Christians and Public Schools: A Conversation with Finn Laursen
Finn Laursen, Executive Director of Christian Educators Association International, email@example.com
Russ Moulds, Ph.D., Editor, Issues in Christian Education, firstname.lastname@example.org
Issues welcomes to its pages Finn Laursen, Executive Director of Christian Educators Association International and author of Standing on the Word: Christian Educators in Public Schools (Advantage Inspirational, 2015). This article is a conversation with Mr. Laursen and has been co-edited with him. Issues is grateful for the dialogue, examining with him different views about the opportunities and challenges today for Christians and public education. We pray God’s continued blessings for his work on behalf of Christ’s kingdom.
RM: Let’s begin with a brief description of CEAI.
FL: CEAI was organized in 1953 by a small group of public school educators in Southern California for fellowship and a faith-centered support group. It has now grown to become a professional association for Christian educators with members in every state in the nation as well as on military bases around the globe. For many it has gone beyond fellowship and support through valuable resources and become an alternative to the secular unions providing professional liability and job action legal protection. CEAI encourages, equips and empowers educators through biblical principles.
RM: CEAI has recently been involved in an important U.S. Supreme Court case. The Lutheran Church has also taken a number of two-kingdoms issues to the Supreme Court and is, at this writing, petitioning the Court about church pre-school access in Missouri to safe playground supplies for children (Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, Docket No. 15-577). Tell us about your public education case.
FL: The case is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, Docket No. 14-915. Basically, we object that Christian public school teachers (and any teacher, for that matter) can be legally required to subsidize any organization that does not represent their beliefs and convictions. In 2013, Christian Educators Association International and ten California public school teachers filed suit against the California Teachers Association and the National Teachers Association. The issue was whether the U.S. Constitution protects public school teachers from state mandates that compel them to financially contribute through dues or fees to unions whose policies and politics they may disagree with. The death of Antonin Scalia left an eight-justice court which on March 29, 2016, issued a 4-4 split decision on the case, and this left the appeals court ruling against us in place. Subsequently, the Ninth Circuit Court denied a petition for rehearing the case which leaves the original circuit court decision against us in place for now. We’re disappointed but will watch for future opportunities.
RM: Given recent cultural shifts in the U.S. such as same-sex marriage and transgender activism, many Christians (and non-Christians) are concerned about the culture of public schools. The Southern Baptist Convention has in the last ten years explored the possibility of abandoning public education. We at Concordia University, Nebraska are committed to preparing teachers for our parochial schools, but we also send many graduates into the public schools. How do you and CEAI currently perceive the culture of public education?
FL: In the past, public education was a “three-legged stool” balanced on religion, morality, and knowledge. As long as all three legs remained strong, public education would also remain strong. Then, in the early 1960s the Supreme Court ruled that public schools were to be secular, removing one leg. Over the next five decades, morality as previously understood crumbled, and public schools were left with no absolute truths. Now the stool has only the leg of knowledge left, rendering our education system unstable and virtually ineffective.
Having said that, Christian educators can strategically allow their religion and morality to impact the schooling culture legally.
RM: We agree that we have many excellent teachers in our public schools, some who are Christians, some who are not. Some Christians regard public schools as a fruitful mission field. I’ve become increasingly skeptical (though not cynical) about such mission opportunities, though not due to the secularism. As Luther reminds us, “The world is still the world,” and the Gospel is always to be at work in the context of unbelief. Rather, our participation in public schools now may not be a good strategy, and propping up a broken system may not be good stewardship.
FL: I’ve been a teacher, administrator, and superintendent in public schools for many years. The challenges are considerable. Nevertheless, I came to focus on how the Lord would have me be His transformational agent within that setting. His Kingdom became more important than my comfort. This influence of being missional educators has spiritual implications as students see glimpses of Jesus through the Christian educators’ love and grace extended to them—glimpses that many students today do not get in other areas of their life.
RM: Isaiah promises us that God’s word accomplishes what He sends it to do, no matter what the circumstances (Isaiah 55:10-11), and this can certainly include public schools. But I caution my teacher education students that being a good role model and a caring teacher is not exclusive to teachers who are Christians. Students find good role models among their non-Christian teachers. And even the very concept of “the good” is no longer a clear and agreed-on idea in a culture without absolutes. Thus, being distinctively Christian and missional in a public school setting will require more than being a good role model. I think you have written about this, haven’t you?
