Monday, May 23, 2016

The Evolution of Christian Schools in a Liberal Society

On this blog, I have defended a Darwinian classical liberalism in which social order arises best through a largely spontaneous evolution in which individuals are free to pursue the satisfaction of their natural desires.  Adam Smith described this as the "natural system of liberty," which allows "every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice."  Smith's "liberal plan" came to be identified in the 19th century as "liberalism."  Today, Gary Johnson and others in the Libertarian Party might say that this tradition of classical liberalism is best identified as libertarianism.

But to speak of a largely spontaneous order points to the need for some organizational planning.  Classical liberals recognize the need for limited government to carry out the three duties of government identified by Smith--military defense against foreign attacks, the administration of justice to protect individuals from force and fraud, and providing for those public goods that cannot be provided by any individual or small group of individuals. 

One of the most important public goods is the education of the young, which includes their moral, religious, and intellectual education.  For most of human history, the education of children was provided totally by their parents; and only the children of wealthy and high ranking families could receive any advanced education.  But Smith believed that a modern commercial society required some publicly financed education of the common people, so that they could at least read, write, and account.

In Scotland, the Presbyterian Church stressed the importance of learning to read so that one could read the Bible for oneself rather than being dependent on the interpretation of priests.  The Schools Act of 1696 mandated parish schools in Scotland with teachers partly but not wholly paid by public expenditure.  Scotland came to have one of the highest rates of literacy in the world.  Smith argued for extending this system to all of England.  But while some public funding might be necessary, he thought that privately supported education with voluntary contributions was generally better than totally public education.

Smith saw that most of the education of common people was religious instruction through the churches.  Against the tradition of publicly established churches, Smith argued for a free market of religious sects competing for believers to satisfy the religious longings of human beings, which would promote a "pure and rational religion."  Religious toleration would prevail, so that religious groups would be free to form as voluntary associations without any power to coercively enforce their beliefs and practices on those who disagreed with them.  Smith and other classical liberals thus adopted the religious toleration policy defended early in the 17th century by Roger Williams as conforming to the religious liberty that he saw in the New Testament Christian churches, and as opposed to the Catholic and Protestant traditions of coercively enforced religious conformity.

I see this as a naturally evolved and largely spontaneous order of religious belief and practice.  Parents have an evolved natural desire to care for their children by generating them, feeding them, and educating them.  Proponents of natural law (like Thomas Aquinas and John Locke) recognize this a law of nature rooted in natural human inclinations.  Moreover, if human beings have a naturally evolved desire for religious understanding, as I have argued, then we can expect that an important part of the parental rearing of their children will be the religious instruction of their children.  This can be done totally through parental homeschooling or through schooling outside the home--in synagogues, churches, or mosques, in private schools, or in public schools.

We see this liberal system for educating the young in the United States.  Most children are educated in public schools that do not mandate any religious instruction.  But parents are free to either homeschool their children or send them to private schools.  And much of this homeschooling and private schooling includes religious instruction.  This is a distinctively liberal system because parents are free to supervise the religious instruction of their children as they wish, so long as they are not abusing their children or coercively imposing their religious beliefs and practices on others.

Some Christian parents who pay for sending their children to private Christian schools complain that it is unjust that they are compelled to pay taxes for the public schools.  In a completely free market of education, schools would freely compete for students and tuition.  A educational voucher system favored by libertarians like Gary Johnson moves towards a free market in education in that some or all of the school financing from taxation would go directly to parents who could freely choose which school (public or private) would receive the money.

Among the Christian schools, there is free competition for students and tuition, with different schools appealing to different consumers of Christian education.  As Smith foresaw, this free market in religious instruction allows for the greatest satisfaction of the diverse religious longings of parents and children.

