearbook, the first ever published in that high school.

With this background, it was natural for Miller to enroll at Manchester College, a Church of the Brethren-owned institution in north-central Indiana. He was greatly influenced there by Gladdys E. Muir, a professor who had recently arrived to create the first peace studies program ever initiated in American higher education, later much imitated. Another influential teacher was Everett Wilson in sociology, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago. Even more influential, however, in his career in higher education was his childhood friend, Dale Aukerman. Taking advantage of the curricular flexibility under Robert Maynard Hutchin’s regimen at Chicago, Aukerman went there straight out of high school and tested out of all of the courses (save one) required for the bachelor’s degree; he was promptly featured in Life magazine for this exploit. He convinced Donald Miller to join him after completing two years at Manchester. Miller was then accepted at the University of Chicago into the master’s program in Human Development.

Major professors for Miller at Chicago were Robert Havighurst, Bruno Bettelheim, Carl Rogers, and W. Lloyd Warner. In his course work he learned to appreciate the concepts of Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud, and Emile Durkheim. His master’s thesis (1952) had the title, “Group Size and Test Performance.” During these years he served as president of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and was program chairman of the Human Development student organization.

Following graduation he spent two years (1952-1954) with Brethren Volunteer Service doing social work in Kassel, Germany, and Linz, Austria. His task at Linz with the Brethren Service Commission agency there was to direct the distribution of material aid (food, medications, and clothing) among the thousands of refugees in the province of Upper Austria, largely ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) who had been expelled from Eastern Europe. Quite unusual was a project he developed in his spare time, namely a sociological study of the many refugee camps in the area, found worthy of publication by the city authorities in their Statistical Yearbook. This study of the crowded camps was carried on at some risk to Miller’s health.

Back in the USA following his years of voluntary service, Miller taught eighth-grade social studies near his home for one year (1954-1955) and then was employed as a social worker in Dayton, Ohio. His local congregation called him to the ministry at this point, so he enrolled in the United Theological Seminary (1955-1956), until transferring to the graduate theological school of the Church of the Brethren, Bethany Biblical Seminary in Chicago, graduating in 1958 with a BD (later changed to MDiv.) degree. He was ordained at his home congregation, Bear Creek, Ohio, on June 9, 1957.

Before moving to Chicago, Donald E. Miller married Phyllis Louise Gibbel, the daughter of Jonathan Paul Gibbel, a physician, and Verda Hershberger Gibbel. The Millers had three children, Bryan Daniel (born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1959), Lisa Kathleen (born in Boston, 1960), and Bruce David (born in Chicago, 1963). All have married, presenting the Millers with four grand-children.

Bethany professors observed Miller’s unusual ability and encouraged him to go on for further graduate study, to prepare for returning to Bethany as a member of the faculty. This prompted his move to Cambridge, MA, to study at Harvard University, where he secured his doctoral degree with honors in 1962. His advisor was the ethicist James Luther Adams, who employed Miller as his teaching assistant for two years. Major professors at Harvard were Talcott Parsons, Robert Bellah, Gordon Allport, Paul Tillich, John Wild, Hans Hoffmann, and Paul Lehmann. The focus of much of his study was on Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Freud, Troeltsch, Barth, and Tillich. He took his degree in the area of History and Philosophy of Religion with a dissertation, “Conscience and History.” This was a comparison of the concept of conscience in Sigmund Freud and Ernst Troeltsch. The dissertation was completed in 1961 and the degree was granted in 1962. Word of his excellent progress at Harvard reached Bethany, motivating its president to make a special trip to Cambridge to make sure that Miller would indeed return to Bethany instead of accepted another promising offer that might well come his way.

Donald E. Miller began teaching at Bethany Biblical Seminary in the fall of 1961, while it was still located on the west side of Chicago. In 1963 the seminary moved to the western suburb of Oak Brook, Illinois, in DuPage County, and its name was soon changed to Bethany Theological Seminary. His title was Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Ethics. He was soon advanced to associate professor, and in 1970 to full professor. In 1973 he was named Director of Graduate Studies and in 1982 the Alvin Franz Brightbill Professor of Ministry Studies. The move to Director of Graduate Studies involved the introduction into the seminary’s curriculum of a new Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) program, largely designed and administered by Miller. It featured on-campus intensive seminars, coupled with learning units worked out on contractual bases at the graduate student’s locus of ministry. The program entailed heavy participation by the local congregation (or agency). Some of the program’s standards were adopted by the Association of Theological Schools for its accredited D.Min. degree.

During these years Donald E. Miller was very active in denominational affairs, serving on study committees to work out the Brethren position on urban ministry, personal ethics, anointing, and abortion, among others. He was the major architect of a new, non-seminary program of theological training (Education for Shared Ministry, EFSM) to provide trained leaders for small congregations. He participated in conferences on evangelism and church growth, preached widely, conducted workshops, and also wrote many articles for the denominational journal, Messenger. During the 1960s he was on the staff of the Faith and Group Life Labs, part of the small group movement based in Bethel, ME, under the inspiration of Kurt Levin. In 1969 he took leadership in Christian Education for the church, holding weekend seminars in most of the denomination’s twenty-six districts across the nation, training church school teachers in a variety of teaching/learning approaches and identifying the teaching skills of participants in small group settings.

In September, 1967, he was one of a three-person Church of the Brethren delegation which visited the Russian Orthodox Church, part of a pioneer series of exchanges between American and Soviet church leaders which opened the way to many later exchanges of American Protestants and the Orthodox. During most of these years, he was the moderator of the First Church of the Brethren and of the Douglas Park Church of the Brethren, both on the west side of Chicago From 1976 to 1979 he was chair of the board of the York Center Church of the Brethren near Oak Brook.

Besides denominational activities, Miller was engaged ecumenically. Soon after coming to the Chicago area (in 1963), he was chosen to be host of a twelve-week television series on “Christianity and the Arts,” sponsored by the Chicago Council of Churches. He was a member of the NCC Energy Committee (1976-1977) and its Faith and Order Commission (1976-1981). For a number of years he taught at the Laboratory School for church-school teachers sponsored by the Chicago Council of Churches and held at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. From 1963 to 1968 he taught classes in Christian education at St. Xavier College, a Roman Catholic school in Chicago. In early 1983 he was a guest teacher at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. During the academic years from 1983 to 1986 he was the theological consultant for the Pastoral Psychotherapy Institute at the Lutheran General Hospital, North Park, Illinois. He also lectured widely across the nation, from Claremont, California, to Princeton, New Jersey.

Miller was very active in professional circles. He became a member of the Religious Education Commission, NCC Professors and Researchers (which developed under his leadership into the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education (APRRE), serving as president in 1968); the American Society of Christian Ethics; and the American Council of Learned Societies (1976-1986). The last-named participation grew out of his activity on the APRRE executive committee. He also participated in the Association of Seminary Professors in the Practical Fields (ASPPF), an earlier version of the Association for Professional Education for Ministry (APEM), and later Association of Practical Theology (APT), which he served as yearbook editor (1972) and president (1976). His connection with the Religious Education Association was largely made through contributing articles to its journal.

