Students receiving a Christian education are graduating from these institutions without an in-depth understanding of the church in historical context — who has the church considered faithful and heretical? How have these labels changed overtime?
Many Christians are taught that there is security in a literal and simple interpretation of the Bible, but they are not also taught that this same Bible was used to defend many of the atrocities in our past.
This gap makes Christians vulnerable to the myth of the moral crowd — the false belief that the judgment of the majority in a crowd (in this case, the church) can be trusted to be moral. This can lead to a sleepy apathy and a belief that anyone who stands in contrast to the crowd is immoral and can lead to a false sense of security.
Christians are lulled into the myth of the moral crowd by the seemingly universal modern Christian support for figures like Wilberforce (who combatted slavery), Bonhoeffer (who fought the Nazis), and Martin Luther King Jr. (who championed civil rights), ignoring the fact that these men were largely considered heretics during their lives. They interpreted the Bible in a completely different way than the way it was generally understood and preached, leaned on an interpretation method that referred to the character and nature of God rather than specific verses, and made the claim that just because a power structure was upheld in the Bible doesn’t mean that it should be upheld today. This was radical and dangerous in the eyes of most Christians, as it relied on their own understanding and not of the plain and simple interpretation of the verses.
Historically, the Christian crowd is rarely moral until a “heretic” or two speak up. The majority of church-going, Bible-believing Christians were, at one point in history, in support of colonialism, racism, slavery, genocide, rape in marriage, and other atrocities. The majority of church-going, Bible believing Christians, at one point in history, were against abolition, civil rights, and women in the workplace.
I went to Christian school from K-12 and I was never taught how to consider any of this. We hardly address these topics at all. As an adult, I look back at my education as a missed opportunity to learn.
Instead, we were taught to focus on the important but incomplete topic of faith formation — teaching what to believe and how to cultivate a personal relationship with God. This does a disservice to discipleship and the fostering of discernment. It is not teaching — it is indoctrination. Indoctrination tells you what to think. It tells you what to believe and how to defend that belief from people who might threaten it. Teaching, on the other hand, gives you a way to orient yourself in context and encourages you to critically think about what you believe, given the information you possess. Teaching encourages questions whereas indoctrination is threatened by them. Teaching gives resources for further exploration that might lead you to differing conclusions while indoctrination gives you resources from one perspective, which will always lead to the same conclusion. In the classroom, we have to encourage young people to explore how things have come to be over time. Shouldn’t students receiving a Christian education also be taught the history of their faith?
The church has been as flawed as the people in it and there is no reason to avoid talking about that. It’s better to study it in depth, to understand it. Ignoring history sets students up to perpetuate the myth of the moral crowd, making it easier for a new generation to call a prophet a heretic.
I want students at Christians schools to have what I didn’t get to have. I want to see Christian schools actively teach the failures of the historic and modern church in America. I want to see curriculum created on how most Christians responded — with Bible verses in hand — to justify what we now know to be unjust. I still think teaching students about outliers like Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, and MLK Jr., Christians who defied the church for the sake of justice, is important, but students should also be taught that the church can get it wrong, has gotten it wrong, will get it wrong.
Let’s tell the whole story. Let’s equip the next generation with critical thinking and love, and teach them to understand when to defy in the name of God for the sake of justice.