Smuggling Ecumenism In Under Education?

It was a mild April evening, and we outgoing office-bearers were enjoying our last Council meeting. It was the last leg of our last meeting when committees make their respective reports. The gentle and soothing refrain of “no report, last minutes are in your box” dotted the landscape of periodic and brief motions and unanimous votes. It was the homestretch. Then the Clerk forgot about something concerning “New Business” and began handing out big, stapled packets.

He told us relieved officers to let it go by as it was something that would transcend our tenure. But it was concerning something about Christian education. So I couldn’t resist.

Closer readers of the Outhouse know I have plenty to say when it comes to parochial educational labors. And most of it doesn’t square with prevailing views in the wider scope of Christendom, especially that of neo-Kuyperian transformationalism. So though the immediate task of taking up the proposal to study whether this particular school may use our church’s facilities is not mine, I took the literature home to see if there might be something to challenge my views. Maybe there was an angle I was missing that might persuade me to change my tune on parochial education.

Alas, there was no such thing. In fact, it only reinforced my views, part of which was helped along by one bit. It was in the FAQ section under, “Why are you ecumenical? What do you see as the greatest advantages of such an approach?”

“…we need to celebrate the common faith that binds us together. The issues that bind us are far greater than those that divide. At X-school, we are dedicated to Christian education. So, our goal is to educate children in such a way that they are formed by the richness of our faith. But we also realize that we live in a pluralistic world. So, we also desire to prepare our children to live in this world. We can think of no better way to accomplish these goals than to provide for our children an education in which they are simultaneously grounded in the fundamentals of the faith and interacting daily with children from different branches of Christianity. We should add, lastly, that our approach is not one that champions ‘lowest common denominator’ Christianity. Christianity is a rich faith. We have no wish to minimize this. Rather, we gather together daily at X-school with our respective confessional identities, thanking God for the faith we share and learning from our respective differences.”

First, there is quite an odd understanding of just what a “pluralistic world” is and what it means to learn how to live in it. It seems “the world” is merely all the different kinds of Christians. Maybe it’s my spatial-mathematical anemia again, but I sure thought a pluralistic world included a lot more than the varied Christian traditions. I guess my definition of plural isn’t so singular. Maybe my linguistic skills have spent too much time with my spatial-mathematical ones?

But, secondly, and this more interestingly, I was taken with this notion of religious minimalism. The answer clearly wants to deny that ecumenism in its educational project is expressly “lowest common denominator” Christianity. But aren’t those terms essentially analogous? Isn’t that what ecumenism really is: the forfeiting of finer distinctives in order to accomplish a common errand, in this case education? Unless I am completely without it in the first place, it seems to me that this is a clever dodge around common sense. Moreover, I can’t help but wonder if we are supposed to ignore it because, after all, “we are talking about our children’s education here.” I suspect that one of the assumptions upon assumptions here is that all too familiar mistake that instead of it being an intellectual one education is primarily an affective effort. But that is something exclusively ordained for the institution of the home and no other. This over-realization of educational burden seems to have forced the conclusion and, necessarily, out pops “ecumenism isn’t minimalism.” Huh?

Very typically one hears in the apologetic for Christian education that there is just too much from which to deprogram children when sending them to secular educational institutions. The usual suspects are trotted out to make the case, or more accurately, invoke deep-seated fears to shut up any opposition. Apparently what happens in public schools is that children sit around all day being told they are descended from apes, Heather has two mommies, and scatter at lunch time to pick up condoms tossed out like candy.

I will leave the caricatures alone for the moment. But I will happily concede that there is always something to deprogram when it comes to rearing children. Every parent must accept the fact that the ordained, creational task of making human beings can include just as much deprogramming as programming, sometimes more if you are a persuaded Calvinist (and I am). This is no less true in so-called Christian schools than it is in secular ones. I sense heads nodding in agreement, but more often than not I have found that Christian parents think that their creational and redemptive charges are significantly lessened for about eight hours a day if their child’s school is described as Christian. But it should go without saying that this is really quite naïve and not a little unbecoming of those who would presume to be considered Calvinists.