After serving on the Bethany faculty for twenty-five years, in 1986 he was called by the Church of the Brethren to be its general secretary, the highest executive position, at its central offices in Elgin, IL, a suburb of Chicago. He took office when the church was in serious financial straits, experiencing tension arising from diversity in theological trends within the denomination, coping with controversy over the church’s position on human sexuality issues, and struggling with polity questions. He is credited with guiding the church through this maze with poise and sensitivity, achieving a considerable reconciliation of rival groups; this achievement was not complete, given the difficulties involved that were disrupting most American Protestants at the time. He gave leadership to resolving identity issues among the Church of the Brethren, resulting in a much-used “identity line” created after study by outside consultants – “Another way of living. Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully, Simply. Together.”

In his dual capacity as general secretary of the Church of the Brethren and as its ecumenical officer, Miller became active in the leadership of both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. He served on the Governing Board of the former and the Central Committee of the latter. In 1994 he introduced and won adoption in the Central Committee, despite considerable bureaucratic resistance, of a resolution mandating the WCC to establish the Programme to Overcome Violence. In 1998, at the WCC World Assembly at Harare, Zimbabwe, the program was enlarged and extended, with his vital involvement, to become the Decade to Overcome Violence. This is a very significant contemporary ecumenical initiative, at this point about half-way through its world-wide activity.

Following his retirement as general secretary in 1996, Miller and his wife Phyllis moved to Richmond, IN, the location after 1994 of Bethany Theological Seminary. As Professor Emeritus of Christian Education and Ethics, he teaches occasional courses in both fields. From 1997 to 2003 he was the president of the Brethren Journal Association, publisher (under seminary auspices) of Brethren Life and Thought, a journal of scholarship and opinion. He was selected as a member of the Board of Directors of Manchester College. An important current assignment involves international study conferences of the Historic Peace Churches, the first held near Basel in 2001 where he served on the Findings Committee. He has been given the responsibility to plan and arrange for the international movement’s next consultation, to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, in August, 2004.

Donald E. Miller summed up his work thus far in these words: “My passion was to bring together theological, ethical, and educational perspectives on the church and its ministry.”

Biographical Sources

  • Miller, Donald E. (ca. 2000.). Curriculum Vitae
  • Miller, Donald E. (2001-2002). Autobiographical Notes 1-4
  • Fitzke, Don[ald R.] (1987). Our new general secretary: An undaunted Dunker. Messenger (1), 12-15
  • McFadden, Wendy Chamberlain (1986). Donald E. Miller Named Brethren General Secretary [News Release]
  • Snyder, Graydon (1982). Citation read for Donald E. Miller on the occasion of his installation as the Brightbill Professor of Ministry Studies

Biographical References

  • (forthcoming). Entry in The Brethren encyclopedia: Volume Four. Philadelphia, PA: Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc.
  • (2001). J. Kenneth Kreider, A cup of cold water: The story of Brethren service. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 194, 332
  • (1997). Entry in Who’s who in America, 51st edition. Wilmette, IL: Marquis Who’s Who, 2: 2942
  • (1997). Donald F. Durnbaugh, Fruit of the vine: A history of the Brethren, 1708-1995. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 450, 523, 574, 593
  • (1984). Entry in The Brethren encyclopedia: Volume Three. Philadelphia, PA, and Oak Brook, IL: Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc., 3: 1710
  • (1982). Entry in contemporary authors: Volume 106. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company, 356.
  • (1977). Entry in Who’s who in religion, 2nd edition. Chicago, IL: Marquis Who’s Who, 451

Other references

  • Durnbaugh, Donald F. (2003). Personal information as a friend and colleague of some fifty years standing
  • Gibble, June Adams (2002). Answers to interview questions by Eleanor M. Loewen
  • Snyder, Graydon F. (2001). Answers to interview questions by Eleanor M. Loewen
  • Little, Sara (1986). Letter to Donald E. Miller upon his selection as general secretary of the Church of the Brethren
  • Bienenberg [Basel, Switzerland] Peace Consultation [of the Historic Peace Churches] (2001). Mennonite Central Committee Peace Office Newsletter, 31 (4), 1-12.

Contributions to Christian Education

In 1999, the editor of Brethren Life and Thought, the journal of scholarship and opinion published for and by members of the Church of the Brethren, encouraged a number of leaders in the denomination to identify ten books that had been “the most significant in their own faith development or in the life of the church,” with the general understanding that the Bible, as an obvious choice, need not be mentioned. Brief justifications for the choices were to be included. Donald E. Miller was one of the leaders who accepted the assignment.

His thoughtful choice of ten significant books provides useful insight, both into his faith and intellectual development and into the areas of predominant concentration in his work in Christian education. As will be seen, these books represent theology, sociology, ethics, and heritage, in particular his Anabaptist and Brethren groundings. His choices, without the brief interpretations/justifications he appended, follow. In some cases they represent contemporary editions or translations of earlier, classical works: 1) Ernst Troeltsch, Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (1956); 2) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958); 3) Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (1951-1963); 4) Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (1973); 5) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1955); 6) Sören Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity (1957); 7) Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1965); 8) James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (1981); 9) D. F. Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren, 1708-1995 (1997); and 10) John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (1971).

Throughout his career, Miller sought in varied ways to meld the significant shaping influence of the caring and disciplined community that he experienced as a child in an Old Order context with the transformative power of systematic theology as seen in such thinkers as Troeltsch, Barth and Tillich. In his words, “I think of my career as oriented toward expanding an Anabaptist vision for a global church. I have always hoped that the loving community I experienced as a child at the Bear Creek Old German Baptist [Brethren] church could be an experience for many more people” (communication, Oct. 30, 2003). Beyond that, he sought to bring together solid theological understandings with the best in the findings of social science. In retrospect, Miller judged that he “constantly sought to have a theological basis for Christian education that is at the same time in touch with empirical studies” (Miller, “How My Mind Has Changed,” 1984, 37). The mix of reading he found to be essential testifies to this concern for integration. Integration and coherence are the leitmotifs of his entire career, which he has succeeded in keeping in focus in a variety of vocational settings.

Insights into ways in which persons function religiously in society in the different stages of their lives were clarified in his deep study of Weber, Durkheim and Fowler. Readings in Niebuhr and Kierkegaard were sharpened and modified by Yoder’s seminal study of the role of the church as church in effecting social change, in contrast to the neo-orthodox dicta of Niebuhr. Concepts provided by all of these thinkers were always tested by his life experience in Brethren church communities and his searching study of Brethren heritage. The most formal analysis that Miller gave to the concepts of many of the above-named thinkers, along with other classical thinkers, is found in the book he co-wrote with Warren F. Groff, The Shaping of Modern Christian Thought (1968), his first major publication.

