Parents, School and Community in the New Testament
In the Old Testament, we find that it was primarily the task of the parents to bring up their offspring. That was natural and was also explicitly decreed. The covenant community was to maintain an environment in which parents could do their tasks and to contribute to that task in a supportive, directive, and even disciplinary or punitive way. In this submission, I briefly sketch Jewish education after the Exile and then draw from the New Testament what the Lord teaches us about the education of our children.
During and after the Babylonian Exile (586-537 B.C.) synagogues sprang up among the Jews as popular meeting places or sanctuaries for worship, for the government of civil life, and for learning about the Torah and its interpretation and application. Without there being an explicit command to have them, Jesus accepted the institution and often taught in them. On his missionary journeys Paul also first sought out the synagogues to proclaim the gospel.
In keeping with the parents’ primary responsibility, parents taught the young people a trade or household skills as well as Scripture knowledge and morals. In the synagogue boys learned the three R’s and Hebrew. Another discipline, called “Life,” focused on the application of the Torah – apparently in response to a decline of parental instruction and the influence of Greek culture. This culture was propagated by the Greek and Roman occupying powers and by the Hellenist schools. Wealthy Greek and Roman parents might have a nurse to look after their children and even hire a tutor. Finally, rabbis had a recognized position as teaching agents and role models, whether in association with or apart from the synagogue. Students were expected to emulate their teacher (Luke 6:40; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-8).
Formal schools likely arose as an extension of synagogues. In the apocryphal Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach 51:23, written around 175 B.C., we read about a “House-of-the-book,” or school: “Come close to me, you uninstructed, take your place in my school.” Some assert that Jewish schools were started in 130 B.C. by high priest and king John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.). Yet others praise Joshua Ben Gamala for his high priestly decree of 63 A.D. that “teachers should be appointed in every province and in every city, and children about the age of six or seven placed in their charge.” Of course, the Jewish practice is not normative for our time.
The Lord Jesus Christ, our chief Prophet, Priest, and King, showed a concern for and interest in children, the family, and the respective roles of its members. At a wedding He changed water into wine (John 2); He called children to Himself, took them in his arms, and blessed them (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14-16; Luke 18:15-18); and He assigned John to provide for his widowed mother Mary (John 19:25-27). Jesus did not hesitate to set children as an example for his opponents (Matthew 11:25; 18:3; Luke 10:21), to express how precious they are (Mark 9:37), or to take a metaphor from their play (Matthew 11:17). Later Paul maintained the parental task to teach and bring up their children (Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20-21; 1 Timothy 5:10) and doing a good job of it is among the qualifications for elders (1 Timothy 3:4, 12; Titus 1:6). Clearly these instructions were for the wellbeing of the church and an integral part of the message of salvation.
The covenantal context of education in the Old Testament was not abandoned in the New Testament. Jewish children still learned from their parents, their peers, and their surroundings. They were still expected to ask questions of their fathers, elders, and rabbis. People were not so much amazed that twelve-year-old Jesus asked questions, but with what he asked, and with his understanding (Luke 2:47). When Jesus rebuked his disciples for sending away the parents with their children, He blessed the children and asserted that they did belong to the covenant. The gospel was for them as well: The kingdom of God belongs to such as these, He said (Genesis 17:7; see Acts 2:39). Paul even declared that the old circumcision had been replaced by a new one, in Christ, as signified in baptism (Colossians 2:11). Rather than signifying that the person may be cut from the covenant promises if he does not keep its obligations, the new sacrament signifies being buried and raised with Christ to a new life and all its benefits.
Jewish families knew the educational task of parents, but believers from the Gentiles needed to be instructed in this as they were brought back from their pagan ignorance to the knowledge of the one and only true God (Romans 1). For education, this implied that although it was a status symbol to hire a pedagogue to raise one’s children, parents must love and bring up their own offspring and take it seriously (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). Again in line with the Old Testament, the children must obey their parents (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16, 29; 30:6).
