The fifteenth child of Sam and Patsy McLeod, Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875–May 18, 1955) could pick 250 pounds of cotton a day. Even though she had been born free, her life on a Mayesville, South Carolina, cotton plantation was not that different from how it had been for the McLeods during five generations of slavery.
When Mary was 17 years old, a Black missionary woman started a school that she was able to attend. It was then that Mary discovered that the main difference between most White people and most Black people in her time was that most White people could read. School became a burn- ing passion for Mary. Within a few years her teachers recommended her for a scholarship to Scotia Seminary, a school for the daughters of “freedmen” in Concord, North Carolina, where Mary studied literature, Greek, Latin, the Bible, and American democracy.
Mary soaked up knowledge like a thirsty sponge, and she wanted to give back to others what she’d learned. Deciding to become a missionary to her own people back in Africa, she attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in preparation for this endeavor. But after graduating and applying to the Presbyterian Mission Board, she was told, “We have no openings for a colored missionary in Africa.”
It was the bitterest disappointment of Mary’s life; but it was also a turning point. If she couldn’t go to Africa, she would teach her people at home in the South. Years later someone said to her, “What our people need is a few millionaires. Before I die, I am going to make a million dollars.” Mary responded, “I would rather make a million readers.”
Mary envisioned a school where young girls and boys would learn not only useful trades but also arts, sciences, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Whenever someone would ask about her philosophy of education, Mary would laugh and reply, “Greek and toothbrush!”
After marrying Albertus Bethune, Mary moved to Daytona, Florida, and started her “school-on-a-shoestring.” She resolved to build a school to teach the head (classical education), the hands (practical education), and the heart (spiritual education). In 1904 Mary began with a few young girls, and today ’s Bethune–Cookman College is the reality that honors her vision.1
By including spiritual teaching along with practical and classical training Mary reflected the balance of Christian education, which not only teaches students traditional subject matter but also edu- cates on redemptive themes, an academic practice as important as ministry from the pulpit. In the New Testament Epistles, the reeducation of humanity originates with the gospel.
Indeed, Ellen G. White helps us see that spiritual training is paramount. She states, “In the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one, for in education, as in redemption, ‘other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ 1 Corinthians 3:11. . . . To aid the student in comprehend- ing these principles, and in entering into that relation with Christ which will make them a controlling power in the life, should be the teacher’s first effort and his constant aim. The teacher who accepts this aim is in truth a co-worker with Christ, a laborer together with God.”2
Another aim of Christian education is to make paramount to the student the great import of the Christian experience. This emphasis “sits squarely on an educational foundation”3 that’s centered on the Holy Writ and its precepts.
Christian education is spiritual growth. Mature Christians evidence love and sound judgment by living according to principles and commands laid out by God and by the apostles. Over time, each Christian should move toward the mark of Chris- tian maturity set by Christ. This level of maturity evidences itself in stable theology, sound moral judgment, healthy relationships, and self-sacrificing service. The New Testament writers invite Christians to continually press on toward a higher and still higher degree of spiritual maturity (1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20; Heb. 5:12, 14; Eph. 4:13).
Ellen G. White contends that real Christian education begins in the family life. She states that there’s no greater ministry for the mother than to be a teacher at home, “dealing with developing minds and character, working not only for time but for eternity.”4 This may include evening and morning worship, Bible study, and other types of spiritual education in the home. This education, the foundation for future development, prepares young believers for future spiritual development.5 These principles, once anchored, provide the necessary elements to foster spiritual growth unto Christian maturity.
Individuals decide for Christ as a result of faithful teaching of the Word of God. Following their con- version, the learners advance into the discipleship phase, where they are nurtured toward Christian maturity. “Discipleship is truly Christian education in action.”6 In other words, “those who are brought to faith in Christ are to be disciples primarily through teaching.”7 The process in which the learner keeps on growing in the knowledge of Christ and strives to maintain Christlike attitudes is unique.
Christian education should seek to develop in persons a worldview that’s scriptural. Individuals should be trained to make decisions from a Christian perspective—to help believers in Christ to think first as Christians in all spheres of life—and to prepare them to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the work of influencing society with the mes- sage of Christ. The Bible and its principles must be the center of student development.
The uniqueness of Christian education is that it endeavors to develop and instill in students, as Mary McLeod Bethune suggested, the head (classical education), the hands (practical education), and the heart (spiritual education).
Ellen G. White supports this approach: “True education embraces physical, mental, and moral training, in order that all the powers shall be fitted for the best development, to do service for God, and to work for the uplifting of humanity.”8
Christian education is wholistic in nature. This includes the three domains of learning: affective (feeling), psychomotor (action), and cognitive (thinking). It strives to help people become responsible humans, and it prepares them to contribute to the physical, mental, and moral training of others. True education is training both for this world and for the world to come.
