The Case for Christian Day Schools versus Home Schooling
1. Writing on Your Gates
In Deuteronomy 6, Moses commanded the people of God, "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons..." Reformed folk, especially since the time of Kuyper, have been very sensitive to these words. The Reformed Churches of New Zealand have been no exception, showing considerable interest and zeal in Christian education.
Not all, however, would interpret Moses' command in quite the same manner. Both "home schoolers" and "day schoolers" would claim Deuteronomy 6 in support. Both would regard themselves as faithfully carrying out the Biblical mandate of Christian nurture of our covenant children.
The issue is one that needs attention. For there is no doubt that tensions easily arise between the two groups. The home schoolers may come to feel that they are being unduly pressured or harassed by the day schoolers; while the day schoolers, for their part, may feel betrayed, or looked down upon, by the home schoolers.
We will begin by examining Deuteronomy 6:69 in a little more detail, to see whether it gives any support one way or the other. The first thing we notice is that parents in Israel are commanded to take in hand the godly nurturing of their children. Moreover, this command appears to come first to the parents, not to some other institution, nor to any body of teachers. Christian education starts in the home.
In the home, the believing parent is basically commanded to surround and permeate. The child's environment is to be saturated with God's Word. From sunup to sundown, in all duties and activities, in work and leisure, the parents are to press the Word upon their children. They are to teach it "diligently," which means either repetitive or "sharp" teaching. In other words, the teaching is to make an impression – it is to be made to stick. The Word of God is to be written on the doorposts of every Israelite house, symbolising that they are entirely under the authority of that Word in the sphere of the family.
Up to this point, the argument seems to go all in favour of home schooling. For everything commanded so far can be kept most effectively by the home school. The home schooler certainly cannot be accused of disobeying Deuteronomy 6. Indeed, the emphasis in the passage seems to be upon the home alone.
There is one indication, though, that the concern of Deuteronomy 6 is broader. Verse 9 commands the writing of the Word not only upon the doorposts of the house, but also upon the gates. The modern reader immediately thinks of our neat little properties with front fences and gates. Writing on the gate is then synonymous with writing on the door post of the house.
Contrary to this popular assumption, however, the Hebrew word for "gate" (sha ar), does not refer to our modern front gates. It refers to a city gate, the gate in a walled town or village. The city gate was often the place at which the city elders conducted civic business, passed judgements, and also discussed theology. The gates therefore represented the whole life of the city. The point is that the burden of ensuring total surrounding and permeation by God's Word, fell not only upon the shoulders of the family; when Israel settled in the Promised Land, it would fall also upon the entire local covenant community. Deuteronomy 6 is not only family-oriented: it has broader concerns for the "body." Even in this early OT stage, when there were few educational alternatives, and when the covenant-family had a somewhat more independent role, there were these broader covenant concerns.
The application of Deuteronomy 6:9 to the modern church situation would therefore be that the local church also has a wide-ranging concern in the nurture of the covenant children. I believe this application is justified, because the NT equivalent of the theocracy's civic sphere (the city gate) is not the modern secular city, but the modern covenant community – the church. The church has to write God's Word upon its "gates."
That means that the church promotes Christian education in worship services, Catechism classes, Bible Studies, youth clubs etc. But it means more than that: it means that the church encourages all its members to do everything they can to enable all the covenant children to be surrounded and permeated by God's Word. This is our corporate responsibility.
Thus, Christian schooling is not just an intra-family matter. It is a whole-covenant responsibility. The Word is to be written on the city gates, as well as on the family's doorposts. The question to ask is, then, whether or not home schoolers are favouring the doorpost above the city gate.
2. Education in the Early Theocracy
In looking at the relative merits of Christian day schools, over against home schooling, we have considered the importance of the "city gate," the whole-covenant responsibility of Christian families. Now we will see how the relationship between "doorpost" and the "city gate" develops through the course of redemptive history. Another way of putting the question is to ask: What is the relationship between the covenant-family and the covenant?
Here it is important to note that up until the time of the Exodus, the believing family was the local covenant community. Worship was essentially familial. The people of God in the Patriarchal period had no central Tabernacle/Temple; and they certainly did not go to "church" as we do each week. The responsibility of godly nurture of covenant children started and ended with the family, though that may have been an extended family.
The next major phase is the theocratic. Israel becomes a nation, begins to meet as a congregation or assembly (qahal) gathered around a central Tabernacle/Temple. Because the people of God are now a nation, cities become important, and the civic sphere is also covered by the Law – as we saw in Deuteronomy 6.
