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Plato and the Church of England: Guidelines for Schools

This essay compares and contrasts Plato's view of education to that presupposed by the Church of England in its recent guidelines for its schools.  It then offers some thoughts on what a Christian educational ethos might involve in light of the earlier discussion.

The Church of England’s Guidelines on Bullying

In its recently published guidelines for schools, the Church of England has advocated a view of education that we might call ‘exploration’ rather than ‘formation.’  The guidelines state that

In creating a school environment that promotes dignity for all and a call to live fulfilled lives as uniquely gifted individuals, pupils will be equipped to accept difference of all varieties and be supported to accept their own gender identity or sexual orientation and that of others. In order to do this it will be essential to provide curriculum opportunities where difference is explored, same-sex relationships, same-sex parenting and transgender issues may be mentioned as a fact in some people’s lives. For children of same-sex or transgender parents or with close LGBT relatives this will be a signal of recognition that will encourage self-esteem and belonging.
In the early years context and throughout primary school, play should be a hallmark of creative exploration. Pupils need to be able to play with the many cloaks of identity (sometimes quite literally with the dressing up box). Children should be at liberty to explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgement or derision. For example, a child may choose the tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the firefighter’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak without expectation or comment. Childhood has a sacred space for creative self-imagining (Valuing All God’s Children, p. 20).[1]

The guidelines advocate allowing various views of sexuality to be ‘aired and honoured’ and view any disapproval of same-sex relationships and gender transition to be examples of fostering bullying.

Some of Plato’s Contrasting Views on Education

So, what would Plato say?  Plato offers a view of education that is more compatible with historic Christian teaching than the Postmodern Church of England does.  Unlike the present Church of England’s culture of affirming inclusivism and celebrating diversity (which goes further than its earlier advocacy of ‘toleration’), Plato believed that education was all about the ‘right nurture’ of children in what is good.  The Athenian speaker in Plato’s Laws says that

First and foremost, education, we say, consists in that right nurture which most strongly draws the soul of the child when at play to a love for that pursuit of which, when he becomes a man, he must possess a perfect mastery (Plato, Laws, 643c-d).

This, of course, begs the question about what is good.  Yet Plato believed in philosophy that pursues not the accumulation of knowledge but in knowing what the good is (cf. Plato, Lovers).  He says that ‘those who are rightly educated become, as a rule, good…’ (Plato, Laws, 644b).  He is not saying that education is in itself good but that education in what is good will likely lead a person to embrace the good. 

Plato also recognized that each person ‘possesses within himself two antagonistic and foolish counsellors, whom we call by the names of pleasure and pain’ (Plato, Laws, 644c).  These need a master to rule them, not license to pursue them.  Moreover, our ‘inward affections … drag us along’ into either good or bad actions’ (Plato, Laws, 644d).  A drunken person, for example, is like a child who has little control over him or herself (Plato, Laws, 645e).

Plato does not argue, however, that society should remove things that contribute to vices, as when a society (like Sparta) does not allow pubs and alcohol in order to curb drunkenness.  Rather, education should entail training a person to master the passions (Plato, Laws 637b-d).  So, for example,he argues that it is important to train people not to become drunk with wine rather than eliminate alcohol from society.  His reason is that persons not so trained will have no skill in recognizing and doing the right thing when confronted with opportunities of one sort or another.

Early on in his discussion of these things in the Laws, Plato notes that common meals and the gymnasia offer training grounds for citizens to learn to master pleasure and pain.  However, these schools for virtue (my phrase) may become corrupt when they do not teach mastery of pleasure and pain.  Giving in to excess rather than learning to master passions may either be in degree or in type, and Plato offers an example of the latter.  He says that gymnasia in Athenian society had become institutions promoting unnatural passions—same-sex intercourse.  Citing popular opinion, he says that gymnasia are

thought to have corrupted the pleasures of love which are natural not to men only but also natural to beasts. For this your States are held primarily responsible, and along with them all others that especially encourage the use of gymnasia. And whether one makes the observation in earnest or in jest, one certainly should not fail to observe that when male unites with female for procreation the pleasure experienced is held to be due to nature, but contrary to nature when male mates with male or female with female, and that those first guilty of such enormities were impelled by their slavery to pleasure (Plato, Laws 636b-c).

Worldview Differences between Plato and the Postmodern Church of England

How is it that non-Christian, ancient Greek society can have such a discussion of the nature of education, the virtues, and sexuality and the Church of England can espouse such different, non-Christian guidelines?  The answer lies in different worldviews.  Plato’s worldview, while not, of course, Christian, was far closer to a Christian worldview than the present Church of England’s worldview.