One example of this is well expressed in Deborah Byker-Benson's new book--Graciously Unapologetic: A Renewed Way to be in Christian Schools (Grand Rapids, MI: Credo House, 2016).  Deb is the Superintendent of Parkview Christian Academy in Yorkville, Illinois.  When she arrived at Parkview in 2013, the school was on the brink of financial collapse because of administrative mismanagement and declining enrollment.  Over the past three years, she has improved the financial management of the school, and enrollment has jumped from 208 in 2013 to 325 today.  But she would say that this economic improvement has depended upon a spiritual improvement.  (I have heard about much of this directly from Deb, because she's my sister-in-law.)

Many Christian schools are facing serious challenges to their existence.  Many have closed their doors.  The leaders of such Christian schools facing such problems want to find practical solutions.  But Deb's argument is that they cannot rightly decide what to do if they have not first decided who to be, because the practical management of a Christian school cannot succeed without first having a clear vision of its spiritual mission.  The practical problems for Christian schools are only the symptoms of the deeper spiritual illness.

In the first half of her book, Deb presents a "renewed way of being Christ-like" for Christian schools.  In the second half, she shows how this renewed way of being is manifested in the practical policies of a Christian school.

She presents her new way of being Christ-like as based on "a more Biblically consistent Christian school model," which is summarized as "teaching Christ in all content and process."  The most obvious problem here is that the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament) says nothing specific about Christian schools, although it does say a lot about spiritual teaching coming through families, synagogues, and churches.  Because of this absence of any clear Biblical teaching about Christian schools, Christians disagree about what might count as a "Biblically consistent Christian school model."

In the United States, the great majority of students in Christian schools are in Catholic schools.  Deb says nothing about these Catholic schools, but her silence might suggest to many readers that she believes that only Protestant schools can be truly Christian schools.  If so, then many readers might want some argumentation for this conclusion.

Deb might argue that the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformers were right in claiming that the Catholic traditions stray too far from the Bible to count as Biblical Christianity, and thus a Catholic school cannot satisfy a "Biblically consistent Christian school model."  But what she says about the voluntariness of Christian education implies that Catholic schools should be tolerated as an expression of religious liberty, and thus she would disagree with the Reformers who advocated persecution of Catholics.

Thus, Deb's position seems to assume a Biblical liberalism, in which the Bible is interpreted as Roger Williams interpreted it--as supporting equal liberty for all religious beliefs and practices that do not require religious coercion.  She relies on many Biblical verses, but the most prominent is Acts 2:39.  After the Day of Pentecost, Peter speaks to the Christians: "The promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call."  Deb interprets this to mean that the Christian community includes not only the Christians and their children but also non-believers who might join their community. 

Although nothing is said here about Christian schools, she reads this as implying that Christian schools should be open to enrolling students whose parents are not Christians.  Most Christian schools see themselves as bringing together three Christian institutions--the Christian home, the Christian church, and the Christian school.  Consistent with this model, the admission of students to a Christian school requires proof that the students belong to a family that is a member of a recognized Christian church.  Deb argues that Acts 2:39 supports the conclusion that a Christian school should be open to those who are "afar off" or "sojourners," who are not Christians but are attracted to the Christian school.  This is likely to be the most controversial part of Deb's argument for the members of the Christian school movement.  As she indicates, many Christian parents are adamant that one of the main reasons for sending their children to a Christian school is to protect them from the "bad" kids from the "bad" families that are not Christian.

To defend her Biblical model of the Christian school as including non-Christian "sojourners," Deb must show that such a school can teach Christ in content and process by enforcing five Biblical boundaries.  The first is the exclusion of non-believers from any leadership in the Christian school.  The teachers, the administrators, and other staff members must all be professing Christians.  The second boundary is the exclusion of non-believers from the Sacraments--the Lord's Supper and Baptism.  Except for these two points of exclusion, the non-believers in the school are treated the same as the believers.

The third Biblical boundary is the prohibition against any open opposition to Biblical faith.  Although the students and parents in the school do not have to openly profess the Christian faith, they must not openly oppose it in the school.  Those who are openly oppositional will either choose to leave the school, or the students will be expelled from the school.

