Elements of Christian Education

Philosophy is the study of truth fundamental to understanding reality and meeting its demands. In a secondary sense, philosophy is a system of thought emerging from such a study. Since, by definition, truth lies at the core of philosophy, it is evident that the term cannot properly be used of any system of thought infused with error. Thus, we should regard the expression "Christian philosophy of education" as redundant. There can be no philosophy of education except it be Christian.

Such a philosophy must convincingly spell out the four essential elements of Christian education:

  1. the guiding principles,
  2. a vision of what education should accomplish (a vision articulated perhaps in specific goals),
  3. a course of study and an arsenal of methods designed to achieve these goals, and
  4. a strategy for assessing whether these goals have been met.

Progressive Education

American secular education evolved haphazardly, within a society lacking universal consent to particular guiding principles for education. Americans are a practical people, and at first they assigned their schools the very modest purpose of teaching basic skills useful for earning a living and participating in the religious and political life of the community. A clear formulation of guiding principles for American schools did not emerge until John Dewey founded progressive education at the beginning of the twentieth century. Progressive education quickly became the controlling scheme of educational theory and practice, and it remains influential today.

Any so-called philosophy of education rests on a more general view of the world. The more general view underlying progressive education is humanism, which treats man as a god, decking him out with authority to govern himself, construct his own moral code, and choose his own destiny.

Yet we should not suppose that humanism is a monolithic world view. It has many faces. One variety worships individual man, while another worships man collectively and confers upon the state the right to fetter individual man by whatever controls are necessary to achieve human progress. The former, whose champions have included Rousseau, tends to radical democracy or anarchy. The latter, its modern defenders including B. F. Skinner, tends to totalitarianism.

Although Dewey avoided both extremes, his thinking fell much closer to the pole of individualism. Two tenets of his philosophy have been especially influential in shaping education.

The first is the belief that man is not by nature a sinner. Dewey avowed that man is not inherently good either, but morally neutral, like any other product of the natural world (1). Yet, in his view, the only limitation on man's ability to improve himself and attain a greater state of happiness for himself both individually and collectively is his imperfect control over the natural world. All he needs is more power, and by means of the power he gains through science, he can be depended upon to make society better and to push himself higher on the evolutionary scale. Dewey had no doubt that man would succeed in solving the problems of his race (2). His faith in human potential betrays his true starting point, however. Regardless of his own affirmations to the contrary, he believed not that man by nature is neutral, but that he is good. Otherwise, good would not be the inevitable result of giving man power.

To grow in power, a man must have freedom to exercise, refine, and develop the power he already has. Therefore, Dewey wanted schools to offer children an environment of freedom (3). He believed that in such an environment, allowing them to build personal initiative and skill in dealing with the world which sets the requirements for personal happiness, children can make a start toward fulfilling their potential.

Dewey's wrong picture of man is not original, of course. It is a major theme of modern thought. Failure to understand that man is a sinner has steered not only the schools, but society as a whole, in the direction of permissiveness, the result being an alarming decline of public and private virtue. Each new generation surpasses the last in selfishness, violence, and unbridled self-indulgence.

A second humanistic tenet at the basis of progressive education is the belief that the chief problem in human society is conflict, especially conflict arising from the parochial influences of race, culture, and religion. Deweyites imagined that a chief goal of the schools was to teach social adjustment (4). The same emphasis survives in the present enthusiasm for political correctness. One great evil in political correctness is its demand that we tolerate others to the extent of admitting that our own convictions might be wrong. The effect upon Christians and the children of Christians has been to damage their confidence that Christianity is true.

Despite the pernicious influence that Dewey and thinkers of similar outlook have had upon education, many contemporary leaders of Christian education want to make peace with Dewey. Kenneth O. Gangel (department chairman of Christian education at Dallas Theological Seminary) and Warren S. Benson (professor of Christian education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) go so far as to say, "The intelligent approach to Dewey then, it would seem, would have to be one that excludes his godless philosophy and adapts his practical methodology" (5). In a similar vein, Jim Wilhoit (associate professor of Christian education at Wheaton College) regards Dewey's approach to learning, known as the developmental approach, as superior to other approaches (6). The friendliness of these authors toward Dewey is consistent with their standpoint as neo-evangelicals. Neo-evangelicals think that a Christian scholar should mine the work of godless thinkers for bits and pieces of truth so that, by conceding these, he will not only enrich his own knowledge, but also gain a better place and credibility for his own witness. A buzzword among the neo-evangelicals of a generation ago was "dialogue." We cannot enter here into a full rebuttal of the neo-evangelical world view, but we will point out three flaws in any treatment of Dewey as an educational saint.

