What Kind of a School?

Dan BeerensThe CACE Roundtable6 Comments

During the eight years I taught EDUC 501 as an adjunct at Dordt University, my graduate classes increasingly became a mix of Christian and public school teachers. In order to put all of my students on a common ground of biblical understanding, I used Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony, a wonderful “creed” published by the Christian Reformed Church in 1986. “Our World” is “a testimony of faith for our times, subordinate to our creeds and confessions.” It explains the biblical pillars of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation in ways that are practical responses to the secularization of culture. Studying it each day during our class devotions was foundational for our understanding of God’s world and our mission in it. It presented the grand narrative of Scripture to my students, wherever they were on their faith journey.

In times of turmoil, it is helpful for us to look back on our roots to consider what things can help us move forward. I find the Contemporary Testimony to be one of those statements that can reground us and lead us ahead. May I recommend this short document as a helpful tool for our school communities? 

At this time in history, it is paramount that we re-engage our communities around the very foundations and missions on which our schools were built. With our parents and staff, we need to revisit the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, the seriousness of sin, and the abundance of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. It is also critical to discuss the cultural mandate and the Great Commission—how we live out our faith—our calling from God to explore, discover, and develop all the potential that God placed in the creation, the unfolding of both the natural world and human culture, while at the same time to protect, care for, and preserve them. 

Schools can’t help but be affected by the divisiveness in our broader culture. Some of the current turmoil we find ourselves in is rooted in fear—fear of people who don’t look like us, don’t share our customs or way of life, come from different places, or hold different views. This fear, not only of others but of any form of change, is stoked by media outlets who feed our divisions. This trepidation may keep us from speaking out on behalf of those who are oppressed by racism and bigotry. But if it’s not us standing up for the oppressed, then who? We are, after all, followers of Jesus Christ, the ultimate champion of the powerless.

One relevant avenue of debate has circled around curricular choices and here’s the thing: to examine, for example the history of racial discrimination in the United States, does not mean I do not love my country. When you love something, you want it to be the best it can be. As a Christian and a national citizen, I can love God and neighbor by helping my country be better. If we are called as Christian educators to engage our culture, we certainly should support a Christian teacher’s freedom to examine all sides of an issue and discover how God’s Word informs our perspective. After all, what else does it mean to be educated? As educators, we cannot ignore scientific research or diverse perspectives on history; to do so is to poorly educate and disable our graduates. As people who believe in the power of education, new knowledge should chasten, enlighten, and humble us, not cause us to entrench into the past. As Hall suggests, intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance should be part of the journey of faith for students.

The Contemporary Testimony speaks of our world’s troubled reality—and of the God who comes to save:

17. All spheres of life—marriage and family, work and worship, school and state, our play and our art—bear the wounds of our rebellion. Sin is present everywhere—in pride of race, in arrogance of nations, in abuse of the weak and helpless, in disregard for water, air, and soil, in destruction of living creatures, in slavery, deceit, terror, and war, in worship of false gods, and frantic escape from reality. We have become victims of our own sin.

18. In all our strivings to excuse or save ourselves, we stand condemned before the God of truth. But our world, broken and scarred, still belongs to God. He holds it together and gives us hope.

Knowledge of sin precedes repentance and a more godly future. How could any parents not want their children to know and understand the truth of what has happened in our country and world, not just with slavery, but also, for example, with the forced removal and massacres of indigenous peoples? If we do not examine the effects of sin, how can we understand our need for a Savior? In Christian education, we have the freedom and responsibility to start by understanding and acknowledging our brokenness (How did we get here? Is this how it was supposed to be?). We celebrate our being freed from this brokenness through the death of Jesus Christ and are released to gratefully share the gospel story, and to serve God, our neighbors, and the world (So now what? How do we respond?). It saddens me that I did not learn about the Tulsa massacre (or the many other massacres of that time) in my education nor did I understand the Black experience deeply until I read Caste and other books about Black history this past year. I found myself chastened, enlightened, and humbled. Through learning more I am now better able to understand and love my neighbor and I am better equipped to participate in Christ’s restorative work in our world.

Living out my calling in the kingdom of God will require an avoidance of fundamentalist thinking—an approach that discourages deep questions, that is uncomfortable with gray areas and healthy wondering or even disagreement, that fears research and information, and that seeks to intimidate others who don’t share the same viewpoint. As theologian and author Fleming Rutledge states, “We cannot be disciples of Christ and live in individual spiritual isolation as though we had nothing to do with the larger society.” 

Again, the Contemporary Testimony helps me understand the biblical call to participate in the work of caretaking and restoration:

10. As God’s creatures we are made in his image to represent him on earth, and to live in loving communion with him. By sovereign appointment we are earthkeepers and caretakers: loving our neighbor, tending the creation, and meeting our needs. God uses our skills in the unfolding and well-being of his world.

12. No matter what our age, or race, or color, we are the human family together, for the Creator made us all. Since life is his gift, we foster the well-being of others, protecting the unborn and helpless from harm.

What does it mean to desire the flourishing of all? How should we teach toward that end? Jesus took time with people to hear their stories, feel their pain, to be present among them. If my goal is to be more like Christ, how can I not do the same? To seek to understand the journey of others, to respond to them in love first. To honor you as an image-bearer of God, I must seek to understand what it is like to be you—what it is like to live in your shoes. I must also be aware that my experience is not like yours. I don’t think about walking out to my car in a dark parking lot in the same way my wife does. When stopped by a police officer, I do not hold the same fears as my Black friends might. When applying for a job or renting a place, the ethnicity of my name does not produce initial suspicion or fear. To love my neighbor well requires that I consider both my position and my neighbor’s plight.

As a Christ follower and Christian educator, I especially resonate with, and love paragraph 50 in the Contemporary Testimony: “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.” 

I am also compelled by these exciting words of hope from Dr. Neal Plantinga in his outstanding book, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living

Christ has come to defeat the powers and principalities, to move the world over onto a new foundation, and to equip a people—informed, devout, determined people—to lead the way in righting what’s wrong, in transforming what’s corrupted, in doing the things that make for peace, expecting that these things will travel across the border from this world to the new heaven and earth. (pg. 143)

In this post I have suggested a strategy: to revisit the mission, story, and purpose of your school as a community. There has never been a more important time to do so. Like the Israelites of old who told and retold the stories of God’s faithfulness, the stories of deep conviction and sacrifice of your school community need to be heard anew. Perhaps Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony could be a helpful tool in this collaborative, community process. We need to connect our boards, staff, and parents around what we believe, based on Scripture, so that we can build on common ground to connect our missions with our practice. In mutual humility and sorrow, let’s cast out idols and blind spots that hinder us from being and educating followers of Jesus Christ.


6 Comments on “What Kind of a School?”

  1. Thanks Dan. “Our World Belongs to God” is a significant overview for those involved in Christian Education. I encourage schools to have their teachers and staff read it together twice a year. Blessings on your ministry

  2. Thanks, Harriette. Let’s continue to pray for Christian school leaders and the faith communities they serve.

  3. Thank you, Dan, for this insightful and important article. I plan to share it with our school community and use it as a guide to further discussions as we continue on our path toward ethnic conciliation at Harding Academy, in Memphis, TN and in our world. May His Word and His Spirit continue to guide us. Thank you, again!

    1. Thanks for your response, Trent! I pray God will continue to bless your efforts at Harding Academy as you do this important work in Christ’s name.

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