In this theocratic context the family and the covenant community are no longer coextensive. The covenant community is much bigger than the covenant family. The covenant community is, from this point on, very much composite. The covenant family, from this point on, therefore has broader concerns than simply that which transpires under its own roof. What the family does can affect the whole community, the whole tribe or city or nation, for good or ill. The story of Achan makes that very clear.
By the same token, the sphere of the broader covenant community now overlaps the sphere of the covenant family. Achan's sin brings about the death of Achan's family – as a punishment from the Lord, to be sure, but also at the hands of the whole community. Loyalty within the family does not obviate loyalty to the broader community. The communal responsibilities also reach back into the family life, in this case with deadly consequences.
At times, the family's loyalty to the Lord will, therefore, mean that they have to place loyalty to the community on a higher priority than intra-family loyalties. Numbers 26:11 tells us that the sons of the rebel Korah did not die. That means that some members of Korah's family must have drawn away from the rebels when Moses called for the faithful to separate themselves from the wicked. Their loyalty to the Lord was expressed in identification with the whole, more than identification with the part to which they were most closely related.
Nor is loyalty to the community above the family just a matter of the rejection of sin – though it certainly includes that. It can also be a matter of service. When Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, are killed by fire from the Lord, the remaining priests – Aaron and his two remaining sons – are not even allowed to help bury the young men (Leviticus 10). Their duty to continue the priestly service on behalf of the people overrides their familial duties.
We ought not to conclude from all this that the good of the whole always overrides the good of the part. Pastors are notorious for allowing their ministry to the church to undermine their family responsibilities. The point I am making here is simply that from Exodus on, the question of the good of the covenant community goes beyond the question of the good of the family. It is not enough merely to point to the family responsibilities indicated in Deuteronomy 6. The Israelite must also love Zion (cf., Psalm 48)
To sum up what we have found in this stage: the covenant community is composite, built of covenant families. In the early theocratic situation, the corporate responsibility is indicated partly by the embracing of the civic sphere under the Law of God (e.g., Deut. 6); partly by showing the way familial sin, or service, could affect the whole (cf. Achan, Nadab and Abihu); and partly by centering the affections of the family upon Zion/Tabernacle/Temple (e.g., Psalm 48).
One other point needs to be noted about the theocratic situation. Like the Patriarchal period before, employment still tended to be carried out within the familial context. That work was predominantly agrarian. It was therefore relatively easy for parents to carry out the mandate of Deuteronomy 6, to surround and permeate. There was little conflict between the cultural mandate and the educational mandate. Parents could quite easily prepare their children for life and work in Kingdom, and at the same time nurture them in godliness. After all, the Kingdom – the Kingdom of Israel which typified the Kingdom of God – was (theoretically) a godly Kingdom. The parents did not need to protect their children against either their society, or other segments of the covenant community.
In addition, parents didn't need any special qualifications to educate their children entirely themselves, since the work was largely a matter of handing down farming or other trades and skills. There was no great need for a body of godly teachers to act in loco parentis (in the place of the parents).
3. Education in the Late Theocracy
The next major development in Israel's system of education occurred with the rise of the synagogue. The exact details of the origin of the synagogue is unclear, but it appears to date at least from the time of the Exile. With the Temple destroyed, and the people cut off from Jerusalem, the synagogue provided a new religious centre in the absence of the Temple – though it never really replaced it; and it also took on the role of an educational centre, and a place for the instruction in Wisdom, replacing the city gates. In fact, some scholars maintain that the synagogue was primarily an educational centre, and may have developed before the Exile.
During this phase, the home continued to be a place of godly education, with mothers providing moral instruction, and the father conveying details of religious and ritual knowledge to the boys. But the boys were also sent to the synagogue during the week, to learn to read (especially the Scriptures), to study basic arithmetic, and with the rise of Aramaic, Hebrew language. Around 75 BC, Simon ben-Shetah argued that elementary schools should be compulsory. Significantly, all of this was considered an outworking of Deuteronomy 6, not a departure from it.
In the Inter-Testamental period, the pattern of Jewish schooling increasingly followed the Greek pattern. Philosophy came into the curriculum, and schools of higher learning were developed. These developments the Lord used in His providence, though there was never any direct Biblical mandate for the formation of such centres. We may presume, however, that the Lord approved of them, for the Lord Jesus was willing to make use of the synagogues (Matthew 13:54). It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Lord Jesus was educated in a "day school" as well as at home.
