However, for the very few of us who represent the icky part of the antithesis—those who, for our own principled reasons, don’t either home school or Christian school but elect to employ state institutions—there is another interesting dimension to all this.
In the course of these sorts of discussions it seems inevitable that things turn from questions of sin to questions of wisdom. Certainly, whatever is sinful is also unwise. But what doesn’t seem quite as obvious is that what is permissible is also suspect. It is difficult to take the charges of certain educational choices as “sinful” by those who seem to be lax on questions of church membership. (It is sinful for me to send my children to public school but others may take religious oaths that contradict your vows to Christ alone. Huh?) But the well meaning downgrade from “sinful” to “unwise, misguided or otherwise spiritually immature” doesn’t go down so well, since the arguments align so well with those of the modern American Temperance Society that classes substance use the same way.
If one has spent any reasonable time around any pietist variety of frontier Fundamentalism or broad evangelicalism (marrying into it helps), he is familiar with substance use legalism. It has its hard-liners, but mostly in our day it is staffed with a kinder, gentler soldier anymore. The soft legalist prizes health and well being. So the argument against using substances (or “worldly amusements,” as the old timers called it) has to do with avoiding certain things that aren’t construed as very conducive to a healthy existence. Wise or spiritual believers avoid them, while second class believers employ them or at least don’t make much hay one way or another. One tactic here is “our time isn’t like others, so best to be prudent.” Building upon the relative modern arrogance that one’s time and place is radically unique from any other, what this means is that we live in day and time that knows things like drug wars and a society addicted to one thing or another and in constant rehab, so Christian prudence seems to demand avoidance in these unchartered times. The educational parallel is that we have never seen the sort of attack on religion as we have in the last century or so as we’ve seen in educational theory and practice. So wisdom seems to demand that, to the extent that we’re able, we should keep our children out of harm’s way. One is concerned for bodily health, the other for intellectual well being. But both, not realizing that body and mind are temporal realities, seem to presume that natural development has something directly to do with supernatural formation. It is quite true that, contra the Gnostics, temporal does not mean negligible; mind and body are very good things and ought to be attended to with sober and godly care. Thus it seems smart enough to steer children away from those influences that would unduly endanger their physical and intellectual health, even as we understand that perfect protection is quite unrealistic. But, speaking of wisdom, is it really all that wise to suggest that public school is the educational version of the corner drug dealer?
If one has spent any reasonable time within its enclaves, one knows that Reformed and Presbyterian like to rest and rely on the notion that they are well clear of legalism, so long as legalism is only and ever defined as substance use and worldly amusements. One should afford them some rope since many seem to be exorcising their Fundamentalist demons. But legalism is legalism. Hard legalism certainly is unfortunate, to say the least. But soft legalism isn’t really much better—it may be worse to the extent that it simply makes the world safe for hard legalism. And when it comes to the issue of compulsory education, one knows he’s in the midst of soft legalism when it is suggested that those who deliberately public school probably ought not to be called to extraordinary office on the grounds that it demonstrates spiritual immaturity or lack of wisdom. This reasoning is common in temperance circles as well. At least the hard-liners have chutzpa. But like their substance use counterparts using the flaccid category of “wisdom” instead of “sin,” the soft-liners seem to want all the power of discouragement without any of the responsibility.