With this background of reading and reflection, of training and experience, his basic formulation of “the faith community as teacher” proceeded quite naturally. While certainly not rejecting totally the reality and necessity of teachers (after all he spent most of his own career as one), Miller means the phrase to be taken quite literally. The answer to the question, “Just who is the teacher” is, for him, “the whole community.” Reflecting that his own early Christian learning took place without participation in church schools, he nevertheless can affirm that despite this lack he in fact learned because “the [Old Order] congregation of which we were part was a teaching community.” Further, “The ethos and mentality of the congregation will be learned by everyone with any degree of devotion to the congregation.” This understanding flows directly from his view of the church as a covenanted community: “When one realizes that the gifts of the Spirit are the beginning of life and no one of us can be free without receiving the gifts of others and communicating those of our own, then teaching takes proper place.” Again, “No one of us is teacher. The faith community itself is teacher and it will continue to teach irrespective of any of us. The spirit of the community, when opened to one another by Jesus Christ, is the teacher” (Miller, “Faith Community as Teacher,” 1971, 23-24). He phrased the same idea in somewhat different words in his reflection that the “church teaches by the strength of the covenantal bonds within the congregation as well as the sense of mission beyond the congregation” (Miller, “How My Mind Has Changed,” 1984, 39).

This approach directly opposes an ecclesial construct that features highly-skilled and highly-trained arbiters dictating systematically-constructed doctrines from on high to passive audiences. The vision, instead, is that of senior and junior scholars together striving for faithfulness to the witness and teachings of Jesus Christ in mutually encouraging, admonishing, and instructive ways. Indeed, the emotional and intellectual stages of growth in children, youth, adults, and aged persons must be carefully addressed so that learning can occur in the most fruitful and least stressful ways. Again in Miller’s own phrasing, “Faithful living and serving in a community of faith are a context for believing and thinking, teaching and learning” (communication, Oct. 30, 2003).

Logically following from this basis comes a second conviction, that story (narrative) provides the nexus at which communal experience meets with and enlightens personal experience. The parables of Jesus provide a clear model for ways by which one both understands and is enabled to pass on the biblical message. Moreover, as one reflects upon the biblical stories, this provides a context in which individual life events can be related to each other and put into perspective. Also, quite practically, retelling the biblical narratives in fresh ways is the most effective way for children to learn about Jesus and his early followers. The use of variety will be helpful in leading children to experience the biblical story.

Donald E. Miller developed his appreciation for the role of story in perhaps his most creative way - certainly his most popular oral and written presentations - by examining and portraying the theological under-girdings of common folktales. This he presented in his book, The Gospel and Mother Goose (1987), which links the native and naïve childhood enjoyment of stories with mature biblical understandings. In his book Miller employs a wide-ranging oeuvre of stories from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, through Frank Baum, to contemporaries such as Madeleine L’Engle and C. S. Lewis. Throughout, he demonstrates how the intrinsic delight of the stories can be related to truths discovered in biblical accounts. In his words, “The special power of folktales is that they touch something very deep in the human psyche. They are able to symbolize fundamental human dilemmas in a charming way.” And again, “We cannot judge the heart of the poet, but we can look at ways in which the poetic images are parallel to the gospel images” (Miller, Mother Goose, 1987, 26, 55).

A way to penetrate Miller’s meaning and method with folk stories is to read his insightful sermon (“Blind Seers and Deaf Seekers”) published in Pulpit Digest (1989). One of the stories included is that of the Gingerbread Man, which he calls “A Story of Rebellion.” The formation of the gingerbread cookie by the old woman is likened to the creation by God of humans from the dust of the earth. Just as the Gingerbread Man defied his maker and ran away, boasting that he could never be caught, so we as humans have “turned from the One who can help,” and do so ”with the illusion that we can outdistance death.” In pointing to humankind’s innate tendency to rebel, the story can remind us of the “Church’s teachings from Augustine, through Luther and Calvin.” Miller concludes that “each of us has stories from childhood that script our life. We are to hear these stories and set them beside the gospel story. We are to allow the gospel story to become a transforming power in our lives” (Miller, “Blind Seers,” 1989, 24-25).

His most sustained attention to the power of narrative is found in his major introduction to Christian education found in many libraries; this is Story and Context (1987), often used as a text in classes on Christian education. Its popularity is also seen in its almost immediate translation into Korean (1988). Its construction models one of its chief emphases, namely praxis, which he defines as “the dialectical relationship between theory and practice such that theory springs from practice and constantly refers to it” (Miller, Story and Context, 1987, 273-274); each chapter of the book contains questions and suggested exercises for group settings. The locus of education is found in the faith community, where individual stories can be shared for the edification of the larger group. This is explained in the section on “Living the Story,” to show how the interaction of the biblical and personal stories can positively affect the life of the congregation. He also understands this book as the most complete explication of his fundamental understanding of faith community as teacher.

A third conviction comes, for Miller, in the role of conscience in human development. He developed his view of the essential role of conscience in the book some associates consider to be his magnum opus, the study of conscience and transcendence poetically entitled, The Wing-Footed Wanderer (1977). Decrying the often-found contemporary depiction of conscience as either arbitrary or as an unhealthy trigger for repression, he posits the centrality of conscience in the development of mature moral life. He looks in turn at the views of conscience found in Freud, Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, finding that all contribute to a positive view of conscience but are yet somehow too formal or restrictive. He instead builds on the foundation of conscience as a vehicle of coherence, which can integrate the individual personality with the immediate and also larger communal sense (and need) of mutuality.

For Miller, education for peace in the larger sense is the foundation of Christian education. In reflecting on his own thinking, he reported that initially “my interest and teaching were set in the direction of the personal development of individual moral development within the process of historical change.” Later, as in this book, he delineates the broader sense in which “Morality is … formed as persons are encouraged and strengthened in their self-awareness, intentionality, coherence, and mutuality with others” (Miller, “How My Mind Has Changed,” 1984, 37).

A fourth foundational perception, summing up themes already adumbrated, is presented in his essay, “The Developmental Approach to Christian Education,” published in his widely-used book, Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education (1982), co-edited with Jack Seymour. This found not only Korean but also Japanese translation and publication (1987, 1989). In it the editors laid out five different styles of education – instruction, community, development, liberation, and interpretation. In his essay on the developmental approach, Miller discusses the ways in which the views of Piaget, Goldman, Erikson, and Fowler all serve helpfully to analyze and categorize the several (and vitally necessary) stages in human cognitive, emotional, moral, and faith development. He then proceeds to shift from the viewpoint of the theorist to the reality of the learner. According to Miller, learning involves four processes that engage the whole person. They are: 1) awareness; 2) intentionality, 3) coherence, and 4) mutuality, which interact (”criss-cross”) with four modes of learning. The latter four are: 1) the active, 2) the emotional, 3) the intuitive, and 4) the rational.

According to Miller, the “goal of Christian education, from a developmental point of view, is the maturity of persons.” He further explicates what this means in theological language in this sentence: “The developmental approach to Christian education purposes that every person receive and respond to the grace of God in Jesus Christ; that all persons be joined together in an inclusive community, with the Spirit of mutual respect and love – in the words of Ephesians 4:13, that we might be ‘measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.’” For Miller, then, such a mature Christian is “ever more aware of God’s love, ever more intentional about God’s will, ever more respectful of God’s providence, and ever more responsive to God’s community” (Miller, Contemporary Approaches, 1982, 93).

