The goal of Christian education is to present a Christian view of life and the world to its students. This article shows the challenges facing the churches and what to do about them to enable Christian schools to remain Christian.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 1999. 4 pages.

Distinctively Christ’s The church must not give its name to an inferior secular product that claims to be Christian

Do you think it strange that a Christian school should be well — Christian? Many find this proposition strange, includ­ing Sydney journalist and critic David Marr. “A few last skirmishes of the Reformation are being fought out in this relaxed and sen­sual town,” he jibed in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, as he attacked Anglican moves to strengthen the Christian approach of its Church schools.

The Rev Phillip Jensen, the rector of St Matthias and chaplain of the University of NSW is relaxed about Marr’s attack, and unrepentant. “The materialist philosophy of life is governing the school curriculum,” he says. “Our society is besotted with the idea of getting a TER of 99 to get into university. Christians have other values. If we have a Christian system, it should be Christian.”

The same debate is being heard among Presbyterians too. What do we require of schools that bear the Presbyterian name and are associated with the Church?

The Anglican debate focuses on princi­pals, teachers, council members and curriculum. How distinctively Christian should these be? The Sydney Anglican move is plain enough. The upgraded stan­dards will mean that principals will have to make Christian confession and show doc­trinal allegiance to Church standards, and councillors will need to make an informed confession of biblical Christianity “preferably of the Evangelical variety”.

Principals may be asked to report annu­ally on the church involvement of members of staff. For Phillip Jensen, the schools have to be Christianised “from top to bot­tom”. What is surprising is that this stand­point is challenged, not only by unsympa­thetic secular critics such as David Marr, but often by those in the churches and their schools as well.

It is a sad indicator of our spiritual state after 150 years of Christian decline and rampant secularism that we still have to persuade Christians that there is a distinc­tive Christian form of education! What would King David of Israel have said to his servants if they couldn’t tell the difference between the schools in Israel, and those more culturally sophisticated schools of the Philistines across the border?

The issues for us are precisely the same — what are we preparing our children for? To get into the best university courses so they can earn high incomes, or to develop Christian minds so they are better equipped to serve the Lord in their voca­tions, families and the wider community?

It is even more discouraging to have to sell the notion of a Christian education to church leaders responsible for Church schools. Allegiance to Christ has become overlaid by other priorities such as “reputa­tion”, “excellence”, and “professional inde­pendence”. Debates on the issues are marked by special pleading. Sadly we are wavering between two opinions! The church must say: “If God be God, then fol­low him in our schools” (1 Kings 18:21).

Issues are often intertwined, preventing clear Christian thinking. There are matters of control and church rights, differing expectations of what Christian education should be, and there are curriculum issues too.

First, consider the most basic issue of what Christian education really is. Are our schools a passport to success to indulge a few who can afford expensive fees, or are they meant to be a front line preparation ground for training Christian minds, shap­ing Christian character, and discovering each child’s gifts to be used in the service of Christ?

The task of a Christian school is to pre­sent a Christian view of life and the world to its students. The content and substance of the Christian world and life view can’t be taken for granted — at least not anymore!

Anything less than a fully developed biblical view of knowledge, which sees the whole of the universe and everything that happens in it as under the sovereign ruling hand of God, is untrue, and will produce sub-Christian education. Any view of life which does not help students see that although they live in a world that is ruined by sin, it has been redeemed by Christ and is destined for glory, is sub-Christian edu­cation. It will not impact on the world for the Kingdom of God. What business has the Church to give its name to an inferior secular product that claims to be Christian?

Where educators are fully committed to the Bible as God’s Word, they will present their knowledge of life and the world to students in the most winsome and effective way. The extent of a Christian view of life will know no limits, going way beyond the Bible study periods into literature, history, art, music, science, and into everything that touches the life of the school. There is a Christian way to think about these things. It will show up in the novels read and the way they are approached. Look to the visu­al arts program and the school music and dramatic productions, the way the P.E. teacher cultivates attitudes to the body, the discussion of ultimate questions in the physics lab. These are indicators of Christian depth or otherwise.

