What is Christian education? It is not simply about the organization or the participants: you can have a Christian school association, Christian students, and Christian teachers, without teaching in a particularly Christian manner. Is it about curriculum? A Bible class would be obviously Christian in content; and you might think of Christian biology in terms of teaching a creationist alternative to an evolution-based curriculum; but is that sufficient to make it truly Christian education? And how does one teach Christian math?
Truly Christian education runs much deeper. Its central purpose is to instill a decidedly Christian worldview in the students. The teacher must endeavor to communicate this view both explicitly and implicitly, model it in his or her relations with the students, and insist to see fruits of this worldview grow in their lives.
The Christian worldview
A Christian is a citizen of two realms or kingdoms.* The first realm is the visible, physical world. Two central facts must be kept in mind about this world: it was created good, yet is under the curse of sin.
The goodness of the world stems from the fact that God himself designed it and brought it into existence. Thus, the world has meaning and purpose. In fact, it is no less than a sanctuary, in which human beings are called as priests to care for this creation. We were created to think God’s thoughts after him, in a creaturely manner. For the scholarly endeavor, this means that we try to understand the world and its history as a positive, ordered, purposeful whole. On a fundamental level this opposes all forms of naturalism, materialistic evolution, and fatalistic existentialism.
On the other hand, the fall of mankind affected the world in a profound manner. Because of it, creation lies under a curse of futility. Its essential goodness and purposefulness are not removed; yet in all its aspects there is imperfection, misdirection, deformation. A Christian scientist may never declare something good just because it happens to be the case. In the humanities, the consequences of the fall are more obvious: in all of mankind’s history, there is the obvious imprint of sin, which renders every fact, every accomplishment, every artifact subject to critical, moral scrutiny. Moreover, as a result of the fall, the human mind is inevitably fallible. This must make us humble about or learning, knowledge, and scientific methods. While we can gain adequate and profound understanding of God’s world, this understanding is never unerring and certainly not comprehensive. Christian scholarship cannot be naïve or arrogant, but must remain sober and self-critical.
The second realm is the eschatological “Kingdom of God”. This is where the Christian is truly at home. Christian education must instill in students that we are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus. This kingdom is, first of all, not of this world. Therefore Christian scholarship and education sets different priorities than the secular counterpart. Second, this kingdom is antithetical to all sin and evil that is rampant in our world. As a result, we will frequently disapprove of things that secular scholarship considers positive or neutral. Third, this kingdom has come in the historical person of Jesus Christ. The event of his coming forms the pivot of all Christian historiography. Fourth, this kingdom is being revealed today in part, specifically in the church as the body of Jesus Christ, and the way in which she displays God’s love in her inner life and in her attitude to the world. Christian educators will endeavor to teach their students to be part of this process of partial restoration. Finally, the full revelation of this kingdom requires a future, supernatural event. Christian academics and professionals, while working toward restoration in the world of today, must always be aware that the final, radical restoration will be the Lord’s work when he returns. This prevents activism or undue optimism.
The Christian teacher
In every class, from Bible to mathematics, there will be opportunities to teach this Christian worldview directly. But indirect communication is at least as important; it takes place (or fails to take place) continually. What attitudes and priorities do teacher communicate to students? The words, gestures, and actions of the teacher must reflect faith in God’s promises, love for God’s creation and people, hope in God’s future.
This is especially important in the teacher’s attitude toward the student and her work. On one hand, the Christian teacher will approach students with fairness, love, gentleness, patience, and compassion. He will treat every student with respect, because each of them is created in the image of God. The teacher will stand next to the student, as fellow-sinner and fellow-saint. On the other hand, he will expect the same of his students. The Christian educator will insist that the student fulfills her calling by working diligently and respectfully. There will be a high expectation, not only of academic excellence, but also of seeing spiritual growth, as the students are renewed in the image of Jesus Christ and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.**
In the ideal “climate” of a Christian school, teachers and students work together, in different roles but for the same purpose. Together, they grow in knowledge of the Lord and his work in nature and history. Together, they strive to serve God in vocational and scholarly work. Together, they are part of the Kingdom community in which eschatological life begins to be revealed. Together, they suffer for the sake of that Kingdom and triumph in the name of the King. Together, teachers and students receive the grace of Jesus Christ and share and celebrate it.
* The language of “two kingdoms” should not be read as an endorsement of the more specific “Two Kingdom” view as promoted by theologians such as Van Drunen.
** However, the teacher does not have spiritual oversight of the student; that task belongs to the parents, elders, and pastors. The authority of the teacher focuses on the academic activities; outside of that, a teacher is a guide or counselor rather than an authority figure.