4. Education after Pentecost
The next major phase comes with the establishing of the NT church at Pentecost. What was taught somewhat indirectly in the OT, and developed providentially in the synagogue, finally became explicit after the formation of this church. After Pentecost, came a strong emphasis on involvement in the local covenant community. In the NT, for instance, regular attendance in the local covenant community was effectively commanded (Hebrews 10:24-25). In fact, attendance was commanded with a view to stimulating one another to love and good deeds, for mutual encouragement. More than ever, the local covenant community was emphasised as a Body, composed of members who must minister to one another (1 Corinthians 12). In the OT, the "three marks" of the church were spread throughout a nation, though dependent upon a limited number of prophets, priests and kings. In the Post-Pentecost situation, all God's people are prophets, priests and kings, and the local covenant community, the church, becomes the place where the "three marks" are seen – though that is not to deny a relationship between the congregations (cf. Acts 15).
This redemptive-historical development must be seen in light of the dispersion of the NT church. Instead of a theocratic nation, the church was dispersed among all the nations. That, I would suggest, is why the mutual ministering and encouragement of the local covenant community became so important. The Christian now had to live "in the world" to a degree the Jew did not. He, therefore, needed all the help he could get to avoid being "of the world." That is where the local church came in.
Along with the dispersion of the church into the Graeco-Roman world, came a change in educational needs. More was required to prepare covenant children for living in this world – but not of it. The employment situation became more complex, especially for Christians living in the large Gentile cities, where the wealthy might employ a Greek or other slave to teach their children. The religiophilosophical situation also became more complex, with the result that Christian parents faced a more daunting task in seeking to prepare their children to deal with the religious pluralism of the Roman world.
Since that time, Western philosophy, which has its roots in both Greek and Christian philosophy, has hardly grown less complex. Fulfilling the cultural mandate is also more involved, especially as science and technology advance. It is now more difficult than ever for Christian parents to do well for their children, in regard to both the cultural and educational mandates. Increasingly, Christian parents have come to depend on other, more qualified adults, to teach their children what they cannot. In that situation, more than ever, we need the mutual help and encouragement of the local covenant community.
5. Education for the Christian Family Today
We now live in a situation where the covenant community is a composite of covenant families. Each of those families is a building-block of the covenant community; a nursery of the covenant community; a product of the covenant; and a "user" of the covenant as a strategy to advance God's Kingdom. The Christian family is well and truly immersed in the covenant, and that creates strong corporate, as well as familial, responsibilities.
It is true that institutionally, the Christian day school is distinct from the church. Parochial schools, in which the church, as church, has jurisdiction over the school, tend to blur the distinctions. The Session therefore does not run the school; neither does the school board or the association run the church.
At the same time, the Christian school is partly an extension of the covenant family. The teachers operate in loco parentis. In that sense the school is an extension of the building-blocks of the covenant community. If the church is defined as the chief agency of the covenant, then we can define the church/ school relationship as follows: the Christian day school is an extension of the building-blocks of the chief covenant-agency. This definition makes it possible to talk about a "Covenantal school," and yet distinguish it from a parochial school.
Because of this relationship, the church has a responsibility to encourage the surrounding and permeating of the covenant children by God's Word, through "covenant" schools. That responsibility springs from the fact that the school is an extension of the covenant families that make up the church. Since we live after the Patriarchal period, it is not enough for the church to promote Covenantal family schooling. For the local covenant community is not coextensive with the individual covenant family, as we have seen.
Thus, if there is no suitable Christian school in the area, the church will do well to encourage the establishing of one. Until something eventuates, though, home schooling may well be advised by the church. In some cases, there may also be special needs of the child which warrant home schooling. I am not arguing for a universal rule in favour of day schools. It is not a "black and white" situation.
Nevertheless, if there is a suitable Christian day school available, "homeschoolers" should be aware that they are pursuing an individual path, one which isolates them (at that point) from the covenant community as a whole. In a sense, it returns them to the Patriarchal period.
Home schoolers will often point to academic and spiritual advantages in their approach. It must be admitted that there may very well be instances in which the home school will have the advantage. No doubt private tuition will often have the advantage over a larger group situation.
We could spend some time arguing over the relative academic advantages of the two systems. But for the sake of argument let us assume that your home school is academically superior to the local Christian school. Even then, I would maintain, the academic advantage does not automatically outweigh the corporate responsibility. Personally, I am prepared to "lose" a little academic advantage for my children – if it really is lost, and it is not just arrogance on my part to think that I can teach better than the teachers at the local school – so that I may gain for them a lot of "corporate" advantage. Then as a family we learn the better what is involved by life in the covenant community. We move out of the Patriarchal setting and into the NT.
