Christian Education and the Task of the Officebearer
It has pleased the Lord God to give to His church officebearers in the persons of ministers, elders and deacons. Specifically the ministers and elders are instructed "to have supervision over Christ's Church, that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life, according to the gospel" (as the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons says it). It is not, however, just the older who are members of Christ's Church; "infants as well as adults belong to God's covenant and congregation" (LD 27). God, then, has entrusted to the oversight of the elders also the children. These children belong to God, He has claimed them for Himself; in His care for them has given to them not only christian parents but also elders.
How, now, are the officebearers to have supervision over the young of the congregation? Yes, like any other member, these children also are to receive visits from the elders (with the family), are to be comforted, instructed and admonished as need requires. But these lambs of the flock also require attention suited to their age and ability; specifically, God's little children need to be "nurtured in the Christian faith and in godliness" so that "they may grow and increase in the Lord Jesus Christ" (to say it with the prayer concluding the Form for the Baptism of Infants). At the same time, these little ones need protection; Satan prowls around like a roaring lion (1 Pet 5:8), and certainly will not pass the (relatively) helpless ones by. In fact, since today's children are tomorrow's parents and officebearers, Satan has a special interest in destroying these children.
Officebearers are to care for God's congregation, the little ones included. The fathers of years ago understood this task to imply concretely that "ministers had to see to it that the school teachers subscribe to the Confession of Faith". As changes occurred in Dutch political and educational spheres, the task of officebearers on the point of education became more focused: instead of officebearers themselves ensuring that the teachers of the congregation's children were reformed, their efforts were to concentrate more on the parents so that these parents understand their own responsibility in providing proper education for the children. Hence the rewording of the article in the nineteenth century:
The consistory 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.
According to the churches, then, the Word of God requires that officebearers assume responsibility not for the adults of the congregation only, but also for the children, and that responsibility implies, in the circumstances of the day, that officebearers see to it that the parents do all in their power to cause their little ones to receive an education that agrees with the realities of God revealed in Holy Scripture.
In all this, the Church historically has seen need to provide special instruction for the youth in the form of Catechism classes. These classes, however necessary and productive we find them today, were not historically the full scope of this article of the Church Order, and certainly do not constitute the extent of what the officebearers can do for the lambs of God's flock.
It's instructive to note that the fathers placed in the original Church Order of Dort an article outlining what God would require of officebearers in the face of false doctrine and heresy. The original Church Order stipulated that no church member was to publish any book without it having first been approved either by ministers of the classes or the ministers of the regional synod or the professors of theology (the latter option also required acquiescence from classis). The purpose of this stipulation was to prevent that unsound material come into the homes of the church members. To our minds, this stipulation may sound rather quaint, as if the members can't think for themselves. We do well to realise that this stipulation did not come up at the spur of the moment at the Synod of Dort (that great synod which gave the church the final redaction of the Church Order). Rather, this article already had a history of nearly fifty years by this time. Yet including this article was not thought quaint at the time; especially in light of the Arminian heresies besetting the churches in years past, it was considered part of the responsibility God gave to officebearers be it the ministers in this case) to protect the church membership from un-Scriptural material.
With increased literacy among church members and greater advances in the printing industry, the churches in due time realised that this stipulation was too unworkable to be practical. Hence a change was made in the Church Order at the beginning of the present century, in line with what our Church Order now states in Art 26:
To ward off false doctrines and errors the ministers and elders shall use the means of instruction, of refutation, of warning and of admonition, in the ministry of the Word as well as in christian teaching and family visiting.
That effort to screen what people read and so protect the minds of congregational members from un-Scriptural thinking remains till today the task of officebearers – be it that the focus has changed from controlling the printing press to arming the membership. Officebearers are to test the spirits, and then instruct congregation members about the dangers that be, so that the little ones of the flock (to speak now only of them) are not brainwashed by world-views and attitudes conflicting with "Scripture and Confession". Much is asked of officebearers here; they are responsible before God for the protection they've given to God's little children.
Here is where the current Art 26 dovetails with Art 53. In their care for God's little children in the congregation, officebearers are to protect the young from teachings that do not conform with God's revelation. They are to do so not only by instructing the parents about what sort of books they permit their children to read and what sort of programs they allow the children to watch; they are to do so also by ensuring "that the parents, to the best of their ability...give their children education ... which is based on Scripture and Confession." The labour of the officebearer is not only corrective, in the sense that he has to set straight a heresy that has become embedded in the mind of a covenant child; the labour of the officebearer is also preventive. Here too the adage holds true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There are so many heresies floating around in our world (think not only of books but of journals, radios, TV, videos, internet, etc, etc) that it's simply a matter of good stewardship for officebearers to ensure that parents send their children to schools where heresies are not pumped into the children but where instead the children are armed to withstand these heresies.
No, this does not mean that Consistories ought to establish day schools, or take over the running of existing day schools. Rather, it is for Consistories to motivate the parents to set up such schools and to keep such schools running. An older generation has set up reformed schools many years ago; Consistories shall need to ensure that the younger understand the need for the schools we've inherited from the older generation, and so do whatever needs to be done to keep these schools operating.
Further, it is for the Consistories to monitor the teachers. Officebearers are to do so both because of the task God has given to the officebearers over all the congregation members (the teachers included) as well as for the sake of the well-being of the children themselves. By extension of what Art 53 of the Church Order says, it will not do for officebearers to be interested in the school only from the perspective of their (possible) role as parents.
In our land, with the laws being as they currently are and the financial resources of church members being what they are, it is very much for Consistories to keep encouraging the parents to send their children to schools providing education "based on Scripture and Confession" – and begin new schools if necessary. It is then a good development that the Consistory of Byford has encouraged the Bunbury membership to begin a school for the children residing there. That's a practical application of abiding by the Church Order.
Again, Consistories shall do well to encourage capable young people of the congregation to prepare themselves for the task of teaching. Over the last number of decades there has seldom (if ever) been an abundance of teaching staff available – with as result that untrained staff had to be used, or staff trained for primary teaching had to be used on the secondary level. For the sake of the children God entrusts to the congregation, Consistories may need to go out of their way to ensure not only that there be an adequate quantity of teachers but also adequate quality of teachers. The education of the children – tomorrow's church, DV – is too important.
I conclude: officebearers very much have a task in the education of the children, a task that extends far, far beyond Catechism instruction itself. In a time when in our land so much education is available that does not conform with God's act of making children His own by covenant, in a time when the reformed faith is assailed by humanism on the one hand and evangelicalism on the other, it is imperative that we keep in focus the responsibility we have to the God of the children entrusted into our care.