Monday, November 15, 2010

Yes, we're the church together

I preached this sermon October 31 at my home church, Calvin CRC in Sheboygan, WI. Unlike two years ago, I did not get into trouble for my "liberal politics."

Oh, and special thanks to Cathy Smith. You can read some of her bloggings here. Something she wrote in a discussion on the CRC Voices list serve really made up the heart of my final point. When I read her comments, I knew I could never say it better than she did. After the service, a man in church I highly respect came up to me and said "I really appreciated the sermon--especially the part Cathy wrote." Thanks, Cathy!

“We Are the Church Together”

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Q&A 54, Heidelberg Catechism

Article XXVII, Belgic Confession

In just a moment, we are going to read together from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Go ahead and turn to it, if you’d like. 1 Corinthians is in the New Testament. First come the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Then come the books of Acts and Romans, and then 1 Corinthians.

Also, there are outlines available. If you would like one, raise your hand, and one of the ushers will bring you one. It might be useful to have one within reach. I printed Question and Answer 54 from the catechism there, and in just a moment I’ll be asking you to read along with me.

I. Introduction—“I am the Church…”

Old songs stick with you a long time, don’t they? No matter how old you are, you can probably remember songs you sang as a kid. Some of them are simple nursery rhymes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Jack and Jill Went up the Hill.” If you grew up in the church you certainly remember songs like “Jesus Loves Me” or “This is the Day.”

Back in my grade school days, after church all the kids would head down to the church basement. We could pick up juice and a cookie on the way, but we all gathered together in a big room to sing.

The whole church was invited—singing time was held between the church service and Sunday school. While the junior high and high school kids thought they were too cool to join in, many adults would join us. Often there were more adults than kids! Together we would sing Sunday school songs like “Fishers of Men,” “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” and “Do, Lord,” often doing the motions along with the singing. Once we were done, we would move our chairs, the adults would move around the movable classroom dividers, and we’d head to our Sunday school lessons.

One song I especially remember singing was called “I am the Church.” Maybe you know it. It was pretty simple. The chorus went like this—

“I am the church,

You are the church,

We are the church together.

All who follow Jesus,

All around the world,

Yes, we’re the church together.”

I’ll admit that one reason I especially remember this song is that it was one of my little brother’s favorites. He loved to sing it, but he couldn’t pronounce “church.” When he said it, it sounded like “tutch.” My other brother and I used to tease him by copying the way he sang it: “I am da tutch, you are da tutch…”

I thought of that song again this week. In our morning services Pastor Rob has been going through the Apostle’s Creed, that ancient statement of Christian belief recited every week in churches around the globe. Pastor Rob asked me to continue the series, and this week, we are up to “I believe in the holy catholic church.” So of course when I thought about what I might say about the church, the first thing that popped in my head was “I am da tutch, you are da tutch…”

And as simple as the song is, it contains a timeless truth. The first verse of the song says:

“The church is not a building,

the church is not a steeple,

the church is not a resting place,

the church is a people.”

To this day, I remember learning a lot about the church while singing that song. But it wasn’t just the words that taught me about the church. It was watching the people singing along. It was people like the crotchety lady who always helped in the kitchen and made sure we kids didn’t take more than one cookie; people like the elderly man who cried when he told us his son had left the faith and become a Buddhist; and people like the minister, who always had time for us kids and always let one of us join him at the exit to the sanctuary as he greeted the congregation after the service.

I’ve been a member of quite a few churches since then. But I first learned about the church from those saints who gathered every Sunday on High Mountain Road.

This morning, we’re going to look at another church—the church in Corinth. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in response to problems in that church. In some parts of the letter he can be pretty critical of the church folks in Corinth. But at the very beginning, he expresses his thankfulness for them and reminds them of what a blessing it is to be part of the church. Hear the word of the Lord—through Paul—in the first nine verses of 1 Corinthians:

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

Now pull out your outlines. On the top is question and answer 54 from the Catechism. I will read the question, and I ask that you read the answer together in response.

Q. What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?

A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.

And of this community I am and always will be a living member.”

The catechism, like the Apostle’s Creed, speaks of the church as “the holy catholic church.” Some other creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, add another word, the “holy catholic and apostolic Church.” This morning, let’s look at the church through each of those descriptive words: “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic.”

II. Holy

So first, “holy.” What does it mean to be holy?

To be holy means to be set apart for a special purpose. Usually, that being set apart means being dedicated to the service of God. It means exactly the same thing as “sacred” or “sanctified.”

In fact, when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and told them in verse two that they were “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy,” he was telling them that they were called to be saints. The actual word he used that we translate as holy was “saints.” Holy, saints—either way Paul is saying that the church has been made holy and set aside.

But of course the church isn’t holy by itself. It isn’t set aside solely to be different from other organizations, or to be just a little better than the rest. Paul says it right there in verse two. The church is sanctified in Christ Jesus.

That means that there is nothing about the church by itself that is good. We are only made holy, set apart, because of Jesus Christ. The whole reason for the church is Jesus himself.

As much as I appreciate John Calvin, I am not a big fan of the name of our church. I don’t like the idea of a church being named after a mere human being, even one who had such an impact on history. There is only one person who deserves to have a church named after him, and that is Jesus Christ. It is his gift of grace that allows the church to continue and prosper.

