Rethink Education

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In our new Sunday morning series of sermons on Changing Britain our title this morning is RETHINK EDUCATION.

Education in any society is vital. But one distinguished commentator is saying of Western education:

“No institution … has been more affected by the spirit of the age, to more dire effect, than the education system.

Yet Western education has been admired and envied by many in the rest of the world. Following the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, its ultimate end of learning has been human virtue and moral character. And following the teaching of Jesus and the Bible, it has had another ultimate end, namely the knowledge of God and his will for humankind. But, and this is a big “but”, if that sort of education lapses for one generation, as Richard Niebuhr wrote in Christ and Culture: “the whole grand structure of past achievements falls into ruins.” And it is in danger of lapsing in the West. We, therefore, need to get our thinking on education as right as possible. To help us do that I want this morning to look at Romans 12 and verses 1 and 2. And my headings after a few words of introduction are, first, YOUR BODIES … LIVING SACRIFICES (v 1b); secondly, THIS WORLD (v 2a) versus GOD’S WILL (v 2c); thirdly, RENEWING … YOUR MIND (v 2b).

So by way of introduction some context. Let me summarise how Paul has got to this chapter 12. Chapters 1-2 of Romans speak of how everyone actually rebels against God. Chapter 3 speaks of God’s grace to save you by Christ’s death for your sins on the Cross. Chapter 4 speaks of faith. It says that God’s grace can only be received by faith. Chapter 5 speaks of the peace that follows when you are right with God. Chapter 6 speaks of your resulting spiritual union with Christ. Chapter 7 speaks of your freedom from the law as a means of salvation. It also speaks of the struggle you can have to keep God’s law once saved. Chapter 8 speaks of new life through the Holy Spirit with power to help in that struggle. It also speaks of the great hope you should have of Heaven. In chapter 9 Paul speaks of Jewish and Gentile relationships and divine election. In chapter 10 he speaks of the need to preach the Gospel. And in chapter 11 he looks to the future and says that Israel’s rejection of the Messiah is neither total nor final. Indeed, God’s ultimate mercy is for both Jews and Gentiles. So having tried to spell out something of what he calls in chapter 11.33 “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” and “his paths [that are] beyond tracing out”, he says in chapter 12 verse 1:“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy” to do all the things spoken of in chapters 12-16. For these last four chapters of Romans deal with what we call “ethical” matters, or practical Christian living.

Paul is dealing with how to live in the church, in the world and in the State. And the great motive for your obedience in living as God wants, is to be that of gratitude for all the good he has done for you and to you. In the New Testament doctrine is grace and ethics is gratitude.” Your obedience is to be one of grateful thanks not a reluctant legal obligation. Well, that is the context for Paul’s words here in verse 1:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy [and all I have been explaining and teaching in chapters 1-11], to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship”

And that brings us to our first, heading, YOUR BODIES … LIVING SACRIFICES (v 1b).

The first lesson here in Christian ethics is that you are to be practical and active. John Stott writes on this verse:

“No worship is pleasing to God which is purely inward, abstract and mystical; it must express itself in concrete acts of service performed by our bodies”

So negatively (as Paul has been explaining in earlier chapters) you are to be careful about what you do with your body. Chapter 1 makes it clear there must be no sexual depravity or physical violence. And you are to be careful with your tongue. Then, positively, you are to use your body to do good. That includes using your tongue to speak what is good and true, and, especially, to share God’s good truth about Jesus Christ. Such offerings of your body are described here as “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship”.

If you look carefully in your Bibles at the footnotes, you will see that the word translated “spiritual” in verse 1 can also be translated “reasonable”. Certainly any sacrifice that pleases God is “reasonable” or “sensible”. For verse 2 says that God’s will is “good, pleasing and perfect”. But, reasonable as it is, Godly Living (or Christian ethics) will not always be easy. A sacrifice is hard. To follow Christ you have to take up your Cross. That is certainly the case in modern education in the West and in Britain particularly.

Because of today’s intolerant secular culture, it is hard being a Christian in some State schools, and also in some independent schools. In different ways it can be hard in Church and Christian schools, including new Christian schools that need to be set up. It is always easier to conform, to live with the status quo and to change nothing. But says verse 2:

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed.”

