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©2009 Copyright Marshall Gregory. All rights reserved. Please ask permission before using material on this site.

Excerpt from:  “Pedagogy and the Christian Law of Love,” Journal of Education and Christian Belief VI.1 (Spring 2002): 9-26.

NB:  This article has been republished at the following web sites:

The Stapleford Centre ( (2004)

The European Educators’ Christian Association ( (2004)

The Christian Pedagogical Institute of Denmark ( and translated into Danish by Carsten Hjorth Pedersen (2003)

Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College

( [2004])

Having come to comparative clarity—I certainly do not claim ultimate clarity—about what teacherly love of students might mean, let me point out three distinct advantages it offers to teacherly practice. First, taking agape as the foundation of my pedagogy enables me to distance myself from the entanglements of personality—those entanglements of personal likes and dislikes—that can corrupt teacher/student relations with both petty and fiery emotions. As a teacher committed to agape, I have to love even the students I don’t like, and agape prohibits me from ever excusing a deteriorating relationship with a student by merely saying that “he and I have a personality conflict”. It may be true that we have a personality conflict, but this is irrelevant to my proper teacherly functioning. As a committed agapist, I owe all my students—and I owe all of them equally—the same kind of care. From this perspective it does not matter which students I am fond of or not, which students appreciate or fail to appreciate my efforts, students are more or less socially cultivated, or which students are like or unlike me in terms of shared tastes and habits. The Christian version of agape tells me that all my students are children of God, or, to put it in naturalistic terms, they are all human beings, and as human beings I owe all of them the same quality of care that I give to any one of them. If they were my friends, I would expect them to return my care—this is the duty and joy of the love that is philia—but agape is the love that bestows worth regardless of reciprocity. As Tim Jackson puts it, in an agapic relationship, “reciprocity is not a prerequisite and unilateral or unrecognized giving is often the norm. . . . Agape wants communion, to be sure, but it first promotes the other as such.” As a committed agapist, I must promote the good and the well-being of the other in the person of my students as such.

Second, agape offers me a way of understanding the kinds of challenges I extend to my students, as well as my proper attitude in extending these challenges. If my task as a strong agapist is to promote the good and the well-being of my students as such, it follows that I am obliged to be kind but it does not follow that I have to be easy pickings for student entreaties to go easy on them because, as they sometimes argue, they have other classes, busy social lives, or problems with room mates. Agape gives me no reason not to criticize a bad job as a bad job merely to avoid hurting a student’s feelings. I am sorry when students are hurt by my giving them a lower grade than they wanted, but I‘m not very sorry, frankly, for I know that I hurt them worse, and I violate my care for their well-being, if I fail to hold them to standards that help them grow. Teachers must never let their commitment to excellence deteriorate into knee-jerk mean-spiritedness, but, barring this deterioration, agape helps me look through the confusion of my own emotional softness to the kind of responsibility that I and my students must both be tough enough to accept if we are both to avoid forming habits of evasion and rationalization that can last a life time.

Third, the perspective provided by agape gives me a way of positioning my teaching in relation to other professional goals and activities. Agape as the ultimate Christian standard of conduct is not much interested in the status of my professional prestige, in the size of my salary, or in the numbers of books, articles, and honors that appear on my resume. I cast no contempt or discredit on any of these facets of professional life. They all have their proper places of concern. However, when professionalism is approached from the standpoint of agape, concern about prestige, salary, and publications become secondary. Although important, they can never become all-important, and there is a great liberation in knowing this. Liberation does not come from supposing that agape relieves me of the obligation to be as highly accomplished and as wide-ranging a professional as I can be—I must still pursue excellence—but it comes, instead, from the sense of having my life aligned with more elemental, enduring, and profound truths about human flourishing than when I am consumed with an ego-centered concern about my own professional success or consumed with envy at others’ professional success. When I succeed in hanging that first piece of wall paper absolutely plumb or in making a picture frame with perfect right angles, I feel that I have aligned myself with universal constants—a plumb line and a right angle will be the same everywhere, at least in our universe, like the speed of light—and when I succeed in ordering my professional life according to the standard of agape, I feel that I have aligned my interests and concerns with truths of existence, as Wordsworth says in one of his great odes, that “give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”