It follows naturally, when considering the role and practice of the teacher, and setting and context of teaching/learning, from what has been previously stated about the developmental approach, that both teachers and teaching contexts should be flexible and challenging, but also always supportive. He concludes by pointing out the limits of development, cautioning that moral betterment is neither automatic nor inevitable. The upshot of his discussion is the conclusion that Christian educators in the twentieth century were correct in adopting a developmental approach to education. This way of doing Christian education, he finds, has still more potential to be released. Thus, “The idea of religious development remains a powerful and faithful way to build a religious education program. When one sees its similarity to ancient thought, one is persuaded that it will continue to be powerful for centuries to come” (Miller, Contemporary Approaches, 1982, 102).

Miller and Seymour followed up their very successful anthology on contemporary approaches to Christian education, just discussed, with an equally successful collection of essays, published as Theological Approaches to Christian Education (1990), which also received prompt translation and publication in Korea (1994). The two co-editors introduced the volume with a chapter entitled “Openings to God: Education and Theology in Dialogue.” This was followed by essays from other authors which focused on pluralism in the contemporary church, seen in varied theological, cultural, ethnic, gendered, and ecumenical forms, and the subsequent impact of these understandings upon Christian education. The co-editors concluded the volume with their reflections on “Living Into a World of Confessional Pluralism: The Partnership of Education and Theology,” with an emphasis on “into.”

As a fifth consideration, Miller took his analysis of theological reflection one step further by focusing on method, in this case seeing Christian education as part of a larger discipline, that of practical theology. He teamed with a seminary colleague, James N. Poling, to author the book Foundations for a Practical Theology (1985). His own description of this effort was summed up this way: “We suggested that practical theology sometimes is concerned primarily about the mission of the church and sometimes is concerned primarily about the formation and reformation of the wider society. In doing so, the method of practical theology can be scientific, confessional, or some correlation between the two. We proposed a method that begins with lived experience, and moves through the interpretation of scripture and Christian tradition to arrive at meanings and directions for today” (Miller, “How My Mind Has Changed (Revisited),” 2001, 1).

A sixth foundational attitude is seen in Miller’s willingness to experiment, to try new pedagogical methods. Together with colleagues at Bethany Theological Seminary, he developed an approach to theological education involving simulations. This consists of placing participants in a contemporary situation based on a critical historical event. Participants must steep themselves so thoroughly in the original decisive event that when a semi-dramatic reliving of it takes place in a spontaneous (but prepared) role-playing manner, they are able to relate well to one of the contending roles. Participants then discuss why they felt, acted, and decided as they did in the simulation. Miller worked out the basics of several simulations based on biblical settings that demanded decision, published as Using Biblical Simulations (1973).

He also developed a self-guided book of instruction designed to assist learners to learn about the Brethren heritage. Lesson units, which included well-chosen documentary selections, were followed by leading questions and quizzes, allowing readers to measure their degree of understanding and competence. Miller designed it so that a range of users could employ the tool, from twelve-year olds to adults – A Self-Instruction Guide Through Brethren History (1976).

Earlier (1972), he had been awarded a fellowship for a Summer Workshop of the Case Study Institute of the Association of Theological Schools, studying with Keith Bridston. The case study approach was seen as a way to deepen theological education by applying the method made popular at Harvard University. The case study Miller developed during the summer workshop was found worthy of publication in the volume, Case Study on Church and Society (1974).

In some ways, the clearest practical example of Donald E. Miller’s fundamental conviction about the hermeneutical community informing educational strategy was found in curricular reform at Bethany Theology Seminary, Oak Brook, Illinois, where he taught for a quarter of a century. He was the primary shaper of a curricular scheme that placed great emphasis on “Colloquium” groups; these brought together a small number of students and teachers giving major investments of time throughout the academic year. One task of these groups was to examine critically the “field experiences” of students in congregations, hospitals, or church agencies, with the particular assignment of assessing the degree to which course work and theological understanding were consciously integrated and employed in the ministry setting.

The group had freedom to pursue intensive foci of study, with the overall intent of facilitating the spiritual and intellectual growth of participants by means of intensive group interaction. Similarly, the graduate program, which granted the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree, was largely shaped by Miller, as Director of Graduate Study. Most of the work of those pursuing the degree was done in the ministry setting, where D.Min. students were responsible to develop congregational groups and peer groups to monitor and supervise the “Learning Units” worked out by the students. Considerable emphasis was laid upon developing methods of assessment and evaluation of stated aims and objectives. Combined with intensive seminars on site at the seminary, visits by faculty members, and a final project, this curricular innovation proved to be both flexible and demanding, and was found appealing to other seminaries as they established their own graduate programs.

In 1986 Miller was asked to look ahead to the church of the 1990s to predict the “shape of congregational education and worship” to come. He predicted greater emphasis upon traditional doctrines, upon study of scriptures in the sense of ongoing meaning, on prayer and spiritual discipline, upon new forms of discipleship as pluralism in the church increases, and upon the mission of individual congregations and the denomination.

His paragraph on education can stand as a summary of his general approach to Christian education: “Education for the 1990s must have an increasing focus on the way of peace (Shalom). The biblical doctrine of Shalom includes a variety of related beliefs. All people are to be valued. All are to participate actively in creative change. We can recognize the creative possibilities in conflict. All are to care for world resources. The interconnections of the network of the whole human community are to be discovered and celebrated. We are to live toward a vision of the unity of God’s power and love. All of these together make up the way of peace. Congregational education must focus even more intensely on these various dimensions of the way of Shalom” (Miller, “Shape of Congregational Education,” 1986, 40).


Books, Monographs, and Recordings (author, co-author, or co-editor)