Plato believed that good and bad were related to what is natural and unnatural, that unrestricted pursuit of pleasure would lead to exploring unnatural pleasures that made a person bad, and that education plays the role of forming children, who need guidance and training in the good.  The Church of England believes that good and bad are related to freedom to explore pleasures without restraint, that there is not a distinction of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ desire because all desire is natural, that education is about exploration rather than formation, and that what is ‘bad’ is saying that one choice is bad and another is good.  For the Church of England, declaring that certain desires and acts are bad and trying to shape youthful, inward affections is ‘bullying.’  For Plato, to shape citizens (or children's) desires and acts according to what is 'good' is what is meant by education.  He says,

When pleasure and love, and pain and hatred, spring up rightly in the souls of those who are unable as yet to grasp a rational account; and when, after grasping the rational account, they consent thereunto that they have been rightly trained in fitting practices:—this consent, viewed as a whole, is goodness, while the part of it that is rightly trained in respect of pleasures and pains, so as to hate what ought to be hated, right from the beginning up to the very end, and to love what ought to be loved, if you were to mark this part off in your definition and call it “education,” you would be giving it, in my opinion, its right name (Plato, Laws 653b-c).[2]
Nurturing and Testing Character Rather Than Free Exploration of Pleasures
Plato further addresses how to nurture a person in what is right.  He asks,
Is it not by pitting him against shamelessness and exercising him against it that we must make him victorious in the fight against his own pleasures?  (Plato, Laws 647c).
Plato speaks of employing social ‘exhortations, admonitions, and rewards’ to form people in good character (Plato, Laws 648b).  Because the Church of England no longer acknowledges an authoritative Scripture to declare right and wrong, good and evil,--since it has divorced itself from Christian teaching on the authority of Scripture—it views the use of shame and discipline regarding right and wrong as bullying.