The other argument concerns the spiritual advantage to the child. Those families that are better disciplined, and have been blessed with particularly mature children, may be inclined to reject the day school. For the day school contains children from many families, some of them weaker, and some stronger. Parents may feel that their children are being "dragged down" by the other children.
Now there are certainly limits on the kind of company to which we should expose our children. Christian day schools are not filled with perfect children, and sometimes the average standard will be lower than the standard in a particular family. Parents may often be heard complaining, "It's worse than in the State schools," though I believe that if we observed the local State school for any length of time, we would be less inclined to make such statements. At any rate, there will always be some who have a lower, and some who have a higher standard.
Having acknowledged that there may be situations where this kind of problem becomes serious enough to warrant home schooling, I would like to point out some dangers on the other side. In particular, there is a danger of forgetting that in the covenant community the strong help carry the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Sometimes that will mean that we feel that we are held back from our own full spiritual potential. For example, you might want your Bible study group to jump light years ahead, to keep up with your spiritual growth-rate; but the group is unable to move that fast, because not every member is as advanced as you. Of course, it is also possible that you are not as mature as you think.
This is also a lesson that we have to teach our children – to help the weak – and a lesson we often have to teach ourselves as parents. The fact is that our covenant children are not born believing. Personal faith is something that develops (or sometimes not) at a later date. For most covenant children, that coming to a living faith appears to us as a transition, rather than a dramatic overnight conversion.
The children in the Christian school will, therefore, be at many different stages, from no personal faith, to weak faith, to strong faith. A failure to appreciate that this is the usual situation in the Christian family, church and school, can lead to unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations can lead to impatience, frustration and withdrawal – within the church as well as within the school. If we were nothing more than believing families living in the period when the family and the local covenant community were more-or-less coextensive, we might not have to put up with that – especially if our family contained only children strong in the faith. Such disappointments and frustration would not have to be endured. If, on the other hand, our family contained a mixed bag, we might not have any choice. Isaac had to put up with an Esau as well as a Jacob in his home school, at least until the boys reached the age where they went their own ways.
The point is that under the new covenant we are all "family," as a whole covenant community. That family is a mixed bag. It will often contain those of weak, sometimes perhaps those of no genuine faith, alongside the strong. If we would be a useful member of that community, it is not so easy to isolate our children from the family, to keep them from contamination by the weak. What happens in the school will also happen in the Catechism classes, in the youth clubs, in Cadets & Calvinettes, and in the church yard. We must be very careful not to teach our children a wrong principle of isolation, of withdrawal. In a sense, when we isolate our children from the day school for this kind of reason, we are practising a unilateral, individualistic form of discipline – we are shunning, rather than teaching our children and ourselves how to help the weak and live as community. To accomplish that, our children may be exposed to some things we could keep from them in a "pure" family environment. But as in the church, so in the school: the "price" we pay for being able to learn from and with others, as a community, is that we are exposed to the sins of others. Of course, they are exposed to our sins, too. That is the way the Lord has ordained it for the covenant community in the new dispensation. I would argue that He has also ordained it that way for the "Covenantal" school which is formed by extension of the several member families.
The case becomes even stronger where the day school is struggling to survive. With well-established schools, it is not so urgent that every member helps share the burden, for the sake of the whole community. But where, for example, the school is low on numbers, the consequences for the rest of the covenant community may be enormous. A strong "home schooling" movement can kill a struggling Christian day school. Maintaining a school is quite a burden for Christian parents, and the more families opt for home schooling, the heavier that burden becomes.
It is important for home schoolers to remember that many of their Christian brothers and sisters are not well equipped to meet the demands of home schooling, either academically or pedagogically. These that are gifted in these areas are the very people that the day schools need to help direct the course of the school. By home schooling, however, they deprive the covenant community of these skills. The rest are left – and this is a key point – to sink or swim as they will. What are the rest supposed to do if there would be no Christian school, if the school would be forced to close due to lack of resources? But even when the need is less urgent, the question must be asked: are we doing justice to our corporate responsibilities?
Let us take care not to let frustration and impatience with the weakness of others lead to unwarranted isolation from other covenant families, especially when they are crying out for our help. We must take care not to let an individualistic determination to provide our own family with nothing but the best, lead to unwarranted isolation from other covenant families. May the Lord grant parents much wisdom in weighing up these factors. May He give us insight into both our Covenantal family responsibilities, and also our broader, corporate covenant responsibilities.