Christian Education: A Brief History

   Christian education has a long history.  Since the days of the early church, Christians have been teachers and students; Christian day schools of some sort or other are embedded in Church history.  I’m not noting this to downplay homeschooling, since I believe Christian parents have the liberty to wisely choose what type of schooling is best for their family, situation, and life.

However, I am in disagreement with movements that attack Christian schooling as unbiblical, secularistic, or unwise.  For example, the Family Integrated Church movement is a Baptist organization/network that has its own confession of faith which implicitly writes off Christian schooling.  It also says that “age-segregated practices are based on unbiblical, evolutionary and secular thinking which have invaded the church” (Article XI).  This shock statement is false.  Christian schools and church schools existed long before evolutionary secular thinking arose and they are based on biblical and covenantal principles.

For some background of this discussion, I appreciated Alvin Schmidt’s chapter, “Christianity’s Imprint on Education” in his book, How Christianity Changed the World.   Here are some statements from that chapter.

“Catechetical instruction led to formal catechetical schools with a strong literary emphasis.  Thus, by about A.D. 150, Justin Martyr, often called the first great scholar of the Christian church, established such catechetical schools, one in Ephesus and one in Rome.  Soon these schools appeared in other regions.”

“[There were also] cathedral and episcopal schools that existed from the fourth to the tenth century.  Maintained by bishops, these schools taught not only Christian doctrine but commonly also the seven liberal arts, the ‘trivium’ (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and ‘quadrivium’ (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy). …By the ninth century, Christians also had parochial (parish) schools separate from the cathedral or monastery.”

“Luther [in the 16th century] …wanted mendicant houses ‘converted into good schools for boys and girls.’  …Although Luther never denied that one of the purposes of education was to train pastors for the church, he also wanted children to be educated as God-fearing and law-abiding lay citizens who would serve God and society in all stations of life.  Schools, to him, were to train and prepare more than just clergy.”

“John Calvin also advocated universal education.  His Geneva plan included ‘a system of elementary education in the vernacular for all, including reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and religion, and the establishment of secondary schools for the purpose of training citizens for civil and ecclesiastical leadership.”

Of course, Christian teaching can be done poorly – whether in the home, on Sunday, or in a school building.  At the same time, it can be done well, in a solid Christian way – at home, in a school building, or on Sunday.  As we seek to uphold Christian liberty and use wisdom when it comes to schooling, it is always helpful for us to learn from those who have gone before us in the church.

Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, pages 171-177.

shane lems

The Necessity of the Christian School

 Making my way through Machen’s excellent Shorter Writings I came across a great article on Christian schooling (originally delivered by Machen in 1933 before the Educational Convention of the National Union of Christian Schools in Chicago, IL.).  As always, Machen is clear and quite thought-provoking.

His first reason why Christians should favor Christian schools is for the maintenance of American liberty (p. 161).  This whole section is worth reading, but I’ll quote just one part that I enjoyed. 

“If parents cannot have the great incentive of providing high and special educational advantages for their own children, then we shall have in this country a drab and soul-killing uniformity, and there will be scarcely any opportunity for anyone to get out of the miserable rut.  … Every lover of human freedom ought to oppose with all his might the giving of federal aid to the schools of this country; for federal aid in the long run inevitably means federal control, and federal control means control by a centralized and irresponsible bureaucracy, and control by such a bureaucracy means the death of everything that might make this country great” (p. 167). 

“Against this soul-killing collectivism in education, the Christian school, like the private school, stands as an emphatic protest.  In doing so, it is no real enemy of the public schools.  On the contrary, the only way in which a state-controlled school can be kept even relatively healthy is through the absolutely free possibility of competition by private schools and church schools; if it once becomes monopolistic, it is the most effective engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation that has yet been devised” (Ibid.).

Those words are worth pondering, even if one disagrees.  Secondly and more importantly to Machen than liberty, in his own words, the Christian school is “necessary to the propagation of the Christian faith” (p. 167).   Machen is quite firm here.

“I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the earth but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism.  If, indeed, the Christian school were in any sort of competition with the Christian family, if it were trying to do what the home ought to do, then I could never favor it.  But one of its marked characteristics, in sharp distinction from the secular education of today, is that it exalts the family as a blessed divine institution and treats the scholars in its classes as children of the covenant to be brought up above all things in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (p. 172). 

Machen praised Christian school teachers: “When I think of such true Christian heroism as yours, I count everything that I ever tried to do in my life to be pitifully unworthy.  I can only say that I stand reverently in your presence as in the presence of brethren to whom God has given richly of his grace” (ibid.).

I’m not looking for a storm of controversy here.  Homeschooling might be the right choice for certain families in certain places; charter schools might be a good possibility, and perhaps some public schools still have vestiges of decency in them.  Also, to be sure, many Christian schools are doctrinally messy or focused on athletics to the detriment of Bible education, so it is not as if all Christian schools are equal.  Furthermore, as Machen noted, Christian schools are neither religious day care nor do they take away the parents’ primary Christian task of training their children in the scriptures.

Basically, I posted this because I thought it was worth pondering.  So ponder on…

shane lems

sunnyside wa