  1. It would be absurd to claim everything Dewey said was wrong. Even the devil speaks truth. But any truth the devil exploits for diabolical purposes is not his invention. Similarly, it is doubtful that any profound truth in the writings of Dewey is original. For example, good teachers have always understood that it is important to adapt an educational program as much as possible to the special needs and abilities of each individual child. In Wilhoit's discussion of the strengths of developmentalism, I cannot find one truth that was inaccessible to educators before Dewey. Indeed, most of the truth in Dewey's writings is simply God's truth available at least in principial or generalized form in the Bible. If I learn something by reading Dewey, it is only because I either have not done my homework elsewhere or have failed to draw out the implications of the truth I already know.
  2. It takes polemical sleight-of-hand to make Dewey look good. For example, Wilhoit's attempt to distance Dewey's progressivism from Rousseau's romanticism is not a fair interpretation of history (7). Both schools of thought stood squarely in the humanistic tradition with its strangely schizoid view of man, as both a child of nature (and therefore subject to material determination) and a godlike self deserving of freedom. The romantic and progressive, or developmental, approaches to education are alike in that they are student-centered. The teacher yields authority to the students, both his own authority to direct the learning process and the authority of the larger society to dictate what is learned. This is a dangerous procedure, if one overriding goal of education is to mold character, for to make students the captains of their educational fate magnifies their fundamental innate defect—pride. Self-direction in education, as in every other realm of life, is a privilege rightly belonging to those who have proved that they can exercise it responsibly.
         The main rival of Dewey's developmental approach is the so-called transmissive approach, which Wilhoit narrows to a mere caricature of itself (8). He represents it as mainly concerned to convey facts. But the approach he is describing, which I prefer to call content-centered or truth-centered, aims also to instill understanding and productive ways of thinking. Moreover, it does not require students to be passive, as Wilhoit alleges (9). While keeping them in the place of learners, it may engage them actively in the learning process.
         Wilhoit sifts out the worst features of Dewey's system, leaving only a vague agenda that any good educator would see as his own. He says that the developmental approach builds "a map for life through interaction between present experiences, personal perspective, and the accumulated knowledge of society, the nation, or church" (10). Although the exact meaning of this statement is elusive, I see nothing objectionable in it. Who would? I cannot, however, accept it as an accurate summary of all Dewey believed and proposed.
  3. A tree is known by its fruits (Matt. 7:16), and the fruits of progressive education have not been wholesome. Gangel and Benson summarize Gordon Clark's excellent critique of progressivism.

Instrumentalism as a philosophy leads to a strengthening of secularism, a worship of science, a belief in the inherent goodness of man, the rejection of absolutes and fixed truth, no genuine goals for education outside of the individual and his society, and rather sinister political implications (11).

Resurgence of Christian Apologetics

The greater part of the Christian community did not see the need for a Christian alternative to the public schools until the ruinous effect of humanistic education became obvious; that is, until it became impossible to deny that the public schools were winning huge numbers of Christian children to secularism and extinguishing their interest in Christ and the church. Until the 1950s and early 60s, most Christians saw a need for Christian schools only at the post-secondary level (12). Their outlook shifted rapidly, however, in the late 60s and early 70s, when many public schools abandoned a pretense of being pro-Christian or ideologically neutral and became openly anti-Christian. Then, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, arose a wave of Christian schools.