In the Scriptures the gift of teaching is the capability to expound the Word of God and “apply it to people’s lives.”9 Teachers in Christian education should aim to help students reach deeper levels of comprehension and to visualize the work of edu- cation as sacred. To accomplish this, teachers should be living examples of the sanctifying power, which is the sure result of Jesus’ presence in the heart.
Teachers should be endowed with moral traits and characteristics such as the dignity of labor, modesty, honesty, and self-discipline. Additionally, love, joy, peace, patience, and all fruit of the Spirit should be present in all that they do—even in disciplinary action. Teachers’ attitudes and behav- iors prove the reality of their teaching. The true Christian teacher, who indeed applies and exem- plifies the principles of Christian education, will “train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought.”10
Ellen G. White notes: “The greatest work of the teacher is to lead those under his charge to be intellectual Christians. Then the mental and moral powers will develop harmoniously, and they will be fit for any position of trust.”11
In Jewish tradition, teachers were expected to keep students from interacting with anything injurious. Teachers were to clarify right and wrong and the harmfulness of sin. They were never to be impatient and were always to be ready to cheer- fully repeat explanations. “It was said that children should be treated like young heifers, with their burdens increased daily. Any teacher who was too severe was dismissed.”12
On the important role of the teacher, Ahmad Shawqi, the prince of Arabic literature, states: “Stand in salutation for the teacher. For he has almost reached the honorable role of an apostle.”13 What Shawqi meant is that, in general, the teacher teaches to persuade; however, a true, genuine teacher should emulate God, who persuades in order to teach. Therefore, the purpose of the teacher is to help students to understand what it means to worship and serve God and to equip them with what they need to do it.
Christian education in simple terms is a disciple-making ministry. As Mary McLeod Bethune aptly put it, it involves “Greek and toothbrush!” ‘Greek’ is a reference to wisdom and knowledge. ‘Toothbrush’ is actually a reference to hard work. Therefore, “Greek and toothbrush” refers to wholistic education—that which teaches the head (classical education), the hands (practical education), and the heart (spiritual education).
The goal of Christian education, the beginning of Christian education, the student development in Christian education, and the teachers’ responsibilities in Christian education have the same goal: all aim to prepare students for the practical needs of this life, but also, more important, for the spiritual needs of this life and the next.
Thomas Lambie, a medical missionary to Ethiopia, wanted to buy land for a mission station. Ethiopian law did not allow land to be sold to foreigners, but Lambie found a way to buy the land. Ethiopians could purchase land. So Lambie gave up his American citizenship, became Ethiopian, and bought the properties needed. Later, in honor of Lambie’s great work in Ethiopia, the United States restored him his citizenship. How typical is Lambie’s undaunted spirit?
For the many who think of Christianity as a way to wholeness and happiness in life, here is a somewhat arresting claim: the first great principle of Christianity is negative.1 Consider Jesus’ words: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24).2 In Matthew’s account Jesus speaks to Simon Peter at a time when Peter becomes carried away, whether by a compliment from Jesus sent in his direction (see verses 17-19), or simply by ebullience, fairly standard for him. Peter has undertaken to turn Jesus away from the idea of suffering and dying. He begins to rebuke Jesus: “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You” (verse 22). The rebuke draws an appropriate denunciation from Jesus: “Get behind Me, Satan. You are an offense [stumbling block] to Me” (verse 23).
Instead of being a building stone, Peter is a stumbling stone, a rock in Jesus’ way, a stone out of place. Those who would like to follow Jesus soon learn that the journey is no slick, smooth trip.
Verse 24 of Jesus’ response to Peter includes three third-person imperatives—“deny,” “take up,” and “follow”—that emphasize the definite and terminal nature of the action. The first verb, “deny,” carries comprehensive import, indicating total disowning.3 The verb can signify “to disclaim any connection with,” “to repudiate.” Jesus is not speaking of giving up certain selfish benefits, but of rejecting all links with our selfish nature. This total repudiation is how we begin to follow Jesus: “The decision to renounce the self and to take up one’s cross stands at the beginning of the disciple’s journey.”4 It is one way to describe the miracle of conversion, and it clearly is not trivial.
Jesus’ third verb, “follow,” is a present-tense command, signifying the continuous action a convert undertakes, the lifelong task of following Christ.5 Such following involves looking to and behaving like Jesus—walking His walk that honors God and serves humanity (see 1 John 2:6). Multiple Christian authors have sought to express the categorical character of this demanding truth.