  • (1954). Sozial-Oekonomische studie eines Flüchtlings-Lagers in Oberösterreich. Linz/Donau: Stadt Linz
  • (1961). Conscience and history. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 346pp.
  • (1968). The shaping of modern Christian thought. Cleveland, OH: World Publication Co., with Warren F. Groff. Reviews, William Dunphy (1969), Religious Education 64 (3), 251-252; John Gingrich (1969), Brethren Life and Thought 14 (1), 62-63
  • (1972). Integrating the disciplines in theological education. [s.l.], Association for Professional Education for Ministry, editor
  • (1973). Using Biblical simulations [: Volume One]. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, editor and co-authored with Robert W. Neff and Graydon F. Snyder (chapters 1-4, 13-15). Review, William Graybil (1978)l, The Youth Leader (December)
  • (1975). Using Biblical simulations: Volume Two. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, editor and co-authored with Robert W. Neff and Graydon F. Snyder (chapters 1-3, 8, 10, 14)
  • (1976). A Self-Instruction guide through brethren history. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press.
  • (1977). The wing-footed wanderer: Conscience and transcendence. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. Reviews, Stanley Hauerwas (1978), The Journal of Religion 58 (3), 332-333; Donald
  • M. Joy (1978), New Review of Books and Religion (January), 7; Gloria Durke (1978), Religion in Life (Spring); C. Ellis Nelson (1978), Religious Education 73 (3), 369-370
  • (ca. 1980-1982). [Addresses on Peace Education] (3 sound recordings). [s.l.]; (topics: “Tensions in peace education”; “Shalom as the goal in camping”; “How do peace attitudes develop?”)
  • (1981). A self-study of the Chicago cluster of theological schools (mimeographed). Chicago: Chicago Cluster of Theological Schools, with Frederick K. Wentz
  • (1982). Learning theory and its impact on forming religious identity ( 2 sound recordings). [Recorded at a meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Continuing Education, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, VA]
  • (1982). Contemporary approaches to Christian education. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, co-edited with Jack L. Seymour. Essay on “The Developmental Approach to Christian Education,” 73-102, 169-170. Review, Joanmarie Smith (1983), Religious Education 78 (2), 292-293
  • (1985). Foundations for a practical theology of ministry. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, with James N. Poling. Reviews, Anne Marie Mongoven (1986), Religious Education 81, (3), 502-503; Robert Faus (1987), Brethren Life and Thought 32 (2), 122-123
  • (1987). (In Japanese translation) Contemporary approaches to Christian education. Tokoyo: Shinkyo Shuppansha Publ.
  • (1987). Story and context: An introduction to Christian education. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 400pp. Reviews, James C. Wilhoit (1989), RE 84 (2) 319-320; Julie M. Hostetter
  • (1988), Brethren Life and Thought, 33 (1), 71-72
  • (1987). The gospel and mother goose. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press. Review, Jean L. Hendricks
  • (1989), Brethren Life and Thought 34 (2), 122-123
  • (1987). Kyoyok Silch’onnon. Seoul: Taehan Kidokkyo Ch’ulpansa (Korean translation of Foundations for a Practical Theology of Ministry)
  • (1988). Kidokkyo Kyoyuk Kaeron. Seoul: Taehan Yesugyo Changnohoe Ch’onghoe Ch’ulp’an’guk (Korean translation of Story and Context: An Introduction to Christian Education)
  • (1989). Onul ui Kidokkyo Kyoyuk Yon’gu. Seoul: Taehan Yesugyo Changnohoe Ch’onghoe Ch’ulp’an’guk (Korean translation of Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education)
  • (1990). Theological approaches to Christian education. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, co-edited with Jack L. Seymour, 287pp. Co-authored essays on “Opening to God: Education and Theology in Dialogue,” 7-24, 261-263 and “Living into a World of Confessional Pluralism: The Partnership of Education and Theology,” 239-258. Review, Lee Barrett
  • (1990), Religious Education 95 (4), 648-651
  • (1994). Theological approaches to Christian education. Seoul: Sung Kwang Publ. Co., with Korean title-page)
  • (1999). Theological approaches to Christian education. Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press (reproduction of 1990 edition)

Books, Contributing Author

  • (1966). Psychological approaches for Christian education. In Taylor. M (Ed.), An Introduction to Christian education (pp. 50-59). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
  • (1969). Hope and despair in an age of change. In Variations on a theme: Faithfulness in change (pp. 60-62). Elgin, IL: General Board, Church of the Brethren.
  • (1974). Abortion study committee. In Bridston, K., et al (Eds.), Case book on church and society (pp. 176-192). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
  • (1978). Revelation and the life cycle. In Cully, I. V., & Cully, K. B. (Eds.), Process and relationship: Issues in theory, philosophy, and Religious education: A festschrift for Randolph Crump Miller (pp. 99-106). Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
  • (1981). Adult religious education and the aging. In Clements, W. M. (Ed.), Ministry with the aging (pp. 235-249). first edition. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
  • (1986). A Biblical approach to human rights, In Peachey, P (Ed.), Peace, politics, and the people of God (pp. 163-175), Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Adapted from “Toward an ecumenical theology for grounding human rights,” Soundings 67 (Summer, 1984)
  • (1987). Deacon hospitality: A holy calling. In Gibble, J. A., & Swartz, F. W. (Eds.), Called to caregiving: A resource for equipping deacons in the believers church (pp. 63-65),
  • (1988). Centers of vision and energy. In Nelson, C. E. (Ed.), Congregations: Their power to form and transform (pp. 114-140), Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press.
  • (1989). Adult religious education and the aging. In Clements, W. M. (Ed.), Ministry with the aging: Designs, challenges, foundations (pp. 235-249), New York: Haworth Press. New edition of Ministry with the aging (1981).
  • (1990). “Erikson,” “Freedom,” “Psychosocial,” and “Simulation.” In Cully, I. V., & Cully K. B. (Eds.), Harper’s encyclopedia of religious education, San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
  • (1992). Decision: preserving or risking? Matthew 15:21-28. In Garber, J. (Ed.), Many cultures, One in Christ (Covenant bible studies) (pp. 35-39), Elgin, IL: FaithQuest (Brethren Press).
  • (1997). Agenda for the future. In Seymour, J.L., Mapping Christian education: Approaches to congregational learning (pp.110-128), Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. ( Co-authored essay)
  • (1998). Graydon F. Snyder as ethicist and educator in the Anabaptist Tradition. In Hills, J. V., & et al, Common life in the early church: Essays honoring Graydon F. Snyder (pp. 3-25), Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
  • (2004). The church of the Brethren. In The brethren encyclopedia, Volume IV (forthcoming). Articles and Papers (Selective)
  • (1957). Baptism among early Christians [by] Gottfried Arnold, Translated with an Introduction by Donald E. Miller. Brethren Life and Thought 2 (2), 44-61
  • (1957). Guiding the group life of the church. Brethren Life and Thought 2 (4), 22-32
  • (1960). The influence of Gottfried Arnold upon the church of the brethren.” Brethren Life and Thought 5 (3), 39-50
  • (1961). Troeltsch’s critique of Karl Marx. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1 (1), 117-121
  • (1962). The critical problem for Christian education. Gospel Messenger 111 (9), 8-10
  • (1962). What is the teaching ministry of the church? Unpubl. paper, 7pp
  • (1962). Does natural law provide a basis for a Christian witness to the state? (A Symposium [with John H. Yoder]). Brethren Life and Thought 7 (2), 8-22
  • (1962). Christian education as a contextual discipline. Unpubl. paper presented at the meeting of Professors and Researchers, National Council of Churches Religious Education Conference, later Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education (APRRE), 25 [1]pp. (c.f. Religious Education 61 (5) 1967).
  • (1966). What would Jesus do? Brethren Life and Thought, 11 (2), 3-10
  • (1966). Recent writings in Christian ethics. Brethren Life and Thought, 11 (2), 55-58
  • (1966). The theological basis for personal ethics. Unpubl. statement adopted by the Church of the Brethren annual conference
  • (1967). Christian education as a contextual discipline. Religious Education, 61 (5.), 418-427
  • (1968). Beyond character development: Christian education of children and youth. Brethren Life and Thought, 13 (2), 113-121
  • (1968). An urban ministry for the church of the brethren. Report adopted by the Church of the Brethren annual conference.
  • (1969). Salvation and man’s life. Study document prepared for the faith and order Commission of the National Council of Churches.
  • (ca. 1970). The formation of conscience (typescript). [s.l.]
  • (1971). Faith community as teacher. Messenger, 120 (8), 14-15
  • (1972). Toward a phenomenology of moral decision. Chicago Theological Seminary Register. 62 (3), 40-52
  • (1972). Wealth, property, and money in the New Testament.” Messenger, 121 (9), 12-13, Sept.
  • (1973). What is biblical simulation? Messenger, 122 (6), 23-24
  • (1976). The role of the congregation in the doctor of ministry program. Theological Education. 12 (2), 253-263
  • (1979). The Biblical basis for ecology. Brethren Life and Thought, 24 (1), 12-23
  • (1980). Brethren and church growth. Brethren Life and Thought, 25 (1), 20-23
  • (1980). Church growth: A response. Brethren Life and Thought, 25 (4), 245-247
  • (1984). How my mind has changed over ten years (and Longer). Religious Education, 79 (1), 36-39
  • (1984). Punishment and rehabilitation. Brethren Life and Thought, 29 (1), 23-31
  • (1984). Toward an ecumenical theology for grounding in human rights. Soundings, 67 (2); published in part also in Peace, politics, and the people of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986)
  • (1986). The Shape of congregational education and worship in the 1990s. Brethren Life and Thought, 31 (1), 37-45
  • (1989). Blind seers and deaf hearers. Pulpit Digest, 17 (4), 23-27
  • (1994). Our vocation as brethren. Dimensions: Agenda Supplement, (Jan./Feb.), 2pp
  • (1995). Contemporary implications of Brethren Society for denominational program initiatives. Brethren Life and Thought, 40 (3-4), 231-238
  • (1997). Donald F. Durnbaugh: Scholar, educator, churchman. Brethren Life and Thought, 43 (3-4). 261-275
  • (1998). Radical pietism and contemporary moral discernment. Brethren Life and Thought, 43 (3-4), 59-74
  • (1999). Top ten books. Brethren Life and Thought, 44 (1-2), 20-22
  • (2001). How my mind has changed (Revisited). Unpubl. paper, 2pp.
  • (2002). The historic peace churches and the origin of ‘The decade to overcome violence’. Brethren Life and Thought, 48 (3-4), 148-158

