Christian schools and covenant

I presume that as long as there have been Christian schools there have been conversations among Christians as to whether or not we should send our children to these schools. This makes it hard to bring something fresh to the debate. While the point I’m planning to make in this article has been made before, most authoritatively by the Acts of Synod 2005, it’s been surprisingly absent from several recent conversations I’ve witnessed on the topic and so perhaps bears repeating. 

Significantly more than the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) itself, Christian schools are no longer the inwardly-focused Dutch enclaves they still mostly were during my own Christian education. Partially in order to survive, Christian schools have welcomed in believers from outside the Reformed tradition in the last decade or so, and although they remain generally Reformed in outlook and philosophy I suspect that most Christian schools are now polyglot Protestant in practice. On measure, this is a wonderful thing. As long as Christian schools remain steadfast in proclaiming the Lordship of Christ over all things, increasing the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and cultures can only be a good thing.

But there are two sides to this coin. Christian schools have felt pressure in the last decade or so to expand their outward reach largely because their traditional base is no longer stable. Many people I know who came up through Christian schools are choosing other educational options for their own children, and it is no longer a given that CRC pastors will send their children or publicly support the idea of Christian education. I’ve even heard of a Christian school teacher who sends his own children to public school, which seems to me an egregious hypocrisy that I’m surprised the school board tolerates.

Wanting ‘the best’
I’ve heard several reasons why more and more Reformed Christians are turning their backs on Christian schools. As we become a less insularly Dutch community, many people who were raised in the CRC are marrying people from other faith traditions or with no faith background at all. Again, increasing diversity is by no means a bad thing but in this situation it can be a challenge when one spouse wants to choose Christian education and the other doesn’t. I imagine it’s very difficult to counter the argument from your spouse that “I went to public school and I turned out fine.” And then, of course, there is the issue of cost. In jurisdictions where Christian schools receive no public funding their cost is incredibly prohibitive. Tuition payments are legitimately beyond the reach of many families in the current economic climate (see “Under the microscope: Affordability,” by Angela Reitsma Bick, Feb. 9, 2015), and even for those who can afford them, other things like luxury cars or fancy vacations often look more enticing.

These are considerable challenges, but the main reason I’ve heard lately about why Reformed Christians aren’t choosing Christian schools is that they want the “best opportunities” for their children. Christian schools can’t always afford to offer boutique features like shop class or swim team, nor can they be guided by every niche pedagogical approach that parents may subscribe to (Waldorf, Montessori, “Unschool,” French Immersion, etc.). And while the high quality of a Christian education has been firmly and factually established by a landmark 2012 Cardus study, if academic achievement is your primary goal the cost of Christian school tuition could go a long way toward paying for an elite private secular school instead.  

Covenantal community
I should be entirely clear that I don’t find these arguments compelling. In my mind, the value of inculcating a holistic Christian worldview in my children vastly outstrips that of, say, ensuring that their high school education includes knowledge of small engine repair. By asserting this, however, I’m venturing into familiar territory in the Christian schools debate – the idea that Christian education should be defended on its own merits as one of many options in an educational smorgasbord. While I think these arguments need to be made, I would like to suggest that framing the conversation entirely in this light is too individualistic.

While it was never a given that CRC families would choose to send their children to Christian school, I’m concerned that if enough of us walk away at some point these schools will cease to be sustainable despite their newfound outward reach. Several generations of Reformed Christians in North America worked hard and sacrificed considerably to build what seems to me an inarguably remarkable institution. Should we, the inheritors and beneficiaries of this institution, not feel some responsibility for its ongoing viability and upkeep? The CRC’s official belief statement on Christian schools cites the church’s nature as a “covenantal community” to suggest that “church members [should] be involved in establishing and maintaining Christian schools that teach the biblical, Reformed vision of Christ’s lordship over all creation.”

By choosing not to send our children to Christian schools we run the risk of breaking covenant with both our children and our brothers and sisters in Christ. At baptism we promise to instruct children “in the truth of God’s Word [and] in the way of salvation through Jesus Christ,” and Christian schools are obviously a principal mechanism by which this can be accomplished. Even if we are confident that we can fulfill our baptismal obligations without the assistance of Christian schools, we should recognize that the decision to send our children elsewhere has ramifications for those who value or rely on Christian schools to help fulfill their own baptismal promises. Simply put, the decision not to send our children to Christian school will quite possibly affect children other than our own as well.  

More than consumers
If more and more of us choose not to support Christian schools by sending our children, access to these schools will become increasingly limited for others as tuition necessarily rises. Furthermore, the quality of education on offer for those who remain may decline as resources become scarce. While choosing Christian education may mean asking your children to forego things like shop class and swim team, it is also true that if enough us make this choice more and more Christian schools will be able to offer these peripheral opportunities. Tangentially, but incredibly important to the covenantal mindset, churches should maintain generous tuition assistance funds so that all members of the community can afford to send their children to Christian schools.

Finally, none of this is to suggest that Christian schools are without their problems or shortcomings. But by choosing to send their children rather than pursuing other educational options, parents with criticisms and concerns gain legitimate access to the worthwhile and meaningful project of improving and refining Christian schools.

Weighing educational options for our children should not be seen as just another liberalistic consumer decision. In the Acts of Synod 2005, the CRC reaffirmed its historic support for Christian schools and explicitly stated that parents should “have their children educated in harmony with this vision according to the demands of the covenant.” While there will obviously be some cases where Christian education is legitimately not possible or desirable, parents considering sending their children elsewhere should at least seriously ponder and pray about the communal and covenantal ramifications of this decision.

  • Michael is a CC Contributing Editor. He has a desk job in technology and product development, but loves to get outside.

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