Educating Our Children within the Communion of Saints - Whose Task is It?
Anyone who is not a stranger to the Bible and the Reformed way of life knows that educating our children in the fear of the Lord is a holy God-given task that falls in the first place on the shoulders of the parents. Did we as parents not all individually promise at the baptismal font to instruct our children in this doctrine as soon as they are able to understand? Yet, we also have schools. How do we relate the two responsibilities, those of parent and teacher? What does educating our children within the communion of saints entail? What about, for example, home schooling?
In order to introduce this topic to you, let us first go through the key biblical and related evidence and subsequently turn to current issues.
The Parent in the Old Testament
The primary responsibility of parents is clear from the Old Testament. Already of Abraham God says:
I have chosen him that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has promised him.Genesis 18:19
The LORD'S words in Deuteronomy 6:6-9 are well known:
“And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart;
and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise.
And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
In like manner we read in Psalm 78 that the LORD established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments.
Thus the parents had the holy obligation to teach their offspring the way and will of the LORD! This concerns both parents: father and mother. Think of the admonition in Proverb 1:8.
Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching.also cf. Proverb 31:1
The parents stand at the forefront in the great task of moulding and shaping their children after the image of Father in heaven. Though the children are born in the image of their sinful parents, they are God's children, and the Lord wants to use the parents for the renewal of their children in Christ.
Were the parents the only teachers of Israel's youth or were there also professional teachers? Not that much is explicitly stated in the Old Testament. This relative silence is, of course, not surprising since it is not the purpose of Scripture to inform us of such details. There are a number of factors that we should, however, take into consideration. We do know that the tribe of Levi, particularly the priests, were charged with teaching Israel the ordinances and laws of God (Deuteronomy 33:10; 31:10-13; Leviticus 10:11). We may, therefore, assume that the Levitical cities (cf. Numbers 35:1-8; Joshua 21) functioned as important centres of learning. Furthermore, prophets were involved in education by teaching and preaching. Scripture informs us of prophets who lived together in various places as "sons of the prophets" under the leadership of Elijah and later Elisha (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 6:1-2; cf. 1 Kings 20:35; Isaiah 8:16). We can assume that these so-called "schools of the prophets" had an educational function in keeping alive the knowledge and worship of the true God in the northern tribes in a time of apostasy. A similar situation seems to have existed earlier in the days of Samuel with the destruction of ShNoh. Bands of prophets were then active (1 Samuel 10:9-13; cf. 3:1; also see 19:20). Later Isaiah can speak about his teaching and disciples (Isaiah 8:16; cf. Ezekiel 33:30-33). Finally, wisemen can be mentioned as being involved in education (cf. the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes 12:9-1 2), although here too not that much is known about them or their activities.
But did schools exist, more or less as we know them? Are the above not geared more to the "religious"? What about schools with a broader curriculum? To begin with, it would appear that one must not underestimate the importance of the Levitical cities as centres of learning. Although the Levites were charged by God to teach His revelation to His people (Deuteronomy 33:10), there are factors that could suggest that instruction did not stop there. After all, the Levitical cities apparently served as administrative centres and Levites had responsibilities in "the affairs of the king" (1 Chronicles 26:29-32). It would be most reasonable if at least some of the Levitical cities included scribal schools which besides writing skills also taught administration and other skills necessary to keep the royal bureaucracy going. Such schools existed in Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as the third millennium B.C. There is no reason to suppose that Israel was a primitive society without such institutions. Literacy was widely spread. Think, for example, of the young man of Succoth who was able to write down the seventy-seven names of the officials and elders of that city for Gideon (Judges 8:14; also cf., e.g., Joshua 18:4, 8-9).1 Furthermore, school exercises dating from before the first millennium BC to the exile have been found in Israel. 2 Also, judging from architectural and related evidence throughout Israel, technical education must have been available in Israel as well.3 It is, therefore, not surprising that most scholars appear to agree that education outside the home took place in schools in ancient Israel. 4
The first actual mention of schools occurs in the apocryphal book Sirach (51:23) and can be dated about 190-175 BC. 5 The Synagogue became the centre of public Jewish education since that is where the law was taught. There is evidence to suggest that compulsory attendance at elementary schools was established by the first century BC.6 There does not seem to be any doubt that in New Testament times most children attended elementary school (to age 15). 7
The Character of Education Outside the Home
One of the aspects of the subject of education that makes it difficult is that teachers are rarely called as such in the Bible. References to teachers do occur, I think of Proverb 5:13:
I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors,
or, Psalm 119:99:
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my medication.
These passages are, however, the exception. Often teachers are referred to by a term that reminds us of the family circle, the term "father" and students are called "sons." When David wanted to give the term "father" and students are called "sons." When David wanted to give instruction, he set himself up as father.