Especially for those of us who take the radical intolerance of Presbyterianism seriously, it seems there is plenty to deprogram here. Religious pluralism is essentially being smuggled in under the auspices of educating children. That might sound sort of radical, maybe the two-kingdom version of the paranoid fears of other religionists who think secular education is, to lesser or greater degrees, out to dismantle religious belief and practice. The difference may be, though, that I presume secular education to be much more about the common task of educating and a lot less to eradicate true piety. I also presume confessional Christianity to be jealous for its distinctives and not easily given to dulling any edges for any reason. Lastly, I am not much for looking for devils under doilies in these things; I’d send my children to X-school if our situation demanded it was the only option to get what appears to be a competitive education.

Nevertheless, my relative lack of paranoia aside, it is an interesting set of questions. The case could be made that what is happening in the philosophy of this particular school is more dangerous to high-church confessionalism than suggesting Darwinism. It is at the very least inconsistent. Is there really anything in a secular school that is any worse than what is going on here? If one must deprogram notions of autonomy in secular education, for example, could it also be said that latent heterodoxy must be deprogrammed in this parochial one? Theological orthodoxy is a double-edged sword that both affirms and denies. As such, should those who claim theological orthodoxy really be in the game of fostering religious pluralism, even if the project is as noble as education?

Given that secular is really more synonymous with “common” than “sinister,” it seems to make more sense that plurality characterizes that which is secular than that which is sacred. Yet this is the very thing that seems to frighten Christian religionists about secular education. And what seems to comfort them is the idea that Christian religionists can, and should, all get along “in order to learn from our respective differences”; the world is to be blamed for not enforcing broad religious dictates (e.g. God created the world) while the church is praised for refusing narrow theological distinctives (e.g. justification is by faith alone). Shouldn’t all that be a bit more shuffled around?

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17 Responses to Smuggling Ecumenism In Under Education?

  1. sean says:

    I wonder how much of the ecumenism relates to which direction you were traveling over the bridge. I mean I came from Rome, so the solas are in bold relief for me. Still, I had to go back to Luther, Calvin and the scholastics to see it placarded. The reformed are now known much more for their transformationalism than their trentian provoking gospel clarity.

    The sinister/common confusion(purposeful false dichotomy) reminds me of the topic teasers for “coast to coast” radio broadcasts(what’s really going on at area 51).

    It’s all too depressing for me. My Irish **** you personality gets drawn to the surface by all this, I begin to teeter between anger and hysterical laughter. I can’t believe I’ve gotten caught between John Hagee christian zionists, and Joel Osteen lithium christians on one side and monocovenantal, neo-kuyperians on the other. I’m unhappy again.

    On the flip side, I’m beginning to really appreciate the episcopalian Rite II services I’ve been attending lately, now if we could just get the archbishop of Canterbury to let us go. It’s a whole different set of problems, but at least it doesn’t feel like re-inventing the wheel, and let’s face it the trip from across the Atlantic is a bloody long flight.

  2. Zrim says:


    That’s right, you’re in San Antonio where (gulp) Hagee is, right? I’d say it’s all that heat, but evidently Arctic blasts in SW Michigan don’t seem to do much to cool off the transformationalism around here…so that’s not it.

  3. sean says:

    Oh yeah, Hagee’s a regular snake-oil salesman. He reminds me of a character from one of Roald Dahl’s short stories.
    How did defrocked AOG, Rhema clowns get mainstream? Is everyone high? Yeesh! This is the downside of the reformation, I got a 1000 popes to contend with.

    It’s like you went to sleep and woke up and realized nobody’s laughing at TBN anymore. We’re well on our way to going out with a whimper.

  4. sean says:

    In other news; If you’ve got a polygamous sect you haven’t been able to disband or just a sect that likes to build compunds, send them our way. We have all these extra weapons and artillery we drive around with in our gun racks, that we’re just itching to use. See David Koresh and Warren Jeffs.

  5. sean says:

    Shoot, while I’m appropriating your blog for my meanderings. Can somebody tell me the difference between what Doug Phillip’s vision forum is selling and FLDS? I could swear these two were seperated at birth, all the way down to the women’s dowdy cotton dresses. I got Doug Phillip’s meeting in a home church 1/2 mile from my house, Hagee’s christian zionist disneyland less than a 1/2 mile the other direction (I am not lying) and Joel Osteen 3 hours away…………………I’m planning a drive-by.

  6. Zrim says:


    Happily, it looks like you have grasped the power of a sense of humor. (Hey, I have Rob Bell in my backyard. I always forget I have the “next Billy Graham” around the corner until I’m at the Grandville Mall for a Coke and a cookie.)