Paul thanks God for the church in verse 4, saying he thanks God “because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” And it is through Jesus that the church has been enriched in every way—in all our speaking and in all our knowledge. And it is because of Jesus that we are able to be called into fellowship with him.

And because of the grace of Jesus, because we can now fellowship with him and become one with him, the church receives some wonderful promises. Paul talks about these in verses 7 and 8 of the text. First, we do not lack any spiritual gift. Within the church, God has given every gift, every talent the church needs.

And not only that, but Jesus has promised to keep us strong to the end of time. No matter the challenges the church faces, whether from fights within the church or from attacks from the outside, God will provide the gifts and talents needed to stand strong, and he will give us the strength needed to gain the victory.

But being holy, being sanctified in Jesus Christ, doesn’t simply mean that we can sit back, assured that we have been set apart from the world around us, simply waiting for Christ to return. Rather, we have been set aside for a purpose. We are called as a church to respond to God’s grace to us. And that call is to be Christ’s agents, his hands in a hurting world. The church has been called to serve the world, spreading Christ’s grace to everyone who needs it.

That means making sure that everyone has the opportunity to hear the message of salvation. For a few of us, that may mean something as radical as moving thousands of miles across the ocean to translate the Bible into a language spoken by a few thousand folks in Papua New Guinea, or studying macroeconomic systems and designing the best possible ways to encourage economic development in the third world.

For many more of us it means witnessing to our neighbors and the others nearby who need to hear what Christ has done for you. It means living with less so we can share our abundance those who need it. It means walking alongside and mentoring people in jail or with addictions, or who didn’t have the same advantages as we did. And it means encouraging our leaders to take seriously our responsibility to the needy and weak in our society.

Being made holy, being set apart, doesn’t give us as a church license to simply hang out in our beautiful buildings and wait for Christ to return. It doesn’t give the church permission to ignore the masses in decay in hopes that they’ll just go away. It means being set apart to do the work Jesus began 2000 years ago—to continue the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God, of healing the sick and feeding the hungry. It is for the work of Christ that the church has been set apart, sanctified in Jesus, and called to be holy.

III. Catholic

Besides being called holy, we as a church are called a catholic church. Another word for catholic is “universal,” and some Christians, because of concern about confusion, sometimes substitute the word universal. And that is fair, since the word catholic simply means universal in extent, involving everyone. We are united in faith with all Christians, everywhere and in all times and places.

Paul recognizes the catholic nature of the church in verse 2 of our text. He addresses his letter both specifically and generally. Specifically, he addressed the church of God in Corinth. More generally, though, he also addresses his letter to “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.

The catechism writers focused on the catholic or universal nature of the church when they said that God gathers, protects, and preserves a community “out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end….”

Maybe today we are a little more aware than we used to be that the church is made up of people from the entire human race, regardless of the country we live in or our ethnic background. When my kids were younger, we sometime used the books You Can Change the World for our family devotions. You may have seen the books in our church library. They are the kid version of the “Operation World” series, in which we American Christians are encouraged to pray for Christians and people groups all over the world. They are an excellent resource, and I encourage you to check out the kids’ version for your kids and grandkids, as well as “Operation World” for your own devotions.

But even though we are more aware that we are united in faith with a church gathered by God out of the entire human race, I wonder how well we live that out in our everyday lives. Let me give an example. While the numbers from the 2010 census are not finalized, 2009 estimates suggest that the City of Sheboygan is now about 3% African-American, 8% Asian, and 10% of Hispanic origin. Yet our congregation doesn’t reflect those numbers. Few do. Why not?

This topic was raised in the last few months in our denominational magazine, The Banner. Maybe some of you read it. In September, someone wrote an editorial asking “Is Separation Always Sin?” The writer of the article was Timothy Palmer, a North American missionary working in Nigeria. He agreed that it is beautiful when Christians from different ethnic groups worship together. But, he raised some concerns about the Belhar Confession, a new confession being considered by our church.

The Belhar condemns any “forced separation on the grounds of race and color.” That part is a no-brainer—there can be no doubt by any Bible believing Christian that the old system of apartheid in South Africa was abhorrent to God. The practice of redlining certain neighborhoods in Chicago to try to prevent African-Americans from moving in was the work of the devil.

But the Belhar also seems to reject any separation based on race or ethnicity and claims that any separation between peoples and groups is sin. Palmer isn’t so sure. He argued that there are sometimes valid reasons for people to worship separately.

One reason often cited is the language barrier. In a church like ours that places the Word of God at the center of worship, it would be hard to justify allowing people to go through an entire service not understanding what is going on.

But as someone recently noted in a letter in response to Palmer’s editorial, most churches are fairly quick to add a sign language interpreter when two or three people need it. But not many churches interpret their services into other languages unless a high percentage of the church needs it. While doing so might not be convenient, he argued that it needs to be done for the sake of hospitality.

He then asked an important question. Are we, as a church, striving to reflect the fact that God has drawn his church from every nation by whatever means possible? Or are we just trying to justify our cultural comfort zones or ethnic preferences?

Obviously, the answer to that question is complicated. We can’t settle it easily. But perhaps we should work to make our church better reflect the diversity of our community. After all, we confess that we are united in faith with a church gathered out of the entire human race.

