You need more textbooks than the Bible.
The other day I received a letter from a Lutheran colleague informing me that his congregation was opening a Christian school for elementary grades and asking “prayers for us as we undertake this important Christian witness.” Now, my ecumenical spirit and my charitable leanings told me to pray for him in this educational venture; on the other hand, my own deep misgivings about so-called Christian schools restrained me.
A 1967 CHRISTIANITY TODAY article claimed that “the most exciting development in education today is the rise of the Protestant Christian school.” Among the reasons for organizing these schools, according to the author’s survey, were a superior academic environment, strong Christian influence, and Bible-centered curriculum. A number of pastors admitted that they hoped to promote church growth through the recruitment of parents who had become fed up with public education. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Bible reading and prayer decisions, the introduction of sex education, and the teaching of evolutionary rather than creationist views in science courses, private Christian schools grew at a rapid rate. The article claimed that “the Protestant school exists in the interest of the Christian witness in the world; the school is an instrument for subjecting the secular world to the reign of Christ.” A far-reaching court decision was not mentioned in the article—the Supreme Court’s decision on school integration and its attendant legislation on busing. The fact that the examples of fine new Christian schools came from places like Charleston, South Carolina, Selma, Alabama, and San Antonio, Texas, did not seem particularly significant to the author. There was no mention of race in the article.
A later story, “Creed and Color in the School Crisis,” appeared in a 1970 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. This article drew an obvious parallel between the rise of Protestant church schools and school busing decisions, particularly in the North and West. It was noted that a few mainline Protestant denominations (United Methodists, for example) have forbidden their congregations to form private schools, integrated or otherwise, which would compete with public education. It was also noted that the National Association of Christian Schools (NACS) and the National Union of Christian Schools officially discouraged racial discrimination on the part of their member schools. Some of the other Christian school organizations were not so firm in their resistance to the use of Christian schools to avoid racial integration, leaving the matter to the discretion of the individual school. As one now drives across the country and sees so-called Christian schools and academies springing up in church recreation halls, abandoned restaurants, and prefabricated housing, one can’t help but wonder if more than a desire for Christian education motivates those who are part of this new education phenomenon.
Admittedly, there are Christian schools worthy of the name, and there are shoddy, racist, superpatriotic pretenses unworthy of either the designation of Christian or of school. The National Christian School Education Association (NCSEA) and its parent body, the National Association of Christian Schools (NACS), appear to set rigorous membership and accreditation requirements that not only stress an evangelical, racially inclusive Christian faith, but also a sound educational program. But any private Christian school, educationally adequate or not, raises some serious theological and ethical issues.
First, there is the unavoidable question of race. Surely there are few Christians today who would attempt to support segregation or white supremacy by Scripture. Our Christian faith compels us to witness, as individuals and as churches, to the Lord who treated all people as children of God. Despite claims to the contrary, the meteoric rise in the number of Christian schools has paralleled the desegregation of public schools.
“It’s not a question of race,” the headmaster of a local Southern Baptist school assured me; “it’s a question of quality education.” We have heard that before. As I grew up in the South, it was rarely a question of racism; it was always a question of “state’s rights” or “constitutionality” or the “Biblical belief in racial purity.” Although many private Christian schools piously proclaim an open door policy, their cost and location inevitably make them all-white institutions. De facto segregation exists in the vast majority of Christian schools even in the face of de jure inclusiveness. Would parents be as eager to send their children to these private schools if the racial proportions were the same as in their local public schools? You know the answer. A survey of literature from the NACS and the NCSEA had no statement on the race question. What kind of witness in the world do we have when we proclaim brotherhood and love, yet organize institutions that promote racial and class exclusiveness?
Further, there is the question of academic standards in these private schools. The Christian schools in my area do not have a monopoly on high academic achievement. Like many private schools before them, they often trade parental approval for rigorous education. “My child made C’s in public school and is making all A’s at the academy,” a mother told me. Her child is one of fifty students in the school where annual tuition is nearly $2,000. The school’s income is derived entirely from student fees. Is it any wonder that improved grades often come with the switch to private Christian schools? Sometimes private schools have boasted of higher standardized test scores among their students, as compared to public school students. Most educators would regard these higher scores as more a credit to the parents than to the schools. Children who come from relatively affluent, advantaged homes always tend to do better on such tests.