One of the catalysts for the Christian school movement was the rise of creation science. Under the leadership of Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and others, many Christians in scientific professions began to affirm more boldly their faith in the Bible's account of creation in seven days and to take a more aggressive stance in opposition to evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists had always felt uncomfortable sending their children to schools that taught evolution, but they had never decided that this evil in public education was sufficient reason to pull out and form Christian schools. As my parents told me when I took high-school biology, "You can learn what they believe, but don't believe it yourself." The creation science movement that arose in the 60s and 70s helped to overturn this sort of complacency by arguing, first, that a strong scientific case can be made against evolution and for creation; second, that Christian children who never learn creationism are at high risk for losing their faith later in life; third, that evolution is not just a minor subtopic in biology, but a fertile root from which many other false ideas have sprung; and, fourth, that such ideas are not mere footnotes to the subject matter students learn in public schools, but the central and pervasive theme. They constitute a powerfully seductive world view that corrodes faith and corrupts morals.

After all, if nature created itself, man has no reason to believe in God or submit to a moral code that claims to come from God. And if man is only an animal, he has no purpose except to survive. Therefore, ethics must be subservient to pragmatics (moral relativism), the center of existence is self (existentialism), the legitimate aim of self is pleasure (hedonism), self may use unchecked power to gain its objectives (racism, socialism), and self may cast off the shackles of convention (feminism, gay liberation).

Morris has shown that evolution is one of the cornerstones of progressive education (13).

Not only the content, but the methodology itself—the very curriculum and structure—of modern education is based on evolution (14).

Modern educationalists believe that application of the same principles of evolutionary progress that supposedly produced man in the past will thereby lead man's society onward and upward to perfection in the future (15).

Morris supports these assertions with quotations from Dewey and commentators on Dewey's writings. He calls us to remember Dewey's assertion, "Man is a social animal" (16).

Morris would never be so simplistic as to suggest that elimination of evolutionary teaching would be a panacea for education. The sorry condition of many Christian schools both past and present is a somber warning that an educational process cannot expunge the depravity of the human heart just by giving lip service to a Christian world view. A school is not Christian just because it teaches creationism. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution is truly the foundation of modern thought. This whole edifice of unbelief would collapse tomorrow if anyone could prove undeniably that the world's fossils were deposited by a recent global flood.

By showing that evolutionary thought is mainly to blame for modern secularism, and by alerting Christians to the dangers their children face if they do not receive a Christian education, the creation science movement has done the church a great service. Doubtless the Christian school movement would have arisen even in the absence of a parallel creation science movement, because new light on the evils of evolution was merely one of many convergent influences showing the church that it must do something drastic to save its children. Yet the influence of creation science should not be underestimated.

A new interest in apologetics has surfaced in conservative Reformed churches as well as in broader conservative evangelicalism. The major voice presenting a Reformed defense of the gospel has been Francis Schaeffer, who, in his writings, applies a giant reductio ad absurdum to the premise that there is no God. In How Should We Then Live, he surveys the history of Western culture, looking for imprints of the world views that shape how men think and act. The thesis he develops runs as follows. Whereas the Christian world view has been a secure foundation for excellence in every thoughtful endeavor, humanism has been destructive in its effects. Humanism gives ultimate moral authority to man, yet men radically disagree about what is right. Humanism therefore leads to relativism, and relativism makes it impossible to erect a rational and permanent scale of values. Good becomes a kaleidoscope of current opinions. In the eighteenth century, many leading thinkers believed that man could build wisdom and craft things of beauty using his own resources, without reliance on God. But the state of modern culture displays the end result of humanism. Philosophy has degenerated to unreason, art to meaninglessness, theoretical science to bewilderment, law and government to arbitrariness, and religion to fuzzy feelings (17).

Schaeffer's analysis of culture is thoroughly sound and instructive. Although the main burden of his ministry has not been to promote Christian education, many of his readers have learned from him that the only framework for productive thought is a Christian world view, and from this principle they have rightly inferred that the best setting for learning is a Christian school. I have known people in Reformed circles who became involved in Christian education largely through Schaeffer's influence. So here again we see linkage between the recent Christian school movement and the resurgence of apologetics.

