Christian attitudes toward schoolteachers are strangely diverse. On the one hand, the warning of James 3:1—“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness”—supports a rather general feeling that teachers have a role of exceptional significance and grave responsibility. Thus education is often ranked by evangelicals alongside medicine and only just below the ministry. Alternatively, however, Christians may assess the teacher by the “realistic” standards of society as badly paid, often indifferently qualified, and of rather humble status. In the United Kingdom a third view is sometimes taken—that the teacher is divinely commissioned to “preach the Gospel” throughout, or even outside of, the statutory lessons devoted to religious education. Certainly an impressive number of Christians feel called to teach. How can they assess their work in Christian terms, especially since most of them will not be concerned with teaching the Scriptures?
First of all, there can be no doubt of the cultural significance of Education. Man’s impressive cultural development has been possible only because each human generation can stand on the shoulders of its predecessor. The teacher’s indispensable part in this process gives him social significance that cannot be denied. This is very important to the Christian teacher, for it means that his work is not peripheral but of central importance; he is making a direct contribution to the community and even to the human race.
In the second place, the Christian will set this contribution in an even wider context. The command to “exercise dominion” has been called man’s cultural mandate. The Bible teaches that man’s terrestrial supremacy is no accident. In making it possible for successive generations to extend their dominion, the Christian teacher is working with the Creator.
Of course the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 and 2:20 extends further than technological and biological expertise. Man is graciously commanded to act thus as the Creator’s viceroy because he is made—as is no other animal—in the divine image. Every area of the school curriculum witnesses to this truth, as does the whole process of education.
Professor Paul Hirst, of King’s College, London, has pointed out that within the traditional curriculum we may distinguish several different modes of knowledge. These are not in most cases identical with “subjects” but constitute distinct disciplines, and each demands its own particular approach. He suggests that they include the following: mathematical (concerned with abstractions and logic), scientific (concerned with what can be sensually experienced and experimentally checked), human (including such fields as history and certain aspects of literature), moral, aesthetic, religious and philosophical. Hirst’s distinctions will be relevant to the Christian teacher. He will regard them as a witness, singly and together, to the uniqueness of man, the divine image that sin may deface but can never utterly destroy. It was the Spirit of the Lord in Bezalel and Oholiab (Exod. 31:1–11) that qualified them aesthetically and technically, and the same holds for all forms of expertise. With these considerations in mind, the Christian teacher will see the importance of education in making apparent to every pupil how complex and diverse is a reality that demands so many different approaches for gaining understanding. It will also strike him as important that each approach makes on the student demands that are by no means divorced from moral imperatives. Each of them requires a full response of mind, will, and feeling. To whatever extent such a response occurs, so God is glorified as men in Kepler’s phrase “think God’s thoughts after him,” or in creative activity faintly reflect the activity of their divine Maker.
The Christian teacher will inevitably be conscious of the problem posed by the apparent self-sufficiency of curriculum subjects. How can he mention God in a science lesson? To say that God sends the rain is a theological and not a scientific statement. Nor is it historically sound to explain the survival of the early Church or the success of the War of American Independence by reference to the will of God. Surely then it must be intolerably limiting for the convinced Christian to teach “secular subjects.” It may appear that he is encouraging children to pursue limited aims in a manner that may be socially valuable but that by definition excludes the relevance of religious faith. Such a view is unduly pessimistic. In the first place, it ignores the factors mentioned above, the demands made by each discipline and the sense of wonder and purpose in all learning and discovery.
However, it also overlooks something even more basic that indicates a fourth Christian viewpoint on the teacher’s role. For every human activity, including science and history, ultimately poses moral and even religious questions. Scientific studies, for example, not only throw up moral problems that are presently causing widespread concern though often they are ignored in the classroom; they also raise issues about the nature of reality. What (if anything) exists objectively? What grounds have we for accepting scientific method as a valid way of acquiring knowledge? Is it possible to give an adequate account of science itself except in a context that is ultimately metaphysical or religious? Of course the Christian teacher is not alone in being aware of these problems, and differing viewpoints about them must exist in the nation’s schools. But the Christian may nevertheless be more aware of their importance and better able to offer a coherent viewpoint for evaluation by students. As Thurber’s farm dog taught the Scottie: It’s better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers. Christian teachers should be peculiarly well placed for raising questions that they know can be satisfactorily answered only by Jesus Christ.