A Christian school in our town meets in a large prefabricated steel building. None of its teachers are accredited by any state or private agency. It has no textbooks or other educational aids (“The Bible is all we need,” its headmaster proclaims). And yet it advertises “Quality Christian Education” as its goal. Accelerated Christian Education, Incorporated, of Garland, Texas, now markets audio-visual kits for use in Christian schools. The kits contain tapes and workbooks designed for the education of individual students, led by parents or untrained personnel, rather than by qualified teachers. In a recent interview in The National Observer (Jan. 15, 1977), Dr. Billy Melvin of the National Association of Christian Schools, expressed concern about the inadequate qualifications of some teachers: “It’s not enough just to depend on the Bible for instruction, as important as that is.” But Dr. A. C. Janney of the American Association of Christian Schools said in the same article that his schools frequently “… decided to sacrifice educational background for Bible orientation. We turned to Bible school graduates without formal educational qualifications because we can always take care of the academic things but not the spiritual.”
A major problem for private education, Christian or otherwise, is cost. Education is a frighteningly expensive undertaking. At the time when many Roman Catholics are finding that their parochial schools are becoming an unbearable burden on parish budgets and of questionable value in Christian nurture, it is disheartening to see Protestants buying into the business of education. A survey of Christian schools in my state revealed tuition costs ranging from $700 to $1,200 per year. Multiply that by several children per family and you have a sizeable drain on any family’s budget. Where does the money come from? I have heard more than one minister complain that most of the money comes from funds that would otherwise be given to church missions. “My church is in an area where the public schools are 70 per cent black and where two-thirds of my church’s kids go to private schools,” a fellow minister told me. “When church budget time comes around, parents tell me, ‘Look, we’re already paying for a good Christian education. That’s our tithe.’ ” Is Christian education a luxury that only the rich can afford?
Our founding fathers were convinced that democracy could survive only among an educated populace. Churches got into education mainly in those areas where no one else cared enough to go; frontier missions, education for minorities, women, the poor, and the handicapped. As education became the right of all Americans, churches withdrew from primary and secondary education. It would be tragic if Christians turned their talents to educating the children of the affluent and began competing with the more universal aims of public education. And if Christian schools tried to solve their financial problems by appealing for state aid, the results could be even more tragic.
In too many communities, parents who are talented, educated, committed Christians have withdrawn their children (along with their time, talent, and prayers) from the public schools without a thought for their responsibility as their brother’s keeper. Without children in the public schools, they have little interest in the needs of public education, from passing bond issues to setting curriculum. Certainly, there is much wrong in today’s public schools—mostly the same things that are wrong with our society as a whole. Christian parents have good reason to feel alarmed over many recent developments in public education. But who will improve it? What kind of society will we have if all Christians abandon the public schools? Hats off to President Carter and his family for their stand on this issue.
My friend requested my prayer for “this new Christian witness.” To whom will his new private school witness? What will that witness be? Obviously, the only witness will be to those children whose parents already share his particular Christian theology. That is a new definition of “letting your light shine.” I am afraid that the only thing the witness will say to the rest of the world is, “It is impossible for Christians to raise their children in today’s world without withdrawing them from the world. The Christian faith cannot compete with contemporary secular ideologies. Secularity, immorality, scientism, and materialism are stronger than our Gospel and therefore we must isolate our children in a theological and intellectual hothouse to shield them from these contemporary challenges to our faith.”
That is not what I want to say. Roman Catholic schools have not been called parochial over the years for nothing. Parochialism is the enemy of evangelical witness in the world. You can’t convert the person whom you do not know. Much of the private Christian school movement is a cover-up for a haphazard approach to Christian education within our churches. True, twentieth-century America is often hostile in subtle and sophisticated ways to the Gospel. But there are more creative, more courageous, more biblical responses to the problem than by simply moving the game to our own secluded ball park where we make all the rules.
