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A Transforming Ministry

The educational mission of the church is to change lives — and the world

By Duncan Ferguson

Education image

Illustration by Ron Newton

Presbyterian/Reformed Christians take educational mission seriously. We value informational education, learning about the world and how it functions. We value vocational education, developing God-given talents in order to fulfill the vocation to which we have been called. And fundamentally we value transformational education, as the Brief Statement of Faith says: “The Spirit gives us courage . . . to witness to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in church and culture, to hear the voices of people long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”

Education is one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition. From Calvin’s Geneva, to John Knox’s dictum for all of Scotland, “a school in every parish,” to America and all parts of the world, education has been and continues to be a central feature of Presbyterian/ Reformed ministry.

Presbyterian/Reformed churches have always looked to the Bible as the foundation for all matters of faith and practice. Therefore it is to the Bible that these churches have turned for guidance in shaping the spirit, strategy and content of ministry in education. In studying the Scriptures we see that education has great importance for the people of both the Old and the New Testament.

The Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible does not give a detailed picture of formal education in ancient Israel, but it is clear that education is fundamental to the health and spiritual vitality of the community. We read, “Just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6).

Four highlights of education in ancient Israel:

  • It was very practical in nature, often passed on in the home by the parents or acquired in guilds. It provided basic instruction in crafts and vocational pursuits (Exodus 35-36).
  • It gave guidance in worldly wisdom. The “wisdom literature” (Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) provide direction for coping with life, especially in social and economic relations (Proverbs 1:2-3).
  • It provided instruction in an ethical way of life. The emphasis is often on learning the law of the Lord (Exodus 20: 1-17).
  • It was a vehicle to pass on the traditions that bind the community together, give it a common language, and provide the symbols for the celebration of a good and meaningful life. There is a special emphasis on remembrance of what God has done (Deuteronomy 26:8-9).

The New Testament

The early Christian community inherited and continued Israel’s emphasis on education. Jesus was frequently called “teacher,” and people turned to him for answers to the most perplexing questions of life and help in situations of crisis. His listeners were amazed by the force and insight of his teaching, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29).

The early church engaged in teaching to nurture and sustain converts to the faith. “Those who welcomed his message . . . devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (Acts 2:41-42).

The Apostle Paul engaged in “educational mission” through his preaching and writing, providing theological and ethical guidance to the young churches. Later writings in the New Testament reflect a maturing Christian community and provide assistance to both pastoral leadership and those attempting to live the Christian faith in a hostile culture. Both proclamation (kerygma) and the deposit of faith (didache) are important forms of teaching.

Education in the New Testament church was for the purpose of gaining new converts, nurturing of new converts, providing ethical guidance, increasing theological understanding, and instructing for community and church life.

The Reformed Tradition

Three principles, guided by purposes drawn from the Bible, are especially characteristic of the Reformed tradition. They may be described as transformational education:

  • “Truth is in order to goodness,” says our Book of Order. Knowledge should be directed by values. “If I . . . understand all mysteries and all knowledge, . . . but do not have love, I am nothing,” wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 13:2). The church’s educational mission is to help us discern the will of God in order to do it in the world. We are called to transform the world.
  • Education is for the transformation of individuals within a life-giving community. The church’s educational mission may be viewed as joining with God in the “people making” business — caring about individuals and assisting them to become all that God intends for them to be. The church at its best is the context for this kind of education as it embodies and teaches truth that is liberating, setting people free to achieve their full potential and enabling them to discover and pursue their God-given vocation.
  • Faith and knowledge are a unity, although it may not always be possible to see the unity. Jesus embodied both the dimension of the religious (grace, faith, love) and the dimension of truth (knowledge, integrity, light). In John’s first epistle he describes God as both love and light (1:5-7; 4:7-21). The church believes all truth is God’s truth, and as we study and learn, we learn about God and about divine creation. We engage in a holy endeavor, loving God with our minds. As individuals and as a Christian community our learning transforms us and calls us to the ministry of transformation.

Today’s Educational Mission

These Biblical principles have informed the church’s theological reflection on the mission of education. In the Brief Statement of Faith the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expressed the theological ground for its mission in education.

The Brief Statement says, “In sovereign love God created the world good.” From this theological affirmation comes the primary mandate for the church’s educational mission. We believe in the God of creation, we stand in awe before the majesty and mystery of the cosmos, and we see in the world around us the hand of the Creator of all. Learning begins in wonder.

But in our sinfulness we have violated the creation. “Ignoring God’s commandments, we . . . exploit . . . nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care” (Brief Statement). Not only is the world here for us to study, enjoy, use, appreciate and tend, but we are here for the world, to assist in its healing and care. The church is to have a part in redemption, healing and emancipating individuals, corporate structures, nations, a threatened world, an exploited planet.

Jesus proclaimed that the purpose of God’s reign is the liberation of people and bringing all into accord with God’s will. Education participates in this mission, challenging all forms of oppression and helping to relieve human suffering in all of its diabolical manifestations. God is not indifferent to the plight of the poor, the hungry, the illiterate, and the victims of war and prejudice. Transformational education accepts a partnership with God in the creation of a better world.

“The Spirit . . . sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church” (Brief Statement). Our ministries in education encourage spiritual growth, the process of sanctification. We generally think of the church as the primary support community, but educational institutions also provide sustaining Christian communities.

Part of the mission of the church in education is the building of nurturing educational communities for those who live out their vocation in an educational setting. We educate in the church, but we also create educational settings outside of church that are inclusive and supportive, enabling and empowering, ones that respect the dignity of all. These communities provide the human resources and behavioral norms that facilitate growth toward maturity and incarnate justice in policy and practice.

Fundamental to the educational ministries of sanctification is the notion that women and men are called to a life of service, that each one has a vocation and each one is gifted by the Spirit of God. It is in the school years (and the school years now are lifelong) that the church helps people discover their vocation and begin to responsibly use their gifts in service (2 Timothy 1:6).

Duncan Ferguson is associate director for higher education in the National Ministries Division, and president of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, Louisville, Ky. This article originally appeared in the May 1998 issue of Presbyterians Today.