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In the current public discussion of the religious instruction classes in New Zealand public schools I notice many Christians are also opposing the current system. I had thought “Good on them. They are seeing this the same way I am as a matter of fairness, human rights, and opposing indoctrination of children.” And those letter-to-the-editor writers supporting the current scheme all seem to use rather extreme arguments which are not common with reasonable Christians.

However, I came across this video recently which makes me wonder if another motive for Christian concern about religious instruction in our schools is the way the more extreme religious cults can make use of it for evangelism. It’s one thing to know your child is being tutored by a kindly old Anglican woman – but the thought of a strident Exclusive Brethren having access to your children is a worry.

The video is of a talk by Joel Pittman, a former Pentecostal religious instruction teacher in Australia. They call their classes Scripture Classes or Special Religious Instruction (SRI), but essentially they have the same system as ours with the public school theoretically closed and instruction provided from an outside provider.

Religious Education and the Pentecostal Movement – Joel Pittman, Skepticamp Sydney 2011.

Joel describes how evangelicals use SRI for evangelism, how they frighten children into “giving their lives to Christ” and then encourage them to attend youth camps where they can be further indoctrinated.

I am sure many moderate Christian would be concerned if this was happening in New Zealand. And I am not saying it necessarily is. After all, the video describes the Australian situation. But it is obviously possible. Some of the more fundamentalist churches do recognise the possibilities religious instruction offer them in New Zealand. And it’s not as if school boards or the Ministry of Education vets the curriculum used, or the tutors. (After all, the school closes during the religious instruction classes).

The Trust Board of the Churches Education Commission (CEC) (which is one of the main providers in New Zealand) has representatives from many Christian denominations. It also has a rule to “ensure that no more than 40% of the total number of trustees at one time are from any one Member Denomination.” That seems good, but doesn’t necessarily ensure that extremist denominations have no influence. And the fact that some parents report their children being taught creationist stories does suggest they do have some influence.

The current CEC board includes representatives from Methodist, Assembly of God, Anglicans, Open Brethren, Presbyterian and Salvation Army.  And their last financial return shows donations from Anglicans, Associating Churches and Ministries of New Zealand (self-described as “fundamental, evangelistic and Holy Spirit honouring”), Baptist, Christian Brethren, Methodist and New Life churches.

Joel Pittman makes the point that the fundamentalist churches in Australia have the cash and can often override the less financial but more moderate churches with provision of SRI tutors and resources. It would be horrible to think this may also be true in New Zealand. I am sure most Christians would be concerned if this were so.

Perhaps its time for a bit more transparency. Who are the teachers supplied for teaching religious education in our schools? What are their denominations, beliefs and agendas? And how do they really run the classes?

Thanks to Chrys Stevenson at Gladly, the Cross-Eyed BearWhat REALLY happens in your child’s Scripture class – and beyond …

See also
Human values are secular


Mixing values and Jesus in secular education

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