A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education, Part 1

A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education, Part 2

A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education, Part 3

Christian Educational Censorship

This selection is an excerpt from Handbook of Christian Education

Censorship in education is a controversial topic in both Christian schools and public schools. A Christian teacher has the Bible as a guide and example for making wise choices about objectionable elements students will encounter in literature.

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Educational censorship remains one of the most controversial issues in public life, linked as it is to political censorship and freedom of the press. The issue is sometimes posed as if it were only religious conservatives who insist on moral controls and apply arbitrary standards in excluding uncongenial elements. Nothing could be further from the truth. Secularist educators, no less than Christian educators, censor according to their educational aims.

These aims are moral and religious in nature as much as intellectual. To exclude racism, sexism, and all religious coloration from secular teaching and materials is as serious a goal and as holy a cause in the progressive agenda as to develop the child in the image of God is through a Christian philosophy of education.

Censorship, therefore, whether in Christian or secular schools, is inescapable. Every thoughtful teacher makes choices according to criteria devised to implement specific course objectives, which in turn reflect general educational goals. More and more in public schools, these choices are being made for him. The general goals of public education reflect a liberal social agenda that has moral content antagonistic to Christian belief and traditional values. Recent textbook controversies make clear the determination of the liberal educational establishment not to relax its grip on the content of public education. The issue is not whether to censor but what.

The issue of what to censor not only separates Christian educators from secular but also divides Christian educators themselves. Though united in purpose, they may differ in what they deem appropriate methods and materials for accomplishing their purpose. Is the traditional curriculum in literature compatible with or a betrayal of Christian educational goals and standards? Can Christian students be rendered "culturally literate" without compromising the spiritual objectives of Christian education? These are questions that conscientious Christian teachers and administrators wrestle with. Not only must they justify their decisions to themselves; they must be able to defend them to inquiring parents, pastors, and lay leaders of the church and, perhaps eventually, to civil authorities.

Beleaguered by doubts and conflicting advice, the Christian teacher or administrator turns to Scripture for standards he can confidently apply and uphold. The Bible itself is the most important textbook in the Christian educational curriculum. It not only contains the most important information for the student but also provides a pattern for the instruction. Other textbooks are Christian to the extent they reflect and conform to this spiritual and pedagogical model. Classroom teaching is Christian to the extent that it emulates the objectives, approaches, and methods of the Scriptures.

The Bible speaks of itself when it says, "Every word of God is pure" (Prov. 30:5) and "Thy word is very pure" (Ps. 119:140). Every part of Scripture is free of that which is in conflict with or extraneous to its purpose. The Christian teacher, led by the same Spirit that inspired God's Holy Word, will scrutinize prayerfully his methods and materials to ensure that they likewise are free of that which hinders and diverts from his purpose: the conforming of his students to the image of God in Christ. He will censor for the sake of his students and, in the case of the materials he uses, ascertain whether the necessary censoring has been done by the authors or may otherwise be done by himself.

Censorable elements

In order to do his job of censoring in a Biblical way, the teacher will need to be aware of the common categories of censorable elements.

  1. Profanity (blasphemy whether in statements or epithets; all sacrilege)
  2. Scatological realism (specific references to excrement or to the excremental functions)
  3. Erotic realism (specific references to physical love between the sexes)
  4. Sexual perversion (the portrayal of any sexual relationship or activity--such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, or incest--other than that which is sanctified by God in marriage)
  5. Lurid violence
  6. Occultism (Satanism, witchcraft, necromancy, astrology, fortunetelling, and the like; a representation of the supernatural powers that oppose God in a way that fascinates the reader or implies the existence of a supernatural order other than the Biblical one)
  7. Erroneous religious or philosophical assumptions (un-Biblical root ideas or attitudes expressed overtly or covertly, explicitly or implicitly, in theme, tone, or atmosphere; these appear, for example, when a writer invents a fictional world in which no divine presence is felt or in which no moral order is perceptible.)

