Should Churches Have Christian Schools? A Test Case Regarding Church and Society
Pastors, elders, and godly parents rightly take interest in the education and nurture of their children, and as a result action-minded Christians start schools. Christian schools represent a natural or spontaneous result of faith, and the Lord is pleased with such loving motives and acts. Nevertheless, when a church attempts to govern the school it has created the results are often mixed. Theology can explain why.
At a merely pragmatic level, church schools demand substantial time and energy. Pastors commonly feel that proper oversight of a school takes time away from their core duties and they respond by delegating or by reducing their time spent in school oversight. Schools perceive this. Feeling neglected, both parents and school leaders resent that the church possesses a level of authority that exceeds its expertise and commitment, and they view church authority as an intrusion. Pastors sense the resentment and think, “We have given them a building, we cover maintenance and utilities, and we offer oversight. Why are they upset?” But if churches govern their schools poorly, resentment is not an unreasonable response.
I will argue that churches should help to start schools—as well as counseling centers, orphanages, hospitals, food banks, and more—but that they should not permanently govern these entities. While it is not morally wrong for a church to govern a school or a food bank, there is a better way. If a church creates a school, it should secure the necessary financial and human resources necessary for that school to succeed, then release it from ecclesiastical authority to pursue self-government.
The argument for this position begins with the church’s mission. Jesus instructed his church to “make disciples of all the nations,” to preach repentance, to offer forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name, and to witness to him across the earth, across time (Matt. 28:19, Luke 24:47 John 20:19, Acts 1:8, 2 Tim. 2:2). We could say, “The church’s task is to preach and teach Christ from God’s word, and then see what happens next.” To be sure, making disciples includes following Christ in every aspect of life – family, work, leisure, and more. But the church must help people to understand work and leisure while at the same refraining from running work training programs or summer camps. The church should certainly apply the Bible to the social issues of the day, but ought not pursue direct action on social problems.
Suppose a city church meets within reach of a substantial population of Hindu or Muslim refugees who need language skills and job training. Should the church start a refugee ministry? Maybe. But it would be better for several churches to encourage and equip individual Christians who possess skills in linguistics, job training, and refugee care and a passion for refugees, to work together to start a ministry. Why?
First, God gave the church a mission – to preach, teach, and make disciples. If someone objects, “But Jesus proclaimed a kingdom, not just preaching and discipleship,” we reply that the kingdom is wider than the visible church.
The visible, corporate church is the vanguard, the concentration point, the training ground, and the sending agency for kingdom work, but kingdom work is broader than church work. The visible church disciples believers who then fulfill legitimate callings in politics, education, counseling, industry, and poverty relief. The church equips these saints for these works of ministry, training them to live out their faith in their paid labor and in their acts as citizens. In this, they strive to do kingdom work, work that is broader than the relatively narrow work of the institutional or visible church. Individual Christians, or affinity groups of Christians, can operate outside of church programs or church-run institutions.
Although Tranformationists and Neo-Kuyperians may consider this a challenge to their views, I propose that it is true to the Transformationist, Kuyperian, one kingdom perspective. Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty is essential here. He believed God ordained the church, family, and government, among other institutions, and that each realm or sphere has its principles, experts, and authorities who ought to govern that sphere. For example, the state should not govern the economy, the economy should not govern the arts, and so forth.
On this view, the church does not have expertise or authority outside its sphere, which is its calling to proclaim God’s word and to make disciples. Its authority is “ministerial and declarative.” The church should therefore encourage refugee care and assist Christian schools, equipping believers to labor in such fields, but it should not govern them for two reasons. First, it does not have expertise in education (or refugee work). Second, the institutional church is not responsible for schools; parents bear primary responsibility for the education of their children.
More broadly then, the church should not exercise authority over counseling centers, hospitals, political organizations, athletic leagues, or even community food banks. (This is not to deny that deacons may collect food for church members and neighbors). The church should articulate and instill the biblical principles that guide politicians, medical personnel, educators, athletes, and the rest. But because churches and pastors have no expertise in medicine or politics, the visible church should not try to govern a medical clinic any more than it attempts to govern the state. The church disciples but does not govern counselors, politicians, athletes, and others as they strive to serve God and neighbor in their respective callings. Said differently, the church has interest in school and law firms, and should therefore equip its people to govern them.
Advocates of this view sometimes speak of “the spirituality of the church.” Critics note that nineteenth century southern theologians sometimes used this concept to silence the church on social affairs—above all, slavery. But that was a perversion of the concept. Abuse does not negate proper use. A “spiritual” church can and should speak to social injustice, because the Bible does. American slavery, for example, began with kidnapping, which is a capital offense. Contrary to biblical regulations, American slavery tolerated kidnapping and physical violence and violated the principle of seventh year release of slaves. Pastors should have encouraged judges and legislators to address these matters in their callings, summoning them to overturn a lawless institution that was founded on millions of capital crimes.
This position has roots in the earliest Reformed and Presbyterian confessions. For centuries, Europe’s Roman Church attempted to exercise substantial control over the state and the state returned the favor. Sovereigns wanted everyone in their realm to adopt their religion and to belong to state churches that they controlled. English and Scottish Presbyterians attempted to correct that. The Westminster Confession of Faith specified that God ordained the state to promote the public good and to punish evil, and gave the church the word and sacraments (WCF 23:1-3, 25:3, 31:4). Therefore, while the church should not meddle in “civil affairs,” pastors may advise magistrates (31:4). Previously, the Second Book of Discipline for the Church of Scotland, chapter 1, said ministers must not exercise civil jurisdiction, but should “teach the magistrate” to exercise authority “according to the word.” Indeed, “ministers should assist their princes in all things… provided they neglect not their own charge by involving themselves in civil affairs.”
So pastors teach magistrates, but do not govern them. And a pastor’s interest in civil affairs must not lead to neglect of his principal duties of the Word, Sacraments, and prayer.
We can apply this principle of church and state to church and school. First, pastors should teach and disciple educators, but not govern them. Second, a pastor’s interest in education must not lead to the neglect of preaching and discipleship. Third, God gave parents, not churches, primary responsibility and authority for the education of their children. This explains why Christian school leaders may resent the church, no matter how much the church does for them. They sense that the church is intruding in their affairs. And they are right.
The solution is not for the church to abandon schools, counseling centers, or other works. The church should support such works by setting these organizations free to develop their expertise and exercise their authority.
When I pastored a large church, we released (spun off) our counseling center. We continued to provide financial support, to supply board members, and to send clients. They thrived and relationships improved. For years, we had sensed that our oversight of the center was a formality. Ties were harmed, not strengthened, when the church claimed an authority it had no right to exercise. I propose that Christian schools can follow a similar path by letting parents and educators exercise authority, even as the church continues to offer its full support. This should improve church-school relations. It should work, principally because it fits God’s order for this world. This approach, while not mandatory, is true to the nature of the church and the kingdom. It coheres with wise Reformed creeds, and preserves the biblical distinction between the calling of the visible church and the respective callings of its individual members.
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.