FL: While public schools cannot promote religion (in general or particular), the First Amendment also prohibits public schools from being antireligious or even irreligious. The First Amendment impacts Christians who teach in public schools in many ways. They can
- Engage in personal prayer and Bible reading
- Attend student activities including prayer, Bible study, and worship
- Lead after school religious activities for students such as Good News Clubs and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
- Share personal religious beliefs when asked or when appropriate within curriculum
- Teach about religion or the Bible in curriculum
- Openly live according to their biblically based convictions
- Share faith issues with staff
Perhaps the question is whether our fellow Christian teachers put these liberties into action, using them to exhibit such biblical themes as others being more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:1-10), work being as “unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23-24), and forgiveness and compassion being our norm (Matthew 5:12-14).
RM: Jesus tells us throughout the Gospels that our discipleship and witness can be risky. We know, for example, that Joseph of Arimathea was a somewhat reluctant and ambivalent disciple (John 19:38). And public institutions today are not entirely friendly to a Christian presence. I have wondered about my own teacher education programs recently, and whether we adequately prepare and equip pre-service and in-service teachers for including public education in their Christian vocation.
FL: Clearly there are challenges and risks. But when I started to consider my schooling environment as my mission field, it did not look so overwhelming. I could stay in my own home, in my own country, speak my own language, and live in the affluent culture I have become accustomed to. I realized other missionaries were called to live life styles of unbelievable sacrifice—making my mission field look pretty manageable. I always had the thought that someday the Lord might call me to risk my life on a foreign mission field. But mine is the mission field of public school where my life is not at risk. The biggest risk might be going beyond my comfort zone and possibly losing a job—not life or limb—in order to stand by my convictions. So it’s good to keep our own situation in perspective.
RM: Good point. Yet it seems that public education as an institution has been taking on more social and cultural characteristics that are incongruent with historical Christian doctrine and conduct. The public school teacher who is Christian may by regulation have to instruct (not just discuss) in content contrary to biblical teaching. Christian parents may now have to consider whether their children will be taught (not just familiarized with) content contrary to their family’s convictions. While we don’t want our congregations to lapse into legalism by telling members whether they can participate in public education, the church may need to provide background and guidance in ways we haven’t done before.
FL: I’ve been thinking about the school choice issue for a while now. For parents, I would like to suggest that there is not one correct answer for all. When considering public schools, parochial schools, or home schooling, each parent should seek the Lord’s will for their child(ren). Every child is created in the image of God, but every child is different and has different needs. While I’m not suggesting the decision should be left up to the child, listening to a child’s concerns and dreams as they mature can be a barometer for their psychological and emotional development, and this can also inform parental decisions.
RM: So far, so good. Yet many now question whether the public school is a sound or even neutral context for the spiritual development of children, especially for upper elementary and middle school kids who are beginning to form their worldviews. In your book, you wisely point out that parents need to saturate their homes with God’s Word as the key location for spiritual development. But developmentally, children are not prepared to parse the increasingly divergent and conflicting claims between the church and the social culture that public schools inevitably represent. Again, I wonder how the church may best assist parents and families with understanding and deciding such matters.
FL: Christian parents should, of course, seek God’s will and guidance for the children He has loaned us to insure they are educated in the environment He deems best for them. One size does not fit all and, like adults, children may flourish best in different types of environments. In fact, at times a combination or series of public, parochial, and home schooling may be the answer. This is a decision that each parent must prayerfully make for each of their children. And as they stay in touch with the academic and spiritual development of their children, they may need to adjust their educational plans to meet the current individual needs of their child.
RM: Earlier in our discussion, you mentioned being transformational, which calls to mind such texts as Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 2:7-15 and 5:18-20, and our agency as God’s ambassadors. In the Christ-and-culture discussions, this theme fits with the “Christ transforming culture” perspective, a view developed by the Neo-Calvinist educator Abraham Kuyper (among others) and adopted by many American evangelicals in the 20th century. But many American evangelicals are now less optimistic about a transformational perspective when it comes to public institutions. Some even seem to be moving to a “Christ and culture in conflict” perspective. Lutherans lean more toward a “Christ and culture in tension” approach, and are less optimistic about transforming social institutions or even using them as an instrument or context for transforming individuals. This tension view does not, however, condemn cultural institutions since they are part of God’s left-hand kingdom for sustaining order. In fact, it can be argued that Luther created the first public school system during the Reformation in Saxony long before public education in the United States.
