A couple of months ago the atheist group Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (OGOD) instituted legal proceedings in the Johannesburg High Court against six public schools (two in the Cape and four in Gauteng) all of whom hold to a Christian ethos and Christian values. The organisation is effectively asking the court to order that Christianity be removed and banned from the schools.
As you can of course imagine, this move has generated much concern from parents and school officials. The Christian organisation Christian Action is organising petitions and entering the fray in an attempt to defeat such a motion. Those in the know believe that this will eventually end up at the Constitutional Court. Many are alarmed that many of the freedoms that we South African Christians now enjoy will be eroded by such a legal action. What should be our response? We should think clearly and respond constructively.
Panic is never a good first response. If your house is on fire, a clear-headed and quick response is better than a scatter-brained one in which you save your pets rather than your children. But I am fearful that this is precisely what may happen for many. I am concerned that Christians will be quick to save pet practices while sacrificing principles, and perhaps the children in the long run.
Consider these words from Christian Action (CA from this point) newsletter:
In terms of the admission policy of all of the above schools, learners of all religions and belief systems (including Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian and atheist) are welcome to enroll at those schools. Should learners (or their parents) of their own free will choose to enroll at those schools however, they do so with the knowledge and understanding (and by implication, agreement) that the schools hold to a Christian ethos and Christian values, as determined by the school governing bodies of those schools.
We should recognise that, because we live in a democracy, a community has the right to determine the ethos of its common interests, such as schools. This is inherent in the concept. Yet because we also live in a constitutional democracy, the law of the land must be respected. And this is why I believe that a government school, which aims to exert a Christian ethos, is on shaky ground. In fact, the atheistic organisation bringing the lawsuit does have a valid legal argument. In terms of the Constitution, these schools are discriminating against students of other religions. And this will probably not stand up in a court of law.
According to CA, these schools state that “at all times, participation in any Christian practices or activities (including attendance of sermons, prayer, VSCV activities, evangelism opportunities, etc.) are completely free and voluntary. No learner is ever forced to participate in such practices against his/her will.” Yet since South Africa is a constitutional democracy (and not a theocracy), we must ask whether it is legally valid for students to be forced to face the potential isolation and ridicule of excusing themselves from activities that violate their religious preference. I don’t think it is.
Don’t misunderstand: I think it is incumbent for Christians in any school to share the gospel. Clearly, Christianity (as biblically defined) is the truth. All other religious expression and worship is false. I get that. But what I don’t get is a community supporting a government-mandated school (which by definition means that it will carry out the government’s secular-humanistic mandate) and then turning around and expecting that government school to behave as a Christian school. You can’t have your cake of pragmatism and enjoy the taste of principle at the same time. A government-owned school (and even though it has a governing body of a community of parents, it is still government-owned) will respect its authority, the South African Constitution. And since the Constitution and the Scriptures are at odds with each other, Christian parents have no good reason to expect the school to promote Christianity. In fact, contrary to the position stated by CA, this is not an attack on Christian education; rather, this is a wake-up call to what Christian education really is.
Yes, it can be a good thing if a government school is allowed to promote Christianity. Yet this is neither the norm nor is it to be the legal expectation. But for the sake of argument, assuming the legal legitimacy of promoting a Christian ethos in the school, how consistent is such an ethos? For instance, is the concept of evolution completely eradicated from every subject that is taught? Not if the government is supplying either the textbooks and/or the teachers. Is every teacher in the school a committed believer and a faithful and fruitful member of a biblical local church? And what about gender and marital issues? Are there lesbians/homosexuals teaching at the school? Are they communicating a biblical description and prescription for gender? Does the school teach the Ten Commandment as nonnegotiable absolutes for all—including the fourth commandment? Or does sport rule on the Lord’s Day? It is hard for me to get too excited about a school being “Christian” when the same school schedules events for Sunday. Where is the Christian ethos there?
But, you might ask, should we not desire the government to honour God’s Word? Absolutely. The Bible teaches that a government is responsible to reflect God’s law. But in this instance we have a classic case of the cart before the horse—and the horse is banging its knees against the cart in frustration. Let me explain.
The other night I saw a parallel as I waited at the Mumbai airport for my flight home. I kept seeing signs at the entrance of restaurants reading “Dry Day, 3 November.” Bars were shut and no alcohol could be served anywhere because of a particular Hindu holiday. Those who are not Hindus were forced to respect the religious convictions of others. It struck me that this was unfair. After all, the Constitution of India does not give legal protection to Hinduism as the official religion of India. India is a democracy, not a theocracy. And therefore the government does not have the right to legally force everybody to be teetotallers on any day of the year because of religious convictions. Under the Indian Constitution, those who imbibe and those who do not imbibe have the legal right to either, regardless of the calendar.
Here is my point: Until South Africa is constituted as a theocracy under the sovereign Lord, Christians should expect no special treatment from the government, including in government-mandated and -controlled schools. These God-defying parents bringing this lawsuit have every legal right to challenge the promotion of Christianity in such government schools.
But the bigger issue here is, what should affected Christian parents do? Well, if they keep their child(ren) in those schools, they should prepare them to be like Daniel and his three friends. They will need to be prepared to stand for truth without any expectation of being protected by the powers that be—except for the Power that Is.
Second, parents should reflect on the wisdom of endorsing the sending of their children to government-controlled schools where God’s truth is not the nonnegotiable absolute standard. I understand that there are Christian parents who, at present, have no other choice. I sympathise with them and pray that their children will indeed by like Daniel and his friends. Nevertheless, one day—and the day is coming—Christian parents are going to say, “Enough is enough.” Having realised that they can no longer support such schools, Christian parents will establish truly Christian schools and/or homeschooling will become a norm rather than an aberration.
But I also envision the day when, upon a long and sustained work of the Spirit, the nation will be filled with so many believers that the Constitution will be changed to reflect the rule of God mediated by His law. When that happens, and only when that happens, lawsuits such as the one by OGOD will be thrown out of court. But until that time, let us not waste our energies crying for “freedom of religion.” It is because of such “freedom” that we are in the mess that we are in today.
Contrary to the claims of CA, this is not an attack on religious freedom; rather, it is an attack on the gospel. And so we should not be surprised. This is evidence of spiritual warfare. So what should be our response? This is not a cause in which we should invest much energy but rather a cause that should redirect our energies. We should invest our energies into being passionate for the spread of the gospel and the making of disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, here at home (literally!). Further, this is not an attack on the family but rather an exposure of our faulty thinking concerning the State’s role in educating our children—at least the current secular state’s role.
Oh for the day when the true God will be honoured and false religion will be seen not only as an affront to God but to the vast majority of our nation as well. Let us pray and proclaim and practise our faith that such a day will arrive sooner than later. At the end of the day, this is not a significant challenge to our faith; rather, it is a wonderful reminder to re-examine our faith.
Though my proposal may seem as controversial as the lawsuit itself, nevertheless I believe that it will stand up to the test of Scripture. But don’t take my word for it, search the Scriptures. Let us be Berean (Acts 17:11) in our attempt to think clearly and to respond constructively.