It is not difficult to spot the censorable elements of categories 1-6 and to miss the often subtler and more dangerous elements of category 7. The practical atheism and antiestablishmentarian attitude of Mark Twain's character Huck Finn, the pantheistic mysticism of Wordsworth and Thoreau, the naturalistic thesis of Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," and the melancholy pessimism of A. E. Housman's lyric poems would appear safe enough in terms of criteria based on only the first six categories. Unfortunately, it is the un-Biblical premises of a work that are taken least seriously in discussions of censorable elements and in the formulation of policy concerning them. This category, like the others, requires serious attention.

Positions on censorable elements

Those who discuss classroom censorship tend to adopt either of two diametrically opposed positions. Each position, by its deficiencies, fortifies the other. A third position results from the first two. All require examination in the light of the Biblical standard.

The permissivist view is common among evangelical intellectuals. It is what one might expect to find in an article in Christianity Today or in booklets published by Intervarsity Press. Those who hold this view allow at least a degree of the censorable on either of two bases: (1) the existence in a work of compensating aesthetic qualities; (2) the necessity in art of an honest view of life. These constitute what the courts have called "redeeming social value." The weakness of the first criterion is apparent in the uncertainty that has characterized the history of court rulings on censorship. It is too subjective and utilitarian to be an adequate guide for Christians. It requires a judge who, though ignorant himself concerning the aesthetic merits of a work, is competent to identify expert witnesses who are knowledgeable and impartial. His problem is complicated by the circumstance that aesthetic values nowadays tend to be subjective and relativistic, easily affected by extraneous considerations. The aesthetic criterion in censorship rests not on absolute moral principles, which Biblical ethics requires, but on the toleration of the social community.

The second criterion--the necessity in literature of an honest imitation of life--is the standard defense by modern writers of the sordid and salacious elements in their fiction. But ideas of the world and of life vary widely. Every serious secular novelist invents fictional worlds that vindicate his moral and religious preferences. Moral libertines nurture private world views that justify and reinforce their licentious lifestyles. Even were there an accurate, Biblical consensus of the nature of life and the world, it could hardly be maintained that literature, while imitating reality, need include all of reality. The Bible speaks of some realities we are to flee (I Tim. 6:11; II Tim. 2:22). Moral considerations must override the aesthetic and mimetic in a Christian's perspective on literature and life. That which threatens the moral and spiritual life cannot be justified on other grounds. Permissivism arrogantly elevates human wisdom above divine.

The exclusivist view is held by conscientious pastors, Christian educators, and laymen concerned for the moral preservation of their children and for the moral wholesomeness of their communities. They reason that, because evil is evil, any avoidable exposure to it is wrong for even the most praiseworthy of purposes. It follows, they argue, that one should avoid any work of literature or discard any element of the curriculum that contains any amount of any of these elements. A few hold as a corollary that, since the Bible is a sufficient guide in all important matters of life and since there is peril in other reading, we ought not to read anything else.

Our spiritual affinities are with these who hold the exclusivist position, and our sympathies must be also. They are the ones with the sensitive consciences, the zeal for what is pleasing to God, the vigilance toward the moral erosion of society. But they should consider the implications of their position. To reject a work of literature or subject of study because of the presence of any amount of these elements within it is, first, to apply a standard that precludes the possibility of a liberal arts education. We forego the major works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Pope, Swift, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Hawthorne, Melville, Clemens, Frost, and almost every other standard writer. We do not teach the Declaration of Independence, for its arguments are based on the secularist idea of natural rights. Even Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is suspect, for the key to the outer gate (the iron gate) of Doubting Castle, Bunyan tells us, turned "damnable hard." (Bunyan, of course, meant "able to damn," but he must also have been punning.)

