Why do we need Lutheran schools? Why do Lutheran schools need Lutheran teachers? Though these are simple questions, their answers get at the whole reason that the extensive system of Lutheran schools exists in the first place. Lutherans in North America have been school-builders from the beginning. In fact, the opportunity to establish schools apart from the purview of the State was at least as enticing to these first Lutheran immigrants from Europe as freedom from a state religion.
But why? After all, schools are a lot of work. All the planning, budgeting, instruction, assessment, recordkeeping — operating a school requires immense sacrifice of time and money on the part of the congregation. Yet in spite of all that, Lutherans (especially those most interested in a confessional identity) have insisted upon operating schools all across the country. So what drove them to establish all these and work tirelessly to keep them open?
Put simply, it’s all about the gospel. Lots of other sorts of schools can teach lots of different things. Any school can teach children to behave and to be good boys and girls. Any school can dig deep into the wisdom of the ancient Greeks — in fact, there is much we all could learn from the founders of Western civilization. Any school can teach citizenship and character and morality. But all of that is of the Law, and we Lutherans know better than anyone that while the Law is good and wise, it lacks the power to save.
It is wise for us to ask the question “What problem is the school designed to solve?” Naturalists like John Dewey would say that the primary problem that a school is designed to solve is that of ignorance of the world. We Christians, in contrast, might concede that a child ought to know something of the world, but that knowledge is of secondary importance when compared to the gospel, which alone can save us from death. In fact, ignorance is not the greatest problem facing man — death is. All worldly knowledge cannot fix death. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ saves sinful man from sin and death. Lutheran schools do teach math, grammar, and history — and many of them do so quite well. But above all, Lutheran schools proclaim this gospel — that Jesus Christ has taken away death and sin and hell by His atoning death. Many students in Lutheran schools don’t get to hear that on Sunday morning. Many of the children in Lutheran schools are members of the congregation who attend the Divine Service faithfully — but they still need to hear what God has done for them in Christ.
Lutheran schools are in the business of preparing young people for the Last Day when the dead are raised and the saints in Christ stand with Him in eternal peace and bliss. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews asks, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” Christians must contend with fallen flesh, the world, and the devil — all of whom would snatch the precious gift of eternal life from us were it not for the Spirit’s work through this gospel to keep us firm in the faith until that Day.
But why Lutheran? After all, there are lots of other Christian schools and Christian teachers. Why does Lutheran identity matter? Simply put, it is when Lutheran schools are staffed with Lutheran teachers that the gospel has the best chance of being proclaimed in its purity. (For the record, the word “Lutheran” here refers more to one’s actual confession than simply on which roster one’s name appears.) To be sure, there are lots of Christian schools and Christian teachers and they are dedicated and sincere. But any adulteration of the gospel runs the risk of the Christian doubting — or worse, in causing him to trust someone or something other than Christ for his eternal salvation. The world thinks this is unloving, but it’s why Lutheran schools ought to be for Lutheran teachers. No one else confesses justification the same as the Fourth Article of the Augsburg Confession. No one else’s theology is designed to reflect salvation by grace alone through faith alone in all its articles. No other theology ought to be taught in our schools, and the way to ensure this is twofold: First, the pastor ought to oversee the theological curriculum and instruction of the school (if not outright do all the instruction himself). Second, teachers ought to hold to the confession of the Evangelical Lutheran churches (and remain diligent in the study of that confession) so that any time theological matters are discussed in class, students can be directed to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
They seem like simple questions, and they are. But like so many simple questions, they matter a lot. Lutheran schools, at their best, deliver the gospel to students and strengthen them for the Last Day when the dead are raised and the saints stand with the Lord. And it’s precisely for that reason that Lutheran schools ought to care about an unapologetically Lutheran identity.