Sunday, January 18, 2009

Toward a Grace-based Philosophy of Christian Education

Christian Schools should be places that teach, model, and apply the grace of the Gospel. They should not be places that reinforce legalism. But a grace-based education raises questions and concerns. For instance, how do we know when to discipline and when to have grace? What kind of discipline should we use? How does grace create an orderly environment? How does grace produce change in the lives of children? A grace-based classroom sounds great, but how do we keep everything from devolving into chaos?

The purpose of this entry is to begin the process of clearing up these confusions. I say “begin the process” because it is a complex subject that will take much time and consideration to develop, and because Christian education is behind the theological curve. Recent years have seen a resurgence of the Gospel of Grace within broader Christianity, but it has yet to make its way into Christian education. The modern Christian education movement has not valued the Gospel as it should throughout its short, 40 year history. Schools have been places that have valued primness and properness, respect and order, sharpness and diligence, rules and regulations. They have prided themselves on their differences from the public schools, have sold themselves as better environments, and have panicked upon seeing public-school problems seeping in (“This school is not like it used to be!”). Parents have brought their children to Christian schools to escape the problems of other schools, believing them to be environmentally different. After all, Christian Schools do not put up with that kind of behavior, do they? Christian Schools have all sorts of rules against all sorts of behaviors and enforce them with all the authority that their religion supposedly allows. They treasure order, obedience and good grades (“We either expel or do not enroll students who misbehave or cannot achieve good grades.”). They treasure matching uniforms, quiet hallways, diligent, attentive, respectful students, and good families. Disciplinary conversations are full of language about obeying God, parents and, in loco parentis, teachers too.

Many Christian schools have taught the Gospel from the beginning. And yet a chasm often exists between what is taught and what is modeled and applied. They preach the grace of the Gospel but model the life of the Law. In their zeal to be different from the public schools, they have not yet learned how the Gospel should impact schools, classrooms, and student’s lives.

Admittedly, a grace-based system is likely to be messier than what many are comfortable with, but this does not mean that schools must entirely leave off order, expectations, and discipline. Everyone understands that education cannot happen in chaotic environments. Some measure of order must be in place. Grace does not mean that we do not hold students accountable to expectations. However, it does mean that we should never leave students holding the bag of our expectations all alone. Just as the message of the Law is never complete apart from the Gospel, the message of educational expectations is never complete apart from the sanctifying message of the Gospel. And while schools hold students accountable, educators must be willing to release their grasp upon what they treasure most (e.g., order and achievement) in order to instill in students what God values most.

So to begin our considerations, I would like to propose three ideas that will help us balance grace and discipline in a Christian school. They will not answer all our questions but will move us toward a theological and philosophical framework that allows us to merge together the ideas of an orderly and grace-based educational environment:

Expectations are necessary because they give grace meaning.

God’s means of sanctifying believers should never be truncated by leaving students with expectations alone.

As educators, we must be willing to let go of what we have treasured most in order to grab hold of what God values most.


  1. 1. Interesting research project: to determine whether the CRC's Christian school history differs from what we're used to (re: grace and structure and all that)

    2. Defining grace is paramount to this project. And figuring out where "expectations" fit into Grace... that's a huge question....

  2. I have more on expectations fitting into grace that I will likely post FYC later.

    There are several veins of Christian education in history that no doubt have different relationships to the Gospel. Without research, I guess that the CRC has had a older, more contiguous history of Christian schools. A more recent trend was a more fundamentalistic, reactionary phenomenon that arose in the 60's and 70's. The impetuses for this were things like the prayer ruling of 1963 and the desegregationist efforts of the lste 60's and 70's. I would place bets that CSI has an older history (it was formerly known by a different name, I think). I would bet that frequency of school starts was greater in the late 60's and 70's for ACSI and AACS. More ACCS schools probably originated in the 80's and 90's. There is probably a correlation between philosophical foundations, societal and cultural trends, and spiritual emphases within each of these different threads. What are the other threads to be considered?

  3. Hm. Great question. I know the Reformed churches had their schools from the beginning. Of course, parochial schools have been around since the mid-1800s in America, but I figure they're outside the scope of our study.

    I wonder if the charismatic churches have a different school history than the independent Baptists/ Fundamentalists.

    In America, at least, I think most mainline Christians felt like the public schools were basically in line with their cultural values until the 1960s. The only traditions who chose to start their own schools were those who had a philosophical allegiance to the concept of Christian education -- hence, the Reformed traditions. (I think).