Building Influence: Establishing Relationships
A Biblical Rationale for Admitting Non-Christians to our Schools
Sherry Worel, Administrator – Stoneybrooke Christian School – San Juan Capistrano, CA
There are two majors schools of thought that present opposing views regarding enrollment policies in our Christian Schools: On the one hand, it is argued that a school cannot be Christian without a Christian student body. “The raison d’etre of the Christian school is not to establish a missionary outreach but to provide a place for active integration of faith and learning. Learning is a value-laden activity which depends on one’s reference point. This reference point can be egocentrism, personal feeling, one’s reason, a worldly philosophy, or the Scriptures. Unless a student is born again, he will not elect the scriptures as his guide, and his learning will be flawed” (James Deuink, A Fresh Look at Christian Education).
The other perspective sees evangelism and spiritual ministry as a major cornerstone for effective Christian schools. “How wonderful that the claims of Christ can be systematically and lovingly presented to students in Christian schools around the world. Evangelism should be a normal part of the every day curriculum in ‘God’s school system” (Paul Kienel, ACSI). “The Christian schools across the U.S. that are vital, growing and doing a job for the Lord are those that have a strong evangelistic outreach into the community and a spiritual ministry with their students. Indeed, this evangelistic outreach and spiritual ministry is the heartbeat and lifeblood of the Christian school” (A.A. Baker, Pensacola Christian Schools, Pensacola, FL).
It is this author’s opinion that a balance is required. Enrollment must be controlled so that spiritual goals are attainable. Christian schools are not meant to be rescue missions. Our zeal for evangelism must not lead to an admissions policy that deliberately prefers the pagan to the Christian candidate. This will require that the administration, with the clear support of the board, must carefully monitor the attitudes and behavior of the student body and their families. He or she must “cultivate a kind of sixth sense with which to perceived the response of the student body to the spiritual program of the school” (Frank Baebelein, Christian Education in a Democracy). Such a monitoring allows for the discipline of Christian students and the evangelism of their unsaved classmates. These are not incongruent goals. Nor is it unrealistic to also believe that parents can, should and will be impacted by the Gospel through the ministry of the Christian school.
There is a biblical model for ministering to non-Christian families in our Christian schools. The most obvious example of how Christian schools should relate to non-Christians is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. It was Christ’s modus operandi to wander out among the people, to encounter sinners and engage in meaningful conversation relevant to spiritual matters. He too no regard as to their social, personal or spiritual standing (note the woman at the well in John 4). Instead, He modeled a ministry style that included believers and non-Christians. His model for ministry is an all-encompassing, embracing, open model. His acceptance of non-believers should set the standard for ministries for all time. His example alone should be
enough to provide a blueprint for the establishment of relationships with non-Christian families in our Christian schools.
But there is a more pointed Biblical model regarding an open enrollment policy found in the Old Testament. This other model is found in the way the Hebrews lived with, responded to and cared for the “strangers in their midst.” (See Lev. 19:33-35 and Deut. 10:18-19) The Hebrew term for “strangers” is “ger.” A “ger” occupies an intermediate position between a native (ezrach) and a foreignor (nokhni). The ger lives among people who are not his blood relatives and thus he lacks the protection and privileges which usually come from blood relationship and place of birth. His status and privileges are dependent on the hospitality that has played an important role in the ancient near East ever since ancient time. (Botterwich and Ringgreen, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament) The term “ger” took on different connotations throughout the periods of Hebrew history. In Deuteronomy, the ger plays an important role. Deut. 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17,19,29,21; 26:13; and 27:19 mention the ger alongside orphans and widows. During the Monarchical period it appears that the protected “stranger” could have possessions (cattle, servants, etc.) but could not actually acquire property. They could be admitted into the Israelite army (II Samuel 1:13). They were not to be oppressed (Exodus 22:20; 28:9) and the Sabbath law applied to them as well (Exodus 23:12; 20:10). In the Prophetic texts, Jeremiah reiterates the appeal to treat those displaced with respect (Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3). In Ezekial 22:7 the ger is listed with the widow and the fatherless and in 22:29 with the poor and needy, as persons who had been treated unjustly. The addition in Ezekiel 47:22 is of particular interest. According to this passage, the ger who begets children, i.e., has a family, is to be taken into consideration in the new allotment of the land. He is to receive an inheritance in the territory of the tribe in which he settles down, and thus he is to be integrated into that tribe. Here a change of meaning takes place. The ger is the proselyte who has joined the Yahweh community in Babylon, and is regarded as having equal rights with the Israelite. (Botterwick and Ringgreen, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament)
Specifically, the ger had definite rights and responsibilities. His “responsibilities” included:
1. He was required to attend the reading of the law and held accountable to its demands (Deut. 31:12).
2. He was expected to participate in the Feast Days and the festival on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29; Deut. 16:14).
3. The laws regarding sexual chastity applied to him as well (Lev. 18:26).
4. He was forbidden to eat blood (Lev. 17:10, 12, 13).
5. The law regarding the “unleavened bread” applied to him (Exodus 12:19).
6. He was threatened with the death penalty if he offered a sacrifice to a foreign god (Lev. 17:8).
7. He was included in the cleansing rites associated with the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19:10).
8. In a word, he was to show the same fidelity to the Lord (as the Israelites must) (Lev. 20:2). (Botterwick and Ringgreen, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament). His “rights” included:
1. Israel was instructed to love him as they loved themselves (Lev. 19:34).
2. Israel was not to oppress him because they themselves suffered as ger in Egypt and knew, experientially, the agony of being a foreigner, an alien in another country (Exodus 22:21, Deut. 10:19).