FL: Clearly the public schools as they exist today are not conducive to being transformed to conform to families of faith and at times are even adversarial toward faith. However, the reality is that 90 percent of our nation’s children attend them, and I believe that as the Body of Christ we have an obligation to try to make a difference within that setting. Just as we send missionaries to third world nations that are less than welcoming towards being transformed by coming to faith, should we do less for the mission field in our own back yard … a setting where quite frankly most Christian families still send their children to be influenced by that secular culture?
RM: In the Matthew 9:35-38 mission text, Jesus tells us about sending laborers out into the harvest. And currently, the church’s patient work in China may be an overseas example of what you encourage us to consider locally in public schools. In her article, “Preparing the Soil: The Mission of Christian Teachers in Public Schools,” Carrie Birmingham presents a pedagogical role for the Christian teaching in public education. Using Jesus’ parable of the sower, Birmingham says that in addition to good role modeling and surrounding students with the love of God, these teachers can teach in such ways that students learn to love nonmaterial goods. They can also select content and teach in ways that help students to understand and appreciate the power of narrative. Through such instruction, these teachers prepare or “set up” students to hear and grasp the narrative of the Gospel and its countercultural promise about what is truly good. As a longtime teacher and administrator in public schools, do you think Birmingham’s ideas have merit? (Birmingham’s paper can be found at “Preparing the Soil: The Mission of Christian Teachers in Public Schools”. See also her editorial in this edition of Issues.)
FL: I would agree that, through the act of teaching, the teacher who is a Christian can accomplish a great deal beyond the school’s stated academic goals. Teachers, of course, must teach the school’s adopted curriculum, but they do have academic freedom to go beyond the curriculum. A gifted teacher also goes beyond lecture and the textbook and engages students in discovery and sharing of ideas. This latitude and preparation can then legally open the door for Christian students to carry the Christian “torch” beyond the teacher’s textbook manuals.
RM: Nicole Fulgham offers another view about Christians and public schools in her book, Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low Income Kids (Brazos Press, 2013). She makes a “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) case for the church to intervene on behalf of children in low-income communities and find ways to improve their only opportunity for education: their public schools. (See the summary in “Briefly Considered” in this edition of Issues.) The church has a long history of providing education in various ways for those who would not otherwise have access. The early Sunday school movement for children working in factories is an example. Has the CEAI explored this strategy?
FL: We have encouraged churches to adopt schools or individual teachers. We suggest they not go into that setting without an agenda, but with a goal of selfless service. Schools in the inner city are desperate for help, and we have seen amazing results from such efforts through tutoring, mentoring, and providing teacher support as needed. Demonstrating God’s Love and Truth is actually more powerful than preaching about it!
RM: I often discuss with students and colleagues this important James 2:18-26 topic on works demonstrating our faith. They like to mention the expression, “Preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words” (sometimes attributed to St. Francis). But I also point them to Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” We Lutherans insist that God creates faith through His means of grace: the sacraments and the written and spoken Word. The public school is one setting for our practicing the love of Christ. Perhaps we need additional “wise as serpents” strategies (as you and I discussed above) for crafting appropriate and not illegal opportunities for the Word of Christ.
FL: On that point, I’d also like to add that I believe the church has fallen into the trap of dividing everything including professions into the sacred and secular. So only a few careers are considered ministry, and to be about doing ministry one must become a pastor and receive a call.
I am suggesting that teaching is a calling. If we follow the biblical admonition to do all we do for Christ, then the field of education fits the criteria of fulltime ministry and should be treated as such by the church whether we walk that profession in church schools or public schools.
RM: This not-uncommon view will, nevertheless, raise lots of Lutheran eyebrows, especially among some clergy! We won’t here resolve the perennial disputes about the doctrines and traditions of the office of the ministry. But our readers may agree that all Christians can, given the current culture shifts, benefit from deeper studies in the church’s doctrine of vocation, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and the calling of every Christian to faith and to living out that faith—including Christian teachers, students, and parents in public schools.
Mr. Laursen, thanks very much for the conversation. We hope it will be thought-provoking for our readers as the church continues to consider the changing conditions of culture, society, and the public schools.
The website for the Christian Educators Association International can be found at https://ceai.org/
Standing on the Word: Christian Educators in Public Schools is available here on Amazon.com