Celebrating and Conserving the Treasure
No one who cherishes Reformed Christian education will respond positively to the above question. Some people do not, however, feel that this issue should be a central theme for such education. Nor should Reformed educators dwell so single-mindedly on the issue of baptism, they claim. What are the criteria they submit for their arguments? They claim that these issues are dated, that they had relevancy immediately after the Liberation (1944). At that time these topics were burning issues in the context of the church struggle. Many Reformed schools in The Netherlands have admitted children who have not been baptized; for example, those from evangelical parents. Some will even opine that it’s questionable whether you can clearly justify infant baptism from Scripture. Is it necessary to emphasize that difference? Does it make a real difference whether a child has been dedicated to God, or baptized? Do these two ceremonies not come down to the same thing?
Covenant and Baptism
Many people who trivialize infant baptism emphasize arguments based on sentimentality. Some people also appear to assume that parents are given an open-ended choice to baptize infants – it is claimed that they have no obligation or commitment. Conversely, it must be said that baptism must never be done out of custom or superstition. Baptism is not a choice given to parents. Baptism is rooted in God’s promises.
God declares in his Word that children of believing parents are children of the promise: his personal property (Genesis 17:7; Acts 2:39; 1 Corinthians 7:4). Therefore they must be baptized. The fact that they have been chosen by God to receive his rich promises is not a reward, but God’s inimitable love. Baptism is not a confirmation of faith, but rather, a seal of the authenticity of God’s promises given to these children. He gave the command to administer this sign to children (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:39). Children belong to God’s covenant and congregation just like their parents. By means of baptism they are separated from the children of unbelievers. Do you still stand in amazement about this fact? Does it still give you a deep feeling of fondness for your God? This knowledge should never become a truism, or an issue that elicits a sigh: yeah, right, we know that already; let’s move on. The covenant is the basis of your existence. Baptism is not only a divine command, but additionally it’s a formidable proof of his love. Why, then, would someone want to make this into a difficult issue, or remain indifferent about it?
Promised is Promised
You’ve promised that you agree with the doctrine of the church, and that you would instruct your children and have them instructed. You made this pledge when you did public profession of your faith, and once again at the baptism of your children.
In fact, with your affirmation, you also agreed with the content of the confessions. You promised that your children should be baptized (HC, Q/A 74). At that time you also promised that you agreed with the Canons of Dort, and therefore, also with Chapter 1, Article 17 (Children of believers who die in infancy).
What if, after the fact, your knowledge of the Bible has grown and you develop objections to some of the formulations in the confessions? In such situations, there are proper protocols laid down in the Church Order to deal with those objections. You’ve also promised to do that. It’s certainly inappropriate to change your views and then act as if that really does not matter.
Additionally, Lord’s Day 38 states that proper care must be given to maintaining the schools. If we carefully consider the context in which this statement is made (the fourth commandment), you may draw the conclusion that this also concerns the schools where children are instructed in accordance with the doctrine of the church. When you made your vows, you actually undersigned the spirit of this catechism question and answer.
Finally, from the vows of the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage and the Form for the Baptism of Infants, promises were made concerning the children that the Lord would entrust to us. You promised that you would educate them in the promises given by the Lord. In short, you have made repeated promises that you cannot easily ignore. Those promises were made “Coram Deo” (before the face of God), where the whole congregation served as witnesses of your promises.
Covenant and Education
What makes the covenant so important in the context of education? The beautiful thing about the covenant is that it was not your choice, not your seeking of God. No, in his great love, He chose you, sought you out, and gave you the rich promises of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Why? Was it your pious heart? Or the choices you made? Absolutely not. Throughout the whole Bible you can read that God is constantly the first, the instigator. Why? In Ezekiel 36:22-27 the Holy Spirit provides us with his beautiful affirmation:
Therefore say to the house of Israel, This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Though there was no sign of repentance on the side of the exiles, the Lord spoke these words. Isn’t the message of verse 22 striking? That is typical of our God! In that way He is inimitable, because He is God: the Almighty, the Most Holy, totally different. That could be the first hallmark of Reformed education: astonishment, amazement about the fact that God chose us; it was his initiative and his work. Even our faithful response comes from Him (Philippians 2:13).
The God of the Covenant
Another aspect that the Bible profiles is how the Lord God presents Himself to his people. God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush brings this clearly in to focus (Exodus 3:13-15). Through Moses God presented Himself to his people as the “I Am,” that is to say, the God of the covenant. In our Bible translations the God of the covenant is rendered “LORD” with four capital letters. Every time you see LORD spelled with capitals, Scripture is talking about the God of the covenant. That is the God who wants to do something with you, for eternity.