The fourth Biblical boundary is that all the benefits of living in the Christian community of the school are to be shared with the non-believing members of the school.  After all, that's why some non-believers have chosen to enroll their children in Christian schools--they want their children to enjoy the Christ-like loving care and instruction that only a Christian school can provide.

The final Biblical boundary is that both believers and non-believers in the Christian school will bear both the protection and the consequence of Biblical law.  That law enforced in school will protect everyone from the injustice that is prohibited by Biblical law.  But that also means that those who violate that law will be punished.  For example, Deb quotes from Leviticus 24:16, which teaches that "him that blasphemes the name of the Lord, he will be put to death for sure, and all the congregation will have to stone him.  The same for the sojourner (ger) and him that is born in the land; when he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he will be put to death."

And yet, while she does not explicitly say so, Deb surely would not endorse punishing blasphemers with death.  Why not?  Because New Testament Christian liberalism teaches us that the theocratic law of the Old Testament violates the religious liberty and toleration taught by the New Testament?  That's the argument of Roger Williams and other proponents of Christian liberalism, which is implicit in Deb's conception of a Biblically based Christian School.

The terms of that Christian liberalism are made clear in the second part of Deb's book, where she shows the practical procedures and norms that follow from her Biblical vision of the Christ-like way of being.  The organizational practice of a Christian school enforcing its Biblical worldview depends on requiring all families to read and sign every year an Admissions Statement that would look like this:


Christian School X (CSX) was founded and is governed by those who believe that children of believers must be educated according to God’s Word, the Bible.  This community of believers welcomes enrollment to any who desire to attend for other reasons, provided that the personal choice to enroll follows an understanding of what will be taught, and accompanies an agreement to follow the guidelines set forth in the Parent Student Handbook, as expressed in this Admissions Statement, and in accordance with the Statement of Faith.  Each enrollee of this community is welcomed in Christian love through a reflection of both the Grace and Truth of Jesus Christ (John 1:14).  All families must read and sign this admission statement yearly, indicating understanding of, and willingness to submit to, the teachings as stated below:


1. CSX is committed by faith to be governed by, led by, and educated through spiritually mature, Christian believers as board members, administrators, teachers, and support staff.


2. CSX is committed by faith to the interpretation of all subject material in light of a Biblical worldview.  In broad summary:  a Sovereign Creator and Law Giver, the Fall of man, and Redemption in Jesus Christ alone.


3.  CSX is committed by faith to teach, wherever it is developmentally appropriate, and in connection with subject material and all community life, that the moral law of God is the only right standard of living.  This includes but is not limited to:


a.   A Biblical definition of love as: acts and interactions that demonstrate, at all times, that each human being is of infinite value simply because they were each created in the image of God.  This is true even in light of the fact that each human being is corrupted by the fall into sin.  This prohibits CSX from teaching or interacting, by action or word as if uncontrolled anger, hitting, bullying, ridicule, sarcasm with intent to hurt or demean, isolation, control for the sake of control, etc. is acceptable in God’s eyes. This list is not exhaustive.

b.    A Biblical definition of sexual purity as: human sexuality that is limited to the intimate physical union between one woman and one man, bound in marriage by a vow.  This prohibits CSX from teaching or interacting, by action or word, as if pre-marital, extra-marital, and same-gender sexual unions; pornography of any kind; bestiality; polygamy; heterosexual co-habitation without marriage; excessive or inappropriate public displays of affection; excessive or dominating immodesty and/or indecency is acceptable in God’s eyes.  This also prohibits participants in the CSX community from engaging in Public Displays of Affection (PDA), whether hetero- or homo- sexual that suggest, promote, or display intimate physical union.  This list is not exhaustive.

c.     A Biblical definition of human life as the immediate result of conception, and having infinite value.  This prohibits CSX from teaching or interacting, by action or word, as if abortion is acceptable in God’s eyes.  In connection with this, CSX will proactively teach, when developmentally appropriate, sexual purity within the confines of marriage and seek to train students in an understanding of the vast and deep responsibility associated with sexual intercourse and the pro-creation of human life.