For us as much as for the early church, it is imperative that the family is an environment in which children can actually be taught and raised in the fear of the Lord. Jesus maintained that marriage should be kept intact and Paul unmistakably has the family’s wellbeing and proper order in mind (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3; Mark 10:2; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:21; 1 Corinthians 7; Ephesians 5:22 ff; Colossians 3:18 ff; 1 Timothy 5; Titus 2). The importance of the family is underlined when the healed Gerasene must first tell his family what Jesus has just done for him; the parents’ faith allows the whole household to be baptized (Mark 5; Acts 16:31-34). Furthermore, the strong bond of the family stands out when one will follow Jesus, or when the division He brings splits families (Luke 9:61; 12:52-53). It is by no means only from our observations of broken families that we learn that they should remain intact. The very fact that these things get addressed in the gospels and apostolic letters to the churches implies that it is in the church’s interest that families receive the support of the communion of saints, also in remaining intact and equipped for raising children. This is underlined in baptism, as it takes place in the church and the parents answer the questions before many witnesses.
Since Christians are dispersed as a community living amongst, rather than separate from other members of society, their families may become islands on their own. However, the Christian community is characterized by the communion of saints. Families are not little islands, Peter implies, but Christians are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God to declare his praises (1 Peter 2:9-10). He calls God’s people to “Love the brotherhood of believers, to fear God, and to honour the king” (2:17). When speaking of persevering in love and good deeds, the author of Hebrews tells us not to give up meeting together, but to encourage one another (10:24-25). Also, 1 John 3:14, 19-20 addresses how children of God love one another, just as Christ loved them first.
Building up the body of Christ is central in the New Testament as being of benefit to the church and being a sign of belonging to Christ. The concept encompasses all of life and cannot exclude education. Paul commends Timothy for taking a genuine interest in the Philippians’ welfare while, conversely, everyone looks out for his own interest, not those of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:21). To the Romans Paul writes about loving each other sincerely as members of one body (Romans 12-14); to the Corinthians he writes about the unity of God’s people and using their gifts as a living part of the body (1 Corinthians 11, 12-14); he exhorts the Galatians to do good to all, but especially to the household of the believers (6:10); and the Ephesians must seek unity in the body of Christ (Ephesians 4). Rev. Kok’s meditation on Leviticus 12:1-8 (Clarion, Volume 53, Issue 20) stresses the centrality of the church over the family in the New Testament because of Christ: “Salvation does not come by procreation, it does not come in clannish behaviour. Salvation is by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, signed and sealed in the baptism in the midst of Christ’s church. The water of baptism is thicker than blood.”
On occasion we may think that we have many of our bases covered as far as education and communal responsibility goes. We have kindergartens, we have elementary and high schools, and we maintain a teachers’ college and a theological college. While these are all highly valuable, to think that we are all set would be a huge mistake. We cannot possibly delegate to institutions all the dynamic interactions and relationships that have a place in the community responsibility for bringing up the next generation. There remains a personal call for everyone to love their brothers and sisters on a daily basis, in whatever situation, and regardless of age.
Aside from the parental teaching task, the church receives a significant educational role in the New Testament. This role is to teach the nations about salvation (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8) and also to instruct its members, warning them of wolves that might enter the sheepfold (Acts 20:29-31; Ephesians 4:11-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-2; Titus 1:9; 1 Peter 5:4-5). We see this take place both in mission and evangelism projects and also in the regular preaching and catechism instruction. Those in positions of leadership must also be good role models: if, for instance, they cannot rule their own household well, how can they rule the church of God (1 Timothy 3:5; see also Titus 1:7)?
Scripture assigns to parents the role of bringing up their children as a covenant responsibility. It also demands that they do this in the context of a supportive and involved covenant community. Parents, with the help of the supporting community, are free to organize educational events or institutions to communally address aspects of their tasks. However, these events or institutions never take away from the primary parental role; nor can a community assume that these events or institutions are the complete answer to its supportive responsibility. Parents remain responsible and always have a profound interest in making sure that the schools teach in line with what they promised they would teach. Parents may not insularly avoid the support and involvement of others.
The church also has a teaching task, both towards its members, for instance in preaching and catechism classes, and in evangelizing and mission. This task is distinct from that of parents and does not really incorporate everything we have traditionally assigned to the school.