Also pay attention to the title given to the Law: the Torah, which can also be translated as “direction” or “the way of life.” In the Law God has described your way to life. What does He say in the introduction? “I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Consequently, your whole life stands in the light of the God of the covenant, the Almighty who has delivered you. That guiding light must be the heart, the central theme that drives the instruction given to our children. There’s no way we can avoid such an obvious directive. Teachers must be totally imbued with this intimate relation.
God has established a relationship between us and Himself. From week to week this relationship may be strengthened in church services and in our personal Bible study. Administrators and school boards have the responsibility to provide leadership in the development of this faith and to stimulate its growth. Bible study within the faculty and the discussion of identity issues within school and community are only two means to promote this faith development. Such reflection is critical because our deliverance and the God of that deliverance are the heart of Reformed education, and certainly not antiquated themes. In fact, that is the theme of both your and my Bible, the light of your and my life. Reformed education rises or falls with that covenant education. Those are our identity papers. Therefore, if we abandon this identity, we’ve lost our right to exist.
Practice and Profile
How do we provide “hands and feet” to such an identity? What should Reformed education look like in practice? What follows are only a few practical points, each of which could be focused more sharply.
Reformed schools are identified by means of:
Daily instruction must be permeated by amazement. In the first place that means that the teacher should be imbued with amazement at God’s love for him or her. Only when someone is really amazed him/herself can (s)he pass on such amazement to others. Clearly, there is a task here for school leaders to develop this sense of amazement within the teaching staff as a whole, on an individual basis, and by means of personal discussions.
Why should gratitude characterize our Reformed schools? Because we have been privileged to be beneficiaries of the great miracle of God’s love for teachers, parents, and children. Isn’t it amazing that one sinner is able to instruct another? With gratitude you may emphasize that the Almighty God even gave the most cherished thing He had to save everyone from their sins. Isn’t it amazing that He is willing to put as great a distance between you and your sins, as east is separated from the west? It’s simply incredible that He wants to do that! That also means that our gratitude toward Him should be the driving force of our life. In fact, gratitude determines our entire course of life. Therefore, in Reformed schools students are not managed by means of military regimentation; instead, the discipline breathes gratitude for God’s love.
If one word could capture the essence of God, then it would be the word love. God is love (1 John 4:8). The teacher and the student are both his image bearers, created in his image. This means that love should also typify the behaviour of his children. That love is the beating heart of Reformed education, of Reformed instruction and upbringing. Love is the driving force, the motor. The school stands for the fact that everything is imbued with his love. You will notice this love in interpersonal relations: there is mutual respect; there is genuine interest in each other. Students who need extra attention are assisted with love and patience. In the Reformed school the fruit of the Spirit should be clearly in evidence: happiness, peace, patience, friendliness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Inside the school forgiveness should characterize interpersonal relations. The forgiveness given to us by the Lord can never be separated from the forgiveness that we owe each other as his children.
Risk-Free Environment and a Sense of Security
To function properly and effectively, everyone needs an environment free of risks, an environment that provides a sense of security. Such security is provided by love, openness, and authenticity. Security is also created by means of clarity: clear rules and routines that are fairly maintained.
Each child must be recognized as a unique person. Teachers must accept each child as the Lord has put him on his path and entrusted him into his care, with whatever talents or limitations that the child may have. This means that within the bounds of the possibilities, teachers will work to meet the needs of all those students. Each child may be recognized as a unique pearl in God’s hand. Such an approach demands a careful consideration of each child. Correlatively, each child will sense whether you take that task seriously.
The atmosphere in the classroom will be characterized by acceptance of the child as he or she is. It is not just the parents who place this child on the teacher’s path; it is the Creator Himself. This does not mean that the teacher will accept everything the children do. On the contrary, misbehaviour will be addressed and corrected.
Another characteristic of Reformed schools is the attention they give to task-oriented learning and working. How do you expect students to approach an assignment? How are they expected to work? How well should they deliver their finished work? Among others, they will be taught to work on their assignments independently. A task-oriented approach will be promoted.
The Reformed school will be characterized by its openness. Openness toward:
The students. You, as caregiver, are a visible, tangible representative of the invisible God. Through your behaviour the child will develop an image of God. How will the students learn to see God through your actions and words?
Each other. Teachers will have an openness for each other: they will be a support for each other, a hand and a foot. In a Reformed school, a teacher should not be an “Einzelgänger” (a loner or a maverick). (S)he contributes his/her talents to serve everyone. The principal will actively promote such behaviour by modelling openness toward his colleagues. He is leader and servant of all, just like his great model, Jesus Christ. The performance review or evaluations will also be directed to the enhancement of the identity of the school and the teacher him/herself.
