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Rethinking Discipleship

Christian schooling is about more than education; it’s about discipleship.

By Dr. Alan Pue

Last year the nonprofit Parents Defending Education sued in federal court on behalf of three Massachusetts families over Wellesley Public Schools’ policies and practices that they said violated the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and civil rights law. The courts ruled in favor of the families, and as the WSJ editorial board noted, “The settlement looks like a solid win for parents.”

That, I am afraid, is more illusion than reality. As the Wellesley school district leaders noted in a press release soon after the court announced its decision, “bias incidents can include acts of unconscious bias.” That is simply a catchphrase for any action or statement that can be construed by anyone as biased against anyone. As such, it provides a lot of latitude for anyone wishing to pursue a personal or political agenda. Given that reality, what can we as Christ-followers do to protect our rights to educate our children in accordance with our beliefs? I’d like to offer some thoughts in answer to that question.

The Changing Reality of Religious Freedom

One cannot study the ministry of the Apostle Paul without becoming aware of how frequently he was able to use his status as a citizen of Rome to protect him personally from unlawful acts that would have hindered his efforts to preach the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Paul knew his rights and wisely used the legal system to a positive end. In so doing, he left us a template to follow in our current cultural moment. We should do the same, using every legal means possible to protect our religious liberties.

In the end, however, Paul, like all of the apostles, ended up a victim of a hostile pagan government. That hostility remained unabated for nearly three centuries until the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine. During those centuries, hundreds of thousands of Christ-followers gave what President Abraham Lincoln called “their last full measure of devotion” in service to Christ. From their blood sprang a movement that still impacts the world today.

We, in the USA, have been blessed to live in the most religiously free country ever in the history of the world. We have been free to live as the Scriptures call us to live (though we have often done so imperfectly). We have been free to speak truth to the surrounding culture without fear of reprisal (though we have also often done so poorly at times). And we have done both while living in the context of a culture that, to some level, has been supportive of what we’ve had to say and how we’ve chosen to live. That, however, is less true today than ever before in four hundred years of our history. Sadly, we’ve not responded wisely and well to that changing reality. Nowhere has that been truer than in our relationship with our state-funded public schools.

The Myth of Neutrality in Public Schools

I believe it is time for Christ-followers to toss aside the increasingly discredited idea that America’s public schools are in any way neutral regarding issues of life and faith. The simple truth is this: While schools and those who lead them are not always openly hostile to what the Scriptures teach, they require utter silence about what the Scriptures say on any topic of importance to our country and culture. Case after case, including the one in Wellesley, attests to that reality.

Ask yourself: Is God ever invited to participate in any discussion in any American public school classroom on issues related to the environment, law and justice, war and peace, the economy, race relations, or human sexuality? I think you get the picture. The consequence of that purposeful censorship and distortion of reality has been devastating to our kids and our culture.

Is It Worth the Risk? It is long past time that the believing church grasps the fact that we should no longer put our children at risk by having them attend state-operated schools. I know that is a radical thought, and space does not permit me to address it fully, so I’ll limit my thoughts to a single statement. As Voddie Baucham put it, “We cannot continue to send our children to Caesar for their education and be surprised when they come home as Romans.”

In one sense, the problem we face is simple. The ideas predominating the secular world have so poisoned the soil that very few healthy ideas can grow there. That is the difficulty those parents in the Wellesley school district discovered, as have parents in school districts all across the country. Those who run the system and teach in it have had their thinking methodically distorted by the very system they currently perpetuate. And as was true in the Roman Empire and equally true in much of the world today, the individuals in control of that system will forcefully resist and seek to discredit any voices that question what they believe and promote.

Are We Taking the Great Commission Seriously?

It is time to call the church back to the mission clearly given us by our Lord. As recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commanded His followers to go into the world to preach the gospel. Those who embraced the gospel were then to be baptized and taught to live their lives fully aligned with the teachings of Christ.

The Great Commission was never just about making converts. Nor was it about simply equipping a handful of leaders for the church. Rather it was always about making authentic disciples, people willing to fully live the implications of the gospel in and before the world. However, by any honest measure, the evangelical church of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has largely failed at that task. Yes, there have been many converts but authentic disciples? Not so much.

Why is that? I believe it’s because we have failed to grasp a simple reality for far too long: Discipleship is education; education is discipleship.

Education and discipleship are two sides of the same coin. They always have been. Every day when children go off to school, they are being discipled by someone. The question every parent should ask is this: Who do I want discipling my child? Do I want that person to be someone who knows Christ, loves Christ, and understands the implications of what the Bible has to say about how we are to live in this world today? Or am I okay with having someone who knows nothing of Christ or the Scriptures be the one who shapes and guides my child’s heart and mind as he prepares for life in a fallen world? However, it is a pretty stark choice that a relatively small number of Christ-followers in America seem willing to consider.

Let’s be honest. We will not win the war for the hearts, souls, or minds of those who control America’s public schools. That is a fantasy. And we are soon approaching the time when even courageous Christ-followers who lead and teach in our public school systems will find themselves increasingly hand-cuffed and harassed in their attempts to be salt and light. Perhaps it is time to heed our Lord’s instruction to move on and shake the dust from our feet where America’s state-funded schools are concerned (see Matt. 10:14; Luke 9:5; Mark 6:11; Acts 13:51).

Perhaps it is also time to ask a simple question: Is there a better investment of time, energy, and resources to be made by the church in the education of our children and young people? I believe the answer to that question is a resounding yes! Consequently, I believe it is time to boldly and graciously make that case to evangelical church leaders and parents. For many families, the task of educating children is simply too big and too complex. They can’t do it alone, and they need our support. Failure to make that investment will only have increasingly painful consequences for our families, the church, and the culture.

Dr. Alan Pue serves as president of The Barnabas Group, Inc, drawing on over fifty years of experience working in and with faith-based schools to assist schools in strategic/scenario planning, mission clarification/delivery, and governance. He is the author of three books, Rethinking Sustainability: A Strategic Finance Guide for Christian Schools, Rethinking Strategic Planning for Christian Schools, and Rethinking Discipleship: Why Christian Schooling Matters, along with numerous articles and book reviews. Alan lives with his wife, Linda, in beautiful Castle Pines, Colorado.


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