GREENVILLE PRESBYTERIAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
ANALYSIS: SHOULD NON-REFORMED CHILDREN BE ALLOWED TO ATTEND REFORMED SCHOOLS?
AT 41 Christian Education
November 24, 2015
Should children who are not Reformed be allowed to attend a school that is Reformed? One may wonder how a school can be Reformed if its students are not. The argument will be that it is the curriculum and the teachers that make a school distinctly Reformed, regardless of the personal convictions of the children (and their parents) who attend the school. In order that the Reformed witness not be diluted, however, certain parameters must be established, and certain concessions must be made by the parents and their children who are not Reformed.
A Reformed school must have a Reformed curriculum, and teachers that affirm the Reformed faith. If the teachers are not Reformed, they cannot accurately disseminate biblical teaching as the school defines it, even if the curriculum itself is Reformed. It is necessary that there is basic agreement concerning the gospel, the doctrines of grace, and the main points of the Reformed faith. Perhaps affirmation of the Westminster Confession of Faith should be required for teachers, though some may argue for broadness and a more general statement of faith of which the teacher promises to uphold and honor.
Starting a school with such strenuous prerequisites is not an easy task. The present writer is a dean at a relatively new classical, Christian school that has Reformed curriculum for its history, theology, and literature (and he teaches these subjects). While some of the faculty is Reformed, others are not, though they do not teach subjects that bear as directly on the Reformed worldview. Nevertheless, because all subject matter should be taught from a consistent worldview, this poses a potential problem. The difficulty comes in finding Reformed teachers who are qualified in every field of academia offered at a Reformed school. Should the school not exist simply because a Reformed math or Latin teacher is unavailable? Or should these subjects not be taught? The matter is debatable, but it must be recognized that the school is not thoroughly Reformed when some of its teachers, even in less directly relevant fields, are not themselves Reformed. Their worldviews will necessarily be expressed in the classrooms, and the students will pick up on it, and perhaps even notice the tension between the Latin teacher’s worldview and the Logic teacher’s. Chapel messages are restricted to pastors and elders who are Reformed, which helps maintain the Reformed character of the school, but in the trenches this message will not consistently be applied so long as non-Reformed faculty is present.
At this classical Christian school, children of all denominations are permitted to enroll. There is one Roman Catholic student, which is a unique situation because her mother is Lutheran while the father is Roman Catholic. Does this make it permissible for the student to attend? The question that must be answered is whether or not the child affirms that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. If works are necessary in order to be saved, the child is not a true believer, and therefore is disqualified from admittance because she is not a Christian. This should be the litmus test that all students must pass, as well as their parents. At least one parent needs to be a believer since the parent is obligated to raise his children in the ways of the Lord (Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4) and instruct them in all fields of academia, since all the world – everything -- reveals God (Ps. 19).
The family and school must likewise work together, not apart from each other. Neither can do its job well if communication and coordination is not occurring regularly between the two. Likewise, weak churches will adversely affect the students and their quality of education. When school, church, and family pull in the same direction, the child benefits, but when each pulls in opposing directions, the child is stretched and torn apart. This is perhaps the strongest argument against permitting non-Reformed students into a Reformed school – by the nature of their life situation, they are getting at least two, if not three different messages from their parents, their school, and their church. The good news is that the Spirit can use such a messy situation to lead the child closer to the truth as revealed in His Word, and it should be argued that it is better for the child to get a Reformed voice from one of these three prongs than to hear a three-headed voice of error. If the Lord wills, the child may even come around to the Reformed faith, and as the parents help their children with the Reformed curriculum, they may as well. This would likely lead the parents, in due time, to leave their non-Reformed church and find a Reformed one. The Reformed school should have such high aspirations, but must not be naïve about things. The likelihood of this occurring in droves is, from the human perspective, slim; conflict is more likely to emerge, but life this side of heaven is more often conflict than it is not, and through the conflict can come greater unity.
To help diffuse potential conflict with parents (and students), all parents must understand from the outset that the curriculum of the school is unapologetically Reformed. While other positions that fellow believers and denominations uphold will be respected, they will neither be agreed with nor taught. In fact, they must be challenged and shown to be unscriptural, by appealing to God’s Word itself, if the Reformed worldview it to truly be promoted as most biblical. The goal of a Reformed school is to produce a holistic Reformed worldview within the mind and heart of each student, so that they will worship and serve the Lord in spirit and in truth, which is just the kind of worship the Father seeks (Jn. 4:23-24). If the parents understand the agenda of the school from the outset and are still willing to enroll their children, all is well. This will provide both challenges and opportunities to the faculty and the student body. The teacher must be able to defend the Reformed faith over against children who are either unpersuaded or unaware of it in a loving and winsome manner, and will also have to answer questions that concerned parents will inevitably raise. Tensions could rise between students of different denominations, and the teacher must be skilled in calming the class. The student must learn to handle those from different theological backgrounds, which produce different lifestyles, and recognize that those with differing beliefs are also brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a hard lesson but a healthy one for the child to learn, and is one of the best arguments for having non-Reformed students in a Reformed school. There may come a point, however, where hostility between different students and parents outweighs any gains that could be made, necessitating the dismissal of some students from the school. In these matters, discernment and wisdom are vital, and that only comes through study, prayer, and experience.
