Public school teachers are missionaries, according to Southern Baptists.
An anti-public school resolution under consideration at the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention concludes, "This resolution should be construed to encourage adult believers who are truly called to labor as missionaries to unbelieving colleagues and students to continue their missionary work in the government school system."
The meaning is clear. School teachers—like missionaries—are called to work in fields of spiritual lostness.
Two SBC leaders used the missionary theme to argue successfully against the proposed 2004 anti-public school resolution, even though they were not exactly advocates of public education.
Tommy Green, pastor of First Baptist Church in Brandon and then president of the Florida Baptist Convention, said, "The schools are a mission field and a place of ministry for our teachers and other employees."
Another fundamentalist leader, Gerald Harris, editor of the Christian Index, a publication of the Georgia Baptist Convention, wrote, "We have many wonderful, committed Christian public school administrators and teachers who have accepted the public school system as their mission field."
Are these and others right to consider school teachers as missionaries and public schools as mission fields?
Southern Baptists functionally define a missionary as one who has a divine calling to go into the world to win (convert) the spiritually lost. That calling requires the certification of a governing body that examines a candidate's theological correctness. Upon approval, the governing body commissions the candidate with an assignment. The commissioning is a high-profile event that places a special blessing on the missionary, as well as symbolically formalizes the candidate's employment. The governing body supports the missionary financially and evaluates the individual's employment performance and theological rectitude.
By SBC practice, therefore, school teachers are not missionaries. Public school teachers need not express a divine calling to convert their students, submit to a certifying body that determines their orthodoxy and be commissioned. The SBC has no theological litmus test for school teachers.
Moreover, Southern Baptists don't apply the missionary language to other professions.
The SBC has yet to be call soldiers missionaries. The SBC may bathe U.S. forces with Christian symbols--camouflaged Bibles and baptismal tanks. The next step has not been taken, however.
Baptists don't call trial lawyers missionaries in the legal system, hardly a system of purity and light. The SBC has yet to carry an article about car salesmen as missionaries in the automotive industry. Fundamentalists may vouch for the moral character of the Enron and WorldCom executives without calling the captains of capitalism missionaries in the marketplace.
What other vocation gets the vaulted title of missionary than teachers? What professional community gets the condemnation of mission field other than public schools?
The metaphor of missionary for teacher is used for a variety of reasons. Some are honest; others are a diversion.
Public school teachers may indeed have a sense of calling to the teaching profession, as doctors and nurses may have to the health care field. That does not make them missionaries. For their primary commitment should be teaching, not the conversion of children to Christianity or a particular brand of Christianity.
If soul-winning is the reason for teaching, teachers are engaged in false advertising. They are claiming to be one thing when they really another.
If clergy expect and encourage public school teachers to be soul winners, then preachers are promoting deception.
When a third grade teacher in the rural South in the 1960s had the goal of getting all of her children to make professions of faith before the school year ended, she had a misplaced priority and was misusing her professional status.
Teachers are first and foremost educators. They are not missionaries. They may be justice advocates and citizenship shapers, self-esteem builders and dream makers, nurturers and mentors.
Public school teachers have a demanding profession that deserves respect, especially given the sometimes poor job that parents and churches do with children deposited at schoolhouses.
Building up the common good through education is enough of a reason to support public school teachers, no other spiritualizing is needed.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Editor's Note: If you are a Baptist minister, who supports public schools and will say so publicly, click here to read a pastoral letter. Click on the link at the bottom of the page to add your support to this letter.