Of course, the church is even bigger than all three dimensions of the globe. The catechism says that God gathers, protects, and preserves a community “out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end” that is “chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”

Another one of our confessions says even more about this. Article 27 of the Belgic Confession reminds us that the “church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects.” It goes on to remind us that “this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small in the eyes of men—as though it were snuffed out.” And it gives the example of the “very dangerous time of Ahab,” when “the Lord preserved for himself seven thousand men who did not bend their knees to Baal.”

This reminder should give us hope in God’s grace to his church. No matter how tough things seem, God will preserve and protect his church. There will always be followers of Christ. While it may be true that the church in the West—in Europe and North America—is declining, maybe even fading away, God will preserve and protect his church. And because we are united to Christ in faith through his grace, we know we are and always will be a member of that church. We are and always will be united to a church drawn out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to the end, a universal church, a holy catholic church.

IV. Apostolic

Just briefly, I want to touch on one more aspect of the church. I mentioned before that many of our creeds, including the oldest one, the Nicene Creed, describe the church as holy, catholic and apostolic. While it is good to be reminded, we probably know to some extent what it means that the church is holy and what it means that the church is catholic, or universal. But what about that last word—what does it mean that the church is apostolic?

In our text this morning, Paul starts out by identifying himself as “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.” We often refer to Paul as an apostle.

The word apostle means someone who is sent out. It actually comes from the same root word as postal—the postal service is a group of people who are sent out to deliver messages to a large geographical area. Apostles are kind of like postal carriers—they are sent out to deliver a message.

But the message of the apostles was not just a bit of news from a cousin in Jerusalem being sent to a distant relative in Corinth. The message of the apostles was the gospel of Jesus Christ—the message of grace and salvation and sanctification, of being made holy, through Christ. It is what Paul in verse 6 calls “our testimony about Christ,” a testimony that was confirmed in the lives of the people who make up the church, both in Corinth, and everywhere around the world.

The twelve apostles were sent by Jesus to be witnesses, to preach the gospel of grace that Jesus had given them. All of them had personally met Jesus—all but Paul by being his disciple before his death and all including Paul seeing him after his death and resurrection. Each of the twelve was personally called by Jesus to follow him and commissioned to be preachers of the gospel of grace that Jesus personally taught them.

As personal witnesses of the gospel, they became the foundation of the church—the holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We see this in Ephesians 2:20. There, Paul speaks of the church as being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”

When we confess that the church is apostolic, we are saying that it is founded on the gospel of grace to which the apostles were eyewitnesses. And we are confessing that the churches to which we belong today are directly descended from the churches we see in the book of Acts, the churches formed by the apostles. The Gospel Jesus gave to His apostles to preach to the churches is the same Gospel we preach today.

The Gospel calls us to serve Jesus in His church, just as Jesus called His first apostles. And when we preach the Gospel of the apostles, we are assured that we will not “lack any spiritual gift” as we eagerly await Christ’s final return as King. And we are assured that he will keep his church strong to the end, because the God of the gospel of grace is faithful. We are part of a church that is holy, catholic, and apostolic.

V. Grace!

Yet, somehow, even though we confess that we are part of a church that is holy, catholic, and apostolic, we sure don’t act like it, do we? We argue about minor things, like style of music, and become angry over something designed to glorify God. Instead of extending grace to each other, we pass judgment on each other over little things like the exact timing of the creation or who to vote for. Sometimes church seems more like the description that writer Annie Dillard gave in her book of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk. This is how she described one of her experiences:

“Week after week I was moved by . . . The terrible singing I so loved, the fatigued Bible readings, The lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, The horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came; we returned; we showed up; week after week we went through with it.”

But notice, even with the pervasive imperfection of her church, Annie Dillard kept showing up.

I mentioned earlier, that even though Paul starts 1 Corinthians on a positive note, thanking God for his gift of the church in Corinth, he moves quickly to criticism. In verse 10 he starts a section decrying divisions in the church. Later on he deals with reports of sexual immorality within the church at Corinth, lawsuits among church members, and divisive debates over propriety in worship and whether Christians can eat food that had been offered to idols. And yet Paul returns at the end of the letter to his initial theme—his love and thankfulness for the church, and his desire to visit them again, hopefully for more than just a short visit.

The church is imperfect. After all, it is made up of imperfect people, people who have received God’s grace, but are still working out the gift of grace in their own lives.

Sometimes people are thrown off by that imperfection. I had a secretary who for many years refused to join the church because of all the hypocrites. It seems that whenever something bad happens within the church, the naysayers are there attacking the church. And look at the divisions within the church—there are thousands of separate denominations, each seeming to claim that they have the right understanding of Scripture. Our own denomination was born out of schism, and has suffered two major schisms in the last 85 years or so. We all seem to think we have a corner on the market on knowing what God wants. And in doing so, we forget about grace.

So as a church, we need to remember the beginning of Paul’s letter to that oh-so-imperfect church in Corinth, a church not so different from our local congregation, or from the church as a whole. We need to remember that we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. We need to thank God for the grace given us in Christ Jesus, and rely wholly on it.

I have a friend named Cathy—a friend I’ve never met in person, but a friend indeed. Cathy is a former teacher and a writer. She writes for Christian Courier magazine and maintains a blog of her writing. Recently, in a discussion about some of the divisions in the church, Cathy said something that really sums up what we need to do as a church in the face of our divisions, our sins, and our imperfections.

