February 9, 2022

Greek and Toothbrush

Mary McLeod Bethune understood: getting a million dollars can’t match getting a million readers.

Youssry Guirguis

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

The Goal of Christian Education

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).

Beginning in the Home

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.

Student Development

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.

Teacher's Responsibilities

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.