By Eric Johnson
A disclaimer. For 17 years I was employed at a private Christian school in Southern California, teaching classes in English, Bible, journalism, and yearbook as well as ESL Bible. For the last 6 years at the school (2005-2010), I served as the Bible department head. The experience was awesome and I loved my time in Christian education.
In addition, I still keep an active clear teaching credential in English in the state of California, even though I have not lived in the state for more than a decade. But I keep it because, you never know…. Since 2015, I have taught a Christian seminary class across the street from Alta High School in Sandy, UT.
With many parents wanting to keep their children out of the public schools for any variety of reasons, including more lenient masking rules or not wanting public school indoctrination on such issues as secular humanism and Critical Race Theory, there has been a bigger demand of alternative educational possibilities. It seems these are the two main choices:
- Home Schooling
- Private education, including Christian schools
A tip of the hat for those parents who choose home schooling. Though I was a credentialed professional teacher for many years, I can’t imagine trying to instruct my own children in our home! Besides, my wife and I both had to work outside our home to support our family, so keeping the kids was never an alternative. Let’s be serious, home schooling is a tricky thing. My own experience is that many home schoolers lack the socialization skills \students typically learn in classroom instruction, although I know that co-op home school situations have done better in this area in recent years. Still, I think a successful home school situation takes special people, both parents and children, and I suggest that most families are better not making this choice. Of course, this is my personal opinion, and I know many families who have successfully navigated this path.
The other alternative is a private school (if this can be afforded by the family). For Christian schools, there are two types:
- Open enrollment
- Closed enrollment
Those with an “open enrollment” basically are schools willing to admit any student who promises to follow the rules and pay the monthly tuition. Bible classes and chapel attendance are typically included, but students are not forced to accept Christianity or its principles. The philosophy is that that those who are open to Christian teaching will blossom, and others who may not be believers could be provided a chance to hear the Gospel.
Meanwhile, the “closed enrollment” school is one that requires certain agreement to a statement of faith statement to be signed by both parents and their child(ren), sort of like a church requires new members to sign. Among other things, the school wants the student(s) (and parents) to:
- consider themselves to be born again Christians
- attend a local Christian church (sometimes a letter from the pastor or youth pastor is required)
- agree to the school’s rules that are different from the public schools
- agree to a sexual purity code
- attend Bible classes
- not publicly disagree with biblical teaching
Some families sign these statements knowing full well they will not keep all the points. At the closed enrollment Christian school where I taught, I estimate at least 30% of the students did not only skip Sunday church services but were never professing Christians. We often admitted Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals who believed that tongues were a sign of salvation, among others. In other words, those students and their families who considered themselves “Christian” could come from a wide swath.
Generally, a good Christian school is attractive to many families. My school was a safe place where drugs and alcohol were not as prevalent as what would be experience on a secular campus. In addition, it was understood that the educational standards at our school were higher, with smaller class sizes and better standardized test scores than the local public schools. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was not uncommon for the school to have a “wait list,” especially at the younger ages. (Less so as we entered the 21st century.)
Thus, when it came to signing the statement of faith, parents and children sometimes agreed to sign knowing that there would be some items they would not commit to. Putting their names on a piece of paper was nothing more than a formality. In my personal experience, most Christian schools are closed enrollment institutions, and thus my article appeals to those administrators.
A Mormon student in my classroom?
In the spring of 1998, I was finishing my fifth year of teaching English at Christian High. That fall, I was scheduled to transfer to the Bible department and teach juniors and seniors. I had one openly devout Mormon student in my 10th grade honors class. At the time, the school did not have a strict policy on who could enroll and the Ballards were likeable students and an asset to the school. During the last week of classes, I pulled Roger–a top A student in both my 9th and 10th grade English classes–aside and let him know that I would be his Bible teacher the next year in a class called “Apologetics.”
I told him that, as part of the curriculum in the last quarter, we would be covering the beliefs of other religions. Among other things, I let him know that I would teach about Mormonism from an evangelical Christian worldview. It was my attempt to be upfront and let him understand that my goal would not be to make him feel “picked on” as well as assure him there would be no animosity toward him when I taught that section. I explained how I planned to lay out the teachings of his faith with those of biblical Christianity and predicted that he probably would not agree with the conclusions. Still, I gave him permission to discuss the issues in class. I felt that having an LDS student in the classroom during my first year as a Bible teacher would provide “teachable moments,” as we like to call them.
That summer, Roger tragically passed away in a car accident. The campus was devastated when we returned in the fall. You must understand, I probably taught more than 1600 students over my 17-year career, and yet I can count on one hand how many students at our school passed away, mainly from accidents such as this (along with a suicide). I was so disappointed, as I had spent much time in the summer praying for Roger and anticipating the opportunity I would have to present biblical Christian theology and contrast this with what he had been taught all his life.