She said:

“We have to go back again and again to what Christ did for us. It's not our "understanding" or "obedience" that brings us hope, but being cleansed and reborn in Christ…. If I am completely wrong about my interpretation of Genesis or my take on [women in church office], praise the Lord, I still belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. I'm trusting in his work. The confused peasants in the Middle Ages who worshipped bits of wood allegedly imported from Golgotha, if they believed in the Lord, still belonged. My descendants, who may inhabit purification pods and live digital lives in environmentally-safe cocoons, if they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, will belong. It's that smaller than a mustard seed spark of faith that matters, not our understanding, nor our obedience…. We will disagree about that stuff, but we can still love one another in the Lord and try to be conciliatory, patient and gentle with one another… If a church… focus[es] on Christ’s sufficiency, daily and weekly, we can allow each other a lot of working room and space for our humble attempts at understanding and obedience.”

VI. Conclusion

We started with one song this morning—“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.” I want to finish with another song, one of my very favorite hymns—“The Church’s One Foundation.” We’re not singing it this morning, because it is one of the hymns we’ll be singing tonight over at First Church. I hope you’ll join us there tonight, as we celebrate the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation together with Christians from several other congregations. It will be an excellent opportunity to celebrate God’s faithfulness and grace toward his church.

But back to “The Church’s One Foundation.” The title says it all, doesn’t it? The church’s one foundation isn’t agreement on a set of specific doctrines. We aren’t sanctified in Christ because we know more doctrine than the guys down the street or because we are the most obedient to God’s law or because we are more faithful to a particular human interpretation of Scripture.

Rather, “the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord.” “With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.”


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christian Education

Given some recent discussions I've been having on Christian education, I thought I would post this sermon. I gave the sermon in August 2005.

A Case for Christian Schools
Psalm 145:1-7

I. Introduction

Have you seen those bumper stickers that say “Drive Carefully, Schools Are Open”? Well, this week marks the beginning of the school year. I know Sheboygan Christian starts on Wednesday, and the local public schools start Thursday.

The beginning of the school year seems like the perfect time to talk to you about one of my passions, something that has been a key component of nearly every part of my life: Christian education, and Christian schools in particular.

Those of you who know me know that I come from a family of teachers. My father left his career as an engineer to become a science teacher at a Christian high school and then a professor and now an administrator at a Christian college.

While my brothers and I were young, my mother went to college at night, and later part-time while we were in school so she could become a Christian school teacher. After about ten years teaching elementary students, she became an education professor at the same college where my dad is and now runs the graduate education program there.

And it doesn’t stop there—my brother taught for a number of years, my uncle is a Christian school principal, and three cousins are teaching or have taught in the last year at Christian schools as far away as Central America. Two more cousins plan to become Christian school teachers. And last, but certainly not least, my dear wife Kimberly is a teacher, having taught sixth graders for six years before spending the last ten years teaching our children at home and volunteering at school.

I am not a teacher by trade, but I am a product of a Christian education. For seventeen years I attended Christian schools, starting with my kindergarten year at North 4th Street Christian School in Prospect Park, New Jersey, all the way to my senior year at Dordt College in Iowa.

Those years served me well, and one of my dreams is that someday there will be a Reformed Christian law school so that students will have an opportunity I did not—the opportunity to study law in the light of Scripture and the Reformed world-and-life view.

I am absolutely convinced that Christian day schools are one of the best tools that God has given us to help us teach our children and pass on God’s word and will for our lives to them.

I am proud of the fact that our denomination has historically supported Christian schools, and I am proud of the support that all of you give so that all of the children of this church can receive a Christian education, regardless of their ability to pay. I am thrilled that last year, during the first year of our Christian Education program we collected more than enough to pay the tuition of the children who participate in the program. I think it is wonderful that the money to support the program comes from such a variety of people in the church—not just parents, but also people with no children or very young children, elderly people, people who spent years struggling to put their own kids through Christian school without a program like this, even people who have children in Christian schools, but who have chosen for one reason or another not to participate in the program.

Tonight I want to talk about Christian schools—I want to remind you of why they are important, to point out some of the misconceptions we have about Christian schools, to point out what our Christian schools ought to look like, and to encourage you as a body to continue your support for Christian education.

II. Why Christian schools?

A. They are an excellent tool for passing the knowledge of God from

generation to generation

The Psalm I read as our text this evening is a psalm of praise. “I will exalt you, my God and my King,” says the psalmist. “I will praise your name for ever and ever.” But the Psalmist knows that God is so wonderful, so praiseworthy, that it isn’t enough for just one person, or just one generation to praise Him. In verse four he proclaims that “One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.” Not just that, but they will “tell of the power of [God’s] awesome works” and “they will celebrate [His] abundant goodness and joyfully sing of [His] righteousness.”

I can’t think of a better tool for one generation commending God’s works, His power, His goodness, His justice, His love to the next generation than Christian schools, schools where the Lord God is at the center of every part of the day and every activity, schools where teachers, parents, staff members, and volunteers are as excited as the psalmist about passing on to the young their praise and love for God.

I think it is only natural for those of us who have the Holy Spirit working in us to want to pass on the love of the Lord to others. That’s why we engage in outreach. That’s why we reach out to the poor and needy in our community. And that’s why we teach children about God.

God also specifically commands that we pass on our knowledge to future generations. In Deuteronomy 4:9, after God’s miraculous work in leading Israel out of Egypt, God, through His servant Moses, commands his people to “be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things our eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”

Later, in Deuteronomy 6:7-9, God commands his people to impress the law and commandments of God on their children. “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up,” he says. “Tie them as symbols on our hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” In other words, God’s law and commands must be an integral part of every single thing we do, of every moment of every day.

