The Trouble of Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

The Arkansas House passed a bill last week allowing public schools to offer an elective Bible course. While the Senate voted it down the issue will return as Bible courses are increasingly offered in public schools. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools produces curriculum which has been used for Bible courses in 563 school districts in 38 states with over 360,000 students participating. Not surprisingly the bill has met with opposition from atheists and freethinkers who see this as a façade for state-endorsed religion and an attempt to brainwash students.

Teaching the Bible in class is not forbidden in the Constitution or in a law and it hardly brainwashes students. Besides, everyone from MTV, Axe Body Spray, Apple, environmentalists, evolutionists, Republicans, Democrats, atheists, and Baptists attempt to “brainwash” the next generation into their cause. We only tend to be angry when someone else is doing it. Setting their silly objections aside, I actually kind of agree with them on this one – teaching the Bible in public schools could be a bad idea for three reasons: the nature of the Bible, who is teaching it, and the goals of the class.

What is the Bible? The sponsor of the bill in Arkansas, Denny Altes, is quoted saying it is “the world’s most popular history book.” But the Bible is not a history book. A history book typically reports events in a chronological and objective fashion and offers analysis on the causes, effects, and significance of those events. The Bible reports on historical events to further the theological message of the author. This is why much of the Bible is not in chronological order, nor does it attempt to be. It is also why the Bible chooses to share and emphasize some events while de-emphasizing and leaving out others. For example, the book of Judges spends five verses on Tola and Jair who judged Israel a combined 45 years but spends 98 verses on Gideon who judged for 40. This is because Gideon’s unique spiritual leadership of the people contributed to the author’s message on the need for godly leadership in Israel (Judges 21:25). The Bible is not an ancient history book on par with Herodotus. To rip people and events from their theological context is to profoundly misunderstand the Scriptures. You cannot study the content of the Bible without dealing with its message.

Who is teaching this course? The law states:

An academic study of the Bible course offered by a public school district shall: be taught in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of the biblical materials or texts from other religious or cultural traditions; … not disparage or encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs.

Teaching the Bible objectively has been attempted with disastrous results in universities for decades. Mainstream “objective” biblical scholarship crafted a historical Jesus in their own image, explained away the supernatural, subjected the Bible to their own reason, and then sold a lobotomized version of Christianity to impressionable students. Will the results be different here? Will a Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Mormon, Muslim, agnostic teacher be able to objectively teach the Bible without indoctrinating students to a bias or two? What prevents a teacher from using the course to undermine students’ faith? While as a pastor I am not threatened by rival understandings of the Scriptures, I now have to answer to what students are learning about the Bible in school. This makes the already hard task of discipling teenagers even more difficult.

What is the goal? Is it to prop up falling biblical knowledge among Americans? Is it to Christianize youth who don’t attend church? Is it to instill moral values? Is it to celebrate the influence the Bible has had on western culture? If they would feel differently about legislating a course on the Koran their intent is not purely academic. The Arkansas House didn’t state a goal but the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools believes these classes will help the nation’s moral crisis and reclaim children. We need to be very careful when using the state as a means to achieve Christian ends and think through possible unintended consequences. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as something that grows in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, not something imposed by them.

I’m sure those who want the Bible taught in public schools are well-intentioned, but we should call a time out to think. Can we really reduce the Bible to literature or history without betraying its life-changing message? The Bible needs to be studied academically, but in light of what it claims to be – the self-revelation of God – not as a history book without colorful pictures.

Do we trust those who will be teaching the Bible? Every teacher (Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, or Atheist with an axe to grind) will have an opinion as to the truth or falsity of the biblical material regardless of what the law states and they will pass it on to their students.

What is the goal? Basic knowledge of the Bible apart from the power of the gospel will never achieve the desired ends of those who support these classes. Passing this bill won’t change the culture or make disciples – so what unforeseen effects will result from having the state do the church’s job?

The church can do better. Ironically, as we focus on public schools, the lack of Bible knowledge in the American church is embarrassing. Our efforts may be more fruitful if spent on those freely attending our churches. The Bible is our book. Teaching it in a way that unleashes its power to change lives is our job. Will we step up or vote for the government to do it?


(image credit)


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