Howard Marshall conveys its intimidating force: the person so committed “is already condemned to death”; their life in this world is “already finished.”6 John C. Fenton writes: “The condition of discipleship is therefore the breaking of every link which ties a [person] to self.”7
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged at 39 years of age in a Nazi concentration camp, penned this compelling statement: “Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.”8
William Barclay explains: “It is obliterating self as the dominant principle of life in order to make God that principle.”9
Ellen White summarizes its nonnegotiability: it demands even to “the laying down of life itself, if need be, for the sake of Him who has given His life for [ours].”10
Evidently, denying oneself as Jesus requires means living without a self-centered thought, with the mind devoted to Jesus and His work exclusively. The options are clear: “whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25).
Just like the Ten Commandments, then, the requirement to follow Jesus involves much exclusion and negation. Willingness to follow Him means embracing the negatives with all our heart: no entertaining or worship of other gods; no images to which to bow. Self-indulgence holds no fascination for us. Instead, we savor the privilege of adoring Jesus completely. For us, “duty becomes a delight and sacrifice a pleasure.”11
Reports of Old Testament champions of faith testify extensively to their embrace of the negatives of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Joseph, the savior of his brothers, “was maligned and persecuted” for choosing virtue and integrity;12 Daniel was flung to the lions for being “true and unyielding in his allegiance to God” (Dan. 6:10-16); Jeremiah, for speaking only what God put into his mouth (Jer. 1:9), “so enraged the king and princes that he was cast into a loathsome pit” (Jer. 38:1-6).
The dynamic did not change when Jesus came to earth. His followers continued to embrace the negatives of abuse, rejection, and execution for believing the good news of their personal salvation, and determinedly sharing that truth of redemption for all humanity with everyone else—“every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23).
Stephen was stoned for proclaiming the resurrected Jesus as Israel’s Lord and Redeemer, the antitypical Joseph (Acts 7:9-16) and wilderness sanctuary, as well as the fulfillment of the spiritual purposes and promises of David’s and Solomon’s Temple (verses 44-50).
Acccording to tradition, Matthew is said to have suffered martyrdom by being slain with a sword in a distant city of Ethiopia. Mark expired at Alexandria after being cruelly dragged through the streets of that city. Luke was hanged from an olive tree in the classic land of Greece. John was put into a cauldron of boiling oil, but escaped death in a miraculous manner and was afterward banished to Patmos. Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downward. James, the Greater, was beheaded at Jerusalem; James, the Less, was thrown from a lofty pinnacle of the Temple, then beaten to death with a fuller’s club. Bartholomew was flayed alive. Andrew was bound to a cross, from whence he preached to his persecutors until he died. Thomas was run through the body with a lance at Coromandel in the East Indies. Jude was shot to death with arrows. Matthias was first stoned, then beheaded. Barnabas of the Gentiles was stoned to death at Salonica. Paul was jailed, battered and abused, stoned, and finally executed—beheaded at Rome by Emperor Nero—for taking salvation’s good news to the Gentiles faithfully, and preaching truth everywhere (Acts 20:18-27; 28:17, 23, 25-28; 2 Tim. 4:1, 2, 6).
Traditional, extrabiblical statements about the fate of Christ’s apostles13 sound quite similar to that of careful historical reportage on the treatment Jesus received for us, and what His known followers received for Him. Indeed, documented historical cases are sufficient to demonstrate that following Christ consistently involves embracing the negative. We embrace the negative and stay in the passion of that embrace by staying in Jesus’ arms, held so closely that we can hear Him whisper into our ear again and again, “My grace is enough; My grace is all you need; I can be strongest for you when you are weak” (see 2 Cor. 12:9). The privilege of following Him is the privilege of being in His company all the way and all the time along the lifetime road of discipleship.
Our time on earth may be limited; our sojourn may be temporal. But the principles that started us out at the beginning of our walk with Jesus are eternal. One day soon all earthly journeying will end; our corruptible will put on incorruption; and sorrow, crying, death, and pain will cease.
But the spiritual dynamics of selfless living will not change when our mortal puts on immortality and death is swallowed up in victory. Rather, the delights we anticipate when we enter into glory will only taste delectable because self-denying, self-sacrificing living in time will have taught us the secrets that make eternity taste just right. Following the self-sacrificing Lamb wherever He goes will only bring us joy in eternity, because, in time, unselfishness has become our daily bread.
Youssry Guirguis teaches Old Testament theology at the Asia-Pacific International University in Muak Lek, Thailand.