child sitting at desk doing school work

Imago Dei Education: Bearing the Burden of My Neighbor’s Glory


Over the last five months, I’ve been writing and speaking about something I call Imago Dei Education, or education for image-bearers. This work arose from a need to explain more clearly what we mean at Hope when we say, “The hope of Hope Academy is God.”  I could tell from certain follow-up questions to talks I had given that I had falsely assumed a high level of understanding where in fact there was little. When people would ask me, “What could schools learn from Hope Academy even if they don’t care a whit about God?” I just shook my head and knew I needed to do some better teaching.

What I first needed to correct was the false idea that Hope Academy is basically doing the same thing that other public and charter schools are doing, only we’re executing a little better than they are. We’re like Avis. We try harder.

No, no, no, no. Let me assure you, we are not doing the same thing as other schools in our city. We are doing something completely different. We are doing education for image bearers, and there is a world of difference between the two.

This morning, I want to talk with you about Imago Dei Education—its urgent need, its power, and finally its price.

The Urgent Need of Imago Dei Education

There is a crisis of honor in America that is crippling our day to day lives. From the coarseness of our speech on the airwaves and on social media, to the cheapening of human life, especially the lives of the unborn, to the unwillingness to even listen to, much less consider the merits of an opposing argument, to the political gridlock that is paralyzing St. Paul and Washington. Have you ever asked yourself what’s behind all this? What’s changed?

Let me suggest that as the doctrine of creation has been lost, what was also lost was seeing and honoring the image of God in one another. Mere material beings don’t necessarily deserve respect and honor, do they? Random collections of atoms cannot be said to have an ultimate purpose or a sense of dignity.

The tragic loss of the image of God has powerfully affected our schools. It is no mere coincidence that education divorced from the image of God has relatively quickly resulted in God being dismissed from classrooms, truth being rejected from textbooks, parents being ignored, teachers being abused, and students being warehoused. It has contributed to school shootings, voluntary segregation, a yawning achievement gap, gender confusion, chaos, and now generation after generation lost to drugs, gangs, and teenage pregnancy.

Could this explain why, according to a recent series of articles in the Star Tribune, black families are fleeing district schools and searching for alternatives in massive numbers?

The Power of Imago Dei Education

So how does the image of God have the power to change all that? As we say around here, “Hope in God changes everything.”

A good friend of mine, Dr. Vernard Gant, an urban school leader for over 30 years, refers to the students we serve at Hope Academy as ACE Students. It’s an acronym meaning students who are Academically Disenfranchised, Culturally Diverse, and Economically Disadvantaged. It’s a succinct and memorable way of describing our preferred student.

However, the all-important question is this: Do we see our ACE Students: academically disenfranchised; culturally diverse; and economically disadvantaged, as children created in the image of God? If the answer is, “Yes,” then that means at least three powerful things.

First, it means that our students have a special dignity arising from their special connection with God. The imago Dei means that all children, made according to God’s image, are endowed with a dignified status that accords with their connection to Christ. And all children, means all children, because it is a status that is conferred by God in creation and not earned or deserved by man.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from the treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God.” (The American Dream)

Throughout history, sinful leaders have perpetrated great evils based on the mistaken idea that there are “gradations” in the image of God—that certain peoples are more or less deserving of honor than others.

One implication of this in the classroom is unintentionally submitting to a two-tiered approach—especially regarding student expectations. We will trivialize the imago Dei in our students if we expect less of some, particularly if they come from an at-risk background. Teachers and Partners at Hope believe that the dignity of man opens the door for all children to receive a great education.

Second, the imago Dei also confers a holy and joyful duty upon all our students—the duty to worship and glorify God. We have all been created with a great and glorious purpose, to reflect the glory of God on the earth. The ultimate purpose of our instruction can never be limited to preparation for college. The ultimate purpose of our instruction must aim higher at what the scriptures call “shalom,” or human flourishing. As the old catechism puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

The word, “forever,” leads to a third massive implication of the imago Dei– our students have a glorious destiny. We are teaching immortal beings. I’ll expand more on this later.

So, how is Imago Dei Education different from other kinds of education practiced in our city? Education for image bearers means that God is exalted at Hope Academy. It means that truth is treasured. It means that parents are involved. It means that teachers are respected and looked to as role models and mentors. It means that students are dignified by high expectations of their behavior and academic work. It means that bullies are disciplined; and achievement gaps are closed; and youth are prepared for college and for a life of God-glorifying work and service.

Imago Dei Education means that children will be able to discern the difference between reading Captain Underpants and reading Charlotte’s Web. As image bearers, they will be able to discern what is objectively good and true and beautiful.

Education for image bearers means caring enough about a child to do the really hard work of cultivating virtue and Christ-like character by shepherding student hearts. It means welcoming the immigrant and the stranger God has brought into our city into our school family. And it means not giving up on students, but prayerfully and patiently pursuing God’s redemptive work in their lives when they rebel against family and God.

The Price of Imago Dei Education

As you can imagine, this kind of precious education comes at a price.

It is currently against the laws of the State of Minnesota to use tax-payer dollars to provide Imago Dei Education to a child. And let me make this clear, trading Imago Dei Education for government dollars is a trade that Hope Academy will never, ever make.

There is a price to do what is right.

As you know, next to Hope Academy is a park where different churches and ministries come regularly, with good and noble intentions, to serve the poor a meal. Regardless of the group doing the serving, the menu almost always contains the same item—hot dogs.

This is not because the poor are so enamored of hot dogs. It’s because we haven’t truly reckoned with the weight of our neighbor’s glory. Disrespectful and dismissive of the image of God in our neighbor, our charity will appear flippant.

Similarly, in my pride, when I thought of starting an inner-city school 18 years ago and considered what kind of education I should serve my neighbors with, I was strongly tempted to give them “a hot-dog education”—an education more fit for a pauper than a future king.

The truth that every human being is created in the image of God is absolutely stunning in its majesty and grandeur, and its implications are weighty, almost beyond comprehension.

Your partnership with a Hope Academy student is making the strongest possible statement that Academically Disenfranchised, Culturally Diverse, and Economically Disadvantaged children matter, and therefore they deserve an Imago Dei Education. What a courageous statement you are making by not warehousing children, but in love, gladly bearing the burden of your neighbor’s glory.

Let me conclude with a powerful exhortation from C.S. Lewis’ essay, The Weight of Glory:

It may be possible for each of us to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

Remember, there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

—C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (HarperOne, 2001), pp. 45-46.

On behalf of our students and families created in the image of God, thank you for changing the world by making Imago Dei Education affordable for all.

By Russ Gregg, Head of School