A key aspect of all agents is that they change their world. Biological agents infect their patients; special agents blow things up; a travel agent helps you move from one place to another. Just so, Christians sometimes describe ourselves as “kingdom agents” who participate in the great projects of King Jesus.
Christian schools are tasked to educate children regarding the vast work of kingdom agents. Here we teach them to rejoice in the good things that God created, lament the brokenness of the world and restore the creation though diligent care. My friend John Van Dyke taught me to describe this as the “Ta Panta” (from the Greek, “all things”) vision, and it comes from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 1: 16-17:
“16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
But of course, this view is not shared by everyone. So, the church sometimes refers to John 17:16 (or Romans 12:2) and says that Christians are called to be in but not of the world. C.S. Lewis summarized it this way: “Every square inch and every split second is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” Our understanding of education, like our understanding of the meaning and purpose of all things, is contested by the powers, rulers and authorities of this world.
Sometimes Christians become confused in this contest of agents. About 10 years ago I discussed this vision of education in Bangalore. In the question and answer period a Christian faculty member objected and said that there were no Christian values, but only human values. But the very walls of his school spoke against him. I pointed out that there had not been a single law school for girls in India—ever!—until the Christians showed up. The same was true for the Dalits that his school specialized in educating. At least in terms of the “province” of education, the Christian vision of education fundamentally challenged the Hindu vision.
Christians have used many different metaphors to describe the tension we sense as we serve our King. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, focuses on one specific kind of “kingdom agent” that can help us understand our task in Christian education: the ambassador. I think that the metaphors related to diplomacy are very helpful for Christians seeking a better understanding of education.
First, an ambassador is like a student who graduates. This is because both a diplomat and a graduate receive a folded piece of paper. Indeed, the word di-ploma, means a paper folded into two. When I hand graduates a diploma, we, as a school, say that they have credentials–just like a diplomat receives credentials. They are prepared to represent Christ the King in the world.
Second, an ambassador lives in the tension between rival powers. Such a tension is not only externally experienced. Great ambassadors love not only their home country, but also the country to which they are sent. It is this kind of love that causes much pain for Ambassadors when their two beloved countries do not work in harmony. This pushes them to find ways to reconcile their two countries. Indeed, that is the work to which Paul encourages the church in Corinth, “the ministry of reconciliation.” (5:18).
Third, Ambassadors are not monastics. Rather, like our students, they are prepared to serve as agents in the world. They must be trained in the art of communicating a point of view that will be difficult for people of another culture to understand. They must be patient in the face of misunderstanding and gracious in the face of hostility. For this reason there are special schools for diplomats. So too our own children are schooled—not only in Christian schools, but also in our churches and families.
Fourth, Ambassadors, live in an Embassy. Now this obvious insight helps us realize that Ambassadors, although they represent their country in a foreign land, must return to enjoy the company of other diplomats—of people who share the same credentials and loyalties. There diplomats can safely reflect on their efforts, without the risk that their fears and insecurities will be revealed to all. Christians do this as well. When we go to church we are reminded of life as it is supposed to be, and of a language that ‘fits;’ it is the language of love and care, not of power and manipulation.
Christian education remains a profoundly difficult task, as we must resist the pull of two different temptations. We are often tempted to claim that one area of life—our current host country–is more faithful than all others. Diplomats encounter this as the temptation of “nationalism,” the idea that that one particular ethnos is more precious to God than any other. We find this in education when one group declares that their area of specialization is the key to everything else. Christian ambassadors resist such idolatrous temptations.
The other temptation is to flatten out the differences between all receiving countries and insist that our identity is completed by being a Christian. This is the myth of cosmopolitanism, and it seeks a universalism that only God commands. We are particular creatures. So, for example, we speak particular languages such as Korean and English, not the failed polyglot language of Esperanto. So too we are not simply “human” but rather men and women, Dutch, Korean, and so on. Only Christ comes into all of the various cultures and holds them together.
Hopefully, this discussion of the task of Christian education conveys its audacious scope, one that goes wrong at many points. Ambassadors sometimes spend too much time in the Embassy, looking more like monks and hermits—strange looking people who simply don’t fit in anywhere. But we also err by looking just like everyone around us—fitting in just perfectly and offering no words of correction to a world out of joint. Sometimes we fall in love with particulars that should be corrected, and at other times we miss the splendor in a particular cultural practice. There are many dangers around which we must negotiate.
But this is the task we all are given: Parents, churches, teachers. Because we are all involved in the education of our ‘Ambassadors-in-training,’ we are all involved in negotiating the many dangers of teaching our children how to serve as kingdom agents in this world. To me, this is what faithfulness looks like.
Thank, Nick! An interesting metaphor to help us understand the task of Christian education! It is complicated work that we often take so for granted.
Ed, its great fun to be directly involved in a Christian school again. Many similar dynamics, here in South Korea and in NW Iowa.