Machen: Two Reasons For Christian Schools (1933)

The Christian school is to be favored for two reasons. In the first place, it is important for American liberty; in the second place, it is important for the propagation of the Christian religion. These two reasons are not equally important; indeed, the latter includes the former as it includes every other legitimate human interest. But I want to speak of these two reasons in turn.

In the first place, then, the Christian school is important for the maintenance of American liberty. We are witnessing in our day a world-wide attack upon the fundamental principles of civil and religious freedom. In some countries, such as Italy, the attack has been blatant and unashamed; Mussolini despises democracy and does not mind saying so. A similar despotism now prevails in Germany; and in Russia freedom is being crushed out by what is perhaps the most complete and systematic tyranny that the world has every seen.

…Another line of attack upon liberty has appeared in the advocacy of a Federal department of education. Repeatedly this vicious proposal has been introduced in Congress. It has been consistently favored by that powerful organization, the National Education Association. Now without being familiar with the internal workings of that Association I venture to doubt whether its unfortunate political activities really represent in any adequate way the rank and file of its members or the rank and file of the public-school teachers of this country. When I appeared at a joint hearing before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor and the House Committee on Education in 1926, Mr. Lowrey of the House Committee asked me how it was that the resolution favoring the Federal department of education was passed unanimously by the National Education Association although he had discovered that many members of that Association were saying that they were opposed to it. Neither Mr. Lowrey nor I seemed to be able to give any very good explanation of this fact. At any rate, I desire to pay the warmest possible tribute to many thousands of conscientious men and women who are teachers in the public schools in this country. I do not believe that in the entire government aspect of education these teachers have any really effective representation.

…Thoughtful people, even many who are not Christians, have become impressed with the shortcomings of our secularized schools. We have provided technical education, which may make the youth of our country better able to make use of the advances of natural science; but natural science, with its command over the physical world, is not all that there is in human life. There are also the moral interests of mankind; and without cultivation of these moral interests a technically trained man is only given more power to do harm. By this purely secular, non-moral and non-religious, training we produce not a real human being but a horrible Frankenstein, and we are beginning to shrink back from the product of our own hands.

The educational experts, in their conduct of their state-controlled schools, are trying to repair this defect and in doing so are seeking the cooperation of Christian people. I want to show you — and I do not think I shall have much difficulty in showing this particular audience — why such cooperation cannot be given.

…So I am opposed to the reading of the Bible in public schools. As for any presentation of general principles of what is called “religion,” supposed to be exemplified in various positive religions, including Christianity, it is quite unnecessary for me to say in this company that such presentation is opposed to the Christian religion at its very heart. The relation between the Christian way of salvation and other ways is not a relation between the adequate and the inadequate or between the perfect and the imperfect, but it is a relation between the true and the false. The minute a professing Christian admits that he can find neutral ground with non-Christians in the study of “religion” in general, he has given up the battle, and has really, if he knows what he is doing, made common cause with that syncretism which is today, as it was in the first century of our era, the deadliest enemy of the Christian Faith. Read more»

J. Gresham Machen | “The Necessity of the Christian School” | 1933


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  1. Excellent post that lends perspective to our current time. And clearly, Dr. Machen was rightfully concerned about the proper interpretation of the Bible in his opposition to reading it in public schools, considering the twisting and false representations that often accompany bible reading by unbelievers. His position may surprise many conservative believers but it strikes me as very wise to guard how Scripture is represented, interpreted, and taught.

  2. I wish there were decent Reformed schools nearby. The general evangelical Christian schools don’t really propagate Christianity, they’re more of a way to wall your kids off from some of the dysfunction in the guvmint schools. Homeschooling is not an option for every kid or every parent.

    It seems like there aren’t a lot of good options nowadays. What about unschooling? I’m kidding, if you want me to be.