For my own children I want a good, full education. But, true to my evangelical roots, I am skeptical of the final efficacy of education in general. It is sad to see Christians accepting the same old liberal, Western, secular faith that claims that education is the god that cures all problems. If there is one thing we should have learned in the past few years, it is the severely limited capacity of education to cure our deepest problems. Christians used to be more skeptical of facts, figures, reason, externally imposed authority, and indoctrination. I’m not going to ask a teacher to do for me or for my children what I am called as a Christian to do in my home and my church. Too many American parents hire professional teachers, counselors, coaches, and babysitters to do their jobs. My church and I will teach my children to pray, to worship, to read the Bible, to counter secularity’s false claims, to keep the state in proper Christian perspective, and to witness to the light that shines in the darkness. For me intelligence is not defined as the mere acquisition of facts and figures. Intelligence is the ability to live with all sorts of people, to confidently face challenges to one’s faith, to learn from the heart as well as the head. In other words, I want more for my children’s nurture than a public or private school can give them.
How can I give my children this Christian nurture without opting for a private Christian school? First, I can work in the public schools in my community for better use of my tax money and a better education for all of God’s children, and I can claim the work I do there as Christian witness. When I see the parents of children at my local school having bake sales and rummage sales to raise money for their school, I can’t help wondering how much that time and effort would mean if applied to the needs of our public schools. We can use our time and talents in better ways than in competition with public education. We need more committed Christians who are public school board members, teachers, coaches, and volunteer workers. I know of more than one minister who has offered his services as coach, counselor, or teacher of a noncredit religion or ethics course and has been received with open arms by beleaguered school officials. One such minister doubled the size of his church’s youth group through contacts made with youth at the school. That is witness. I also know of many public school teachers who see the public school as a mission field and look upon themselves as missionaries, who heal, witness, and help. The literature of Christian school organizations implies that parents who really love their children and that teachers who are really Christians will withdraw from the public schools and make the needed sacrifices to provide true Christian education. Such self-righteousness may be needed to keep Christian schools afloat, but it insults those Christians who see their commitment to public education as a Christian witness.
Second we can support Christian teachers and students in our public schools. It is tough and demanding. Rather than withdraw during a difficult crisis in school integration, a church started a group for high school students, where school problems were shared and prayed about. The group looked upon itself as salt in a sometimes unsavory environment. That is witness. Similar Christian groups could provide valuable experiences for Christian teachers.
No, colleague, I cannot bring myself to pray for your new private Christian school. I will pray for you, but not for your school. And I pray for myself and for all of us in these difficult days that we will be a light in a dark world.
Make It As Sure As You Can
Once there was a spider who lived in a tree. The webs he wove were the strongest, the glossiest, the stickiest webs that a spider could ever construct. Many bugs and beetles, many ants and other insects found themselves caught, quick-dried and stored away in his loaded larder.
One thing alone troubled his tranquil existence. Close to his tree ran a railroad track, and each morning when the train whooshed by, his whole house shuddered and shook. Sometimes he even lost a few of the tasty tidbits he had intended for a treat.
“That’s the last straw!” he screamed one day when he found part of his house torn away. “I’ll put a stop to that train! It won’t trouble me anymore!”
That night he spun a long glossy filament that rolled out and out and out. When the wind gave a stronger puff than usual, he leaped into the air and went flying across the tracks to the tree on the other side.
Now his evil plan began. Back and forth, back and forth from tree to tree he ran, weaving the strongest, the glossiest, the stickiest web any spider could construct. None had ever been so fine, none so strong, so tough, so utterly unbreakable!
“I’ll seal it with a seal,” he muttered as he glued it doubly fast. “I’ll get some of my friends to guard it as well. They’ll make it as sure as they can.”
The next morning the “Hwooooo-hwoooo” of the train could be heard. It was the Lagos Express. And it was coming awfully fast.
“Hurrah!” laughed the spider. “What a wreck this will be!”
“Hwoo-hwooo,” called the train.
“Haw! Haw!” laughed the spider.
“Hwooo-ooo,” the train warned.
“As sure as you can,” said Pilate.
Eileen Lageer is the administrative assistant of the overseas department, Missionary Church Headquarters, which is in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.
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