Education is only Christian if it both glorifies God and spurs the learner to a more Christ-like life. No curriculum can affect the sanctification of an individual absent the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the teacher and the student. The divine appointment of sowing God’s truth into the soil of a learner’s heart is filled with risk, and in Matthew 13 Christ was clear that many will receive the word as hardened soil while others will hear it gladly, only to find its realized power choked out by the cares of the world. He warned that obstacles include Satan as an active enemy and that true fruitfulness would only be realized by people who accept the word and then live it out to the glory of the Father.
The Purpose and Goals of Christian Education
Education is an essential tenant of Christ’s mandate to his followers. Before He ascended to Heaven, He instructed the disciples to go into all the world to teach and baptize (Matt 28:19). The importance of education therefore is rooted in obedience. Certainly each of the Lord’s instructions are essential, but the significance of the command as His parting word must not be lost. While the Lord did not specify the means by which the disciples would carry out His commandment, He closely associated teaching with baptism which is a public statement of regeneration. We therefore understand our mandate and goal to be the conversion of the world and the education of the converted to lives lived in accordance with following Christ.
Scripture does not explain the length of our Lord’s life on earth, but we know it was exactly right to complete His mission (John 19:30). His public ministry of only three years was brief, both in relevance to His decades of preparation and in light of His young age at the time of His crucifixion. We accept that one year would not have been enough and ten years too many, but our hearts yearn to read of His extended life and example of an obedient life lived to old age. Nonetheless, we accept the Apostle John’s statement that the record of His life in Scripture is sufficient, and even in the brevity of His years, all of the books in the world could not contain the detail (John 21:25).
We look therefore to His life for guidance. Luke records that during Christ’s silent years between age twelve and thirty that “He grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). This surely included the completion of His literate and vocational education which was already evident by His instruction of the elders in the temple as a boy (Luke 2:46-48) and by his reading from Isaiah at the beginning of His public ministry (Luke 4:17). His mastery of Scripture was the grounding of His life as it both sustained Him in temptation (Matt 4:4) and provided Him with the thesis of each of His teachings. As our instruction, His words provide the text and His life the context. Christ’s teachings fulfill scripture and the model for emulation is His exemplary life.
The Lord was always clear regarding the His purpose and ours. The consistent theme of His teaching and life was the glorification of the Father. In prayer He taught us to honor the name of God as Holy and to seek His will (Matt 6:9-13). In prioritization He taught us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt 6:33) and in death He taught us that God’s will is supreme, even beyond our circumstances (Luke 22:42). All instruction must accomplish this end if it is to be Christian education, for that was the single goal of Christ.
Secular education is focused on the transfer of knowledge, but Christian education is focused on changed lives. While reason is essential to formative learning, it must be joined by revelation to impart eternal truth. God is therefore both the end and the means by which true education takes place, for truth can only be realized through the Holy Spirit’s reception in a learner’s heart. Christian education is one leading to a renewed mind (Rom 12) affected by submission to God. In his book Called to Teach, William Yount describes this end as Level 3 Metacognition wherein a student gains the ability to “step back again and evaluate how we evaluate our own learning”; an absolute objectivity only possible through the Holy Spirit.
The Nature and Role of the Teacher
Dr. Roberta Hestenes has written that Christian education is foremost a ministry and the proper perspective is that the teacher is teaching a student rather than a subject. While ministry is often considered limited to pastoral vocation, the Bible clearly places teaching as an essential ministerial function of the body of Christ. The apostles wrestled with false teachers throughout their work in the early church and took great care to place mature leaders as teachers of teachers.
Writing near the end of his life, the Apostle Paul wrote to his protégée Timothy directing him to “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach also” (2 Tim 2:2) and was certainly mindful of the maturity required for faithfulness. The selection of teachers acknowledges both the requisite calling and the inherent difficulties. In The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching, Howard Hendricks cites James’ warning against the dangers of the tongue and writes “Since the teacher is compelled to speak and the tongue is the last member to be mastered, one should be very careful in aspiring to such a sobering responsibility.”
Finding the right people for the work has always been difficult. Christ said the “harvest was plentiful but the laborers are few” and that we should pray for God to provide the needed workers (Luke 10:2). This calling is God’s answer to the need of the harvest and Ephesians chapter four describes the presence of teachers (and others) as a gift of God to the church. The teacher’s instruction will be informed by his philosophical perspective and every lesson will reflect his values. As Knight points out “a distinct metaphysical and epistemological viewpoint will lead to a value orientation. That value orientation, in conjunction with its corresponding view of reality and truth, will determine the goals that will be deliberately aimed at in the educational process.” The teacher therefore must be mature and grounded in Scriptural understanding.