From the basis of absolute truth revealed in Scripture, we seek to build a world-view that allows students the power and freedom to carry Christian thinking with them into life. The school has to teach consistently with the Church — Christ reigns.

For instance, students in one Australian Christian school are being taught to for­mulate a biblical appreciation of ‘the State’ — a kind of Christian Civics curriculum. Year 8 students meet a patriarchal society by studying Abraham as an example in Genesis. They move on to the medieval states with feudalism, and the church-state conflict. They meet controversy between emperors, kings and popes about authority and its sources. Guided by Scripture, stu­dents seek out biblical norms for social organisation. In later years this program examines 20th century states, and democra­cy in general, in the light of biblical norms.

During the process, students have been trained in critical thinking, not by standards of humanistic thought or political science, but by God’s Word. Above all they have been through a powerful exercise in learn­ing how to think Christianly about life in the real world. They see how to draw on the vast resources of the Scriptures and the Christian heritage. In this area of life, they will never be adrift in their minds, at the mercy of changing whims of political fash­ion. This is Christian education.

There’s an urgent need to train our chil­dren in this kind of thinking in all the arts and sciences, starting in kinder and contin­uing into Christian graduate schools. With an education like that we’ll have some hope of impacting the secular mind of coming generations.

A Christian world-view is grounded in Scripture, but is mediated to students through an assenting Christian mind. The teacher’s own understanding and experi­ence of the faith are of critical importance. If the Word of God is to take life and shape the mind of the student, it must first live in the mind and heart of the teacher.

Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets’ Society showed how a secular humanist teacher can set poetry alight for students, because he first experienced the power of the poetry within himself. Can less be accepted in the service of Jesus that teach­ers teach about Christ’s world in the power of Christ’s Spirit?

Those who oppose thoroughly reforming our schools often ask Christian educators a question designed to throw them off bal­ance: shall we employ poor-quality teachers just so we can have Christians? Yet it is ille­gitimate to put this question unless we have first adopted the principle of real Christian education.

Of course there are poor teachers in most schools! This is no argument to employ non-Christian staff, but rather to provide for better solutions. We dare not judge a great issue on the basis of a few bad experiences. In fact the question itself is badly put, because it poses excellence and Christian faith as opposites. A whole range of other issues lie behind this question, and I’ll raise some of them here.

The question is often asked out of mis­understanding, or lack of confidence. Perhaps the questioner is unaware of the vast contribution of Christian scholarship through the years, and today. He may not perceive that excellence flows from dedica­tion, calling, and truth. Or perhaps the questioner is afraid that Christians are sim­ply not up to the academic challenges of contemporary life, and lacks confidence that they can rise to the task. Worse still, he may not think Christianity itself has answers to the challenge of the modern world. He feels safer when faith is confined to the world of religious language and wor­ship. He doubts whether the Christian faith can confront the world at all sorts of intellectual levels.

At worst, the question may point to a deep-seated weakness in apologetics and epistemology. The questioner may not understand that “all the treasures of wis­dom and knowledge are hidden in Christ Jesus”. He simply may not see that all knowledge is related to his faith in Christ. Whatever it is that paralyses advance in Christian professional education, the underlying attitude in the church often is, “if we leave things as they are we won’t rock the boat! At least some Christianity may rub off on a few passing students, and some might get saved in the lunchtime evangelism program.”

There are several ways to face the issue of building a Christian teaching staff for our schools. Most are long-term solutions. Growing to maturity in the institutional world of schools requires gestation time. Yet we should first insist on the principle, and then take action to make it work.

One step is to encourage our most promising Christian students into teaching as a high calling under God, worthy of a life of commitment and discipleship. It is a challenge to serve Christ in his Kingdom in education.