A fifth way in which the Christian teacher’s approach should be affected by his faith is his attitude toward students. For him they are not complex animals demanding careful conditioning, nor empty vessels capable both of noise and of being filled to the brim with information. He knows that their uniqueness is not a mere biological phenomenon. Created by God in his own image, capable of hearing his voice and responding to it, objects of the love revealed at Bethlehem and Calvary, able to be made like Jesus Christ—such a view of man should powerfully modify the teacher-student relationship. It means that the Christian teacher will be especially careful to treat his students as people. Modern studies in child development have reminded us of what the Bible implies, that children are not just miniature adults but display their own developmental characteristics (First Corinthians 13:11). Yet they are none the less individuals. Each child is to be brought up in “the way that he [and not some other child] should go.” The Christian knows what it means to draw strength and acceptance from a personal relationship with his Maker. So although he may reject many of the assumptions underlying “progressive” education, he will approach each student as a person, an individual of infinite value, created for love and community, and with the God-given right to be treated as a person, not a school register number.
All that has been said so far relates to the sphere of common grace. It is in this area that the teacher principally operates. But although preaching the Gospel constitutes no part of his formal role, yet he may nevertheless communicate Christ and even do so in a way that could lead sooner or later to a student’s conversion. In the classroom as well as the common room, he will witness to Christ. His duty not to indoctrinate students in no way hinders him from offering what they may not encounter elsewhere: acquaintance with a committed Christian relating his faith to the world of thought and action. On countless occasions it is wholly appropriate for a Christian teacher to say, “Of course, as a Christian I approach this question with the following factors in mind.…” We cannot underestimate the importance of this witness in building up a total picture of what biblical Christianity entails.
Yet over and above this application of biblical principles to human affairs or to a subject discipline, the Christian teacher is like any other in that what he teaches most lastingly is himself. Whatever revolutions in education may have been witnessed by the twentieth century, in this there has been no change. It is the teacher’s personality and life style that stay longest with his students.
Some would plausibly deny that the Christian teacher should be expected to behave in any other way than quite simply as a good teacher. The work of the Holy Spirit would on this view appear in the believer’s greater competence in a recognized and definable role.
But there are certainly two characteristics of great educational significance that one may expect a Christian teacher to manifest. The first has already been mentioned: a concern for his students as individuals. Jesus showed this concern, and Paul spotlighted a distinctive New Testament emphasis when he personalized the atonement—“he loved me and gave himself for me.” Classrooms can be cold, impersonal places. The Christian teacher must display God’s concern for the individual and thus reveal the family likeness (Matt. 5:45a).
Second, the Christian teacher will be no less concerned to witness to the existence of standards in every area of school life. He knows that these are ultimately grounded in God’s character and in the objective existence of the created order. In an age of rootless relativism and subjectivity, this Christian witness was never more relevant. Today men need both the security and the threat of knowing that their failures and achievements are judged by criteria that go beyond individual preference and transcend even a hypothetical human consensus. Until they perceive this rock of security and destruction (Luke 20:17 f.), they will scarcely see the need or possibility of salvation.
This concern does not give the Christian teacher any right to reject those who fall short of such standards. He witnesses to the truth that they apply to him and condemn him no less than his students. In this respect he stands alongside and not above them. In penitence and faith he has learned that his sins and shortcomings may be condemned while he himself is accepted. Failure to accept others is the mark of the Pharisee in the twentieth as in the first century. Teachers are especially liable to reject. Unbelieving teachers will tend to accept only at the cost of jettisoning standards. Believers, on the other hand, may so assert trans-subjective standards that they reject students whose achievement (academic or moral) falls below an arbitrary level. Charles Simeon, nineteenth-century leader of the evangelical revival in the Church of England, said of the Arminian controversy that the truth lay at neither extreme nor in the middle but at both extremes. Similarly the Christian teacher is committed to an uncompromising assertion of objective standards and an equally unconditional acceptance of students. In so doing he is teaching the most important lesson of all. He learned it at Calvary.
Peter Cousins teaches theology at Gipsy Hill College of Education near London and is the editor of “Spectrum,” a magazine for Christian teachers. He holds the M.A. from Cambridge University and the B.D. from London.
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