I am a life-long member of the Christian Reformed church (CRC). I love my church. I especially love my local congregation.
I am also a life-long Christian education beneficiary and supporter. My children, too, have been richly blessed by Christian education at all levels.
Peter Schuurman’s excellent article, “CRC Pastors take a step back from Christian schools” (Aug. 26, Christian Courier), prompted me to think again about the relationship between the two.
During my adult life, I have given volunteer support to a variety of Christian organizations; but I’ve given more volunteer effort to the CRC than to all of the rest together. Now, at age 67, I think I had my priorities wrong.
That’s a jarring statement even to me. It will also sadden some of my devoted friends and Christian sisters and brothers who have done the same, including many who have made service in the CRC their careers. It won’t ease my pain or theirs when I add that my passion for God’s Kingdom was excited considerably more by Christian organizations, including Christian schools, than by the CRC. Para-church organizations taught and motivated me much more to work to make God’s will done on earth. Particularly, they better enabled me to distinguish Christian approaches to issues and Christian views of creation itself from competing ones.
The beginnings of that subversive feeling were actually aroused in me by a leading CRC pastor, who observed that the difference between the typical CRC and its evangelical siblings was diminishing and that the preservation and development of a Reformed worldview depends more on Christian education than on the CRC. He could also have made the anguished observation that as public education has become more aggressively anti-Christian, support for it among CRC members has increased and been defended. In addition, weakening practice has occurred at the same time as denominational statements of principle (e.g. the 2005 Synodical report) have been strengthened, though widely ignored. By contrast, Christian schools (particularly CSI-related schools, from Kindergarten through post-graduate) have grown immensely in terms of Reformed worldview, both in principle and in practice.
Why are we not alarmed?
Imagine our reaction if about 60 percent of CRC parents chose to send their children to Muslim “catechism” classes or day schools. We would panic.
Or would we?
With slightly altered circumstances, such as cheap or free Islamic education in a future society where Islam has displaced secularism as the dominant religion, we might hear the same reasons for choosing Islamic education that Schuurman now reports for secular education:
we need to be a witness in Islamic schools
bussing is better to the Islamic school
there is some bullying in the Christian school
no Arabic immersion in the Christian school
Christian schools drain resources from the church
“irreconcilable differences” with the Christian school
(presumably not with the Islamic school)
promoting Christian schools is divisive
church shouldn’t say much about something that is
a matter of parental choice.
my child wants to go to the Islamic high school.
Far-fetched? Maybe. But here’s the point: subtle adoption of Islamic doctrine and widespread desertion of CRC members to Islam are not what threaten the CRC. Secularism does. We are far more threatened by secularism than by our Abrahamic brothers.
Where God Matters
Come on, you may say. Is secularism really such a threat? We still have freedom of religion. Isn’t secularism simply the separation of church and state? Come to think of it, isn’t secularism a pretty good expression of Abraham Kuyper’s idea of sphere sovereignty?
Well, no. One Christian scholar has defined secularism as the deep-seated commitment that God doesn’t matter in the things that matter. He could have added that it also demands the right to decide which things matter. As secularism advances, more things matter. That means God matters in fewer things. Thus far it has benevolently allowed God to matter in a few private things like personal devotion and congregating under steeples, but decidedly not in culturally formative things like politics, education, business, science and even (bio)ethics.
But isn’t that exactly what God calls idolatry? Having other gods beside him? It’s OK that God claims to be Lord, but he is going too far when he demands that there be no other lord beside him. Recently I conducted a poll among Israelites just before the confrontation between God and Baal at Mount Carmel. By a margin of 93.7 percent they declared that the Lord was still their god. Polls conducted at other peak idolatry eras in ancient Israel shows similar results. They seldom abandoned God. It’s just that they also needed other gods for things that really mattered like rain, crops, social (in)justice, war and fertility. The problem was that God was just too intolerantly jealous.
Secularism too, is a jealous god. It can’t stand serious competitors. That is why, especially in Ontario where I live, secularism so desperately tries to destroy Christian education. By contrast, it should worry us that it tolerates the CRC quite politely.
Now Schuurman cites evidence that when schools cut the umbilical cord to the church, this begins a “slippery slope to ‘Christian values’ and eventually only humanistic values.” That’s true. But this situation is quite different from most of those he alludes to. It’s not wayward schools that are cutting ties with the faithful church. Schools are begging for a good relationship with local churches. But many CRC congregations across Canada are slowly dissolving ties to Christian schools (though I am thankful that many are not). My observation over 60 years is that Christian schools at all levels have made immense strides in the development of Reformed thinking and action and discernment of spirits, while many CRC congregations are determinedly adopting more generically Christian values — not so much in doctrinal standards and policies as in practice. Loss of spiritual discernment about contemporary idols lowers our defenses against them and enables us to accommodate secularism in education and other venues quite comfortably.
As Schuurman indicates, the umbilical cord analogy soon breaks down. A 50-year-old child should be deeply connected to mother, but not with an umbilical cord. From many points of view, including the old Reformed concept of sphere sovereignty, the church that comes to expression under a steeple should not hierarchically control the church that comes to expression in the classroom, business or artist’s studio.
The CRC in Canada has mothered an astonishing number of organizational children in addition to the many educational ones: Christian Farmers Federation, Christian Stewardship Services, Christian Courier, Christian Business Federation, Citizens for Public Justice, the Centre for Public Dialogue, the Christian Labour Association, Edudeo, Cardus, the CRC Extension Fund, even retirement complexes and nursing homes, not to mention the organizations in close cooperation with other denominations. These are well beyond needing a CRC umbilical cord. CLAC, for instance, may soon have about as many members as CRC Canada, and would hardly hiccup if the CRC denomination evaporated tomorrow.
So here is my fear for the denomination I love: that she is slowly fading in the direction of personalistic cultural irrelevance, ignoring and ignorant of competing secular idolatry. So far, the biggest single restraint to that trend is her children, especially her educational children (see the Cardus survey). Her children (Christian organizations and schools)
will, for quite some time yet, continue to support their weakening parent, the church, even as she neglects, distances herself, and sometimes spurns them and the increasingly vibrant Reformed worldview by which they want to live. But the blessing of the symbiosis Schuurman recalls will be harder to maintain. A scarier scenario is that after the CRC has alienated her children, they begin to give up on her as she has on them. They need each other.
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