We can only be assured that God’s laws are in front of our children while they are learning if we make sure they are in a place that explicitly teaches them that God loves them, that God has a plan for them, and that God expects a response of obedience from them. I can’t think of a better place to be assured of this during the school day but in a Christian school.

B. To teach our children from a Christian perspective

Another reason for Christian schools is to teach our children from a Christian perspective.

I’m going to start with a bold statement: There is no such thing as neutrality. Maybe some of you sports fans can relate. Have you ever watched a game between two teams to which you have no connection? If you’re like me, you still end up rooting for one team or another. Just a few weeks ago I took my family up to Minneapolis to watch a Twins-Red Sox game. We don’t have any connection to either team—we went there because my alma mater was holding an alumni gathering at the game. Both teams are in a different league than the team I root for, the Milwaukee Brewers, so it really made no difference to me who won. But I can tell you that all five of us ended up rooting hard for one team or the other.

Another example that shows neutrality is nothing but a myth is the news media. On a national level we have conservative organizations claiming that the media is biased toward Democrats because so many journalists tend to vote Democratic. On the other hand you have Fox News Network claiming to be fair and balanced while practically acting as a mouthpiece for the current administration. We see this on the local level—consider the vast differences in the way the Sheboygan Press covers city government compared to WHBL. Sometimes you’d think the reporters from those two organizations aren’t even covering the same meetings.

Neutrality is a myth. It’s a myth not because we have a human tendency to pick sides, but because the world is divided into two sides: the side that is for God and the side that is against Him. We call this the “antithesis.”

The antithesis means that there is no middle ground, no neutrality between God and the devil. This idea isn’t all that foreign to us—we often hear it expressed in popular music. Folk-rock singer Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Ten years later, the band Rush sang, “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Neutrality is not an option. Even if you think you are neutral, you have come down on one side or another.

An understanding of the antithesis certainly isn’t limited to musicians. The Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til wrote often about the antithesis and about the myth of neutrality. He said that the antithesis “is between those for whom the final center of reference in knowledge lies in man, and those for whom the final center of reference for knowledge lies in God, as this God speaks in Scripture.”

Despite the writings of people as disparate as Bob Dylan and Cornelius Van Til, the common wisdom today is that neutrality is possible. Our public school system is based on that belief. Our Supreme Court struggles mightily, but in vain, to make consistent decisions about religion in education, prayers in public schools, statues of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, confident that it is possible for the state to be completely neutral.

In education, this belief in the possibility of neutrality presents itself as a conviction that we can present learning to children in such a way that they themselves can choose what values to believe and apply to what they are learning.

If we accept that our children, perhaps with input from their families, communities or churches, have the ability to receive neutral information—objective facts—and then choose for themselves the direction in which to take those facts, we have turned individuals, or at least human reason, into the final judge of truth. We end up with the dominant worldview today, one that says that humans can decide on their own what is truth.

The Christian writer Greg Bahnsen describes the way many people think today this way: “The experts may differ; it is up to every man finally to decide for himself. This is proper; the sanctity of the human person must not be violated. Ask any man to accept anything on pure authority, the sort of authority that the Bible claims for itself, and you are virtually asking him to deny his manhood. You are then asking him to be irrational and therefore to deny him the use of the powers that constitute his personality.”

As Christians, we do accept on pure authority the rule of God over everything in Creation. We accept that He is at the center of every single activity—he is the reason, the be-all and end-all of our existence. To accept that an individual, or mankind, gets to decide what is rational, what is authoritative, is to deny the centrality of God. Such a way of looking at the world is hardly neutral—it is clearly opposed to God.

If we accept that God is at the center of everything we do, then we must desire for our children to learn in a setting where God is acknowledged as the center of all, where He is recognized as the King of Creation, the Master of Math, the Sovereign of Science, the Ruler of Reading. We want our children to be taught in a setting where the teachers proclaim with Abraham Kuyper that Christ is Lord of “every square inch.”

C. Christian schools are a commitment that is covenantal, communal, and


You probably know that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church has spent the last several years studying Christian education and developing a response to those who say that our denomination’s traditional support for Christian schools needs to be reconsidered. One of the parts of that report that I really appreciated was a section that affirmed that Christian schools are a “covenantal, communal, and intergenerational commitment.” Now that is quite a mouthful, but it is packed with meaning.

When we talk about the covenant, we are talking about the basic relationship between God and us. God promised to be our God, to restore us from our sin and brokenness, and to allow us to live in perfect relationship with Him. But these promises from God come with an expectation that, through the working of the Holy Spirit in us, we will respond in gratitude to God. Part of that response of gratitude involves declaring God’s wondrous works and righteousness from generation to generation.

We see some of what God expects from us in relation to the children He entrusted to us in His Word—I’ve already mentioned the passage in Deuteronomy where God commands us to impress God’s commandments on our children. In Proverbs 22:6 we are taught to “train a child in the way he should go,” with the promise that “when he is old he will not turn from it.” And in the New Testament, in Ephesians 6:4, fathers (and mothers, too) are instructed to bring their children up “in the training and instruction of the Lord.” God expects us to pass on what we know about Him to our children, to future generations, so they too may live always to glorify Him. In this way, then, Christian schools are a part of a commitment to God based on the covenant of grace.