Parents. The parents are welcome at school. The school staff will make sure that there is a climate of openness in which the parents will genuinely feel welcome. The staff should not forget that they are entrusted with God’s pearls, on whose behalf the parents made serious promises. In the latter context it is paramount that there is a good, open relationship. Parents are not adversaries. On the contrary, teachers and parents must stand shoulder-to-shoulder to help direct the children in the way of life. A Reformed school will not take it for granted that parents will send their children to their school. The school must appeal to the parents by means of special meetings where parents, especially parents whose first child will attend school, can meet with the principal and board members. In such a discussion, clarity can be created by stating what the school expects of the parents, and what parents expect of the school.
School board. Together you serve the same cause, though board members have different tasks in the context of their governance role: together you want the best instruction possible for the students. To promote such a goal, openness toward each other is essential. The board should know what is going on in school, and the staff should know what issues the board is dealing with.
The church. In the church the parents made their vows. Many other church members witnessed their vows and are also witnesses of the way in which these parents carry out the requirements of their promises. That is why church members are also welcome at school events, open houses, or special evenings. They should also be addressed in special newsletters or monthly bulletins sent into the supporting community. The Reformed school shows them that it values their support and interest. How will it show such openness? By investing time and effort to provide information about the school and its programs, in special events, grandparents’ days, open houses, etc. These are investments which will richly provide returns.
Interested people in other church communities. Many schools often receive questions from people from other church denominations whether their children can attend. That question has become more frequent in the last years. How open must you be to such requests? Also in this latter situation it’s important to be open: such and such are the principles that drive this school; this is our position concerning infant baptism, covenant, and such and such are the consequences for the atmosphere in the school. Can these people accommodate themselves to such views? Will the child be pedagogically jeopardized because the differences between home and school are too great? Especially here we must be vigilant and be prepared to safe-guard the Reformed identity of our school. Just as we read in the Law (“nor the alien within your gates”), the guests must accommodate the “rules of the house.” We should not abandon the Reformed character of our school for the sake of “love” toward our neighbour, but on the contrary, we should heartily embrace this unique character and maintain it.
The neighbourhood. The school is part of a community, a neighbourhood. Often the children of a Reformed school do not come from the school’s neighbourhood. This does not mean that the neighbourhood does not have a critical eye on the school. Have the courage to let them know who you are and inform them of activities they will notice. Invite them into the school, for example, if there have been renovations or a new addition has been completed. Let your faith shine out into the surrounding community. Let them see that you are plain, ordinary people who want to provide good education. Ask them to help you maintain the neatness of your playground and school property. Offer the use of your playground facilities.
The groups represented in b, c, d and e have another important role: ask them to surround the school with a wall of prayer. If you expect them to pray with you and for you, then it should go without saying, that you should inform them what is going on in the school.
The Reformed school is characterized by good quality education. The teachers provide expertise by means of continued professional development and education; by means of professional literature, they remain up to date in their area of expertise. The school is constantly active in reflecting how it can best serve the educational needs of the community. Everyone works at developing and maintaining high quality professional instruction, and the Reformed school takes her task seriously in keeping a watchful eye that the quality does not deteriorate.
Does it need to be said that the Bible lesson is one of the core subjects in Reformed education? This subject is indispensable. The same thing has to be said about church history for the older groups. Sharing God’s mighty deeds with the students is a godly command (see Deuteronomy 6 and Psalm 78:3, 4).
Behaviour Expectations, Code of Conduct
In a Reformed school sound rules have been written to circumscribe good behaviour and interpersonal relations. Such a code of conduct describes what can be expected of a Reformed school teacher. Additionally a code of conduct will describe the expectations for proper interpersonal relationships. These will embody Christian expectations that reflect a loving relationship between all the different parties present in the school.
Have we thoroughly covered the “water front”? No, that would be quite difficult, if not impossible. I have provided you with the means to maintain a Reformed school community. With the code of conduct, for example, you have the means to talk to all the relevant parties if some of the relationships run off the rails.
The identity of a school requires constant vigilance. Perhaps the appointment of an official identity coordinator whose task it would be to keep an eye on identity issues and motivate discussion and re-evaluation would be a timely addition to keep this issue front and central.
The Reformed school especially needs prayer, which should form a protective wall around the school. This prayer must address the need for faithfulness in teaching God’s promises and the need to practise godliness in the school. Prayer must also address the teachers’ and students’ needs to remain faithful to God’s Word. That prayer must constantly ascend to God’s throne because God Himself, the LORD, the God of the covenant, shall protect his city. Blessed are they who walk on his ways. They may expect prosperity and blessing:
All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant.