April 20, 2023

Hey Remember: There are Christian Schools and there are “Christian” Schools

In the current furore in Australia around who can be the student captain of a Christian school, it’s important to remember that there are Christian schools and there are “Christian” schools.

You know what I mean by that? Simply this: There are schools that are committed to staffing and teaching according to a biblical/gospel framework and that seek to infuse prayer and a devotional life into their everyday pedagogy. Their aim is to teach well, for sure, but they’re missional as well. They want to see students follow Jesus more than they want to see students follow their dreams. Or more to the point, they want to see students follow their dreams by following Jesus.

Sure they are realistic about the numbers for whom that will happen, but they never want students to leave without knowing they are loved by God, and that His future for them in Christ is far better than any future the world could offer. Do they always get it right? They do not. But at the centre of the school is the cross and it’s message of love and forgiveness.

And then there are “Christian” schools, or what you might know as Church Schools. And by and large, unless the pastoral care department and the religious studies staff are remotely evangelical, what you get in such schools is what Christian Smith and Melinda Denton called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or MTD for short. Smith’s and Denton’s work, mapped out in their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers describes MTD thus:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

So pretty much what passes for Christianity in “Christian” schools these days. Though come to think of it, even that sounds a little too generous and orthodox for some.

Anyway, I write all of this because with the Australian Law Reform Commission has Christian schools and their staffing policies in it sights. The ALRC’s recommendations to Parliament basically gut the Christian centre from such schools, by suggesting that the essential parts of what it means to be a Christian school are not only no longer required, but are unhelpful and discriminatory. The aim of course is not to shut down Christian schools, but to co-opt them. I mean why do all of the hard work of having to start up more schools when you can simply domesticate those that exist already to do your bidding?

Risibly, the ALRC has suggested that alongside the biblical view of sexual ethics, other perspectives on sexual activity and identity should be taught alongside this, and in a positive way. In other words, pitched as equally valid ways to express human flourishing. This would not be so bad if the secular schools were pitching Christian sexual ethics as anything but completely dangerous to the mental health of their students.

Now it’s also important to know that there is no longer a united campaign by Christian schools on this issue. And that’s because, as I said, there are “Christian” schools and there are Christian schools. This was revealed in recent days when the Presbyterian Church of Australia wrote its submission to the ALRC and indicated, in passing, that its theological framework was such that its schools would choose school captains who were sexually chaste, and committed to a biblical understanding of human sexuality. The PCA’s first concern is that its schools are able to staff Christianly, but a by-product of that is to ensure that the student influencers such as school captains are also Christian.

Cue outrage and horror from the mainstream media, which immediately reported the by-product as the main story and went out searching for gay school captains of Christian schools. Or should I say “Christian” schools. Which they duly found. So we get this article in The Sydney Morning Herald:

A well constructed article. At least from a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism perspective. Daniel will no doubt go on to be a successful and well regarded young man, a captain not just of a school, but a captain of industry or whatever he turns his hand to. Because, let’s face it, that’s what “Christian” schools, replete with the opportunities, cash, influence and expertise offer. That’s why cashed up parents who want to see their children really succeed at life send them there. And of course of the 558 comments, the vast majority were “Yay Daniel!’ and “Boo, The Presbyterian Church!”

Daniel said this:

The Christian faith is built on the example Christ set in his life. His revolutionary compassion, so radical then as it still is now – care for the outcasts, the lepers, the unclean – inform the values of Christianity and direct the moral constitution of the Church. Jesus shocked the established powers of his time, his love the instrument of a legacy which left a world faith developing in its wake.

He’s got a point. And he makes it well. But it’s a “Christian” point. A Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic one. The head of City To City Australia, Andrew Katay, offered this in what I think is an irenic, but sharp response:

Daniel Cash’s article responding to the Presbyterian Church is eloquent and moving. Unfortunately, it is also selective and therefore ultimately misleading. He says that the Christian faith is built on the example that Christ set in his life. And it absolutely true that “revolutionary compassion, so radical then as it still is now – care for the outcasts, the lepers, the unclean” was central to Jesus’s example. How do we know – the New Testament. At the same time, it is also true that Jesus example was of a radically pure sexual ethic; he was a single man, who remained celibate. How do we know? – the New Testament.

Similarly, Jesus taught that we are not to judge or exclude people. How do we know – the New Testament. And at the same time, he taught that sex belongs in a life long, exclusive union of a man and a woman – how do we know – you guessed it, the New Testament. You can’t have one without the other, not if you want to claim the authority of Jesus.