Excerpts from Publications

(1962). What is the teaching ministry of the church? Unpublished MS

The teaching ministry of the Church is a form of communication that corresponds to the Divine Word of God to man. The teaching ministry may never be less than an active, loving response to [the] creative, redeeming initiative of God. The prior activity of God in Jesus Christ and in the Holy History that He brings to focus is the context of the teaching ministry. Teaching that ignores the prior activity of God in Christ is not Christian teaching. Teaching that sets out to formulate the educational encounter outside a response to the Divine encounter is less than Christian. The creative power of the Word of God and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit are the living pre-conditions for any teaching in the Church. (p. 1)

(1962). The critical problem for Christian education. Gospel Messenger 111 (9)

The Word of God comes in the midst of travail. It does not come as a hypothesis to be debated or as a new teaching technique to be tried out. The word which Christian education speaks is not another among the babble of voices which confuse us daily. The critical question for Christian education is whether it can speak of hope and faith in our Lord rather than of ideas and suggestions. (p. 9)

(1967). Christian education as a contextual discipline. Religious Education 61 (5)

In my view, Christian education is a part of the discipline of practical theology. This means that in its fundamental conception it shares the problems of historical and systematic theology … but it does so within a particular practical situation, i.e., teaching, instruction, and learning. The peculiar characteristic of practical theology is not its message, but its emphasis and its situation. Practical theology is contextual by nature, i.e., it is intimately related to the circumstances within which it occurs. (p. 419) If the world is the locus of God’s activity, then the church must be understood as that part of the world where God’s activity is recognized and celebrated. In its task of recognition the church is a community of discernment. By discernment, I mean that the church is involved in “knowing-acting.” In the biblical perspective knowing is always an activity, never a detached reflection. To know is to be immediately involved in doing. An uninvolved knowing is really no knowledge at all. Knowing is itself a deed. In this sense the gospel of John can speak of “doing the truth.” To discern God’s presence and activity is to be caught up in it… In some respects all communities are discerning, but the church by the very nature of her witness is primarily and principally dedicated to the discernment of the divine activity. (p. 422)

(1968). Beyond character development (Christian education of children and youth. Brethren Life and Thought, 13 (2)

Certainly Christianity is a moral faith, embodying the highest of moral demands. Yet Christianity is not exclusively a moral code. Morality in the biblical tradition rests upon a promise. The basis of Israel’s hope, and equally of Christian hope, is a covenant. Preceding all prescriptions about how we shall behave is the love of God and of neighbor. Faith undergirds morality, and may even at times appear to be immoral. Consider any one of the prophets, but especially Jesus, who plucked grain on the Sabbath, visited with sinners, and was condemned as a blasphemer… If Christian faith is not exclusively a moral code, then the teaching of church and home must go beyond character development. It must reach to the depths of the loyalties and promises, of the betrayals and deceptions that characterize human life. It must be sensitive to hostility and joy, to conflict and concord, to anxiety and security. In short, it must related moral development to deep loyalties and to real consequences. (p. 113) The study of the Bible becomes the occasion for us to be more sensitive to one another, confessing our anxieties and celebrating our joys. This in itself is no new formula. What is new is the suggestion that the Bible be taken more seriously. It is a book of drama, and the stories speak for themselves. It is the account of persons who have meaning and purpose, of persons who confess their fears and doubts, and it can be taught only by persons who do the same. It is a book disclosing how God approaches our weakness and anxiety by taking it upon himself. It can be taught only by those who will accept the weaknesses and the anxieties of those who listen. Christianity is a faith that moves deeper than character development, and it can be shared only by teachers and parents who do the same. (p. 121)

(1971). The faith community as teacher. Messenger, 120 (8)

All the activities of a congregation facilitate the learning of the children and adults in that congregation. Graded materials will not guarantee learning, nor will “poor teaching” on the part of some stop learning. The ethos and mentality of the congregation will be learned by everyone with any degree of devotion to the congregation. The community of faith is the teacher… If the life of the congregation is detached from the rest of life, is joyless, is without commitment, is full of isolated people, a gifted Sunday school teacher will hardly make up for the lack. What the child learns will be precisely the quality and style of the congregation, somewhat idealized and uniquely appropriated by the gifts of that particular child… In the New Testament we are given a picture of the church as a group of persons whose various gifts contribute to one body. The church is an assembly of those who realize that each needs the gift of the other if the Lordship is to be fulfilled. The special gift for instruction is also variously distributed throughout the congregation… Teaching will begin only as the covenant is renewed by all those present… When one realizes that the gifts of the Spirit are the beginning of life and that no one of us can be free without receiving the gifts of others and communicating those of our own, then teaching takes proper place. Those who have something to give (that is, all of us) may teach. Those who have something to receive (all of us) may learn. Those who have been joined in Christ have him as their guiding purpose. The scriptures, the life of the church, and the people are the resources. Joy, hope, and love mark the gatherings of Christians. We need not spend so much time deciding what to teach. We ought to spend far more time hearing what our brother has to give. Children are the teachers in any class of which they are a part. Listen to the stories they tell. Listen to the conversations they speak. They will teach you what they believe. Only thus are you ready to teach them what you believe… We must discover, encourage, and celebrate one another’s gifts, and we shall find that these are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. No one of us is teacher. The faith community itself is teacher, and it will continue to teach irrespective of any of us. The spirit of that community, when opened to one another by Jesus Christ, is the teacher. Blessed be the words that inform us both. (p. 24)