When we say that Christian schools are communal, we acknowledge that God has placed us in a community, a community where each member has responsibilities to each other. The core principles of Christian Schools International, the parent organization for the three Christian schools we support here at Calvin, reflect that mutual, communal responsibility. One of the principles by which CSI is run puts it beautifully: “Because God's covenant embraces not only parents and their children but also the entire Christian community to which they belong, and because Christian education contributes directly to the advancement of God's kingdom, it is the obligation not only of parents but of the entire Christian community to establish and maintain Christian schools, to pray for them, work for them, and give generously to their support.”

Hilary Clinton took a lot of guff for the title of her book “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.” But if by “village” we mean the community of believers, that is exactly what we teach when in our baptism ceremonies we ask the congregation to promise to “receive these children in love, pray for them, help instruct them in the faith, and encourage and sustain them in the fellowship of believers.”

Last spring I had an an experience with the community of believers helping me teach one of my children. One of my boys was apparently making a habit of being a bit reckless on his bicycle while crossing Geele Avenue to get to or from school. My kids are obviously of an age where Kim or I cannot be with them every minute, and we didn’t know that this was a problem. Well, one morning my son pulled out into traffic about the time Butch Katt happened to be driving in the area. A few minutes later I got a call at work from Butch. I remember him saying something like “If you think I’m sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong just tell me to shut up, but…” and then he proceeded to tell me what he had seen. I did not tell Butch to shut up—I was glad he told me what had happened so Kim and I could take the steps to ensure that this didn’t happen again. I appreciated the call, because he was doing just what he and all of you promised when that child of mine was baptized in this very room. Yes, God gives primary responsibility to the parents, but God also wants all of us to be that village, the community of believers, that helps the parents to raise their child.

Christian schools are an extension of that community. They are not the church, they are not the family, they are another institution created to assist families in raising their children so that the church can continue with its task for years to come. They are a community commitment.

Schools are also an intergenerational commitment. As I mentioned before, in Psalm 145 the psalmist writes about one generation passing on to another all the wonderful things they know about about God—his mighty acts, glorious splendor, and abundant goodness. By their very nature, Christian schools are a way for one generation to teach the next about God. Whether you are have children or not, whether you are seventeen or seventy, God wants you proclaiming his goodness and works to the next generations. One way you can do that is by supporting the schools that are teaching children about their Lord and Savior.

III. What Christian schools are NOT, and what they ought to be

I’ve spent a lot of time building a case for Christian schools as a tool for doing God’s will, as a way to teach the generations in a way that acknowledges God is at the center. I want to take a few minutes to look at some misconceptions or problems people have with Christian schools and contrast those misconceptions with what Christian schools ought to look like.


1. They are not perfect

Christian schools are not perfect. I sometimes hear criticism because Christian schools are imperfect, or the people associated with them, including the students, are imperfect. Often the implication is that we are just a bunch of hypocrites, acting like we are better than the folks associated with other schools, when we are really not. In northwest Iowa, a lot of us Christian school kids were used to being called “Post Toasties” by the public school kids in the area, because in their mind we felt we were “a little better than the rest.”

There is no doubt that Christian schools are affected by sin, just like all of creation. I know my schoolmates and I were certainly far from perfect. I remember one particular incident in high school where my father, frustrated with my behavior, asked me why he was bothering to send me to a Christian school, if I was going to behave in a way that gave no evidence of it having an impact on me. I know some of you have had bad experiences as students, volunteers, or employees in Christian schools, even in our schools right here in Sheboygan.

Sin is real. It pollutes all of creation, all of our institutions, every single person in the world. As Q&A 114 of the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of obedience. And that means Christian schools are no more immune from the ravages of sin than any other part of the world.

It is easy to point at the faults in our schools, declare them imperfect and full of hypocrites, and walk away. But to do so is just as hypocritical, for each and every one of us is also stained by sin, unable to do what’s right on our own. Even more, such action denies that God is powerful enough to use our imperfect, frail human institutions for powerful purposes. Finally, by doing so we ignore the working of the Holy Spirit, sanctifying believers who are doing what they can to follow God’s leading.

If the Holy Spirit has the power to change lives destroyed by sin and use them for God’s purposes, think how much more the Spirit can work through an institution like our schools, made up of many imperfect people who are day-by-day, hour-by-hour being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Given our imperfection, we should strive to make Christian schools agents of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification.

2. They ought to be agents of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification

Christian schools should be agents of the Holy Spirit. They can become that in several of ways. First and foremost, of course, is by teaching children that they are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. Children who are never confronted with the fact that they are sinners will never understand their need for salvation. The teachers and mentors at the school must confess to the children our own weakness and tendency to sin and our deep desire to be made clean by the Spirit. We must help children see that they are sinners who desperately need God. We need to share with children the pain we feel when sin touches our lives and the joy we feel when we see evidence of God transforming lives right in our very midst.

Besides teaching children of their sin, Christian schools must point children to Jesus Christ as both the example of perfection and the only way to forgiveness. Children must learn that salvation belongs to our God, that Jesus Christ came to this earth as both God and human to bear our sins and conquer death, and that we are now free of sin and death, free to live in relationship with our God, free to live the in the way that God meant for us to live.