Being a non-conformist is always hard. It is always easier to go “with the flow”. Not conforming is like swimming against the tide. It is much easier simply to drift with the tide. It is even easier to get out and just do nothing and laze on the river bank. But in the light of God’s goodness and mercy, Paul says there needs to be practical action. So he says:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.”

And, note, before moving on, this is a plural command. All this ethical teaching is given to Christians as one body. How important that is! When life is tough, Christians need the support of one another. It is easier to stand firm when you know others are also standing firm for Christian freedoms and ethics. And it is easier to think through issues when in the fellowship of the Church and you have the light of the wisdom of others (both present and past).


So that brings us secondly, to THIS WORLD (v 2a) versus GOD’S WILL (v 2c);

Let’s look again at verse 2. It speaks of “the pattern of this world” and then at the end of the verse of “God's will [that is] … good, pleasing and perfect.”

Throughout the Bible God’s people are to be different because “the pattern of this world” is “anti-God”. And, like the broad road Jesus spoke about, it leads to destruction and death not life and human flourishing. But you say, “Is modern education anti-God”? Of course, it is not all “anti-God” in an overt way. And thank God for all the many good schools and good teachers that we have. But currently there is something radically wrong with, what is called, “the system”. Let me give you some history.

The church pioneered education as we know it in the West. In the 8th century here in the North East our Anglo-Saxon ancestors established one of the great centres of learning in Europe at the monastery in Jarrow. Then Alfred the Great started a remarkable programme of Christian Education in the 9th century. Down the following centuries, school and university level education was generally initiated by Christians and churches. But nine years after the founding of JPC in 1870 the State in Britain began to play a significant part in education. However, there was an agreement to co-operate with the churches. The 1870 Cowper-Temple clause said, in a state school “no religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any particular denomination shall be taught.” But the Bible must be taught, I quote, with: “such explanation and instruction therefrom in the principles of morality and religion as is suited to the capacities of children.”

Then as the Second World War was closing the 1944 Education Act led to a new and stronger church-state partnership and laid the foundation for modern education in Britain. Introducing the 1944 Bill in the House of Lords and commending its religious clauses, with Hitler still undefeated, Lord Selborne said:

“Anglo-Saxon democracy would perish without the Christian ethic and unless we are brought up to be a God-fearing Christian nation, all our vaunted progress in other directions will crumble into dust.”

He had spoken of the

“real enemy being naked materialistic paganism which has reared its head in Europe to a height unknown for a 1,000 years which threatens Christianity today and with it our civilization, our homes and our people.”

But 20 years later things changed. In the 1960s came a huge surge of liberal theology in all the mainstream churches. This led to a rejection of basic biblical truth and basic biblical ethics, especially sex and marital ethics. At the end of the 60s, in 1970, a previous Bishop of Durham, I T Ramsey, chaired a commission, and produced a report, on Christian Education entitled The Fourth R . Sadly, it seemed to sell the pass. It claimed that

“Christian ethics will be the name given to a method and an approach rather than primarily to a certain group of conclusions.”

And it claimed that Christian doctrine is constructed, I quote, “with new relevance” when it arranges dialogue

“… between the different disciplines as can provide helpful and informative inroads into a particular problem; and when … it listens rather than speaks, and learns rather than teaches.”

All that might sound harmless waffle. But with the loss of biblical authority it allows for anything. And over the years since the 1970s almost anything has been allowed. So you now have unbelievable biblical ignorance among the young in terms of Christian understanding, a relativising of religion in our schools and an unwillingness to promote, as the norm, heterosexual monogamous life-long marriage with sexual restraint until marriage. Thank God for the schools that are bucking these trends; they need your encouragement and prayers. But what are some actual results of this educational drift?

Take behaviour. Here are some findings. A study not so long ago found that of 60,000 teenagers in 30 countries English teenagers were at the top or near the top of all lists of drunkenness and the consumption of illegal drugs.