    If anyone can answer Sean’s question about the difference between Phillips and FLDS without using the word “cult,” he wins a roll of TP that has “Just Say No To Constantinianism” stamped all over it.

    Dowdy,” that is one funny word.

  7. Rick says:

    I still exist. This time it wasn’t blog stress. I just cannot seem to catch up at work.

    Anyway, nice post(s), Z.

    Let’s do some “White Horse Inn-ing” with DH this week bro.

  8. Zrim says:

    (There he is.

    I told DH that this week is pretty stupid for me. If you guys come up with a day and time, tell me. I’ll see what I can pull off.)

  9. sean says:

    Well, how many does that mall seat? Joel’s got the old compaq center in houston that seats at least 19,000. You could tent the mall and fumigate.

  10. Rick says:

    Sorry about my absence. I really stink at this blog stuff. Some people can’t stay away from blogs…once I’m away for a week I can’t get back into the groove. One month later…

    I think DH is mad at me for not writing any Amazon reviews for him yet.

  11. Zrim says:


    I think Bell may need to read about his best life now, since the mall is no where near that. Grandville is a quiet little suburb of GR.

    …Hey, what’s this have to do with smuggling ecumensim in under education?

  12. sean says:

    “Hey, what’s this have to do with smuggling ecumensim in under education?”

    Darn little, my apologies. That’s why I stopped. Didn’t mean to hijack your blog.

  13. Dylan Barry says:

    I actually found myself laughing at this posting. I think you make a great point about ecumenism. I kept on thinking as I was reading the excerpt: “our goal is to educate children in such a way that they are formed by the richness of our faith.” What faith? A conglomeration of faith traditions? Hmm. What is that statement suppose to mean exactly? How do they propose to carry that out?

    Ecumenism is synonymous with compromise in my mind. How do they expect to “form” these kids? I don’t see holding hands and singing kum-by-ya as being a catalyst for a good upbringing much less in education. Your connection you make with the more secular schools is a good one. How are we any different in pluralism, even if we do smuggle it in under the pretense of faith? I cannot help, but be critical of the statements vagueness and its lack of examples where they seem (at least to me) to matter most.

    I am reminded of a “multi-cultural” class students at my elementary school had to attend, which turned out to be nothing more than a focus on Navajo culture without any forays into other cultures (unless of course you consider the first class where the teacher tried to say hello in several different languages). Maybe the class curriculum could have been better advised by Christian “ecumenism”, you know. . . be as vauge as possible and if asked for specific just point out “The issues that bind us are far greater than those that divide.”

    Kum-by-ya anyone?. . . Anyone?. . . Anyone?

  14. Zrim says:


    Thanks for the comments.

    It seems to me that there is good ecumenism and bad ecumenism. The good kind is associated with the invisible church, the bad kind with the visible. Like I have said, I have was never more ecumenical as when I shed the tyranny of a big-top, broad Evangelicalism and embraced the intolerance of a narrow Presbyterianism and the Reformed tradition. The former assumes its anti-institutionalism breeds ecumenism but actually effects the opposite, while it is assumed the latter divides when in fact it unites.

    Also, it seems to me that there is doing “multi-culturalism” is a secular school and doing ecumenism in a parochial one. With whatever problems attend the former, it seems that the case for it can be made much easier than for the latter. Sometimes multi-culturalism really is just learning about another culture and the common sense notion of how to put pluralism to work and isn’t a notorious doctrine. It’s much harder to see what is to be gained by religious ecumenism when religion is supposed to have sharp, non-negotiable edges.

  15. Dylan Barry says:

    I appreciated that you made the distinctions. I would have to agree that in regards to the invisible church we do have an ecumensim, but I think that a lot of people associate it with the visible church and various church traditions (as I see I did in my posting).

    I also see how it could go very wrong. Ecumenism in the visible church has a hard time maintaining what you have said the “sharp, non-negotiable edges.” I have seen this more and more as the ecumenism has attempted to define itself (thinking of the WCC) that it loses the non-negotiable and that grieves me. I as much as there is to be upset over, there is just as much to be sad about. Thank you Zrim for your comment.

  16. RubeRad says:

    Hello, I still exist.

    I don’t. I hear you on being absent and trying to mount a comeback!

    “Dowdy,” that is one funny word.

    Very close to “Doody”

  17. Zrim says:

    Any word is funny enough if you say it 18 times in a row, watch:


    That is one funny word, watch.

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