Great care must be taken to ensure the teacher’s epistemology and axiology tenants are aligned with the Bible. Secular education’s foundation of Humanism undermines Christianity’s basis of truth and value. Teaching is highly subjective as a discipline and regardless of the objectivity of the subject content, the teacher cannot separate his world view from his delivered instruction. As Knight wrote “The classroom is an axiological theater in which teachers cannot hide their moral selves.” In many ways, the impact of the teacher may extend even farther than the pastor because the pastor speaks once a week but the teacher often instructs the students every day in a more intimate setting.
The Nature and Role of the Learner
The learner is first and foremost a person created in the image of God, so loved by Him that He sent Christ to die for him. He is therefore a treasure of great value and worthy of the prayerful best a teacher can bestow. Though willingness and capacity will vary, each individual has been created with receptivity to divine revelation (Rom 1:20) and the teacher must approach each learning opportunity as divine appointment.
The aspect of divine appointment is understood by Glen Schultz to include a process akin to physical birth. Schultz cites the familiar Proverbs 22:6 saying the phase “train-up” carries the etymology of a mid-wife dipping her finger in juice with which she would massage a newborn’s gums, causing it to begin sucking. The learner’s heart can only be penetrated by the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:17). The teacher should prayerfully approach each educational moment as an honor of participation.
The analogy of the new born carries useful applicability beyond the rebirth process. As a baby requires its mother’s milk before stronger food can be tolerated, the learner must accept a graduated process of instruction leading to growth (Heb 5:12). This will be discussed more fully in the Curriculum section of this paper, but is mentioned here specifically because Hebrews 5:12 indicates that in some regard, everyone has the responsibility of becoming a teacher saying “by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” The learner is understood to be one who is required to pass on his acquired knowledge as a function of growth.
The process of educational growth in the Christian learner is significantly more inclusive than cognitive knowledge accumulation. The believer’s regeneration into the body of Christ begins a process of sanctification by which growth is affected. Christian education is the experiential outcome of applied truth, and all applied truth is understood to advance the kingdom and bring glory to God. It is impossible to weigh the incremental value of a believer’s activity in the world because we cannot know the mind of God or the reaches of His purpose. Our task is one of obedience and submission to His will, as Paul reinforces in Romans 6 that believers should “present their bodies as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.”
As the learner accepts his newfound place of Christian service, he quickly finds Christ as His example of application. Christ taught in word and deed and provided the only role model worthy of emulation. The learner therefore understands his task to become more Christ-like as he lives to glorify God. Christian Overman draws rich application from the Hebrew model of parenting, noting that education was a holistic extension of daily life. He wrote “The Hebrew model of education rests upon a moral base, not an academic one. That is to say, virtue is the foundation upon which all skill and academic ability is built.” The learner who is not a believer may stumble across a field of occasional truth over which he might trip from time to time, but no growth toward realized truth is possible outside the process of sanctification.
The Role and Relationship of the Family, the Church, and the School in Education
The Lord commanded His people to teach their children holistically. Regarding His law He said to “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut 11:19). The Hebrews took this to heart and parenting was intrinsically connected to education. As Overman pointed out “the Hebrew word for parent means to instruct, to teach. Parenting skills are teaching skills and to be a parent is to be a teacher.” While textual knowledge has always been understood to be important if not essential, every child’s basis of learning was rooted in obedience to a sovereign God. The capacity to gain and retain information might vary from child to child but accountability and obedience was uniformly universal.
Proverbs 16:32 says that a person who “controls his own self is stronger than a man who captures a city.” The Lord’s insistence on absolute obedience to this family based education model extended from the parent to the child, but clearly the child was the primary beneficiary. The unguided hand of moral relativity which is prevalent in Humanistic philosophy permeates contemporary media and secular education. Unchecked by parental control, a child is subject to an axiology of godless variability rather than absolute truth. As Jolyon Mitchell said “Truth is a problem of axiology rather than epistemology. With the dominant scheme no longer tenable, truth should become the province of communication ethicists who can reconstruct it as the news media’s contribution to public discourse.” It is the parent’s role to both filter disinformation from their children’s sphere of influence and more so to counterbalance intuitionalized lies with God’s truth.
Beyond the home, education should come from the church. The myriad points of view promulgated by secular society and other religions are abated primarily by parental teaching, but closely followed by the church. The early church resembled the Jewish synagogue in its sanctuary of communal family life against pagan cultural envelopment. Within three hundred years, it became the contextual shaper of an interdisciplinary worldview, a grid which N.T. Wright calls “the story”. This worldview served as a framework grounded by Scripture which articulated “a critical-realist epistemology…put to wider uses in the study of literature, history and theology.”
Today, the church’s influence over these elements has waned and increasingly, the advocacy of God’s truth by the church is juxtaposition to an antagonistic Humanistic agenda which seeks to remove God from the collective conversation. From Paul’s daily engagement with the Athenian marketplace in Acts 17 to countless martyrs who through the ages have counted compromise more horrific than death, the church is tasked with advancing the kingdom through the equipping of the saints (Eph 4:12).