We need to encourage older people as well, who have a proven track record of Christian life and career. We should invite them to consider a career change: “come and teach in a Christian school. Bring your wide experience of life into a mature-age career change, and enrich the school with the professional insights you bring from another area”.

This applies particularly to professionals who have served the Lord faithfully in his church, and who have successfully raised families for Christ. Taking this rather rad­ical step will confront the secular obsession of many Christian families who steer their children into more lucrative careers. Teaching is viewed by many educators and parents alike as a second-rate career for the also-rans.

On the sidelines of this question, hangs another. Teaching the young once rated highly in the church, and teachers were often trained in theology — if nothing else! Let us elevate the calling and ministry of Christian teaching of the young. Let us place school teaching alongside missionary service and pastoral ministry as high call­ings in the service of the Lord.

It is also important that training opportu­nities be opened up for those wanting to serve in Christian schools. Many teachers would benefit hugely from a graduate year, or some part-time courses, attached to one of our theological colleges. Courses in Bible, theology, apologetics, Westminster Confession, Christian education, church history, ethics, evangelism, would all enrich our teachers and schools.

Why not a Presbyterian Diploma in Christian Education? This would soon become a highly sought-after qualification. It would provide some theological depth which the schools desperately need if they are to develop and mature their curricula, and would serve the interest of the church and her ministry. The stronger and clearer our Christian schools, the better our hope for solid congregations in days ahead. The richer the Christian schooling of our prospective Sunday School teachers, youth leaders and ministry candidates, the more blessing we may expect in the pews. Our Presbyterian forebears sponsored and established schools. The schools were charged to provide an education consistent with the teachings of Christianity, includ­ing religious instruction and education in the Bible.

The first responsibility of school gover­nors to the church and to their trust is to ensure this is actually how schools educate. When governors are selected, a clear ability to carry out the responsibility for ensuring real Christian education must take prece­dence over considerations of a candidate’s community standing, clout, or legal, accounting or other expertise. If the Church appoints candidates for governor­ship who lack the qualifications of clear Christian thinking and living, it places a responsibility on that person in God’s Kingdom which they are unable to fulfil. Both the church and the individual are in breach of trust to God and man.

“But what right has the church got to be interfering in schools?” some may ask. Simply this. A Christian school is an offi­cial imparter of the faith to the young. The church has a responsibility to ensure a Christian education is provided in a way the church can confidently support. In a Presbyterian model, as the church appoints elders to manage the church, and commit­tees to run retirement villages, so it appoints councils to manage its schools.

There can be problems with the way school councils conceive their role. It’s a common view that the council should appoint the principal, manage the school as a business, and leave it at that, unless there’s a crisis of some kind. The principal is the chief executive officer, the school is a business, and the board are honorary directors. If the church wants its appointees to have a say in policy, curriculum or staffing, this may be seen as meddling where it has few rights and little expertise. In this case, the school is an end in itself.

When this school-as-a-business paradigm dominates the field, the council asks: “What does the market expect? How can we keep the roll full, attract endowment, maintain top staff, and assure the future?” When this becomes the driving force, everything else will be subservient. The Gospel may be stated in the rhetoric, but the heart beat and agenda of the school will lie elsewhere. The tail is wagging the dog.

Presbyterian schools were begun to help Christian families bring up their children in the faith. Because of dedication, sacrifices for the Lord and answered prayer, the schools succeeded.

We are on a treadmill, and escape is difficult. But it is time for thinking Christianly about our schools from top to bottom. Many Sydney Anglicans want off the treadmill. David Marr asked Phillip Jensen if the time has come to put a bomb under the schools for Christ? Jensen is clear about his intentions. “He rolls this question around in his mind for half a sec­ond, spreads his arms wide and with a great smile says: ‘Yes’.”

The next six months will show whether the rest of Sydney diocese supports Jensen’s moves to makes its schools Christian both in name and fact.

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