Christians, Congregations, and Public Education: An Inventory of Issues and Topics
Vocation is a well-rehearsed teaching in the church at large and in the churches of the Lutheran Reformation, and rightly so. Grounded in the doctrine of our justification through the cross of Christ, vocation, from the Latin verb, “to call,” refers not to any occupation, job, or specific station or role, but to God’s calling us to faith in Jesus as Lord and to our living out that faith in all that we say and do (1 Corinthians 10:31; Ephesians 4:1; etc.). 
By this understanding, no Christian is called by God to be a public school teacher (though well-intending Christians sometimes misapply the doctrine of vocation with such words.) Rather, we as Christians can exercise our Christian liberty to serve our neighbor through various stations, roles, and opportunities in life and in a variety of ways. Most of us will agree that being a teacher in a public school is one of the roles that some of us include in living out God’s call to us.
However, the public square remains sometimes contentious, as it has been since the times of Moses, Daniel, and Paul (Acts 17:1–9, 18:1–17), and for us this contention can include matters about public education. The inventory below itemizes many of the factors to assess when considering the current relationship of the church to public education in the U.S. Such issues are complex in a liberal democracy with diverse and sometimes conflicting worldviews and ideologies, and different views within the church about the relationship of Christ to culture.
The items are not elaborated here. Many—though not all—are discussed in the wider literature (three such sources are linked at the close of this inventory), and each item is a study in itself. When assembled as a more comprehensive set, as in this inventory, we can see that the issues overlap and inform each other, and the issues themselves usually do not reduce to single or simplex answers.
Consider, for example, item 17 below. Though we often hear about a wall of separation between church and state, students have a good deal of First Amendment latitude for expressing religious speech and sharing religious literature in public schools. Another example is item 16 and non-consensus about the extent to which public schools and their teachers, administrators, and boards can affiliate themselves with organizations external to the school and recommend their services.
The items are composed as questions in order to present the issue, but this question format does not imply that an answer is necessarily obvious. However, the inventory can give the reader some places to continue an assessment and help to organize a more informed perspective for personal decisions and community practices under the guidance of God’s word and the promises of the Gospel. The items are in no special order and often overlap.
- Which is the valid purpose and philosophy of education: perennialism; essentialism; multiculturalism; existentialism; patriotism; progressivism?
- Can public education sustain student religious organizations and teacher religious organizations such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Good News Club, See You at the Pole, and the Association of Christian Teachers International? What if the organization was a non-Christian religion?
- Is role-modeling an effective expression of sanctification, outreach, and ministry? Can role-modeling serve as a substitute for God’s word as a means of grace?
- What displays, art, dioramas, and music are acceptable for religious holidays?
- Which religious holidays, if any, should be included on the public school calendar? How many?
- Should congregations adopt a local public school to provide material support and encouragement and to foster a positive relationship?
- How might we apply the Reformation themes of vocation and the priesthood of all believers as conceptual tools for scrutiny, analysis, opportunity, and critique regarding a Christian presence or non-presence in public education and schools?
- Different advocacy groups provide varying and sometimes conflicting interpretations of and guidance about teachers’ expression of religion in public schools (e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment Center, the Association of Christian Educators International, and the Anti-Defamation League). How should we compare and contrast these views?
- Is character education in public schools a substitute or replacement for discipleship?
- Do public schools propagate some version of civil religion?
- In what ways can public education serve as an institution within God’s left-hand kingdom and a context for the Christian’s left-hand and right-hand kingdom strategies?
- The Benedict Option (a concept under discussion among Christians at the time of this writing) suggests now is the time for the church to withdraw from some areas of the public square. Is this an idea for Christians to apply to public education?
- What is the latitude for teacher responses to student questions and comments related to religion, worldviews, and existential claims?
- Is secularism now a government-establishment of irreligion as the default worldview in public schools?
- Regarding involvement and support for public schools, how do principles and doctrines such as adiaphora, Christian liberty, vocation, and an ethic of the Gospel inform the Christian’s and congregation’s responsibility for making decisions as God’s stewards?
- In public education, what kinds of teacher and school referrals to organizations outside the school are appropriate for students and parents? Consider, for example: athletic camps; church camps; Planned Parenthood; Crisis Pregnancy Center; church food pantry, United Way charities; the Salvation Army; the Red Cross; the local symphony; the local Christian college concert.
- To what extent can students share religious literature in a public school, and should a congregation or church agency sponsor or encourage such distribution?
- What pre-evangelism practices can the Christian who is a public school teacher employ? How might that teacher structure curriculum to prepare students for later encounters with complex narratives and themes, as found in the Bible?
- Can and should public schools prepare curriculum to include religion topics currently at issue in society?
- Will the Southern Baptist Convention revisit its discussion about encouraging member nonparticipation in public schools?
- What is the role and rationale for educational pluralism and multiple vehicles for schooling and education in a liberal democracy?
- Does the charter school movement have the latitude to include religiously affiliated schools? If so, should the church participate in charter schools?
- What is the current status of voucher programs, and should Christian schools participate in such programs?
- What are the parameters for student speech and religious references in school events such as graduation speeches?
- In what ways is the relationship changing between the Christian teaching in public education and teacher unions?
Hardly an afterthought, readers in and for Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregations will also weigh carefully one of the ten objectives in the LCMS constitution: The Synod, under Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, shall aid congregations to develop processes of thorough Christian education and nurture and to establish agencies of Christian education such as elementary and secondary schools and to support synodical colleges, universities, and seminaries (Article III, 5.).
Useful resources to assist reflection on several of these topics include:
“Expression of Religion in Public Schools” by Theresa Lynn Sidebotham, The Colorado Lawyer 47 (November 2011). All rights reserved. This article discusses the intersection of religious expression and public schools. It focuses on the Equal Access Act, student speech, school personnel speech, access for community viewpoints, and released time.
“Preparing the Soil: The Mission of Christian Teachers in Public Schools” by Carrie Birmingham, Stone-Campbell Journal 12 (Fall 2009). All rights reserved. The parable of the sower provides a framework for exploring how the Christian mission of public school educators requires critical consideration of culturally held expectations of schooling in order to educate students to be inquisitive, rational, and to respect the value of intangible goods.
“The Case for Educational Pluralism: Alternatives to the State-Funded Educational Monopoly” by Ashley Rogers Berner, First Things 228 (December 2012). All rights reserved. Berner is Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.