J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) was a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary and later at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, which he founded in 1929 to carry on the Princeton tradition after its departure from orthodox Presbyterian theology. Machen also founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936 after he was defrocked by the PCUSA, the liberalizing mainline northern church. Combined with his classic work Christianity and Liberalism, Machen is rightfully known as one of the leading defenders of biblical Christianity in the 20th century.
Opposition to Federal Control of Education
Yet Machen was also a great champion of Christian education. In addition to teaching and founding a seminary, Machen wrote and spoke regularly on the subject of education. In 1933, he gave a lecture at the Educational Convention in Chicago titled, “The Necessity of the Christian School.” The statewide compulsory school system was a 19th-century innovation in America, having first been established in Massachusetts in 1852 under the leadership of Horace Mann. Yet in Machen’s day, this was still a state system with little federal interference. Thus, Machen began his 1933 lecture by decrying the attempt at federal control over public schools:
The thing is really quite clear. Every lover of human freedom ought to oppose with all his might the giving of Federal aid to the schools of this country; for Federal aid in the long run inevitably means Federal control, and Federal control means control by a centralized and irresponsible bureaucracy, and control by such a bureaucracy means the death of everything that might make this country great.
Machen had gone so far as to testify against the proposed Department of Education before a joint Congressional committee on education on February 25, 1926. He argued to the committee that money for education “always has a string tied to it” and thus federal aid in education would undermine “the individual liberty of the states.” This was a policy “which cannot be reversed when it is once embarked upon.” Machen decried the intellectual decline of his day, and he assigned blame in part toward standardization, to which federal involvement would contribute—“I think that in the sphere of education, uniformity always means not something uniformly high but something uniformly low.”
Unfortunately, Machen’s fear of federal control was realized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which gave federal money to public schools. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare had been created in 1953, and a 1980 division finally formed the Department of Education that Machen had warned against a half-century earlier.
The Need for Private Education
After warning against federal aid to public schools, Machen continued his 1933 address on the Christian school by lauding Christian and private schools for the competition they provide to public schools:
Against this soul-killing collectivism in education, the Christian school, like the private school, stands as an emphatic protest. In doing so, it is no real enemy of the public schools. On the contrary, the only way in which a state-controlled school can be kept even relatively healthy is through the absolutely free possibility of competition by private schools and church schools; if it once becomes monopolistic, it is the most effective engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation that has yet been devised.
Machen recognized that the competition of private schools was good even for public schools. And while public schools today do not have a technical monopoly on education, they still dominate the education market as a result of ever-increasing financial resources. Few Americans have the financial resources to send children to a private schools, and the temptation of “free” public schools, combined with things like sports programs, has proven too much for even many Christian families. Machen’s warnings have come to pass, with the effective monopoly of the public schools resulting in an “engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation”—a system that “is far more efficient in crushing our liberty than the cruder weapons of fire and sword.”
The Need for Christian Education
Though Christian schools are good for liberty and are a check on public schools, Machen ultimately embraced the Christian school because he believed in the necessity of Christian education. Elsewhere Machen said that Christianity is “a way of life founded upon a system of truth,” which “clashes with opposing systems at a thousand points. The Christian life cannot be lived on the basis of anti-Christian thought. Hence the necessity of the Christian school.” Machen elaborated on this point:
While truth is truth however learned, the bearing of truth, the meaning of truth, the purpose of truth (even in the sphere of mathematics) seem entirely different to the Christian from that which they seem to the non-Christian; and that is why a truly Christian education is possible only when Christian education underlies not a part, but all, of the curriculum of the school. True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life—those are great convictions that underlie the Christian school.
It matters not only what students are learning but also who is teaching them. And it is sad that so many Christians today have given their children over to unbelieving teachers and a godless curriculum. As Machen said, “I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the Gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the Earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism.”
A consistent Christianity proclaims Christ all over the earth and provides Christian children with a Christian education. Christian schools are a great aid to this task. Yet Machen recognized that such education begins with parents—“The most important Christian educational institution is not the pulpit or the school, important as these institutions are; it is the Christian family. And that institution has to a very large extent ceased to do its work.” In order for Christian education to take place, it must begin with the family. Parents must do their part at home, and they should ensure their children receive a truly Christian education. A Christian school then is one that “exalts the family as a blessed divine institution” and treats its students “as children of the covenant to be brought up above all things in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” I commend to you Machen’s writings on education. May they stir up passion for Christian education and lead to wise, biblically-informed decisions as to how we educate the future generations.
Citations & References
Zach GarrisSee More Essays
Zachary Garris (J.D., M.Div.) is the pastor of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church in White Rock, NM (PCA). He is author of Masculine Christianity and editor of Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government. He writes at KnowingScripture.com and TeachDiligently.com.