Regulating Christian education?
Nigerian legislators consider a bill to set standards for Christian classes
Daniel Olushola grew curious in May after reading a statement from the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella group representing Christians from numerous denominations. It called growing complaints about a bill to set up a national Christian education council as “maliciously spewed” efforts to divide Christians.
The National Assembly first published the bill to establish the council in March. Leaders in the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), proposed the legislation, and eleven Christian lawmakers co-sponsored it. The measure passed its second reading in May.
The association has asked Christians to support regulation of Christian education in public and theological schools, which could improve the quality of Christian education and increase graduates’ reputation in the workforce. But the bill has evoked division among Christians, with some welcoming the development and others wary of government oversight and possible doctrinal differences.
Olushola, who in 2017 founded the Reformation Wall Classical Christian School in Plateau state in central Nigeria, read the CAN statement and the proposed measure, wondering how it would affect him and the school he leads.
While he expressed concern over any attempt to centralize education, he cautiously welcomed the idea of a council to compete with other national education bodies. Olushola’s school begins lessons in history and geography in first grade, years ahead of the national system that starts those classes by seventh grade.
“We need a body that would really give us opportunities for our students to write exams based on what we’re doing here,” he said, referring to the country’s standardized testing system.
The bill outlines a council composed of a chair and nine members, including several from Christian groups, appointed by the country’s president. It will also include members from national nonreligious education bodies.
The council would develop and approve the Christian education syllabus at all school levels, certify instructors, and accredit programs of theological institutions, among other tasks. It would also gain access to federal government grants.
The Nigerian K-12 school curriculum currently includes classes in either Christian religious studies or Islamic religious studies. In a statement, CAN said the bill only seeks to monitor what Christian children learn in public schools and to set a minimum standard for Christian schools and theological institutions.
“Many theological schools in the country are substandard and their certificates are not recognized beyond the institutions that awarded them, yet they abound everywhere,” the association said.
Gideon Para-Mallam, a Christian minister and former leader at the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, said advocates and officials began talking about regulating Christian education as far back as 2015. He said Christian leaders started to uncover issues with the quality of Christian education in Muslim-majority northern states like Sokoto.
Para-Mallam said that some schools in these areas hired Muslims to teach the Christian education classes when Christians weren’t available. “If Christian teachers are not employed to teach in some of these places, what do you expect?” he added.
But Olushola said he initially felt the bill was a reaction to a similar Islamic bill to create a National Board for Arabic and Islamic Studies that passed its third reading in May. That bill similarly sought to create a regulatory board for Arabic and Islamic schools and advise federal and state authorities in their interest.
Nigeria has a National Universities Commission that is responsible for accrediting universities. The commission only approves academic programs of seminaries and theological institutions affiliated with accredited universities. Denominations also run accrediting councils for their schools and theological institutions.
Sunday Agang, provost of the Evangelical Church Winning All Theological Seminary in Plateau state, said accreditation from the proposed council could further help their graduates.
“We have students who have graduated from our seminaries with all the standards we have given them,” Agang said. “And yet they will not be promoted [at work] because their certificates are not from accredited institutions.”
In a June statement, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria said the bill has gone beyond the original intent of regulating religious studies in secular schools to include theological institutions. It called the bill incompatible with Nigeria’s status as a secular nation. “[The Christian Association of Nigeria] should undertake a proper needs assessment to determine the needs of Christians in Nigeria that would require the support of the government,” the group said. It raised concerns about a wide range of doctrines and “fundamental differences between Nigeria’s over one thousand Christian denominations,” adding that the bill did not allow for exemptions for seminaries of any denomination.
Nineteen civil society organizations, including two Islamic groups, have also jointly called for the bill to be scrapped, describing it as an unjustified state intrusion into Christianity.
Michael Babajide, a lawyer in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, said the bill raises several constitutional questions since Nigeria is a secular nation.
“You can’t be using the public funds of a secular state to fund an agency whose aim and objective is targeted towards facilitating a particular religion,” he said.
Babajide also pointed out that the Nigerian constitution already has provisions for educational oversight, adding that the Christian Association of Nigeria is a voluntary body that does not represent all Christian groups or doctrines.
“It creates all kinds of constitutional issues around freedom of association, for example, and freedom of religion,” he said of the bill, noting similar concerns about the bill on Islamic education.
But Para-Mallam argued that even countries and blocs like the European Union that separate state and religion protect religious education.
“The simple fact that the government supports education does not give the government the power to just decide what happens in that school,” he said. “Now that the Muslims already have this body and they’re getting that [funding] and advancing Islamic education in Nigeria, have we thought about the long-term effect if Christian schools are starved of money?”
Unlike in Nigeria, the United States only requires accreditation from privately recognized bodies for institutions that want students to access government funds, explained Jamison Coppola, who works as the government relations director with the American Association of Christian Schools. He explained accessing government funds comes with “shackles.”
“Once you have the program set up, they’re going to look for ways to make the program do their bidding and not the people who benefit from the program,” he said. “And so you have to be vigilant and diligent if you’re going to participate in a program like that in order to make sure that you can maintain the necessary, practical, and political power to truly protect religious liberty.”
Olushola sees the Nigerian context as different from the current political climate in the United States. “Here the government can be funding an organization but not really participate in it,” he said. He sees better prospects for a regulatory body that operates with more flexibility for diverse doctrines and Christian education systems.
The National Council for Christian Education bill has entered the committee stage, where it will undergo public hearings before a third and final reading.
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