The mainstream media is happy, however, with selective and misleading. It has no intention of properly representing Christian schools and their desire to be alternate ethical communities. The MTD, as expressed by the likes of Daniel Cash is as easy to swallow as a milkshake – a vanilla milkshake. It subsumes Jesus and his costly demands under our own. After all, perish the thought that one of the up-and-coming successful students of the elite Melbourne Grammar decides to give it all away and follow Jesus into a life of mission in a remote part of the world. When all his peers are enjoying the trappings of being the top one or two percent in Australia, that looks like a waste of school fees.

Perhaps too, the Presbyterian Church, along with other denominations that have “Christian” schools attached to them, have to finally admit that there is not all that much that is Christian about such schools. After all most of them no longer even staff along Christian lines. The whole point of such a staff body, and student leadership body for that matter, is to present a brand of Christianity so unshocking, so inoffensive, and so perfectly kitted out for this world and all the things that this world values, to be no Christianity at all. In other words to be “Christian”.

Hence we get this from the chair of high fee paying Scotch College in Melbourne, Alex Sloan, in response to the Presbyterian Church’s statement:

As the times potentially become more turbulent, the more important it is to assess that our responses are consistent with the ethos and values that have served us so well to date, while keeping pace with our evolving world…[the school] aspired to reflect a community that embraces boys from families of all faiths, backgrounds and countries.

Well no one is saying it shouldn’t. Indeed the vast majority of Christian schools hold to the same values around inclusion as “Christian” schools do. But they also see it as fundamental that the Christian ethos and values are reflected in practise. Which is why they wish to have staff who hold to such practices, and students who celebrate the orthodox Christian practices around sexuality as God’s good intention for humans.

Daniel Cash is a fine sounding fellow, but he has zero understanding of the Christian ethic or what drives it. And for that, we can look to his school as his teacher. If he has zero understanding of the Christian sexual ethic, it’s because it was never taught to him at his school, or offered as an attractive alternative.

In all of this I am not saying that the Presbyterian Church can turn back the clock or recover the lost ground in its schools. Those schools are successful, with long waiting lists, and produce amazing results. If they offered Zoroastrianism instead of Christianity the waiting lists would still be huge. Though as I said, they’re not offering Christianity, they’re offering “Christianity”. The best of them have exceptionally gifted chaplains and wellbeing staff who can hold the gospel centre. I’ve met them. They are well versed in the gospel and are able to navigate the MTD, and showcase a Jesus who is not merely a domesticated reflection of a white inner suburban middle class school captain. And they realise they are a minority in a supposedly Christian school!

And let’s face it. Such schools not about to upset the gravy train by going in to bat for those schools that are still stubbornly offering Christianity. The best they will do is remain silent as the ALRC guts them. And the worst they will do – as Alex Sloan’s response already indicates – is highlight how righteous they are, and how “the same” they are to the surrounding culture. Self interest will ensure they are silent in the face of the ALRC’s intentions.

So let them keep doing what they’re doing. Alex Sloan is simply reflecting what the customers at his school want: A great education with amazing extra-curricular activities, a leg up in the work force, and a light dusting of something called Christian ethos and values. As Winston Churchill said of such schools “They equip a boy for life and damn him for eternity.”

In the end they will prosper. They will stand by and watch as the Federal Government, in league with the likes of the ALRC, both misrepresents Christian schools as hotbeds of discrimination against gay students and unsafe practices, neither of which are true, and they will fail to speak up for brother and sister educators in the faith-based space. I’m more than happy if they just admit that they’re not really all that Christian. Good luck to them. There’s certainly a place for Christian institutions to build schools for the general good, and to reflect common grace. But in the end, what’s truly life-transforming, is the special grace that comes from a Saviour who loves us enough to say “Whoever wants to come to me, let them!”, but who also loves us enough to say “To follow Jesus we must all leave behind our life of sin.”

And that latter part is the hard part. It’s the bit that the ALRC wants rid of. So such “Christian” schools will love the praise – and funding and accreditation – that comes from humans rather than the praise that comes from God. They will increase in influence and number (as other Christian schools become more “Christian” by adopted Moralistic Therapeutic Deism), and receive the favour and praise of the influential in our culture.

And that, in the end, will be the difference between “Christian” schools and Christian schools in Australia going into the future.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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