Biblical Integration Lite: Telling it Like It Isn’t

Feather colour panteneGuest Article by Mark Kennedy (ACSI Canada)

When someone tells me that his school’s Christian character “goes without saying” I can’t help thinking, ‘that school may be in trouble’. Too often what goes without saying gradually goes without being, until it is simply and completely gone. It’s so easy for an educational institution to drift from its foundations with hardly anyone noticing. Historically that happened to some of North America’s most prominent universities and independent schools. Although they were once fervently Christian many of them are now completely secular or just superficially religious. They may be wealthy and respected institutions - places like Upper Canada College and Harvard University- but the Christian distinctive that so strongly marked their early years have vanished. A classic example is the entire public school system for the Province of Ontario. Founder Egerton Ryerson once declared that instruction in his public schools would be “but a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal when not founded upon and sanctified by the undefiled and regenerating religion of Jesus Christ.”* How tragically prophetic.

These days the erosion of a school’s Christian character can start when it abandons the quest for authentic biblical integration and settles for ‘integration lite. On the surface ‘integration lite’ looks just fine. The word “Christian” is in the school’s name. The teachers are all born again and they believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. And when it comes to teaching a Christian worldview, well that’s covered by using Christian school textbooks. But there is a lot more to genuine biblical integration than that.

What’s in a name?” says Juliet in Shakespeare’s famous play “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Along the same lines (and with apologies to Shakespeare), giving a skunk cabbage a more complimentary name won’t improve its aroma.

So it can be when ‘Christian’ is spliced into a school’s name. In an ‘integration lite’ type school the word ‘Christian’ in its name doesn’t guarantee moral or educational quality or even ethical standards of operation. On the other hand ‘Christian’ in the name of a school that pursues genuine biblical integration means something. It says that the school is trying to follow scriptural principles in every aspect of its ministry, even if doing so drives away potential students or causes loss of income.

Just having Christian teachers doesn’t help either unless their character is exemplary as per Jesus’ assertion in Luke 6:40 “A student is not above his teacher but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” And Christian school educators need to have the spiritual gift of teaching. In 27 years as a principal I only had to fire 3 teachers in the middle of the academic year. They were all unquestionably believers and two of the three were among the most highly trained educators I’d ever met. But they didn’t have the gift of teaching and they weren’t particularly outstanding role models. I hired them because they were Christians with impressive academic credentials. I missed the things that matter the most.

When it comes to teaching a Christian worldview ‘born again’ teachers can be counter-productive if they have only been trained in secular educational philosophies and practices. Secular teacher training operates upon the assumption that God is irrelevant in learning about the “real world”. And that’s what some Christian teachers with secular worldviews may inadvertently communicate to their students. The regrettable part isn’t that they failed to meet some kind of subjective and artificial spiritual standard. Biblical integration isn’t about twisting reality to fit into a pseudo-religious mold. It is first and foremost about teaching the whole truth on the clear understanding that all truth is God’s truth. That means a teacher has to learn how to give God back his rightful place in the classroom, in the curriculum and in the overall learning process. ‘Integration lite’ educators don’t do that. They presents pretty well all aspects their program in exactly the same way that secular teachers do – with the occasional Bible class tossed in as a mild christianizer. ‘Integration lite’ doesn’t try to present the whole truth. It is satisfied to ‘tell it like it isn’t’.

In the early years of ACSI, co-founding President Dr. Paul Kienel estimated that it took about three years of in-service training for secularly prepared Christian teachers to develop distinctly Christian educational philosophies and practices. Because our society has drifted farther away from any sort of Christian consensus since then, it probably takes longer now. Ongoing in service teacher training is a key in developing authentic biblical integration in the classroom.

Teaching a Christian worldview through biblical integration used to be a hot topic 30 years ago when the Christian school movement in North America was young and vigorous. Back then we devoted significant time and effort to it. Sometimes we got it wrong, shoe horning Bible verses awkwardly into lesson plans where they really didn’t belong or inappropriately transforming simple science lesson into didactic morality tales. But at least we took a whack at it. And we discovered that the development of effective biblical integration was a major project requiring intentional planning, research and goal setting over significant periods of time. Both then and now, even well established schools that have thoroughly explored the topic and implemented specific integration initiatives re-evaluate their program annually. They ask themselves,

“How can our school become more His school in this upcoming year?”

The ‘integration lite’ approach of depending upon Christian school textbooks to provide a biblically integrated curriculum falls short of the mark too. Aside from the fact that the most effective kind of integration, with the greatest potential blessing for students is carried in the hearts and minds of their teachers, textbooks, even Christian ones, sometimes have flaws. They may occasionally have scientific and historical errors. Some Christian academic series may unwittingly promote the view of one specific denomination or political group as ‘the Christian perspective’ even where there is a divergence of opinion among believers. Good teachers challenge students to think critically about what they read both in secular and Christian publications because they want their students to seek truth and because total inerrancy belongs to the Bible alone. Textbooks can be useful tools but they hardly ever change lives. Good teachers do.

As one pundit put it “A little Christianity can be a dangerous thing, especially for Christian schools.”- and ‘integration lite’ is the epitome of a little Christianity. The problem is that Christianity is not a little faith. It’s not just a church thing, not limited to a system of moral regulations and behaviors or religious exercises or private personal beliefs. Jesus compares his kingdom to a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that ultimately produces a tree in which birds can perch. His kingdom encompasses all aspects of truth – and it is sometimes much bigger than we present to our students. Consequently our mandate is clear. Paul says,

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Cor 10:5)

For Christian schools, that scripture highlights the importance of genuine biblical integration and repudiates the idea of ‘integration lite’. And that does not go without saying.

* “Egerton Ryerson and His Times” by Neil McDonald, MacMillan Canada, 1978