3. The ger is often mentioned with the poor, the orphans and the widows (Deut 14:29; 16:11,14; 24:17; 26:18: 27:19). He was to share with them the gleanings left in fields and vineyards (Deut. 24:20-21). The stranger was to enjoy the tithe left every 3 years for the Levites, who by status were also considered to be ger along with the poor (Deut. 14:27-28; 26:12).
4. He was to be treated righteously in judgment (Deut. 1:16; 24:7; 27:19) and the six asylum cities were also cities of refuge for him (Num. 35:15).
5. The sojourner enjoyed many of the same rights as a native. He could offer sacrifices (Lev. 17:8; 22:18). If he was circumcised, he could enter the sanctuary (Ezekiel 44:9) and eat the Passover mean (Exodus 12:43-48). His civil rights were protected by the law of Moses (Exodus 12:49, Lev. 24:22).
Thus, Israel was required to love the stranger. Israel was to follow the example of God and love the stranger for a two-fold reason:
1. The love of God extended beyond Israel to include aliens.
2. They were to remember that in Egypt they too were once aliens who lacked respect and love. (Editor Lloyd Ogilvie, The Communicator’s Commentary – Deuteronomy)
As Christian school leaders, we too need to follow the example of God shown in this Biblical model and love the “strangers” in our midst. Establishing relationships with non-Christian families is a privilege, a responsibility and an opportunity. Such relationships allow us to reach out into our communities and share the love of Christ in a most meaningful way. Careful screening, clear communication of the school’s mission and purpose and a practical monitoring system can allow for the influx of unsaved students while not disrupting the main purpose of Christian education. The foundation of those relationships is clear, specific communication of your mission and purpose. These statements must clearly and forecefully declare the Christian focus of the school.
Points of doctrinal differences must be discussed. Denominational distinctives must be pointed out. The effects of a child receiving Christ and “sharing” at home should be anticipated and discussed. Lifestyle expectations should also be highlighted. With grace and a gentle spirit, the parent needs to feel welcomed while also understanding that in essence, the Christian school administrator is saying, “This is my back yard. We’re playing ‘baseball’ with my bat and ball. I’m declaring the rules. And I get to choose the teams. If you’d still like to play, we’d love to have you.”
Such open communication should allow the non-Christian parent to thoughtfully consider the tenets of your school’s faith and decide if those beliefs are compatible or at least palatable for their home. Clarity of purpose is the bedrock for establishing a relationship with non-Christian families.
Maintaining those relationships requires a special attitude on the part of the administration, faculty and staff. There must be a spirit of openness, a willingness to serve some who do not yet embrace our God. This sense of inclusion is rooted in our personal and corporate awareness of the grace of God. Simply put, “we love you because Christ loved us first.”
Biblical standards must not be compromised. However, the kingdom is not faithfully served by a staff that continually delights in highlighting the differences that divide our families. It’s the Gospel that builds bridges to people. Without compromising our statements of faith, a gracious spirit communicates God’s love and affords us the opportunity to be educational ambassadors for Christ. It’s this spirit of gentleness that energizes the relationships we have with non-Christian families. The effects of those relationships include difficulties and rewards. A Christian school that has an open enrollment policy must constantly monitor and refocus the spiritual goals of the school. Constant vigilance over the spiritual life of the institution is required.
A policy of open enrollment also requires a mature and godly staff who are seasoned in the Word of God and comfortable working in a field with a varied harvest. Administrators must wrestle with the variety of unbelievers that may be admitted into the school. For example, I believe there are some cults that would be too disruptive to allow in school. A clear template for enrollment must be developed. It is also difficult to determine the optimum ratio of believers to unbelievers. It is this author’s opinion that the younger the student, the higher the “allowable” ratio. Students in high school and college have reached their own conclusions regarding spiritual matters and are often less pliable than their elementary counterparts. Also, their choices regarding lifestyle issues have a greater impact on their peers. And, discipleship of the students must take place in a mixed environment. There are always some patches of hard ground, some young tender shoots growing and some fully developed plants all lying side by side. Discernment and discretion are required.
In spite of these difficulties, there are many positive rewards to loving and serving the “strangers” among us. First, it allows our students to consider the Great Commission and see the mission field right before their eyes. It also keeps the staff focused on eternal matters. It keeps academic concerns well-positioned and in perspective. The salvation of a mom or dad through the ministry of the school is a great encourager for the faculty and staff. It reminds everyone why we do what we do. And, it helps sharpen the apologetic efforts of everyone. It necessitates that each believing student and staff member be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within them (I Peter 3:15).
Establishing relationships with non-Christian families allows the Christian school to build influence in the right kind of way. It’s the means to an eternal end. It’s the vehicle that allows us to share the glorious Gospel and all its attending virtues with the families in our communities. And it does so without jeopardizing the spiritual vitality of our schools. Such relationships enhance our schools. They foster a sweet and gentle spirit in our staff and student body while urging us on to sharpen our minds and develop even clearer presentations of the Gospel. Such relationships mirror the way God instructed the Israelites to treat the stranger in their midst. They were told to be compassionate, to remember what it felt like to be displaced and without roots. They were told to share generously what they had. They were instructed to develop relationships with the ger, to grant them certain privileges and rights. And, they were told the boundaries of these privileges and taught how to protect the godly lifestyle of the believers in their society. With appropriate safeguards and clearly established guidelines, the “stranger” was to be loved. With appropriate safeguards and clearly established guidelines, the “stranger” among us must be loved as well. The varied harvest is worth the effort!