Healthy class debates can be held, either formally or informally, to help facilitate thought provoking discussion. The Socratic method of teaching is beneficial, and in some situations may prove indispensable, in a Reformed school where the student body comes from various denominations. This will sharpen the student’s ability to debate and dialogue with opposing viewpoints, answer challenging questions on the spot, and the hope is that each student will return to the Scriptures as the final arbiter of truth. This helps reveal what is tradition in the student’s life, what is truly biblical, and what is simply adiaphora. Through diligence, care, and prayer, the numbers of Reformed believers may increase as non-Reformed parents and their children are introduced to, and persuaded of, an integrated and seamless theology that incorporates all of Scripture to all of life. Even if some students maintain some reservations about the Reformed faith, they will likely embrace elements of it, and perhaps later in their life imbibe it in total. The committedly Reformed students will be exposed to non-Reformed traditions and should grow in thankfulness for their Reformed heritage and also learn how to defend it more skillfully.
Related to the question of non-Reformed believers in a Reformed school is the question of non-Reformed believers in a Reformed parish school. The school where the present writer teaches is not a parish school, but the same model could be followed if it were a parish school, sans the non-Reformed instructors. A Reformed parish school could not in good conscience allow those of a different theological persuasion to teach in its school, because a true understanding of Reformed teaching reveals that one cannot teach without some sort of presupposition, and that presupposition will either be thoroughly Reformed, or not. If true teaching is to take place, it must always take place within a context, as Adam and Eve were given life and taught within the context of the covenant God made with them. Likewise, the student and teacher engage in a sort of bond with one another, and their view of God, His sovereignty, and how man is saved comes to bear directly in every field of study, including mathematics. Two plus two equals four not because of some abstract law that stands over God, but because God has composed the universe to follow a certain mathematical structure, which displays His beauty, harmony, and order. God is Lord of numbers just as much as He is Lord of salvation. But for the grace of God, the unregenerate would be just as helpless to understand mathematical equations as he would be to understand his own depravity and need for salvation.
A Reformed math teacher will not merely personally believe this to be true, but will emphasize this fact in the classroom, and explain that Christ came to die so that even math itself could be understood and appropriated properly by those made in His image, in order that Christians could rightly exercise dominion over His creation by discovering math’s potential and then cultivate it in architecture and the like. A non-Reformed math teacher will not be able to do this grand concept justice, because he or she is not fully committed to, or cognizant of, God’s sovereignty over all things, the relationship of all things to each other (because God is harmonized complexity, the three in one, the proof that unity and diversity are equally ultimate, which solves the problem of the one and the many), and the true nature of man’s depravity which precipitates the effectual atonement of Christ on the cross for the elect. And if such a math teacher can do justice to all these things, then he is Reformed, whether he knows it or not!
The question this paper answers may be viewed through the lens of church membership. In Reformed churches, it is not required that a member believe everything in the Westminster Confession of Faith (or similar confessions and catechisms). To become a member in the PCA, the following five questions must be answered in the affirmative:
- Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save [except] in His sovereign mercy?
- Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
- Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
- Do you promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
- Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
Such a confession does not require one to believe in predestination precisely as Reformed believers understand it (though His sovereignty in salvation must be recognized), nor does it require belief in limited atonement or similar Reformed doctrines. It does, however, require belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, reliance upon Him alone, and not works, for salvation, and a striving to live righteously as a Christ-follower by the power of the Holy Spirit. Further, the church must be supported in its worship and work, and submission to its government and discipline must be coupled with pursuit of its purity and peace through study. Such a model should likewise be followed at a Reformed school. Students do not have to be Calvinists, but they must be Christians (meaning they rest in Christ alone for salvation and not in faith and works as Roman Catholic doctrine teaches concerning one’s justification), and so should at least one of their parents (paralleling vows taken by parents at an infant baptism). Parent and child must also see the Reformed school as a means to being a better follower/disciple of Christ, and must swear to support the school in its work, and its curriculum, by submitting to the school’s authority which the parent has placed upon the child, in order that the school’s peace and purity may be maintained. In fact, it may be advisable to adapt these five membership questions of the PCA into enrollment questions for the student and parents seeking to gain admittance into a Reformed school. Doing so reinforces the concept that school, family, and church should be held together and work in harmony as mutual supports to one another.
If the basic principles outlined above are followed in a Reformed school, it will be able to not only stand in Reformed soil while reaching out to plant new seeds without compromise, but also transplant struggling plants from deficient soil into the rich soil of the Reformed faith (the non-Reformed students and their parents). By God’s grace, such weak plants will revive in the richer soil, and become as healthy and vibrant as the plants around it. Such a daring undertaking is more challenging, but it is also more rewarding for both the Reformed student and non-Reformed student, and as such the kingdom of God grows as deeper roots are laid and walls are fortified. As the young people are bolstered in their knowledge of God and the world, they are equipped to go out into the world, not only to maintain their faith, but to contend for the faith that was once delivered to all God’s people (Jude 1:3) and be salt and light to this lost and dying world. Would that such a vision for the Reformed school take hold of Reformed churches and parishioners everywhere, so that a revival of Reformed theology may take place even today, and God’s truth shine forth as brightly as the sun!