Also unmarried English girls under 18 had the highest rate of pregnancies in Western Europe. And in a survey of nearly 1000 17-19 year olds in the UK who had been on at least one overnight supervised school trip (at the age of 16 or younger), 20 percent said they had “full penetrative sex” on such a trip. The comment of one medical adviser was that it was “great” to discover that two thirds had used a condom. “The safer sex message is obviously getting through”, she said.

My conviction is that because decadence has been tolerated in the Church, there is now more decadence in the State. So others of us in the Church should begin to change things. But where do you start? Well, with your thinking. That leads to your transformation and then action.

So our third heading, RENEWING … YOUR MIND(v 2b). Verse 2b:

“be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

The Holy Spirit so often uses your mind to empower you. He is “the Spirit of truth”, said Jesus. “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16.13). And there are three fundamental truths you need to remember regarding education especially in Britain at this time.

The first concerns the truth about the nature of men, women, boys and girls. To get this right is fundamental for education. The Bible teaches that we are all “fallen”. The root problem is our ignoring or disobeying God. And it is an internal problem of the human heart. The book of Proverbs says

“folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (22.15).

Jesus said:

“For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7.21).

All this is known as “sin” or “original sin” which Archbishop William Temple described like this:

“I am the centre of the world I see; where the horizon is depends on where I stand … Education may make my self-centredness less disastrous by widening my horizon of interest; so far it is like climbing a tower, which widens the horizon for physical vision, while leaving me still the centre and standard of reference.”

Education in the UK until the 20th century assumed all that in its thinking and planning. However, in 18th century France a contrary belief was developing, as Rousseau famously put it, that:

“Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

So you are not born with an instinct for sin. Your environment makes you bad. Education then came to be seen as a means of salvation. And life’s problems were seen to be in your circumstances rather than yourself. So the child, it was said, should have few restraints. Britain, however, generally disagreed and kept to the biblical understanding of human nature until, that is, the 1960s and that surge of liberal theology.

The second truth you need to remember is something that this new philosophy was denying – namely that the family and then the school must be responsible for the education of the child rather than the State. The State is to be supportive. Napoleon certainly denied that. For in 1806 he was the first to establish in France, I quote,

“a body exclusively charged with the duty of teaching and public instruction throughout the Empire”.

At one stroke the State acquired a total centralized control over education. And this totalizing desire for centralized control over education has been an ambition of Marxist and other governments ever since. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote of “the bourgeois clap trap about the family and education, about the hallowed relation of parent and child.” As the famous Russian dissident Shafarevich wrote:

“The socialist project of homogenizing society demands that the family be vitiated and destroyed.”

But the Bible makes it clear that parents have a primary duty in transmitting God’s law and truth to the next generation. Moses reminded the people of God of the 10 commandments in Deuteronomy “so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God”. He then said: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them upon your children” (Deut 6.6-7)

And that leads to the third truth. This is the need for educational institutions also to be supportive and not undermine the parent’s duty for education.
In addition to the 10 Commandments, the Creation or Cultural Commandment “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue” (Gen 1.28) is still in force. That is why today you need schools and colleges. There are practical skills that should be learnt.

However, “world views” as well as skills are taught in schools. But Christian parents and others cannot let schools and colleges teach what is false or immoral to children. Jesus said:

“if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt 18.6).

These are serious issues. Of course, not all subjects will have “world view” or “belief” implications. But many do, even at an elementary and seemingly innocuous level, as C.S.Lewis classically pointed out in his book The Abolition of Man. Yes, in context, children need to be exposed to many views, and when appropriate, many behaviours. Yes, Christians should never demand that Christian beliefs are imposed on anyone. But as the requirement for mainly Christian religious worship and education from the 1988 Education Reform Act is still in place, in the UK they should demand that Christian beliefs are sympathetically proposed. Until that becomes universal, Christians should surely model more overtly Church or Christian schools and work to recover that Christian tradition of education.

Such a tradition was formally in place in state schools when I first came to Newcastle in the 1970s. For at that time the Local Authority’s Agreed Syllabus of Religious Education had as its aim the following (and with this quote I conclude):

“to help the pupils towards an understanding of the Christian Faith in Jesus Christ as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14.6) and to provide a basis from which they may move toward a belief that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing they may have life through his Name” (John 20.31).

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