(1976). The role of the congregation in a Doctor of ministry program. Theological Education 12 (2)

Many different traditions would, I believe, agree that the congregation is formed by the power of the Word of God. Ministry is therefore not a solo human effort, either when it is being learned or practiced. Ministry is rather a responsive activity, a mutually informing and caring activity carried out under the direction and power of God’s Word. Though the pastor traditionally acts as teacher, it is equally appropriate that the congregation become the pastor’s teacher, and both become learners together in the presence of God’s Word. Ministry is at root a testimony by word and deed to the continuing love of God in Christ to the whole of humankind As the pastor ministers, he/she is also being ministered to. Along with the ministry of the one who is designated as pastor is the ministry of the many who make up the congregation. Indeed the testimony of the pastor ought to be understood as a part of the testimony of the whole congregation. Within this understanding ministry is carried out as an activity of the total community of the faithful. We come again to the point that ministry is not a solo effort. (pp. 253-254)

(1976). The wing-footed wanderer: Conscience and transcendence. Nashville: Abingdon Press

God’s creativity is the root source, the precondition of our own agency. It is often said that God acts and we respond. Such a way of speaking makes very clear that we cannot get behind the divinely creative context for anything that we do. It may, however, hide the fact that God’s creativity is a source of strength for human initiative. God’s creativity allows us truly to act and not always to remain neurotically dependent. Our activity is related to God’s creativity in that our very initiative gives God’s agency a different cast. In this sense we constantly act and respond to relationship in God’s creativity. In the Bible, God’s creativity is seen primarily in two ways. On the one hand, it sets the conditions within which human beings act, and, on the other hand, it is a saving power within a world in which human beings are unable to act effectively. (p. 198) In the presence of the divine righteousness the voice of conscience is a broken one seeking to fulfill the promise to become the one who is of worth. It contains the history of earlier commitments being reshaped by later ones. It is the search for a trustworthy loyalty. It is the many voices of the many commitments that are implied in our various communities of interaction…It is the exercise of human agency whereby we reason from our best formulations of the principles of justice to the ways we shall act. It is the voice from which we know most basically who we are, seeking to know who we are… It is the voice of our own sense of self-righteousness being broken through by a larger sense of human agency, and that in turn finding its resources in God’s righteousness. It is our false understanding of God’s righteousness being revolutionized by the love of God in Jesus Christ. (pp. 225-226)

(1981). Adult religious education and the aging. In William F. Clemens (Ed.), Ministry with the aging. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Therefore, let me suggest the following concept of maturity for the Christian education of older adults: faithful response to the love of God and growth in Christ-like grace through interaction within a responsive and responsible community in ways that are appropriate for and with persons of declining and limited vitalities. Such a conception of maturity implies characteristics of awareness, intentionality, coherence, and mutuality. These are characteristics which come from a consideration of what constitutes strength of personhood and moral agency, and each suggests an aim of education for the “aging.” (p. 236)

(1982). The developmental approach to Christian education. In Jack L. Seymour and Donald E. Miller, (Eds.), Contemporary approaches to Christian education. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

The concept of development in education is certainly not without precedent in previous centuries, even though it was given enormous impetus in the wake of Darwin by the power of the theory of cultural evolution. The Scriptures often suggest a roughly developmental sequence to life. “When I was a child, my speech, my outlook, and thoughts were all childish. When I grew up, I had finished with childish things” (I Cor. 13:11). Or again, “I had to deal with you on the merely natural plane, as infants in Christ. And so I gave you milk to drink, instead of solid food, for which you were not yet ready” (I Cor. 3:1b-2). A more powerful expression is given in Ephesians 4:13: “So shall we all at last attain to the unity inherent in our faith and our knowledge of the Son of God -- to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of God. (p. 74) The goal of Christian education, from a developmental point of view, is the maturity of persons – that persons become more aware of themselves, their communities, and their world, more intentional in making choices and in relating to others. Maturity means risking the discovery of wider and deeper levels of meaning and becoming more interactive and responsive to other persons. In a word, maturity means being open to the next stage of development in the various dimensions of life. The goal of education will be achieved when each person is challenged to respond at his or her own stage of readiness. This view sees education as taking place with responsive and responsible persons, within a world community of responsive and responsible persons. The developmental approach to Christian education purposes that every person receive and respond to the grace of God in Jesus Christ; that all persons be joined together in an inclusive community, with the Spirit of mutual respect and love – in the words of Ephesians 4:13, that we might be “measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.” A mature Christian is ever more aware of God’s love, ever more intentional about God’s will, ever more respectful of God’s providence, and ever more responsive to God’s community. The goal of Christian education, then, is to provide an environment that stimulates each person, at whatever his or her stage of faith development. (p. 93)

(1984). How my mind has changed over ten years (and Longer). Religious Education, 79 (1)

In my earliest writing I was interested in assessing learning theories such as behavioral, gestalt, psychoanalytic, and existential in terms of their compatibility with Christian faith. I was also interested in developing a contextual educational view that would overcome the separation between theory and practice. These earlier interests culminated in the book, The Wing-Footed Wanderer. Therein I attempted to set forth a theory of the development of morality in each individual. My hope was to bring together both the affectional dimensions of psychoanalytic theory and the rational theories of development of cognitive theory… I was persuaded that church education must pay as much attention to emotions and the social setting as to the stage of cognitive development. I was afraid that cognitive theory would lead religious educators into a kind of hypothetical morality that has little to do with the actual world. My own suggestion was that pre-school children are not amoral, as they are considered to be by most theorists. Rather pre-schoolers are developing what I called the pre-moral dispositions of hope, will, and purpose. Morality is then formed as persons are encouraged and strengthened in their self-awareness, intentionality, coherence, and mutuality with others. Beyond the early pre-moral dispositions, values and ideals develop during childhood; beliefs develop during youth, and adulthood becomes a constant struggle toward the humanization of conscience… Religious education can be effective as communities and teachers are aware of pre-moral dispositions, moral values, beliefs, and the adult struggle of conscience. (pp. 38-39)

(1987). Story and context: An introduction to Christian education. Nashville, TN.