Finally, Christian schools must be places where our children are free to express their gratitude to God for our salvation. They must be places where children can see and celebrate Holy Spirit’s work every day in making us more and more like Christ, places of training to live lives of service to our exalted King. Father God, let loose your Holy Spirit in our schools and among our children.


1. They are not merely shelter from a hostile and sinful world

Another common misperception about Christian schools, one held by many supporters of Christian schools, is that they are mere shelter from the world. Some see Christian schools as primarily designed to keep kids sheltered, away from the evil in the world. There’s no doubt there is evil in today’s world that affects the lives of kids. We can’t avoid seeing it on TV or reading about it in the paper. So it can be very tempting to think of Christian schools as simply a safe haven, a shelter from the bad influences around us.

While I am glad that my kids are at least somewhat sheltered, we deceive ourselves if we think that just sending them to Christian schools will keep them from the influence of sin. More than that, I am convinced that we sell our schools short if we consider them a modern day version of an abbey or monastery, a place to separate from the world.

If our children don’t learn about the sin in the world from Christian teachers, will they recognize it when they confront it after they graduate? If they aren’t presented with the reality of the antithesis, the battle between right and wrong, will they be willing to confront evil when they see it as adults? If they haven’t been exposed to the philosophies that dominate the world today, will they be able to challenge those philosophies when they intrude into their lives in the future? Christian schools should protect and nurture, but they should also engage with the world. Instead of being like an abbey or monastery, Christian schools should be like boot camps for soldiers of the cross, preparing students for battle as God’s soldiers.

2. They ought to be boot camps for training as kingdom servants

Islam has been in the news a lot recently. One of the news items has been about the madrassahs; religious schools in places like Pakistan where, it is alleged, students are prepared for life as terrorists. It is clear that while some madrassahs might be hotbeds of terrorism, their common thread is that the leaders believe education ought to be based on the Koran, that Allah ought to be at the core of all learning, and that secular ways of thinking are considered dangerous and wrong. Students in the madrassahs are taught that Islamic principles should govern every single area of life, not just those areas that people consider spiritual.

Other than the fact that we worship God, not Allah, and that our standard for living is the Bible, not the Koran, how are the madrassahs any different than Christian schools? Certainly our students will not be learning terror techniques and won’t be trained to use guns in a physical holy war against other religions, but that is because our God is a God of peace. In all other respects there are clear parallels between the madrassahs and Christian schools. Education in Christian schools is based on a truth that uses the Bible as its measuring stick. God is at the core of every bit of learning. And students are taught that there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. Instead they are taught a Christian view of the world that will affect every moment of every day, whether they grow up to be doctors, truck drivers, day car providers, artists, or small owners.

If we use the military imagery we often see in the Bible, it is easy to imagine Christian schools as boot camps, preparing students for the battles they will face. If our schools are simply shelters from those battles, our children won’t be prepared for the battle against evil, and they are much more likely to be killed or injured once they are thrown into the battle. It would be as if they spent all their time training by hiding in a bomb shelter or a refugee camp, rather than in training for the job they have to do.

When soldiers train, they are often exposed to conditions similar to those they will face in battle, just in a more controlled setting. That’s how our schools should see themselves as well. Children are not ready yet for the battle they will face as Christians, but they must be exposed to the things they will face in a controlled way that will teach them how to face the attack of the enemy, how to become effective soldiers of the cross, members of God’s army of peace and justice.


1. They are not exclusively for believers and their children

One other misperception I see about Christian schools is that they take away from our work of outreach, because Christian schools are exclusively for believers.

Most of you probably get The Banner, the magazine sent out to every member of the Christian Reformed Church. In the issue I received this week, there are two short articles by families who had to choose between Christian schools and public schools. One chose Christian schools and one chose public schools. The family that chose public schools, the Hoogenbooms, said this about their decision: “We had accepted a call to begin a church that would connect with people far from God and help them find hope and eternal life in Christ. We became convinced that to do this effectively we had to fully intersect our lives with the community of people we were called to reach. We soon realized that all our new neighbors were involved in the local public school. They spent time and built relationships in the school community. We realized that if we were going to build relationships and establish credibility with them, we needed to be part of that setting as well.”

This thought process is not unique among Christians. I have spoken to a number of people with an intense desire to reach the lost who have said essentially the same thing. A few years ago, my 11th and 12th grade Sunday school class discussed the case of a Calvin College professor who lost his job because he felt led to live and minister in the inner city, so he transferred his kids to the neighborhood public school because he felt he could not truly interact with his new neighbors if his kids were in an expensive Christian school outside of the neighborhood while his neighbors did not have that option.

I will admit that this argument makes some sense to me. It makes sense because it is hard to deny that, at least in the traditional Christian school setting, we can and have become isolated from the lost in our community, out of touch with the people who most desperately need someone to be the Holy Spirit’s tool for bringing them in relationship with God.

It is my contention, however, that this problem isn’t something structural, something that just automatically happens because we have Christian schools. Instead, this is a weakness in our vision for Christian education, a weakness we need to eliminate.

I have yet to find a separation in the God’s commands between God’s command to subdue and rule the earth, the task our Christian schools are preparing our children to fulfill, and His command to make disciples of all nations. If we take seriously God’s desire for lost people and his command that we be his agents to reconcile the lost, then our schools must recognize that they too must not only train children to become evangelists, they must participate in the work of evangelism. In other words, Christian schools ought to be a key component of the church’s mission, which includes evangelism.