Come, O sons and listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the LORD.Psalm 34:11
These sons are not his natural offspring, but are the saints (cf. v. 9). When Elijah was taken up into heaven by a whirlwind, Elisha cried: "My father! My father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" (2 Kings 2:12). The meaning of the term "father" used here certainly includes the meaning of teacher, especially when one considers that Elisha was a student of Elijah and that the students of the prophetic schools were called the "sons of the prophets" (cf. 2 Kings 2:3, 5). We can also think here of Christ's calling the students of the Pharisees who perform exorcisms "sons of the Pharisees" (see Matthew 12:27). Paul, a student of Gamaliel, a Pharisee, calls himself "a son of the Pharisees" (Acts 23:6). 8
Now it is remarkable that in the book of Proverbs we cannot always tell whether the natural father or the teacher father is referred to. In Proverb 1:8 it is clear:
Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching.
Elsewhere it is not so obvious. As a matter of fact, it is widely agreed that when the "son" is addressed then we should usually think of the teacher-father who instructs him and not the natural father. 9 (So, e.g., 1:2ff.; 3:1, 11, 21; 4:10, 20; 5:1; 6:1; 7:1 etc.) The fact that some of the passages are open to debate whether it is indeed the natural father or the teacher father who is speaking indicates that in a sense the distinction between the two types of fathers is in Proverbs somewhat blurred. The use of this parental terminology underlines the fact that the parental character of the education to be received is essentially the same, whether received at home or at school. This important point is underlined by the common purpose of education at home and at a school.
The Purpose of Education
Education in Israel was designed to enable boys and girls to be prepared for their future task in life. This does not mean that their education was only practical and not religious, for the Bible does not know of any separation between the two. Preparing oneself for life meant not only equipping oneself for the "job," but also for life with God. After all, life eternal starts now (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 58, 103). As mentioned already, the parents have the awesome task of moulding and shaping their children after the image of Father in heaven. This is their first responsibility. As the parents were Cod's instruments to impart physical life, parents must also be God's instruments to give eternal life! The fact that teachers are called "fathers" in Scripture indicates that they also have obligations in this area. The situation is such that teachers cannot escape the fact that besides their primary academic task to equip their students for this life, they also have responsibilities for eternal life. After all, life in its entirety is religiously orientated and the teacher has enormous influence in the life of his students. The implications of being a teacher then are quite staggering and the responsibility is immense. For this reason, we can be very thankful for the privilege of having our own schools where our children can be raised within the covenant community with a view to their covenant God. The parents at home and the "fathers" and "mothers" at school ultimately work for the same objective; raising our children in the fear of the LORD and equipping them for their task in this life, a life to be lived with and for God. This common goal of home and school means that the atmosphere in the school will have much in common with that of the home. It will include firm discipline, respect for the school parents, and a sense of belonging together by the grace of God, a sense that we are co-heirs of God's promises.
The question can be raised that if the school actually continues the work of the home and if the teachers are even called "fathers," then should not every parent strive to home school their children? Is not this then the ideal? Such a question is raised more often today than ever before and in answering this question we should carefully consider several factors.
In the first place, no one could possibly object to the wish as such of parents who desire to raise their children at their homes as long as that is possible. Too often today children do not see enough of their parents and their upbringing is left solely to school teachers. No one will argue with the fact that parents do have the first responsibility for the education of their children. It is, however, a valid point whether all parents who wish to home school are equipped to do so responsibly; be it mentally, intellectually, organizationally, or otherwise. Furthermore, one could ask whether it is wise socially and otherwise to raise children somewhat artificially in isolation from other children of the church who attend the local parental school. What future consequences could this have?
In the second place, most of the popularity of present day home schooling is attributable to the moral bankruptcy of the public school system. Faced with the choice of either to continue sending their children to public schools or to train them at home, many are opting for the home schooling. There really is no other choice for those with no Christian day school alternative.
In the third place, in light of what has been mentioned earlier one cannot appeal to the Bible to the effect that it is more biblical to home school because they had no schools in biblical times. That is a dubious conclusion. Unfortunately, home schooling literature does not hesitate to say things such as the establishment of schools in Israel was a deviation from God's command! Such statements are unfounded and irresponsible.
In the fourth place, we must be careful not to create false dilemmas. For example, the dilemma Christian School or Home school is not a true dilemma. Both are Christian and both acknowledge the primary place and responsibility of the parents for educating our children. Our Reformed schools are our home schools! The school is parental and our meeting here tonight as parent-teacher association testifies to that.
In the fifth place, the family undoubtedly remains the first context in which the training of children in godliness should continue non-stop. The words of God in Deuteronomy 6 still apply!
You shall teach them [the words of the LORD] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise.