Two particular emphases stand out: the use of story and the community context:… Story refers to stories told in church school, personal life stories, congregational histories, and the Christian story. I believe the current discussion of narrative will allow such multiple use of the word “story.” Nevertheless, this book experiments with the concept of narrative to discover how well it can hold together the dimensions of Christian education. The concept of community refers to small groups, congregations, local areas, regional areas, denominational groups, ecumenical groups, and the kingdom of God. Though the primary referent is to the congregation, the term “community” must not be identified only with the congregation or the denomination. I believe that sociological and theological considerations allow for such a broad use of the term and that furthermore it provides a frame for coherent discussion of the field of Christian education. The reader should keep the multiple uses of both story and community in mind. (p. 13)

(1990). Openings to God: Education and Theology in Dialogue, by Jack L. Seymour and Donald E. Miller. In Theological Approaches to Christian Education, Jack L. Seymour and Donald E Miller (Eds.) Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Within the attempts to reshape education is the recognition that education is fundamental to human discourse and human community. Education defines a people. It involves processes by which a community, society, or nation clarifies and communicates the values and commitments (the paideia, or ideals) fundamental to itself as a people. Education also involves the way these commitments engage and “take on” new life in the midst of changing social circumstances. A people builds a community to sustain itself, to share and order its living (defining the rights of individuals and groups), and to communicate values and commitments to new generations and to strangers. These tasks are the content and process of education. Simply put, education is about passing on a tradition and participating in the re-creation of that tradition. However, educational conversation in United States culture cannot be carried out, though it seems that everywhere there are such efforts, without religious reflection. Religion is concerned precisely with the depth issues of the way a people defines itself. Basic issues of the vision of a society, of the vocation of that society in the world, of which institutions carry the tasks of meaning-making and understanding, and of how members will participate in decisions that affect their lives – these concerns are discussed in theological issues known, in turn, as those of eschatology (the realm of “kingdom” of God), of mission, of church, and of anthropology. (p. 8) Theologically, the dialogue of education and society is summarized in the question of God, or of how our experience with transcendence, the Holy One, shapes our response to living – for example, how we are changed, what we are called to do and be, how we live together as children of God, and together, how we shape meanings and structures that define meaning. Discerning God’s presence and call and following God into the action of making history are fundamental tasks of education. Therefore, any book about religious education is about knowing God and learning to live faithfully in relation to God. Moreover, for Christians, that knowing is described in the incarnation and continuing revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. [Emphasis in original] These issues are not the private property of the church. They have public implications. (p. 9) Theology is a community enterprise of the whole people of God, not just those who are professionally trained. Theology is carried out in conversation between the scholars and the people, as they address the injustices, as they address the injustices the people face. Theology and education are closely bound together in the people’s search to discern the meaning of Scripture for their own immediate experiences of injustice… Practical theology may be primarily addressed to either the church or the world. Further, it may use the methods of social science or theology, or a dialogue between social science and theology. We are calling for a confessionally dialogical approach addressed primarily to the wider cultural issues. One comes with a precommitment from one’s own tradition, but willing to interpret that tradition within the context of other Christian traditions, be in dialogue with the cultural disciplines, and engage the wider cultural issues (p. 249)

(1993). One Lord, One Faith [a sermon on Ephesians 4: 1-7 preached at Elgin, IL, on January 24]

I am what you would call an ecumenical sectarian. I believe we cannot have a strong ecumenical movement without strong denominational traditions. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is reported to have said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity that comes through complexity.” I would say: “I would not give a fig for ecumenism this side of our denominational traditions, but I would give my life for ecumenism that comes through the denominational traditions. When we are true to our beliefs in a cooperative way, working together with other Christians, we strengthen the whole… That is what I mean by ecumenical sectarianism. The ecumenical church is strengthened when the individual traditions are true to themselves. The nature of this cooperation, this koinonia among the traditions is the main ecumenical question. (p. 4)

(1997). Agenda for the future, by Jack L. Seymour and Donald E. Miller. In Mapping Christian education: Approaches to congregational learning, Jack L. Seymour and Donald E. Miller (Eds.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Communities affect us. If we are to gain the repertoire of Christian faith from which we can draw to explore life meanings, we need to encounter these images, stories, symbols, beliefs, and practices through participation in a community of memory and identity, a congregation. In congregations, we explore patterns of reflection, we consider faith values, and we reflect on our lives, vocations, and discipleship. The community of faith provides resources for faith reflection by inviting us into a repertoire of meanings. The community of faith provides settings to practice meaning-making. The community of faith provides support in times of life crisis and transition as we interpret our lives in light of faith. The community of faith also provides powerful experiences that touch us with the depth of life. In spite of the social trends eroding congregational life and the lack of effectiveness of many congregations, congregations are still the primary focus for learning Christian traditions, values, and practices. Congregations are the primary places where people can reflect on their lives in the light of the Christian faith. (p. 124) Religious learning occurs in hospitable, just, and open spaces for conversation and truth-telling. [Emphasis in original] The issues of our lives make us vulnerable. The meanings on which we have staked our lives are often broken open and we are, in turn, broken open. These deepest concerns, as well as the questions that most trouble us, need to be shared in hospitable and just spaces where our vulnerabilities can be respected. Too often because of fear, or even care, congregations close off the discussion of people’s lives. People are blocked from telling their truths, their questions, and their pain. The church runs away from issues of sexuality, of conflict, of addiction, and of passions that are heartfelt. Without the freedom to tell, people cannot connect their lives to the faith. (p. 126)

(2001). How my mind has changed (Revisited). Unpublished MS.

The decline of denominationalism does not mean that community and story are no longer relevant. However communities do change over time and technologies do make a difference, but this is all part of the story. The new communication technologies will affect us, but they cannot replace the need for primary relationships. Post-modernism offers that there is no master story that shapes all other stories. I am reminded of Paul Tillich’s observation that unity and plurality are constantly in contradiction with each other. Post-modernism reasserts plurality, which must be taken seriously. Education is also moving away from a description of moral stages and development to pilgrimage and spiritual formation. All of this leads me to reassert the importance of community and spiritual disciplines even as we reinterpret our stories. But we cannot expect that our story is the only one or the dominant one. We live in expectation, hope, and service n the midst of a time of radical change. (p. 2)


Miller, Donald E. (1977). The wing-footed wanderer: Conscience and transcendence. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

In this major book, Donald E. Miller analyzes the views on conscience of leading contemporary thinkers, including Freud, Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, finding them constructive but essentially too formalistic. Instead he posits his own view of conscience as foundational for the development of a mature moral life. He underscores the importance of the coherence of the individual moral sense with that of the larger faith community.

Miller, Donald E. (1987). Story and context: An introduction to Christian education. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

In this book, often used as an introductory text in Christian Education classes, the author places the locus of education within the faith community, where individual stories are shared within the context of the community. That site facilitates the interaction of the biblical narratives with the stories of individual believers.

Author Information

Donald F. Durnbaugh

Donald F. Durnbaugh, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania; Professor Emeritus of Church History, Bethany Theological Seminary, Richmond, IN, serves in retirement as Archivist and Curator of Special Collections at Juniata College, Huntingdon, PA, and as a Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, PA.