The purpose of the school in the educational process appears self-evident, but only if it is, as Harry Blamires writes “framed directly and indirectly to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God”. This contrasts diametrically with the secular framework of education which is bounded “in worldly criteria.” As Knight points out, the school is an essential element of God’s restorative work in the lives of believers. He writes “The purpose and goal of Christian education are the restoration of the image of God in each student and the reconciliation of students with God, their fellow students, their own selves, and the natural world.” The Christian school best fulfills this high calling when it works seamlessly with the parent and the pulpit.
Curriculum is narrowly understood to mean lesson plans and resources but in its broadest sense it looks beyond formal classroom instruction to the community life of the church and the relational climate of the classroom. In that broad sense we understand our curriculum to be Sola Scriptura or the “Bible alone”. While scripture informs all other literature, none other rises to reciprocal stature. That established, there are countless programs of study which stratify education through leveling of age, achievement and cohort. They are means to an end and are best applied with circumstantial flexibility. As Knight writes “Teaching is not learning a formula for relating to people or following a blueprint for the development of Christian character. It is rather an art which demands responsible thought and action on the part of the educator.” Selected resources and programs should reflect prayerful consideration of the receiver community.
Knight’s connection of teaching to character building encourages a closer examination of methodology. The elevation of reason and critical thinking in education has promoted processes based on the Socratic Method which is adversarial in essence. While this approach has merit, it likewise falls short of building up the learner. In fact, it typically achieves the opposite unless accompanied by Christian charity. Here a distinction must be made between teaching methodologies appropriate to learner maturity, both in age bracket and otherwise. The Socratic Method corresponds with contemporary thought regarding the principles of andragogy. Andragogical theory views the learner as a resource possessing knowledge and life experience which enhance the learning situation when utilized. However, Malcolm Knowles, a leading proponent of andragogy, points out that when there is a lack of knowledge, experience, or motivation on the part of the learners, more “traditional” models are preferable. Foremost must be an adherence to Christ’s admonition to the Pharisees when he chided them for a misguided emphasis on instructive technicalities and missed “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23).
A hundred years ago G.K. Chesterton wrote that scholarly advancement which was grounded in worldly reason alone had wrongly created an inverse juxtaposition of cognitive humility and individual dogmatism. The world says truth must be held with loose hands because it can never fully be known, but the individual should stand firm as his own moral authority. As Chesterton said “Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.” Indeed, Humanism has cast doubt on moral authority and has by definition removed God from its tenants. Untethered from the anchor of truth, education is at best reduced to the margins of guidance, but at worst it is destructive in its august but empty rhetoric.
The Bible presents a God wanting to be known, reaching out to man in darkness to present His Son, the embodiment of light and life (John 1:1-5). All Biblically based education acknowledges both the glorified Father and the obedient Son. We who are participants in this high calling stand humbly as teachers and students in the privileged mandate of sovereign God. We stand firm on the Word of God rather than imperfect reason with the doubtful Humanist, because, as Chesterton has it “The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.” Our purposeful God is trustworthy, therefore we teach.
Grace and peace
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Roberta Hestenes, Howard G. Hendricks, and Earl F. Palmer, Mastering Teaching, Mastering Ministry (Portland, Or.Carol Stream, Ill.: Multnomah Press; Christianity Today, 1991), 3.
Kenneth O. Gangel and Howard G. Hendricks, The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 9.
Eleanor Ann Daniel and John William Wade, Foundations for Christian Education (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1999), 20.
George R. Knight, Philosophy & Education : An Introduction in Christian Perspective, 4th ed. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2006), 33.
Glen Schultz, Kingdom Education : God’s Plan for Educating Future Generations (Nashville, TN: LifeWay Press, 1998), 71.
Christian Overman, Assumptions That Affect Our Lives : How Worldviews Determine Values That Influence Behavior and Shape Culture, 4th ed. (Bellevue, Wash.: Ablaze Pub. Co., 2006), 225.
Jolyon P. Mitchell and Sophia Marriage, Mediating Religion : Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture (London ; New York: T & T Clark, 2003), 296.
N. T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, 1st North American ed., 3 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 32.
Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (New York,: Seabury Press, 1963), 44.
George R. Knight, Philosophy & Education : An Introduction in Christian Perspective, 210.
Eleanor Ann Daniel and John William Wade, Foundations for Christian Education, 96.
George R. Knight, Philosophy & Education : An Introduction in Christian Perspective, 198.
Michael J. Anthony, et al., Evangelical Dictionary of Christian Education, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 651.
Malcolm S. Knowles, The Adult Learner : A Neglected Species, 4th ed., Building Blocks of Human Potential (Houston: Gulf Pub. Co, 1990), 254.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1911), 55.
Paul Kurtz, Humanist Manifesto 2000 : A Call for a New Planetary Humanism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 5.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 56.