This is the responsibility of parents and the Lord enables believing parents to do this part of their office. The question can, however, be raised whether the family unit is indeed the best place for academic teaching such as lessons in English grammar, arithmetic, geography and history. Does that not make the home into a school to the detriment of a normal and relaxed home atmosphere? One rarely reads of the tensions and frustrations that surely come with home schooling, but should this factor not be mentioned? Furthermore, do the parents always have the necessary academic expertise? The first calling of teachers is to prepare students for their task in the world today and that requires quite some training and continued effort. The demands of being a responsible teacher must not be underestimated. Can parents, with so many other responsibilities be realistically expected to be able to handle academic teaching year after year after year? Someone (writing in 1935)10 once said that the school and the family each has their own place and task, and I would like to underline that. Father is normally busy earning the daily bread and mother is occupied with preparing meals and tending the raising of the family. He then noted that if the school teachers start acting like parents and when parents start acting like school teachers, many questions will arise!11 Indeed, and many problems as well. Generally speaking, let the home be home and the school be school. More factors could be brought forward, but it may be best to discuss those under another heading, namely, covenantal education.
The Lord our God has brought us together as a covenant community. By His grace we are members of His congregation, His church. We did not choose each other but God has called and brought us together. We did not decide on whom we would associate with, but He has. As a communion of saints, we have differing gifts. We confess that we are obligated to use these gifts to the advantage of our brothers and sisters (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 55). One of the things we use our financial gifts for is the maintenance of a parental Christian day school. We do this together. In an age of individualism, this fact needs to be stressed. We support and maintain our schools together, even if we have no children at school anymore; for, we (correctly) understand education as a communal responsibility, a sacred covenantal obligation before God.
Now it can happen that a family after some soul searching decides to home school because the financial requirements for sending their children to the local Reformed school are prohibitive for them. Lack of funds is, however, of itself not really a good reason to home school. Are we not in on this education task together and do we not have varying gifts? If the real reason for home schooling is a lack of funds, then we should help each other as community to provide the money. The ministry of the deacons which Christ uses to circulate the gifts in the congregation could become involved, for example. We should not make life difficult for each other if the gifts are there in the covenant community. Do our gifts (also financial) not derive from and belong in the first place to God and are they not to be used for His glory?
It can also happen that a family decides to home school simply because they feel, after much family counsel on the matter, that home schooling is a more appropriate way for them to raise their children, at least for say the first four or five years. They have decided that they have the gifts and the time and the discipline to proceed with this and keep it up. Such a family may have made it clear that they are not doing this to avoid paying large school fees; it is simply that they believe the advantages of home schooling are such that for them it would be irresponsible not to proceed with it. I think we should accept that from such a family. We should not harass each other on matters of conscience if that is not necessary. At the same time, what was said of the first example bears repeating with this one? We all have responsibilities for the education of the children of the covenant community, not just for our own children. If finances are not a factor, such a family would be able to show their commitment to the covenantal education offered in the schools by continuing to pay their school fees. This would have a double advantage. The school's and the community's financial position would not be adversely affected by their home schooling. Secondly, they would be able to benefit in a number of ways from the school which they continue to support. They would have access to the library resources, possibly some teaching resources, and also have the privilege of periodic professional evaluation from the Christian school on their own home program. Of course, such an approach will also enhance the good relationships in the church community. It is then obvious that not individualism, but a sense of communal responsibility continues to operate.
There is something else that needs to be said. The home schooling movement which is also making its inroads in our congregations is doing us the big favour of underlining the parental responsibilities for education. There is the ever present danger of taking it easy as parents. Our children go to elementary and secondary schools of which we know that they endeavour to teach in accordance with the Word of God. In this situation the temptation is there for parents to relax and underestimate the continuing importance of their involvement in the educational enterprise. It is, however, completely wrong for parents to adopt the attitude that the school takes care of my child's education. That is only partly true. The home continues to be the primary place of education for life in the LORD and for service in this life. The school is an extension of the home, not the other way around! For that reason, the schools and teachers will be remembered in prayer at home and the teachers and their instruction will be supported in every possible way. An important way of support is teaching our children the respect due to their school "fathers" and "mothers" and instilling in them a sense of the holy privilege they may have in being God's children. A truly Christian life style in our homes and a strong sense of godly priorities also go a long way to underline the instruction given at school. These are items that cannot be taught in one sitting. As parents we continue to mould our children. We delegate some of that moulding work to teachers, but we never relinquish the primary responsibility for it! Indeed, a Christian school, fully supported and enhanced by the participation of the parents according to their office in the homes truly makes that Christian school an extension of the home, a home school, if you like!
Educating our children is a tremendous task and the responsibilities are daunting. At the same time we know that we do not need to do this task on our own or in a vacuum. We can do it in the power of the Lord at home and at school and within the communion of saints. What a blessing!