2. They ought to be a key component of the church’s mission,

including evangelism

First, there is no division between God’s command to proclaim his works from generation to generation and His command to go into all the world, making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them. They are essentially the very same task, perhaps with a slightly different audience. One job should not take away from the other—instead we should make sure that they complement each other.

Second, to claim that Christian schools somehow prevent us from doing evangelism is to denigrate the whole idea of learning from a Christian perspective. God has given those of us in communities with Christian schools a unique gift. Perhaps more so than other Christians, Reformed folks who have supported Christian education have produced great scholars and thinkers who have had an important impact on the ways Christians think, and on the world in general. But we can’t hide that gift of God under a bushel. Instead, we must share this great legacy with everyone, so as many people as possible may benefit.

Finally, there is evidence that considering Christian schools as a partner in the church’s work in outreach is successful. Rev. David Snapper, a Christian Reformed pastor in in Washington state has done research that shows that Christian Reformed church plants are more successful when there are Christian schools nearby. And many of you, like me, know that Christian schools can be an important part of encouraging people to become followers of Christ. You almost certainly know of people who were either not Christians, or brand new in their Christian walk when they first encountered Christian schools. I have talked to several people who say that their connection with a Christian school and the community that surrounds it was the primary way the Holy Spirit reached out and grabbed them. Certainly the church played a role, but schools are a tool the Holy Spirit can and will use.

So instead of seeing Christian schools as an obstacle to doing outreach, let’s see them as fellow partners with the church in evangelism. This may mean some changes in how we handle things at some of our schools, but that cost is so little to pay in comparison to the wondrous riches of salvation God has given us, and that He now wants us to share with others.

V. How can we support our Christian schools?

A. Pray

So how can we support Christian schools as they strive to teach generation after generation about the wondrous works and unsurpassable wisdom of our God? First we should pray. Pray for the students who are learning what it means to be a servant of God in every part of their life. Pray for the teachers who have such a responsibility to care for and teach their children. Pray for the parents who entrust their students into the care of the school. Pray for the volunteers who help enhance the mission of the school. Pray for the staff who ensure that the school runs smoothly every day. Prayy for the board members who set the policies and standards for how the school will be run. Pray for the administrators who oversee every part of the school. We cannot pray too much.

In fact, I am going to ask each and every one of you take a few minutes on Wednesday morning, the first day of school, to pray specifically for the upcoming school year, for the Christian schools we support, and for the students who are back in basic training again for another year. Please pray also for the public schools, and our wonderful Christian teachers there who also treat their work as a mission from God.

B. Support them financially

The second thing you can do to support the local Christian schools is to support them financially. Christian education does not come cheap. Our congregation has promised to pay more than $185,000 in tuition for the students from Calvin who are a part of the Christian Education Fund. Many of you who didn’t have the benefit of such a program scrimped and saved to get your kids through Christian schools in the past, and many still do the same today to meet the commitment they have made to keep the fund going. I already mentioned that I am proud of you have done to make sure the children from this church have the opportunity to attend a Christian school, regardless of their financial situation. Thank you for your financial commitment to Christian education.

And maybe we can do more. The principal of one of our local Christian schools told me about a family who wants desperately to have their children in Christian schools. The children are daily affected by the sin around them, and the parent desperately wants her kids to go through the basic training a Christian school can provide, but they simply cannot afford it. Instead, the parent made the wrenching choice of choosing to have one child in Christian school for as long as money was available while sending the other to public schools. This is not a matter of setting priorities; this family is definitely sacrificing just to send one child to Christian schools. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, this principal asked me, if we could find several people willing to “adopt” this family, making sure their dream of a Christian education for both of their children can become a reality.

Another person asked me whether there could be some way of expanding our Christian Education Fund, perhaps in concert with several other churches, to include churches where there may be a desire to have many of their children in Christian schools, but the financial realities make this unlikely. The committee who oversees Calvin’s Christian Education Fund will be discussing this concept in the future, once our own program is clearly on strong footing on a long-term basis. But think how such a move would not only increase the number of kids getting basic training as soldiers in God’s army, but it would also send a message to the world that churches can work together as the body of Christ towards a common goal.

C. Promote the Christian schools.

Third, promote them to your neighbors. Talk up the schools we support in the community. Do this with everyone, not just people you know are Christians, because you never know what may come of such a conversation. People may come to Christian schools for many different reasons—a perception of better academics, hopes of keeping kids out of bad situations in their old school, favorable parent-teacher ratios. But in the end, whatever the reason they initially have for being in Christian schools, if those students end up answering God’s call in their lives, living lives of servants, then the schools will have been successful.

D. Share your gifts

Finally, share your gifts with them. Volunteer, if you are able. Talk to a teacher about how he or she might use you at school. Or participate in fundraisers, in outside events. Another way to share your gifts is to take some of the burden off of the parents, so they can remain involved in other aspects of God’s community, including the church. A friend of mine, Rev. Steve Zwart, commented in a sermon here at Calvin that it seems like parents become so involved in school activities that they abandon church activities. Don’t let that happen—there is no reason why you cannot be useful to the school before or after you have children there. Get involved with telling of God’s power, his authority, his mercy, from generation to generation.

Christian schools are a wonderful gift from God. This week, as the kids go back to school, let us thank God for this gift. Let us tell from generation to generation the power of our God, His perfect righteousness, and the salvation He has given us through His Son, Jesus.