Plato defines ‘politics’ as the art of ‘discovery of the natures and conditions of men's souls’ (Plato, Laws 650b).  The purpose of law and justice is to make people fearless and fearful of their inclinations or practices by exposing them to challenging tests of character (Plato, Laws 647c-d). Only thus can they be helped to develop good character.  Thus, the lawgiver needs a test to administer to citizens that makes them face their fears and develop confidence.  The test should, however, be safe, and he warns, for example, against testing a man enslaved to sexual pleasures by exposing one’s family members to him:
And when a man is a slave to the pleasures of sex, is it not a more dangerous test to entrust to him one's own daughters and sons and wife, and thus imperil one's own nearest and dearest, in order to discover the disposition of his soul? (Plato, Laws 650a).[3]
If we follow the logic of Plato, he is advocating not an exploration of character without any view to right and wrong but a testing of character with a view to right and wrong.  This is so that the lawmaker might set up just laws to guide citizens who lack good character, who fail such tests.  A simple application of this point for schools would be that the school should set up the very rules and regulations to guide sexuality that the Church of England is arguing against, rules that restrain students from bad pursuits. 
Moreover, Plato notes in passing that persons who are given to desires and deeds of bad character should not be trusted with those things or persons that tempt them—as the above quote notes with respect to a person enslaved to sexual pleasures.  He may well have advised the Church of England, therefore, that their anti-bullying policy, while sounding righteous (nobody likes bullying!), fails not only to train wayward children to behave righteously but also exposes other children to the playful exploration of their unrestrained desires and vices.
Christian Pedagogy
The primary purpose of this essay has been to contrast some of Plato’s views on education with the suppositions behind the guidelines of the Church of England on bullying.  Some brief comments on Christian pedagogy itself are appropriate for a discussion of Church schools.
            A Clearer Understanding of Human Sinfulness
Plato recognised that children needed guidance, not license, since they were otherwise guided by their own, untrained experience of pleasure and pain.  They were, he says, like drunkards in their inability to control themselves and lack of understanding.  (How horribly unkind not to guide them in paths of righteousness, Psalm 23.3.)  Scripture goes further in understanding that the fundamental plight of humanity is actually a proclivity towards sin.  The story of Eve’s choice to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden is a story of pedagogical exploration rather than submission to God’s guidance and formation in matters of good and evil. 
The Church of England has recently convinced itself that homosexuality and transsexuality are not sinful, contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture and the Church’s tradition, and so its moral guidance is no longer about good and evil but about non-judgemental explorations of individual passions and inclinations.  Paul, however, affirms the Old Testament perspective on human sinfulness and the need to teach right and wrong.  He says,
Ephesians 4:18-24 They [the Gentiles—i.e., non-Christians] are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.  19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.  20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!-  21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus,  22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Only a particularly sinister and intentionally twisted interpretation of Christian faith could evolve from such clear teaching in passages such as this to the Church of England’s guideline that says,
In creating a school environment that promotes dignity for all and a call to live fulfilled lives as uniquely gifted individuals, pupils will be equipped to accept difference of all varieties and be supported to accept their own gender identity or sexual orientation and that of others.
A More Concrete Ethic
The Christian faith differs from the Platonic tradition in giving far more concrete guidance on character development.  Old Testament laws were more specific than the more general virtue ethics of ancient Greece, and the early Church continued to articulate its ethics on that basis.  For example, the conduct mentioned in 1 Timothy 2.8-10 entails an expansion of the 5th through 10th commandments of the Ten Commandments:
1 Timothy 1:8-10 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,  9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers [5th], for murderers [6th],  10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality [7th], enslavers [8th], liars, perjurers [9th], and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine [10th]….[4]
Note that Paul expands the 7th commandment not to commit adultery to include all sexual immorality and, specifically, homosexuality.  (Paul’s word for ‘homosexuality’ is a compound term that he coins from two words appearing together in the prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus 20.13. This indicates Paul’s affirmation of Old Testament teaching on sexuality.)  Judaism and Christianity had a far more concrete sexual ethic than we find in the Greek philosophers.
From 1 Thessalonians, we learn that Paul saw teaching ethics to Gentiles as an immediate follow-up to conversion.  Since he established the church in Thessalonica in only a few weeks and then was chased out of town, when he ‘reminds’ the church of what he had taught, we know that this teaching quickly followed new believers’ commitments to Christ.  His ethical teaching to new converts covered both personal and community ethics, and his lengthier comment has to do with sexual ethics in 1 Thessalonians 4.1-12.  Similarly to Plato, the curriculum emphasised learning to ‘control’ the ‘inward affections’; as Paul put it,
1 Thessalonians 4:3-6 … that you abstain from sexual immorality;  4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor,  5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;  6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter….’
In this passage, we see Paul teaching (1) abstinence from lusts, (2) control of the body and passions, and (3) community concerns for sexual ethics.
            The Importance of Teaching Children Right and Wrong
The early Church’s moral teaching fills many pages of the New Testament.  The goal was not to respect and tolerate difference as itself good but to be different from the world, just as the Old Testament moral teaching emphasised how Israel was to be different from the surrounding nations (e.g., Leviticus 18.1-5).  Only in a postmodern, relativistic cultural context does teaching a community to be different sound like bigotry and bullying.  Throughout the Bible, however, the concern is to educate children in righteousness, not free exploration.  Proverbs 22.6 links the training of children to the development of character that persists throughout life:

Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
The following passage in Scripture sums up the curricular concerns of Christian moral teaching in the early Church, and it will hardly provide support to the Church of England’s guidelines for its schools:
Titus 2:11-15 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,  12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,  13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,  14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.  15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
Note that training people to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions is understood to be anything other than bullying.  On the contrary, it is the result of God’s grace that offers salvation to all people.  Rather than endorsing the immoral play of children through sexual experimentation, Christians, similarly to Plato, see teaching children ‘to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives’ as the very curriculum of an education that is Christian.
            Development of Specific Moral Codes
The early Church took the training of all ages very seriously, as we see in Titus 2.  Unique, Christian household codes were developed, as we see in Colossians 3.18-4.1 and Ephesians 5.20-6.9.  Teaching on sex and marriage was detailed—1 Corinthians 5-7.  Warnings against false teaching on sexual ethics were given, as in 2 Peter 2 and Jude.
            A Christian Ethos in Schools
We need to recognise that schools are not the Church.  Some children in Christian schools are not Christian and never will be.  So, the question is, ‘How much, and how should Christian schools establish guidelines and rules to support a Christian ethos when not all in the school are Christian?’  The error of the Church of England in answering this question begins with its assumption that there are no sinful sexual orientations, and it can claim this only if it rejects the clear and overwhelming teaching of Scripture and the historic Christian Church.  It assumes that teaching the truth and establishing codes of conduct based on the truth is bullying.  Yet, how can a Christian school create a Christian ethos without becoming coercive or oppressive to unbelievers?
One answer is to recognise that Christianity teaches a conversion through proclamation of and witness to the Gospel and the response of faith.  This is the reason that Christianity has been responsible in the West for developing a concern for freedom.[5]  Christianity is not a coercive religion, even if the Church has gone through periods of coercion (and that particularly when salvation by grace through faith has not been adequately emphasised.)  Witnessing, proclamation, grace, and faith do not support coercive religion.  Moreover, Christianity recognises that humanity outside of Christ is sinful, and so merely changing behaviours without transforming the heart is not the goal. 
On the other hand, Christian schools can and should establish codes of conduct that reflect Christian morals, as they have for hundreds of years.  They certainly should not endorse playful exploration of sin.  Revisionist teaching on homosexuality and transgenderism in mainline denominations contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture and the historic Christian Church.[6]  Yet a Christian ethos will be inviting to others to accept Christian faith and teaching through witnessing to the truth and offering forgiveness in Christ.  It will give clear guidance to children about what is right and wrong, provide a nurturing environment in both Christian faith and conduct, set clear community standards for conduct that do not undermine but promote Christian practices, and teach Christian children God’s love for the world.
This last characteristic, especially, is—or should be—the basis for an anti-bullying policy.  God ‘desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2.4).  Christians do not ridicule or affirm sinners in their sin but appeal to them to accept the salvation God offers to all and to ‘renounce ungodliness and worldly passions’ (Titus 2.11-12).  A proper understanding of the Gospel involves both a maintenance of Christian moral standards of conduct in Christian institutions, such as schools, and a Godly love for sinners that invites them to repent and be transformed by the powerful working of God in their lives (rather than be bullied).
Church schools have nothing to do with Christianity if they lack clear moral teaching and training in renouncing ungodliness and worldly passions.  They relinquish their purpose and become, like the gymnasia of Plato’s day, training grounds for vice rather than virtue.  The Church of England’s guidelines for schools confuses having and teaching clear, moral standards with bullying.  Such logic is only possible on ‘Postmodern foundations’ (the irony in this phrase should be noted).  Postmodernity’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (Francois Lyotard)[7] and opposition to ‘totalising’ convictions and practices inevitably oppose Biblical ethics and Christian faith.  Yet the Church of England’s own Postmodern metanarratives and totalising convictions, expressed in guidelines regarding bullying, oppose Christian moral teaching.  The Church of England’s guidelines have replaced Christian teaching on right and wrong with the free exploration of one’s own passions, guided only by, as Plato put it, the ‘two foolish and antagonistic counsellors’ of pleasure and pain (Plato, Laws, 644c).  While doing so to avoid bullying, it has, instead, transformed education from being about formation of children under loving guidance, as we see in the book of Proverbs, to being about encouraging children, with little control over their confused inclinations (Plato, Laws, 645e), to explore their passions freely.  From a Biblical and Christian perspective, as well as Plato’s perspective, this is fundamentally irresponsible and, in fact, more a form of child abuse than a policy against bullying.

[1] Valuing All God’s Children: Guidance for Church of England schools on challenging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, 2nd ed. (Church of England, 2017; online at; accessed 24 November, 2017.
[2] Later, Plato offers another definition of education along the same lines: ‘education is the process of drawing and guiding children towards that principle which is pronounced right by the law and confirmed as truly right by the experience of the oldest and the most just. So in order that the soul of the child may not become habituated to having pains and pleasures in contradiction to the law and those who obey the law, but in conformity thereto, being pleased and pained at the same things as the old man,— for this reason we have what we call “chants,” which evidently are in reality incantations2 seriously designed to produce in souls that conformity and harmony of which we speak’ (Laws 659d-e).
[3] Running in the background of book 1 of Plato’s Laws is an argument in favour of alcohol in society.  Plato suggests wine as a way to test people’s character as it is less dangerous than the sort of example given here.
[4] As we see in Philo’s Special Laws, the Ten Commandments were treated as ‘headings’ for discussing various, related ethical topics—as Paul does here as well.  Philo views the 10th Commandment’s law against coveting as a command that got to the underlying problem that lawbreakers had, and so it functions as a catch-all commandment at the end (as Paul may be saying with ‘whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine’ in 1 Tim. 1.10.  This also explains his use of the 10th commandment in Romans 7.7ff to capture the problem with the Law when people are inherently sinful.  Yet, there too, he affirms the teaching of the Law for Christians.
[5] Cf. Rollin G. Grams, ‘Christian Mission to the West: The Changing Meaning of Freedom: From Conscience to Conversion’ (16 September, 2016); online at; accessed on 26 November, 2017.
[6] Cf. S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub., 2016).
[7] Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Manchester University Press, 1984), p. xxiv.