Over the next 12 years, my classroom mantra was for every student to “own” his or her “own faith.” No more borrowing parents’ faith or claiming to be a Christian because they went to a Christian church or school. During my first year of teaching Bible, it became clear that some students did not care about my curriculum or growing in their faith–if they were even Christian. That first semester, I assigned an essay on reasons why the student believed in God. We were a quarter of the way through the school year when I made the following announcement: “For the essay due next week, I want you to write as you really believe. If you believe in God, then I want you to provide three reasons why you do.” We had covered a variety of reasons for a person to choose to have faith in God, including the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, and even the personal testimony.
My next sentence seemed to throw a few students off.
“If you don’t believe in God or you’re just not sure, then I want you to write your essay about why you don’t believe in God or maybe you’d like to explain reasons why you may doubt God’s existence.” I watched one student’s jaw hit the ground, an edgy young man whom I suspected was a closet atheist. He raised his hand. “Mr. J, are you saying that you would let someone write on why God doesn’t exist and you won’t give it an F?”
I responded, “I will grade each essay based on well you articulate the case for God’s existence.” “If you write a lame paper about why God exists but don’t provide sufficient evidence, expect a C, D, or maybe even an F, even though I’m happy you believe in God. On the other hand, write the paper–whether it’s for or against God’s existence–and provide reasons for me to consider your view as being true, then you are doing exactly what the assignment requires and the higher grade will be assigned.”
This was a freeing moment in my classroom. While there were several I suspected who were not Christians yet still wrote pro-God papers, I did have 3 or 4 students (out of 100) take the opposite approach and, for lack of a better phrase, came out of the closet. They were graded as fairly as possible. This decision allowed for more honest classroom discussion on topics such as the problem of evil, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, and sexuality. This policy continued the rest of my teaching days.
At the end of the year, I did teach on world religions. We went to the library for a week while students studied Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism so they could present an oral group presentation. In addition, I spent an entire week in class covering Mormonism while touching on religions such as ISKCON (Hare Krishna), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientology, among others. I began taking my students on optional weekend field trips to the religious venues of some of these religions, such as a mosque, synagogue, temples (Hare Krishna and Buddhist), and even the Mormon Battalion Center in Old Town. My students told me many times how much they enjoyed this quarter-long unit the provided them the freedom to consider the claims of other religions while comparing them to their Christian beliefs. While it was clear where I stood in my Christian convictions, students knew that I was not trying to indoctrinate them. All in all, I believe a little testing of the Christian students’ faith helped make them stronger believers.
Signing the school’s statement of faith
I’m writing in August 2021. During the past two weeks, I had two different Christian school administrators call me with a similar story. Mormon parents wanted to enroll their children in these closed enrollment Christian schools. They were willing to sign the statement of faith that included beliefs in God, Jesus, the Trinity, salvation by grace, etc. Both administrators pointed to the item concerning the Trinity and asked me why these families felt they could possibly sign this statement. “They don’t believe in the Trinity, right?” one asked.
Of course, anyone can say they can “agree” with any Christian “statement of faith,” including a Mormon. As far as God is concerned, yes, Mormons believe in a personal God who created all things. They will claim to have a relationship with Heavenly Father–just listen to the testimonies they give! And Mormons believe in Jesus, as He is a part of their church’s name. While they may not use “Trinity” for the Godhead, yes, a Mormon could say he agrees with the concept because, after all, Mormonism teaches in the tritheistic Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! As far as salvation by grace, a Mormon could say that salvation comes by grace (2 Nephi 25:23) and believe they mean the same as Bible-believing Christians. I would venture to say that, while most Mormon families certainly know there are “differences” between the faiths, it would be easy to rationalize that there are more similarities than differences that could be pointed to.
As I said, these Mormon parents and children were willing to do anything they had to in order to get accepted into the Christian school. Yet, because these families admitted to the administrators beforehand that they attended the LDS Church, the sensitivity sensors for these godly professionals were turned on full blast. Each wanted to know what I thought about knowingly enrolling Mormon students into their Christian schools.
This is a tough question! Of course, I don’t believe the Mormonism is the same as Christianity! Caution is important, as there is no doubt that a little leaven can run through the whole batch. But my answer to their question completely depends on the circumstances and how strongly the school intends to be a closed enrollment school.
For those administrators who would say there is not way Mormon children should be allowed to enter a closed enrollment school, I wonder how they determined which churches are acceptable and which are not. For instance, is a Word of Faith church OK? How about a Oneness Pentecostal church that denies the Trinity? How about other Pentecostal churches that say tongues are necessary gift to show how a Christian has the Holy Spirit? What about Catholics and Eastern Orthodox children? In other words, does the school have a list of those churches that are deemed acceptable, and anyone outside these should not be admitted?