d.   A Biblical definition of integrity as: interactions that demonstrate, at all times, an understanding of, and response to, God’s ownership and distribution of all things whether in public or in private.  This prohibits CSX from teaching or interacting, by action or word that cheating, lying, stealing, sneaking, manipulation, rebellion, etc. is acceptable in God’s eyes.  This list is not exhaustive.

e.  A Biblical definition of human identity that is rooted in the ‘awesome and wonderful’ work of God in the intentional formation of each human in the womb (Psalm 139:14) and the unique position of humans above all other creatures as image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:27).  This definition of identity prohibits CSX from teaching or interacting, by action or word, as if attempts to alter the fundamental structure or representation of the human body are God-honoring choices.  This includes gender changes, cross-dressing, structural changes such as snake-tongues and horns, excessive tattooing, and body mutilation.  This list in not exhaustive.

f.  A Biblical definition of order as mutually responsible agreement to a set of guidelines that reflect the order and design of God’s creation.  This order ensures the progress of the whole child toward the peak of his or her potential.  The guidelines for order at CSX are outlined in the Parent-Student Handbook for the academic, behavioral, emotional and spiritual growth of students at CSX.

g.   In summary, the mission of CSX requires that Biblical truths, held in faith by the founding, governing, and teaching participants of CSX, be taught and integrated into all learning as the final and absolute authority on all matters of faith and life.

I, the undersigned, have read, understood and agreed to submit my child(ren) to Biblical teaching at CSX without seeking to promote or pressure any members of this community with any personal beliefs, lifestyles, or opinions that undermine or adversely influence the faith beliefs as….

a)     outlined above in this Admissions Statement;

b)     found in the Parent-Student Handbook;

c)     and in the Statement of Faith. 

Should I become dissatisfied with the faith-based teaching at CSX, or find myself no longer able to engage in mutually responsible agreement, I commit to peacefully seek an educational institution whose foundation and beliefs are not in conflict with my own beliefs and understand that failure to do so will result in expulsion.  (End policy statement.)

This illustrates how Christian liberalism can enforce the orthodox beliefs and practices of New Testament Christianity without violating the religious liberty and toleration required for a free society.  One must reject the theocracy taught by the Old Testament as superseded by the individual liberty of the New Testament, where the first Christians are shown as forming churches based on voluntary membership, which could properly expel those who refused to abide by the church's articles of faith, but there was no coercive violence in this.  What Adam Smith proposed as a free marketplace of religious sects was the practice of the early Christians.  It was not until Constantine established Christianity as the religion of Rome that Christians sought the coercive enforcement by law of Christian beliefs and practices.  Liberal Christians have sought to return to that original New Testament understanding of the separation of church and state.

Consider, for example, clause 3 (b) of the Admission Policy Statement on "sexual purity."  Human sexuality is understood as "limited to the intimate physical union between one woman and one man, bound in marriage by a vow," which prohibits "same-gender sexual unions." 

When Deb turns to a series of anecdotal case studies, her first is the story of a lesbian couple who applied at Parkview for the admission of their son, who had been conceived by artificial insemination.  As part of the admission process, they were told that they and their son would be welcomed into the school with Christian love, but that the school would teach the students that their way of life is wrong, and that this would be expressed respectfully and not in a demeaning way, but it would be clearly taught without apology.  They were also told that any attempt to challenge this teaching in the school would result in a severing of the relationship.  They agreed to this.  Their son enjoyed three years of successful schooling.  They finally withdrew their child only for financial reasons.

Here is a clear illustration of Christian liberalism.  Christians can fervently affirm the beliefs and practices of Biblical Christianity, and they can organize their lives--in their homes, their churches, and their schools--to manifest this Christian way of being.  But they can do this without demeaning the lives of those individuals who disagree, without violating religious liberty and toleration, and yet still firmly and clearly affirming their faith. 

Christian liberals can thus be graciously unapologetic.

Some of my points here have been elaborated in other posts here, here, here., here, and here.

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