  3. Walt, I wonder how you assess the quality of a school. It sounds like you think one criterion is how well it propagates the faith. That seems expansive and unwarranted. To my mind, it’s simply about how well the 3Rs are done, regardless of whatever religious backdrop, which means Baptist, Catholic, and (gird thy loins) secular schools have an equal shot at doing this creational task well, even as Reformed churches are superior in the task of redemption.

    I take issue with Machen’s assumption that academia in any way “propagates the Christian faith.” It seems to me God has ordained the means of grace and families for that, not schools. It seems that T. David Gordon has a better grasp:

    Every thoughtful Christian couple will raise questions about how best to rear their children within the resources and opportunities that God’s providence affords. There is every reason for this to be an important and thoughtful consideration. But the church has utterly no authority to resolve the matter. Nothing, not a word, in the entirety of Holy Scripture says anything at all about compulsory education, an idea vigorously resisted by such orthodox theologians as Robert Lewis Dabney when it was first proposed. And nothing in the Scriptures addresses formal education at all, which would have been out of the financial reach of nearly all Christians prior to the twentieth century. Nearly as important, for our purposes, none of the historic creeds of the church address the matter either.

    Admittedly, some texts have been “drafted” into service in this cause, but the texts themselves would be conscientious objectors to this draft. Poor hapless Deuteronomy 6 has been drafted into a number of causes, including the you-must-home-school or Christian-school-your-children cause, but the text itself resists the draft. The text says nothing about formal education at all but rather addresses ordinary day-to-day life (“talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise”). And the substance of Deuteronomy 6 has nothing to do with mathematics or geography. “These words that I command you today” in Deuteronomy 6:6 are certainly the same as the material referred to in verse 1: “This is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it.” And this in turn is surely the Decalogue, which had just been given in Deuteronomy 5. The only thing Deuteronomy 6 required of Israelite parents was to teach their children the Ten Commandments as they went through their everyday life.

    • “Walt, I wonder how you assess the quality of a school.”

      The quality of instruction in reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, the degree to which unnatural and antisocial behaviors are suppressed or promoted by students/faculty, the likelihood that my kid will end up engaging in antisocial/unnatural behavior because of friends made at school.

  4. Zrim, are you referring to the phrase “promote God-centered schooling”? I’ve cited URC CO 14 as I was not familiar with it.

    Interestingly, while I am not a member of URC, I did have a good conversation with a pastor of URC church I have occasionally visited, who left another Reformed denom for the URC over this very issue. If memory serves correctly his prior denom was more insistent on having his kids in Christian schools, whereas his own convictions were along the same lines as TDG, that there is much liberty as regards education with respect to the “3R’s”. Nevertheless, churches and homes are to educate/catechize as to the biblical principles of faith and redemption. In this manner, every home is a “home school”, borrowing the same pastor’s preached words.

    Article 14
    The duties belonging to the office of elder consist of continuing in prayer and ruling the
    church of Christ according to the principles taught in Scripture, in order that purity of doctrine
    and holiness of life may be practiced. They shall see to it that their fellow-elders, the minister(s)
    and the deacons faithfully discharge their offices. They are to maintain the purity of the Word and
    Sacraments, assist in catechizing the youth, promote God-centered schooling, visit the members
    of the congregation according to their needs, engage in family visiting, exercise discipline in the
    congregation, actively promote the work of evangelism and missions, and ensure that everything
    is done decently and in good order.

  5. Dan, yes, that’s it. My guess is that your friend pastored in the PRC, a denom that recently determined that officers must send their children to denom schools on pain of discipline. It was precipitated by a pastor who pulled his kids out of denom schools in order to home school. As a result, many home schooling PRCers who recognized this as a form of legalism came over to the home school friendly URC.

    However, I know of at least one URC case in which an elder nomination was scrubbed for having reservations over the language of URC CO 14 (i.e. it is extra-biblical and invites legalism). And since this person was considered “otherwise fit for office,” and no biblical justification was given to defend the language, it would seem that this language is problematic if it unduly prevents fit men to serve.

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