In addition, many Christian schools depend on the finances they receive from English as Second Language Students (ESL), many from countries like China and Taiwan where few (if any) are Christian. Some schools charge double the tuition for these special students because this is the main way they stay afloat, financially. Generally, the schools do not require these students to be Christian and even suggest that this is a great opportunity for the school to practice the Great Commission by having the students come to them. I’m not making a case here for open enrollments, but at the same time, I am making the observation that it seems hypocritical to accept these non Christian students for evangelistic purposes and yet reject others who we would not classify as Christian–even if these families claim this.
If the administrators had not known the families were LDS, would they have questioned the parents and students any further once they signed the statement of faith? Do they give theological quizzes to make sure the students have the basic Sunday School answers ready to give? I mean, how exactly do we determine that a family calling themselves Christian really are? (By the way, I have never been in charge of admitting students to a Christian school, so I’m not sure how I would handle it. But I hope you see how difficult this is.)
Again, my experience says that some parents and children fudge a bit in the admission interviews and never intended to follow every item listed in the Statement of Faith, including being regular church attenders. If a Christian school is only meant for “Christian students,” shouldn’t the standards be rigid for everyone? Just thinking out loud.
I think my school understood this dilemma and, while they no doubt accepted students who claimed to be Christian but who really were not, they had some policies in place to weed out spiritual trouble makers who wanted to minimize the school’s statement of faith. For instance, if a student received 2 F’s in Bible for two consecutive semesters, that child was not allowed to reenroll. Thus, a student who had no desire to do well in a Bible class was a possible indication they did not care about their personal faith. (Not always, but often.) In addition, if a student purposely tried to sabotage the spiritual principles at the school, including misbehaving during weekly chapel sessions or actively disobeying the spiritual principles, they too could be expelled. The Christian school is allowed a much shorter leash than provided by the public school.
OK, then, am I saying the Mormon child(ren) should be admitted to the school because these families think they are Christian? Maybe, maybe not. It really depends. It really depends on whether the school is equipped to deal with the Mormon issue. For me, as a former Bible teacher, I would LOVE to have a Mormon student in my class. Of course, I had a seminary degree and I had done much study in the religion, but I see this as an awesome opportunity. As long as the students understand that they don’t have to agree with my conclusions but remain respectful of the Christian principles that are being taught, I think there be some freedom to allow them to personally disagree with everything I am trying to teach.
A full-time Bible teacher who has spent time studying the Bible along with issues involving a Christian world view (including secular humanism and other religions) could be an excellent resource for a school that would, in special cases, accept students from a religion such as Mormonism. If the teacher(s) did not have experience on this topic, an administrator could assign the teacher to study the issue over the course of a summer and provide a stipend for the time. Some schools have a “campus pastor,” which I recommend is someone who may have not only attended Bible college but possibly seminary. A qualified individual could be a great resource for the entire campus.
If I were a Christian school administrator who had the resources for a campus pastor and/or full-time Bible teachers, I would tell the Mormon family during the admission interview:
“Listen, if we were to take each of the items you say you agree with in the Statement of Faith you’re willing to sign, I think we both understand that it would not be difficult in showing how vastly different our faiths really are. You must understand that we are a Christian school with Christian principles, and our view of doctrine is narrow, just as it is in the LDS Church. With that being said, we may still be willing to admit your children, but there are several things that must be understood. For one, your child will have Bible classes and chapels where Christian doctrines will be taught. These principles very likely will go against your church’s beliefs. And your child will be expected to follow all rules and is not allowed to invite other students to your church or cause any problems in this area. If you are willing to agree, we may be willing to sign a probationary contract.”
Saying it this way may cause the parents to realize that sending their children to this particular school could be precarious. If the roles were reversed and I was considering a Mormon school for my children, I would abandon course. However, it the parents and child(ren) were in agreement in this situation, I would enroll them. (Mind you, this is my personal opinion, and any school administrator has every right to refuse a Mormon student.) If the child(ren) was admitted, the teacher(s) of each child should be told. In my estimation, having Roger Ballard in my Bible class a quarter century ago could have been an incredible experience for everyone involved. Thus, I do believe it is possible for a school to maintain its mission statement and possibly allow a Mormon student to attend.
On the other hand, some Christian schools are small and cannot afford to have a campus pastor or full-time Bible teachers with their shoestring budgets. If I were the administrator in this situation, then perhaps it is best to decline anyone who cannot be verified as a born again Christian family or child. Every school administrator has to know the philosophy of the school as supported by the school board and the capability of its school to deal with diverse issues. As I have said, though, even a school that is very precise with its admission requirements will not be able to guarantee that those who graduate from their school will be Christian. Even if enrollment is limited to “Christians only,” no school administrator or parent should ever assume that alien ideas countering the Christian faith will not be accepted by their students. We live in perilous times, and unfortunately, there is no way for any school–no matter how well-meaning–to shelter their students and make them to be the followers of Christ that we certainly hope to mold and shape in their educational processes.
For an article on how to start a Christian high school seminary, click here.