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I was at a church service some months back and a guest pastor was, in essence, exhorting the congregation to get out of their Christian ghetto and do some good for the world. He has a point, of course. It’s easy to live in the suburbs and surround ourselves with other Christians who indulge in the same flavour of the faith that we do.
I agreed with the guest pastor completely until he suggested that this meant getting children out of Christian schools. I was taken aback when some in the audience responded with applause and cheering. Maybe I am a little sensitive, but I thought I heard some vindication in their applause.
As someone who has dedicated over 30 years to the furthering of Christian education, I was saddened as I drove home, first, because there seems to be a passionate opposition to Christian education in at least part of the congregation, but more so, because the minister’s comments were based on a complete misunderstanding of Christian Education as I experience it every day.
Many sincere Christian parents send their children to the local public school. This may be because there is no local Christian school, or because of financial constraints. These can be difficult barriers.
There are other reasons given for the renunciation of Christian Education. There are some, like the guest pastor, that believe the children of Christian parents are to be salt and light in the world. Other more philosophical types have told me that they wish to avoid a sacred/secular dualism. Against these positions, I would like to push back and assert that the school that best addresses these concerns is the Christian school. I don’t mean just any Christian school, however. There are different kinds and I’m not ready to defend all of them with equal fervor.
There are many reasons parents send their children to a Christian school and behind these reasons is often a particular view of culture and the Christian’s relationship to it. The various views of the relationship between Christ and culture will produce different types of Christian schools. In his book Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr describes several Christian responses to culture. These responses are useful for distinguishing different types of schools.
Different Types of Christan Schools
Christ Against Culture
One group of Christian school advocates sees an antithetical relationship between the culture and those who proclaim Jesus as Lord. Niebuhr calls this stance, Christ against Culture. Adherents of this view believe that to be loyal to Christ one must reject culture.
Niebuhr identifies several problems with this stance. The first is that separation from the world isn’t really possible. Secondly, this view seems to presuppose that sin lies in culture and that by avoiding culture, one can avoid sin. A final problem is that, at its root, the Christ against Culture model seems to suggest that Christ has little or nothing to do with culture—that the material world of which culture is a part, is at odds with the spiritual world, ruled by God.
It is not difficult to understand why adherents of this view of culture would seek a separate Christian education for their children. The public school, like culture as a whole, would be seen to contain much that is in opposition to the ways of God. The purpose of the Christian school, then, would be to further the separation of the Christian community from the culture as a whole.
Christ with Culture, Christ of culture, or Christ Above Culture
Not all Christians frame the relationship between Christ and culture as an either/or proposition. Many see much good in culture that may, or even ought to, be embraced. Some of these views can give rise to the second type of Christian school. In these schools, because of a positive attitude toward culture, there is little reason for the curriculum to be much different than that of the local public school.
It is a Christian school because various devotional practices have been added to the schedule. These would be things like devotions at the beginning the day, weekly chapels involving corporate worship, religious instruction and prayer, and Bible or religious education classes. We might think of the Christian aspects of this sort of school as the creamy icing spread over the already pretty decent cake that is the standard curriculum taught in the public school.
This view of the relationship between Christ and culture is perhaps at the root of many sincere Christian parents sending their children to a public school. What the child learns at school may be considered as, at worst, philosophically neutral and the religious instruction and devotional activities that occur in the home and at church are considered adequate for the spiritual nurturing of the child.
Where the first anti-culture view underemphasizes the good in creation, the critique of this pro-culture view is that it under-emphasizes the extent to which sin has distorted God’s good creation—including culture. The failure to appreciate the extent of sin’s corrupting effects often results in a corresponding failure to appreciate the scope of Christ’s redemption.
Christ Transforming Culture
There is a third type of Christian school, one that is unlike the Christ against Culture model in that it has a far more hopeful view of culture. It is unlike the second in that it places greater emphasis on the depth and breadth of the effects of sin. The view of culture from which this school arises is what Niebuhr calls the Christ transforming Culture model.
Adherents of this third type of Christian school recognize three fundamental truths. First, that culture is a manifestation of God’s good creation and a product of human creativity and community. Second, that sin distorts every part of this good creation, including human culture. Thus, there is nothing created, that was not created good, but there is nothing that has not been distorted by the Fall. A third truth is that Christ is the redeemer of all that God created. This process began with his death and resurrection, and continues, even now, by the work of his Spirit in and through his people.
The task of the Christian, then, is to explore what it means to live faithfully. This means that we strive to shape God’s world by enhancing and celebrating the creational goodness and also discerning the presence of sin and working to reduce its effects. The role of the Christian, then, is to take care of the environment, feed the hungry and take care of the sick. It also means to be involved in culture as movie-makers, lawyers, florists, plumbers and union leaders that bless our neighbours. It means being available if God chooses to work through our meager efforts and transform our local communities, or even the world.
The work of Redemption is Christ’s, but we are invited to participate in it. Rikk Watts of Regent College in Vancouver once left me with this analogy: We are called to imitate Jesus, like a child who enthusiastically pushes his plastic lawnmower behind his dad when he’s mowing the lawn. “Look Mom! We’re mowing the lawn!”
What kind of Christian School arises from this worldview? It would not disengage from culture for that would be a failure to recognize the essential goodness of the creation found in it, but neither would it indiscriminately embrace the culture, for to do so is a failure to appreciate the distorting effects of sin that is present in all aspects of life. This Christian school would explore all aspects of creation, including culture, and celebrate the creational goodness that we find there, but it would also train students to discern evil, not just “out there”—where it certainly is, but also inside our most intimate circles and within ourselves.
Holistic Christian Education
It’s not just daily devotions, weekly chapels and Bible classes that make a Christian school. Neither is the Christian content in the curriculum the full picture. All aspects of the school fall under the Lordship of Christ: our understanding and use of technology, our approach to learning assistance and special education, the way discipline is carried out, how budgets are finalized and decisions about the programs we offer.
Human experience in this world cannot simply be divided up between good and evil where we, as Hamlet says, “Throw away the worser part of it, and live the purer with the other half.” Nor can we live as if Christ is something we can add to the surface of culture like icing on a cake. Rather, Christ’s Lordship is at the core of every aspect of life—and this would include the way we educate our children.
Rather than isolating children, as the guest pastor supposed, a Christian education is about preparing students to meaningfully engage the world with a full understanding of the gospel.
Read: Why Christian Education? (Part 2): Three Objections to Christian School