Shortcomings of Christian Schools

With the exception of some earlier Christian schools started mainly to protest desegregation, the hundreds of others that sprang up after 1965 were united by a desire to find and implement a genuinely Christian approach to education. But their vision of possibilities was limited by their ability to recognize problems in public education as it then existed, and they failed to see all its problems. They accepted it as fundamentally sound in many respects. When they set up new schools, they included the same courses, continued the same extracurricular activities, and retained the same organizational structure (under full-time administrators rather than under principal teachers or preachers doubling as teachers, as in the early days of American education) (18). Innovation was largely confined to adding chapels, Bible courses, and other extensions of church ministry.

Christian schools connected with Reformed churches have been particularly unsuccessful in fashioning a wholly Christian alternative to public schools. Their faults cannot be blamed on Francis Schaeffer, yet because he belongs to the same tradition, his writings exhibit many of the same faults. For example, his critique of Darwinism is limited to scorning the possibility of evolution by chance (19). He declines to embrace a seven-day creationist position. Many schools of a Reformed variety likewise back away from full submission to a Biblical account of origins.

Another fault in Schaeffer's position is a naive antipuritanism. He is reluctant to condemn anything that carries the label "art," as if that label earned an exemption from ordinary Christian standards. Thus, he regards the cinema as acceptable for Christians, and in the book mentioned earlier, he includes many pictures of nudity or seminudity, which he would no doubt justify by categorizing them as art or social comment (20). A comparable failure to recognize and reject worldliness plagues schools in the Reformed camp, at least those I have observed.

The broader Christian school movement has also failed of success in its struggles to become fully Christian. Again, low standards of personal separation are a pervasive problem, and there are other serious problems as well. Some years ago, Henry Morris wrote,

The Christian school movement of recent decades has been a partial answer to the secularization of the public schools. Even Christian schools and colleges, however, have found it almost impossible to return to a truly Biblical system of education. In spite of their good intentions, the almost universal evolutionary bias in textbooks and the humanistic graduate schools where their faculty members have to obtain their training have prevented them from attaining or maintaining this standard (21).

A dearth of textbooks offering a Christian world view no longer exists. Many publishers large and small have put out a great quantity of materials to fill the vacuum. A Christian school today can no longer complain that it has no Christian textbooks to choose from, although not all those available reach a high academic standard and not all are free of humanism. Yet their faults are not so great that using them imperils the minds and souls of students.

The second problem remains, however, and could grow more serious. Christian colleges seem to be producing fewer, not more, graduates prepared to teach in Christian schools. At the same time, the requirements imposed on someone wishing to teach in a Christian school or to be certified as a Christian school teacher are becoming more stringent. Thus, in the future, secular institutions may acquire a larger role in training Christian school teachers. The result is not hard to predict. Because it is a rare person who can completely extricate himself from the humanism he has been taught, the humanism that Christian schools were founded to eliminate will creep back in, if it ever actually left.

I have observed that the leading edge of humanism is secularism. One sign that a school is losing its Christian identity is a change in conception of the teacher from "Christian worker" to "paid employee." Another is a growing disdain for the Christian trappings of the school, such as prayers at the beginning of class and Bible references in the textbooks.

I have also observed that often the first explicitly humanistic step as a school goes off course is a shift from subject-centered to student-centered classrooms. A classroom should not be student-centered (democratic) or even teacher-centered (authoritarian). Either kind is humanistic, because it gives primacy to man. Just as society as a whole should be governed neither by the will of a great leader nor by the will of the people but by the transcendent duties which bind us together, so a classroom should be centered neither on the teacher nor on the students but on the transcendent truth which provides the occasion for learning. In a student-centered classroom, the teacher prefers group discussion and other group activities to lecture and teacher-directed study. Also, the teacher is reluctant to tell students candidly when their ideas are wrong. Instead, he may create the impression that every contribution is equally worthwhile, and may even solicit opinions from students on questions they are incompetent to answer.

Christian schools cannot help but reflect the society around them. And no description of where society was at the end of the twentieth century can improve much on the following words of Schaeffer:

Humanism, man beginning only from himself, had destroyed the old basis of values, and could find no way to generate with certainty any new values. In the resulting vacuum the impoverished values of personal peace and affluence had come to stand supreme (22).

Comfort has become the chief end of man not only as worldlings see it, but also as many Christians see it, and has even become the great unstated guiding principle of much Christian education.

The Biblical Mandate

If Christian schools wish to attain their old ideal of being truly Christian, under the authority of Christ, they must look at themselves honestly, confess their faults, and move forward in a better direction. The place to start self-examination is at the foundation, at the level of guiding principles.

Their first guiding principle should surely be the one that Frank Gaebelein eloquently upholds, that all truth is God's truth (23). His concrete proposals for assuring that a school follows this principle are still helpful today. First, a school must employ only Christian teachers. This rule is now so taken for granted that it has lost its urgency. Yet we must remember how important it is, lest in the future we are caught off guard by some new pressure to hire teachers who lack a clear Christian testimony. Second, Gaebelein counsels against making Bible a specialized teaching field. It is better, for the sake of integrating Biblical and non-Biblical truth, to give most Bible classes to teachers whose advanced training lies elsewhere. Third, Gaebelein wants every teacher to learn the large principles integrating his own field with the Christian world view, and he outlines these principles for certain subjects. Of special interest are his prophetic comments on music.

In which direction are we moving? With nation-wide religious broadcasting and television, there has come into Christian work a kind of music and technique of presentation savoring more of Hollywood than of God. Glamour has invaded the proclamation of the Gospel. . . . All this is condoned as being catchy and giving the people what they want (24).

Gaebelein touches briefly on a second guiding principle of great importance for Christian education, the principle that learning is important. He quotes A. W. Tozer.

There is, unfortunately, a feeling in some quarters today that there is something innately wrong about learning, and that to be spiritual one must also be stupid. This tacit philosophy has given us in the last half century a new cult within the confines of orthodoxy; I call it the Cult of Ignorance. It equates learning with unbelief and spirituality with ignorance, and, according to it, never the twain shall meet. This is reflected in a wretchedly inferior religious literature, a slap-happy type of religious meeting, and a grade of Christian song so low as to be positively embarrassing (25).

Yet in these first two guiding principles we have not even begun to consider what subjects, ideas, and skills a Christian school should teach. What does the Bible itself give as the right model for education? If education is properly conceived as preparing a child to fulfill his destiny, which is to serve God, the right model is God the Father's education of His own Son—that is, the Father's preparation of Jesus for His earthly ministry. Jesus is our example in all things, even in His development, and Luke tells us that four kinds of growth marked His childhood (Luke 2:52): intellectual, physical, spiritual, and social.

The overriding goal of a Christian school should therefore be to reproduce the same four kinds of growth in every child. Of course, a typical Christian school already strives to make its children smarter, stronger, more consecrated, and more skillful in dealing with others. Yet few schools view Luke 2:52 as a mandate or guiding principle. Few fully understand that, in God's eyes, they exist for one reason only—to foster in each child a balanced growth of the whole person.

Consequently, no one has devised an educational program that adequately addresses all four kinds of personal growth and integrates all four kinds of requisite training into one seamless curriculum. Presently, the curriculum of a typical school consists of a handful of traditional academic courses, to which various other activities have been tacked on seemingly as an afterthought.


  1. Kenneth O. Gangel and Warren S. Benson, Christian Education: Its History and Philosophy (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), 296-7.
  2. Ibid., 293-4.
  3. Ibid., 300.
  4. Ibid., 299.
  5. Ibid., 303.
  6. Jim Wilhoit, Christian Education: The Search for Meaning, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1991), 101.
  7. Ibid., 74-101.
  8. Ibid., 87-8, 99.
  9. Ibid., 87, 98.
  10. Ibid., 102.
  11. Gangel and Benson, 303.
  12. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Pattern of God's Truth, paperback ed. (repr., Winona Lake, Ind.: BMH Books, 1968), 110.
  13. Henry M. Morris, Christian Education for the Real World (Green Forest, Ariz.: Master Books, 1977), 41-43.
  14. Ibid., 41.
  15. Ibid., 42.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1976).
  18. Gangel and Benson, 242, 233-4, 237-8.
  19. Schaeffer, 148-9.
  20. Ibid., 201–4.
  21. Morris, xiv.
  22. Schaeffer, 209.
  23. Gaebelein, 20.
  24. Ibid., 77.
  25. Ibid., 104.