Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why the Gospel Demands a Reform of Christian School Policies

Back in May national news media drew attention to the story of a young man who was suspended from school and barred from participating in his Christian school's graduation ceremony because he knowingly violated school policy and attended prom with his girlfriend at the public high school she attended.

I'm not interested in re-hashing that conversation, though I do want to be crystal clear on one thing: I'm absolutely convinced that the school had every right to inflict the consequences that it did. I never cease to be appalled at how relativism has so pervaded our culture that common sense is nearly abolished.

But what I really want to do here is call into question the common practice of Christian schools that establish policies that restrict student (and even parental) behavior outside school hours or the school campus. It's not at all uncommon for Christian schools to enforce detailed codes for dress, music, entertainment, dating, and other life issues outside the school day and off school property, even inside private homes.

I'm not arguing that these choices are amoral or unrelated to spiritual maturity. Not in the slightest. (And on the other hand, I'm not affirming that all policies during the school day and on school property are wise or appropriate.)

I am arguing that most of those policies that are enforced outside the school day need to be abolished. Immediately. I'm arguing that they do great damage to children, parents, families and churches, and I'm suggesting four ways these policies do the damage:
  1. They undermine parental authority and obligations within the home by taking away parents' rights and even opportunities to disciple their children and teach them discernment on what are sometimes difficult issues.
  2. They increase the distinction within the church between the kids who attend the Christian school and those who attend a public school or are home schooled. This creates a culture that's too easily twisted into a functional elitism within the church.
  3. They shape the culture of the school's sponsor church because school policies for students easily become unwritten law for all young people, and even all adults, regardless of whether they have children of their own.
  4. They shape how both students and adults understand the gospel and what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. It's far too easy for (not irrelevant but) relatively peripheral issues to become the point of emphasis in the lives of individuals and the life of the church. When so much emphasis is placed on enforcing detailed policies, school policies move not only individual believers but even whole churches precariously close to functional legalism—the perception that we merit favor with God by how we live. This isn't a question of whether the policies reflect biblical wisdom, but whether they should be enforced as law.
Think about it this way: How many of you attend a church that makes rules for all its members affecting all these areas? Ok, maybe some of you do or at least you know of a couple, but seriously, not that many. Even the most conservative churches I've had contact with never passed out a rule book to all the members. They never disciplined anyone for listening to rock music (though people did) or going to movies (people did) or going to prom (ok, so I never heard that one before).

So here's my suggestion: Pastors, school administrators, board members, please get rid of the policies external to the school day and campus. Parents, make these suggestions to your school's decision-makers and explain why—for starters, that you WANT to be a more proactive discipler of your children. You want to take more responsibility, not hand it over to a surrogate.

And here's the exception: If the sponsor church would discipline a member of the church for engaging in a given behavior, then it's probably wise to keep that policy in place for all students in your school, whether or not they're a member of the sponsor church. Of course, that opens up the question of whether you discipline for the sin or the refusal to repent of the sin, but in any case, that's a far better place to be having the conversation.

One more thing: This is about the gospel and parental discipleship and authority, not giving kids the freedom to watch movies and listen to rock music. Let's not forget that.


d4v34x said...

Hi Ben, very thought provoking post and one I, as someone who sends my kids to a Christian school, have a deep interest in.

As four your four points: I don't think the school takes away rights so much as the parents set them aside when they puts their kids in such a school. That may be hair-splitting as the net affect is nearly the same-- parental latitude is limited. I think certain opportunites do greatly suffer.

The clique/class distinctions you propose in #2 I really haven't seen that much of in the schools I have attended or sent my kids to.

#3 and #4 are big, big problems that must be dealt with.

My understanding of my relationship with the Creator and Savior God was hindered by the Christian School context in which I grew up. Some of that may be my fault, but I can now see ways in which my parents and some of my teachers contributed to by wrong thinking.

Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Posting anonymously because the church where I serve has a large Christian school.

This week I connected with a young adult who was formerly a member of our church. She called herself "a lifer" in that she spent her entire schooling at our church school ... from 1st grade to HS graduation.

I asked her to tell me where all the members of her graduating class are. She mentioned by name more than a dozen young people who graduated with her. Of that group only 1 is even remotely associated with our church.

Meaning: We subsidized the education of more than a dozen young people for more that a decade (most were "lifers" as well) all the while expecting teachers to make less for the ministries sake. And none of those young adults (in their early 20s now) is active in our church.

I asked her about the impact of the Christian school on young people who attend the church but not the school. Her response was that the christian school attendees shunned the non-school attendees.

I saw this same thing 30 years ago in my first pastorate! What's wrong with this picture! I fear that the Christian day school movement is killing churches!

Paul said...

I enjoyed your post. I would also note that the "mission creep" that you've detailed in christian schools extends to higher education. The implementation of en loco parentis at Christian universities has caused many of the same problems. The relatively modern invention of adolescence has discouraged treating teenagers as functional adults.

Ben said...

"d4v34x," ;-)

Though you're certainly correct about parents abdicating authority, in many cases it's also true that many churches pressure families to enroll their children. Thankfully, that's probably decreasing with the rise of home schooling.

Ben said...


Though I can appreciate your reasons for anonymity, as a rule I don't interact with anonymous comments. I'll merely say that you raise a worthwhile conversation about the movement; however, that's a separate (and much broader) question from the one I'm raising.

Ben said...


I wrote something along the lines of what you're talking about a while back. It's here.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben

Well, a school is not a church. And attendance in a private school is not a right. So I have no problem with a school setting whatever policies it wants.

However, the bigger question is whether churches should have schools at all. I am not sure that Christian schools have been a net gain for churches, although I appreciate the sentiment that launched them.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Unknown said...

Good post. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have seen all of these problems with a school tied to the church with rules applying to behavior outside the church. My church's school has dropped these policies. My reasoning was based upon the soul-liberty of the believer. We believe that it is the parent's responsibility to educate their children (Deu. 6.7), so we let them make decisions for their children outside the school ministry. We do not have restrictions on our teachers outside the school walls either.

I am a big believer in Christian schools, but I do think you must be careful to minister to all families in your church.

Ben said...


Clearly, schools can make whatever conduct policies they want—good or bad, right or wrong. I'm not arguing that, and my affirmation that the school had the right to inflict the punishment should make my position on that point clear.

I'm arguing that schools shouldn't exercise their rights to make bad policies, and I'm making a case for why these policies are bad.

One other note: A school that's a ministry of a local church isn't strictly a "non-church." Its essentially equivalent to an AWANA program in its relationship to the church.

And as I said to anonymous, whether Christian schools should exist is a worthwhile discussion but not the one we're having here.

Ben said...


To whatever degree you were involved in that decision, well done.

Unknown said...

Ben, sorry that I didn't make it clear in my first post. I'm the pastor. So I did have some influence in the decision. :-)