Historically, when members of the Christian Reformed Church moved to a new location, they built churches, then schools. In communities all over North America from Ancaster, Ontario, to Bellflower, California, school bells arose alongside steeples. Families who gathered for worship on Sunday saw each other all week long at the local Christian school.
Is that just a quaint historical oddity—the pattern of an immigrant community trying to carve out little colonies in the intimidating “new world”? Or is there a more integral connection between Reformed faith and Christian education? If the latter is true, wouldn’t Christian education be as important today as it was in the 1880s or the 1950s?
Each generation needs to re-own the rationale for Christian education, to ask ourselves “Why did we do this?” and “Should we keep doing this?” If the answers of a past generation don’t stand up today, then perhaps we need to rethink our support for Christian schooling.
Why Christian Schools?
So why Christian schools? Why did earlier generations commit to Christian education, investing in schools in often sacrificial ways? Their rationale was biblical, comprehensive, and radical.
Stemming from the conviction that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10), the Reformed tradition—and the CRC in particular—has long recognized that Christ’s lordship extends over every sphere of life, including education. There is no sphere of life that is “neutral”; rather, our practices and institutions are always and ultimately shaped and informed by faith commitments. So while an institution might claim to be “secular,” as if it were not religious, Reformed thinkers from Abraham Kuyper to Nicholas Wolterstorff have seen through such claims: what pretends to be neutral or secular in fact masks some other faith commitment.
The vision of Christian education is radical because it stems from the conviction that any and every education is rooted (Latin: radix) in some worldview, some constellation of ultimate beliefs. Therefore, it’s important that the education and formation of Christians be rooted in Christ (Col. 2:7)—rooted in and nourished by a Christian worldview across the curriculum.
The commitment to Christian schooling grows out of a sense that to confess “Jesus is Lord” has a radical impact on how we see every aspect of God’s good creation. The curriculum of Christian schools should enable children to learn about everything—from algebra to zygotes—through the lens of Christian faith.
What It’s Not
That said, it might be helpful to point out what Christian education is not.
First, Christian education is not meant to be merely “safe” education. The impetus for Christian schooling is not a protectionist concern, driven by fear, to sequester children from the big, bad world. Christian schools are not meant to be moral bubbles or holy huddles where children are encouraged to stick their heads in the sand.
Rather, Christian schools are called to be like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia: not safe, but good. Instead of antiseptic moral bubbles, Christian schools are moral incubators that help students not only to see the glories of God’s creation but also to discern and understand the brokenness of this fallen world.
While the Christian classroom makes room for appreciating the stunning complexity of cell biology and the rich diversity of world cultures, it’s also a place to understand the systemic injustices behind racism and the macroeconomics of poverty. Christian schools are not places for preserving a naive innocence; they are laboratories to form children who see that our broken world is full of widows, orphans, and strangers we are called to love and welcome.
In short, Christian schools are not a withdrawal from the world; they are a lens and microscope through which to see the world in all its broken beauty.
Second, Christian schools are not just about Bible classes. The curriculum of a Christian school is not the curriculum of a public school plus religion courses. While Christian education does deepen students’ knowledge of God’s Word, it’s not Bible class that makes a school Christian.
Rather, the Reformed vision of Christian education emphasizes that the entire curriculum is shaped and nourished by faith in Christ, “for by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). Christian schools are not just extensions of Sunday school focused on learning religion; they are Christ-rooted educational institutions focused on religious learning.
Third, Christian education is not a merely “private” education. Christian schools are not meant to be elite enclaves for the wealthy. To the extent that Christian schools become pious renditions of “prep schools,” they fail to appreciate the radical, biblical calling of Christian education. In Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony, this is expressed in the confession that
In education we seek to acknowledge the Lord
by promoting schools and teaching
in which the light of his Word shines in all learning,
where students, of whatever ability,
are treated as persons who bear God’s image
and have a place in his plan.
This brings us back to a crucial feature of this vision of Christian education: while the decision about schooling rests with families, the project of Christian education involves an entire community.
It Takes a Village
Christian schooling takes a village—to nourish the vision, to form Christian teachers, and to help share the costs and risks.
Christian Reformed communities have long understood a commitment to Christian schools as an expression of the promises we make at baptism—to be the “village” that supports the formation and education of our children. In a tangible expression of “kingdom economics” (see Acts 4:32-36), the entire community shares the burden of Christian schooling. Older generations support younger generations through giving to the Christian education fund, grateful for the generations before them that did the same. Only such a gift-giving economy can make it possible for Christian education to be a blessing for all in the community.
Let’s be honest: Christian schooling is a high-investment, labor-intensive venture. It requires sacrifices and hard choices. And it’s increasingly countercultural to pursue such a vision.
But when it’s carried out in the best spirit of the Reformed tradition—when Christian education is an intentional, intensive, formative curriculum bent on shaping young people as agents and ambassadors of God’s coming kingdom—the investment proves to be wise stewardship.
So it turns out that Christian education is not just a 19th-century hangover. It bubbles up from the very nature of the church as a covenant community. It’s an expression of the core convictions of the Reformed tradition. And we might need it now more than ever.
- Did you attend a Christian or public school when you were a child? What lasting influence did it have on your life?
- Some critics say that Christian education places children in a moral and cultural bubble. How can a Christian school be “not safe but good,” teaching Children how to live out their faith amid the complexities of the “real” world?
- How do you understand the Reformed vision of Christian education?
- Do you agree that Christian schooling “takes a village”? How do you or your church contribute to the Christian education of children?
- What do our children need now more than ever?
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