Christian Education and the Church Order: A History
The last Synod (Byford, 1994) received on its agenda a request to alter the wording of Art 53 of the Church Order. After due discussion and consideration, a new wording was agreed upon (cf Acts Art 29). The new text reads as follows:
The consistory shall make sure that the parents honour their vows to instruct their children, to the utmost of their power, in the doctrine of the Scriptures as summarised in the confession, and to have them instructed in the same by the instruction provided by the consistory. In accordance with the same vow, the consistory shall see to it that the parents, to the best of their ability, and with the cooperation of the communion of saints, give their children education (as stipulated by the civil government) which is based on Scripture and Confession.
Above this article was placed the title: "Baptism Promise and Education".
I would like to introduce to our readers what this article of our Church Order is all about. I propose to delve into the historical development of this article. There should be opportunity too to consider what role officebearers play in the matter of the education of our children. All of this together, I hope, will instil in our minds a better appreciation for why our fathers built and opened the schools we have today. That appreciation is absolutely necessary if we are to retain the schools we have inherited.
It was in the days of the Great Reformation more than 400 years ago that Art 53 of our Church Order was born1 Shortly after Guido deBres (the author of the Belgic Confession) died the martyr's death (1567), the persecuted churches came together in Wezel (1568). Of interest is the fact that this first (unofficial) meeting of the churches dealt, among other things, with the matter of education of the children. So did the next (official) meeting of 1571. The need for action was seen, for in those days all the existing schools taught the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. If the newly discovered truths of Scripture (the Reformed faith) were to take root in society as a whole, then not just the church should be reformed, but the schools and the families and the state also. However, since the churches still lived under persecution, neither of these meetings could do anything regarding education.
It is not surprising, then, that after the persecution came to an end in 1572, the matter of education straightaway had the attention of the churches. The regional synod of Dordrecht (1574) received a request from three classes to do something to bring about reformation of the schools. The reason given was this: various teachers are "papist and other heretics (i.e. anabaptist) or they sleep or are useless" (i.e., poorly trained), with as result that "the youth become corrupted". This Synod acceded to the request, and consequently gave to the ministers of God's Word an elaborate instruction. The ministers were mandated to research where teachers were needed, to seek consent from the government to appoint a teacher (since the government paid the teachers), to ensure that the teachers sign the confession of the church, etc. On this last point, I quote from the decision of this synod (in my translation):
- The ministers shall see to it that the school teachers subscribe to the Confession of Faith, that they submit to the Discipline (of the church), also that they teach the Catechism and other things useful for the youth.
- And if there are school teachers unwilling to do this, the Ministers shall request the Authorities to deny or suspend these teachers. Subsequent General Synods echoed the thrust of the decision of this Regional Synod. The result was that by 1586 the text of the article on this matter as it eventually appeared in the Church Order was finalised.
In all of this, the role of the parents was not overlooked. Already in 1565 an ecclesiastical assembly adopted the following resolution:
Parents, as shepherds of their families, in order that they might form their children in the fear of the Lord, are exhorted not to send their children to schools or institutions where they could be corrupted or steeped in wickedness of conduct or doctrine.
From the above, it is apparent that our fathers, directly after they were liberated from the Romish church and embraced the reformed faith, paid much attention to the matter of education. The schools run by the government were targeted for reformation; the reformed fathers were convinced that in these schools there should be teachers who could teach the next generation in accordance with all the wealth and the consequences of the gospel of Gods saving work in Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, God-fearing parents were not to place their children in the care of teachers who did not embrace the truth of the gospel as confessed in the reformed confessions. Hence the text of Art 21 of the Church Order as it appeared in the final Dort edition:
The Consistories everywhere shall see to it that there are good teachers who shall not only teach the children reading, writing, languages, and arts, but also instruct them in godliness and the Catechism.
Two centuries later in the Netherlands, there arose a separation between church and state, which in turn had consequences for education. As the Enlightenment penetrated Dutch society, the christian character of the education offered in the state schools was increasingly replaced by so-called neutrality. Whatever Christian education remained was to stand above the divisions within Christendom; hence there was no room any more in the existing (state) schools for instruction in (accordance with) the Canons of Dort.
Faithfulness to the confessions (particularly the Canons of Dort) played a prominent role in the Secession of 1834. Predictably, then, many parents amongst the Seceded increasingly had problems with sending their children to the state schools. So it was that various consistories acted in accordance with the relevant article of the Church Order; for the sake of their children, they did what they could to ensure that in the local school were teachers who not only taught "the children reading, writing, languages, and arts, but also instruct(ed) them in godliness and the Catechism". In the climate of the nineteenth century, however, these efforts did not produce the same results as similar efforts had produced in the sixteenth century.
This (futile) struggle to reform the state schools prompted further investigation into what the Scriptures might teach regarding whose responsibility education actually was. In time past, education had been seen as the responsibility of the government. Increasingly it became clear to the churches, though, that the Lord had made the parents responsible in first instance for the training of the youth. Hence formal education at school came to be seen as primarily the responsibility of the parents. So it was that the Synod of 1872 made the following pronouncement:
Synod judges, according to the Word of God and the principles of the reformed church regarding the training of the youth, that parents in the first place, because of the vows sworn at baptism, have the calling to look after the Christian upbringing – and hence also the Christian education – of their children.
The Synod of 1875 spoke in the same vein:
Synod ... deeply lamenting that public education in our land, be it at higher, middle or lower level, is pervaded with a spirit that makes highly doubtful whether the children of Christians may use this education, voices her strong desire that: the members of our churches should feel most strongly driven to establish ... institutions for higher, middle or lower education...
So it was that in the course of the nineteenth century, parents across the land established parent-controlled schools for the Christian education of their children.
We note, then, a shift in the application of this article of the Church Order. Whereas in the sixteenth century this article had focussed on the task of the church to see to it that the (existing) schools had Godly teachers, in the nineteenth century the accent lay on the responsibility of parents to provide Christian education for their children. Catalyst for this shift was the changing realities of the day regarding education.
Did this article of the Church Order thereby become outdated? A Regional Synod in 1914 thought so, and requested the General Synod for judgment on the matter. General Synod 1920, however, disagreed that this article of the Church Order was outdated. Rather, this synod was very much of the conviction that the consistories continue to have a responsibility in ensuring that the children of the church receive an education consistent with the reformed faith. This synod understood that circumstances had changed since the sixteenth century, but – said the Synod – the principle behind the relevant article of the Church Order remains true in all circumstances. That principle is this: the consistory is responsible for the whole congregation, and hence is to see to it too that the children of the church receive education agreeable to the truth of Gods Word. In the sixteenth century, this principle meant that the churches had to encourage the government to appoint Godly teachers; in the twentieth century this principle means that the consistories need to address the parents on their obligations. At the same time, this Synod maintained, consistories need to continue to exercise oversight over the suitability of the teachers as well as the reformed character of their instruction.
This changed reality meant, then, that the text of the Church Order article needed amendment too. The result is that the Dutch churches reworked the thrust of this article of the Church Order as follows:
The consistories shall see to it that the parents, to the best of their ability, cause their children to be given education which is in harmony with the doctrine of the Church as they promised at the Baptism.
The Free Reformed Churches of Australia have adopted for themselves the Church Order of Dort, as it had developed in the Netherlands. The above-quoted Dutch reworking of the article about education is then literally found in the Church Order in force in the FRCA up until the recent synod of Byford. In no uncertain terms, then, our churches have acknowledged that officebearers have a responsibility regarding the education of the children of the church.