Now if eschewing evil requires foregoing a liberal arts education even in a Christian educational environment, then so be it. No human educational values should be allowed to compete with spiritual. However, we recall that "Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22). Paul, we know, had the learning of the Greeks, for quotations and echoes of pagan writers appear here and there in his epistles. He knew Greek poetry well enough to quote from memory the minor poets Aratus and Epimenides of Crete on Mars Hill. Furthermore, of Daniel and his three friends we are told that "God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom" (Dan. 1:17). Evidently, in these cases, the divine preparation for leadership included familiarization with the writings not only of the inspired authors of the Scriptures but also of the poets, scientists, and philosophers of pagan intellectual and literary traditions. The exclusivist view, if consistently held, condemns the manner in which God conducted the preparation of these great men of Scripture or implies that God did not approve of it.

An even more serious implication of the exclusivist position is that it precludes the reading of some portions of the Scriptures themselves. Elements of all seven categories of censorable elements appear in certain ways and to certain degrees in the Bible. The following list is illustrative, by no means exhaustive:

  1. Profanity: "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?" (John 8:48); "As the Lord liveth, I will run after him, and take somewhat of him..." (2 Kings 5:20)
  2. Scatological realism: Rabshakeh's coarse language (Isa. 36:12)
  3. Erotic realism: Proverbs 5:18-19; Ezekiel 23:20-21; and passages in the Song of Solomon
  4. Sexual perversion: the sin of Sodom (Gen. 19); the seduction of Joseph (Gen. 39); the rape of Tamar (II Sam. 13); the liaison in Proverbs 7
  5. Lurid violence: Joab's murder of Amasa (II Sam. 20)
  6. Occultism: Saul's dealing in necromancy (I Sam. 28:7-25)
  7. Religious and philosophical assumptions: the misrepresentation of God by Job's three friends (though in no pervasive sense can such assumptions affect any large portion of Scripture)

Obviously the exclusivist view, consistently held, puts the Bible in conflict with itself and lays its advocates open to charges of self-contradiction.

The exclusivist position is based on a misconstruction or misapplication of certain passages of Scripture. We need to deal briefly with each one.

  1. "I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes" (Ps. 101:3). This resolution of David may refer to an idol or to some evil device or scheme. It certainly does not refer to all representation of evil, for David read the stories of moral failure in the Pentateuch and, in his capacity as judge, had to scrutinize wrongdoing continually. The sins described in the Bible--for example, David's own adultery with Bathsheba--are wicked, but the descriptions of them in Scripture are not wicked. The examples of Scripture, both positive and negative, are good in the sense that they are "written for our learning" (Rom. 15:4). "All scripture . . . is profitable" (II Tim. 3:16), even the parts that reveal most vividly the depths of human degradation. What is represented is evil, but the representation of the evil is valuable for Christian moral understanding and is, therefore, good.
  2. "I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil" (Rom. 16:19). The Greek word here translated "simple" is translated "harmless" in Matthew 10:16 ("Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves") and in Philippians 2:14-15 ("Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation"). Paul's command echoes a passage in Jeremiah in which the prophet complains of Israel, "They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge" (4:22). Elsewhere Paul admonishes believers, "Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men" (I Cor. 14:20). The meaning of these passages is clearly that the believer should be clever in ways to do good rather than cunning in ways to do harm. On the other hand, believers should not be "children . . . , in understanding." One of the meanings of simple at the time the KJV was translated was, in fact, "harmless," and the KJV translators followed Wycliffe in using it in this sense in this verse. The Bible puts no premium on moral ignorance.
  3. "But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks" (Eph. 5:3-4). Evidently Paul does not mean that such sins as fornication and covetousness should never be mentioned at all, for he has just spoken of them himself, as do the other writers of the Scripture. Mentioning these and other sins is necessary if the preacher is to "reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (II Tim. 4:2). Every pastor or parent must mention specific sins by name if he is to fulfill his responsibility to God for those under his care. Paul here, as in Romans 2:24, is insisting that the conduct of God's people give no occasion for these sins to be named as existing among them. Their conduct should give cause for thanksgiving rather than for gossip and reproach.
  4. "Abstain from all appearance of evil" (I Thess. 5:22). The commandment has been interpreted in two ways. The first is that one avoid giving any appearance or impression of evil doing. The believer's conduct must be above suspicion and give no occasion to those who would wish to find fault. Paul gives the same command in Romans 12:17 ("Provide things honest in the sight of all men") and in II Corinthians 8:21. Daniel's life was such that his enemies could find no pretext for condemning him in any way to the king. The Bible stresses the importance of reputation as well as of moral character. The more likely interpretation, however, is that one abstain from every form or manifestation of evil. The commandment completes the preceding verse. We are to "prove all things," adhering to "that which is good" and abstaining from all that is evil. One must encounter a phenomenon before he can test it and distinguish the good from the bad.
  5. "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil. 4:8). This grand prescription for mental, moral, and spiritual health expresses the principle that dwelling on good will help to drive out evil. The believer's main subject of meditation should be the Scriptures--for blessing (Ps. 1:2) but also for protection (Prov. 6:20-24). The Biblical commands to center one's mental life on the Scriptures do not exclude those passages in which evil is described, often graphically. On the contrary, those passages, Paul says, were intended to be pondered as negative examples (I Cor. 10:1-14). The Bible uses both positive and negative examples to enforce its message. Good literature does also. A person whose mind has been fortified by such examples against the evil in his moral environment will be better able to live in that environment with his mind focused on the things of God.

More than four centuries ago, William Tyndale, arguing for the common man's ability to make use of Scripture, addressed the issue of the questionable elements in Scripture:

All the Scripture is either the promises and testament of God in Christ, and stories pertaining thereunto, to strengthen thy faith; either the law, and stories pertaining thereto, to fear thee from evil doing. There is no story nor gest [narrative account], seem it never so simple or so vile unto the world, but that thou shalt find therein spirit and life and edifying in the literal sense: for it is God's Scripture, written for thy learning and comfort. There is no clout or rag there, that hath not precious relics wrapt therein of faith, hope, patience and long suffering, and of the truth of God, and also of his righteousness. Set before thee the story of Reuben, which defiled his father's bed. Mark what a cross God suffered to fall on the neck of his elect Jacob. Consider first the shame among the heathen, when as yet there was no more of the whole world within the testament of God, but he and his household. . . . Look what ado he had at the defiling of his daughter Dinah. . . . Mark what followed Reuben, to fear other, that they shame not their fathers and mothers. He was cursed and lost the kingdom, and also the priestdom, and his tribe or generation was ever few in number, as it appeareth in the stories of the Bible.

The adultery of David with Bathsheba is an ensample, not to move us to evil; but, if (while we follow the way of righteousness) any chance drive us aside, that we despair not. For if we saw not such infirmities in God's elect, we, which are so weak and fall so oft, should utterly despair, and think that God had clean forsaken us. It is therefore a sure and an undoubted conclusion, whether we be holy or unholy, we are all sinners. But the difference is, that God's sinners consent not to their sin. They consent unto the law that is both holy and righteous, and mourn to have their sin taken away.…

Likewise in the homely gest of Noe, when he was drunk, and lay in his tent with his privy members open, hast thou great edifying in the literal sense. Thou seest what became of the cursed children of wicked Ham, which saw his father's privy members, and jested thereof unto his brethren. Thou seest also what blessing fell on Shem and Japhet, which went backward and covered their father's members, and saw them not. And thirdly, thou seest what infirmity accompanieth God's elect, be they never so holy, which yet is not imputed unto them: for the faith and trust they have in God swalloweth up all their sins.
Obedience of a Christian Man

The pragmatic position is held by those who, acknowledging God's standards to be absolute, consider some compromise to be necessary if one is to get along in a fallen world with flawed human beings. Misapplying Paul's concession in I Corinthians 5:10, they allow some degree of exposure to the evil of this world, but not "too much." It is inevitable, they maintain, that passing on our way through the world we would pick up some dust. The pragmatist, seeing the bankruptcy of the permissive view and the impossibility of the exclusivist view, falls back on a rule-of-thumb utilitarianism that makes Christian evaluation entirely subjective. Each person must decide for himself how much evil is too much to be tolerable in a literary work or in material used in teaching. This view is perhaps theologically the weakest of all, for it implies that it is impossible to order our lives according to the will of a holy God or that God will accept from us less than His standards require. In the issue of a Christian response to the censorable in literature or in life, adopting a mean between extremes or a policy of convenience is no solution. Genuine Biblical morality is not a matter of expediency or of proportion and degree, but a matter of principle based on moral absolutes.

Fortunately there is another position, the Biblical, which takes the Bible itself as the supreme literary and pedagogical model. It accepts the Biblical purpose of moral education as stated in Proverbs 1:4: "To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion." It recognizes that the image of God in redeemed man--Christ-likeness--includes moral understanding and that moral understanding requires an awareness of both good and evil and "the end thereof" (Prov. 14:12). It identifies as spiritually "of full age," or mature, "those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14).

The Biblical position adopts the pedagogical method of the Scriptures in teaching moral understanding. The Bible teaches by means of precept and example. Its examples are both positive and negative. The writers of the Old Testament enunciate emphatically the commandments of God and reinforce them with many examples of right behavior and many more of behavior to be shunned. They associate good or evil consequences with good or evil behavior. New Testament writers draw on these examples, positive and negative, for encouragement and warning.

The Lord Himself made full use of negative examples in His teaching and preaching, citing the degeneracy of Sodom (Matt. 11:23), Cain's slaying of Abel (Matt. 23:35), the debauchery of Noah's generation (Matt. 24:38), and many other instances of wickedness. Paul's warnings to the Corinthians run nearly the full gamut of human depravity, including incest (I Cor. 5:1) and homosexuality (I Cor. 6:9), referring to active homosexuals in "abusers of themselves with mankind," passive in "effeminate." We regard these accounts of wickedness in the same way that the New Testament writers regarded those recorded in the Old Testament: as "ensamples" given to us for our profit (I Cor. 10:11; II Pet. 2:6). Clearly, to exclude the negative example from the Christian educational experience is to depart from the pedagogical method of Scripture.

Does this mean that we must accept in our reading and include in our teaching the full range and extent of the censorable that the permissivist would allow? Not at all. Following the standard of Scripture controls our choice and handling of material in a way that most pragmatists, let alone permissivists, would find overrestrictive. Though defense attorneys in pornography cases can point to portions of the English Bible that seem to violate the Bible's own admonitions concerning preserving the purity of the mind, the Bible is in reality completely self-consistent and purposeful in its presentation of evil. Evil is represented in the Bible in certain ways, for certain purposes, and with certain effects. Understanding the Biblical manner of representing evil is a far surer and more workable guide for the conscientious Christian parent or educator than the subjective criteria and arbitrary lists conceived by some conservative moralists, well-intentioned as they may be.

The basis of a truly Biblical position concerning censorable elements is the following distinction. If a work of literature or other element of the curriculum treats evil in the same way that it is treated in the Scriptures, we regard it as not only acceptable but also desirable reading, listening, or viewing for someone of sufficient maturity as to benefit from comparable portions of the Scriptures (with the qualification that visual or auditory effects are more potent than those of reading). If it does not treat evil in the way evil is handled in the Scriptures, its content is not good. Evil in the Bible appears dangerous and repulsive. Reflections of evil appear in the Bible in the form of negative examples so as to create a defense against what they represent or to give hope to the fallen for forgiveness and recovery from sin.

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Chapter four of Handbook of Christian Education, ©2017. Used with permission of BJU Press. For permission to reproduce this article or to link to this page, please write JourneyForth@bjupress.com.

 Updated November 19, 2020.

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