A School of Sons and Daughters
No one will deny the great importance of schools or the considerable influence which teachers exercise on the lives of their pupils. Indeed, our being here this evening testifies to our interest. Teachers in a sense work with pliable clay, moulding the lives and ideas of their pupils or students.
In the Bible there is a term to describe teachers which we seldom use. Teachers are called "fathers" and the students are "sons" (and therefore also "daughters"). According to this terminology, students in school not only have parents at home, they also have a "father" or "mother" at school. Let us take a look at this terminology as used in Scripture and then touch on some implications of this metaphor for the education of our children.
The term "father" is used in the Scriptures as a term of honour (e.g. 1 Samuel 24:11; 2 Kings 6:21). It is therefore not surprising that teachers be given this title. When Elijah was taken up into heaven by a whirlwind, then Elisha cried: "My father! My father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" (2 Kings 2:12). The meaning of the term "father" as 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). The teacher was the "father."
Similarly when David wanted to give instruction, he set himself up as father. "Come, O sons, 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). Indeed, the heading of this Psalm suggests a time when there is no record of David having sons (cf. 1 Samuel 18-21). We find a similar usage of "father" in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is often the voice of a teacher to his pupils. "Hear my son, your father's instruction" (Proverbs 1:8).
Similar terminology is found in the ancient Near East. In ancient Sumer, the land which came to be known as Babylonia, texts dating from about 2,000 B.C. indicate that a school teacher was among other things called a "school father" and a student was called a "school son."
In the New Testament we see that the Lord Jesus called students of the Pharisees who perform exorcisms "sons of the Pharisees" (cf. Matthew 12:27). Paul, a student of Gamaliel, a Pharisee, called himself "a son of the Pharisees" (Acts 23:6).
The Bible emphasizes that the parents have the first responsibility to teach their children. Indeed, the school terminology of "fathers" and "sons" in a sense underlines this. The other teachers in Israel were the prophets and priests. Especially the priests had to educate Israel in the Law and their obligations to God (Deuteronomy 31:9-13; 2 Chronicles 17:7-9). Today, besides the parents, we have the office-bearers in the church and the school teachers who instruct our children. Indeed, the teacher in a Christian school has an important task.
Purpose of Education
According to Scripture, children were to be taught the great deeds of God (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:6-9) as well as the practical skills of life. With respect to the latter, that would include being able to read and write. It appears that a normal family was literate. For example, Gideon could ask a young man from Succoth who had been captured to write down for him seventy-seven names (Judges 8:14). Literacy was widespread (cf. Deuteronomy 6:9; 27:2-8; Isaiah 10:19), for Israel's education was not only geared for the spiritual but it was also very practical. Think, for example, of the practical teachings present in the book of Proverbs. Indeed, would a father not want his son to do well? Common thinking in Judaism was that a man who did not teach his son the Law and a trade, the ability to work, reared him to be a fool and a thief.
Israel's education was geared so that boys could earn the bread and butter and girls could be prepared for their future task in the home. At the same time, this education was religious. The fear of the LORD is the basis of all knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). The Bible does not separate the practical and the spiritual. This life and the life to come is one continuum, for as we confess in our Catechism, we start eternal life here (Q&A 58 and 103). The great duty of the father and the mother was to see to it that their sons and daughters could live; that is, to make a living before God in obedience to him and so receive the covenant blessing of a long life, yes eternal life! The practical and the spiritual belong together and are to be integrated. Just as fathers and mothers are God's instruments to impart physical life, so also they are to be instruments to impart eternal life.
If we see this as the root meaning of what it means to be a parent, also when speaking of education, then the implications of what it means that a teacher is called a father (and by analogy also a mother) are quite staggering. Israel and later the Jews saw that clearly, especially when professional teachers more and more took over the education of children. In view of the awesome life-giving function of father, one can understand how an ancient Jewish exposition even dares to place the relationship of the student to the teacher as father, higher than his relationship to his physical father, "for his father has brought him into the world, but his teacher, who has taught him wisdom, brings him into the future world." Teachers were held in very great respect.
In ancient Israel the education was to be given in the home; later schools developed more and more. Today, the education is to be given in the home, but much time is spent in our children's going to school to prepare for life. This can put strains on the education which the home is to provide, for the school has much to say. This situation has also given our children two sets of earthly parents.
It is noteworthy that the term for instruction or teaching in the Old Testament is torah. Among other things, the word denotes giving direction. Not surprisingly, the term also came to mean the instruction as given in God's law. Education is giving direction. Christian education is giving direction in accordance with God's norms so that life is possible on earth in all its aspects, before God, even to eternity. Because God's Word forms the ultimate foundation for all teaching in a Christian school, the teaching and providing direction to life needs to be done with authority.
This reality means that teaching cannot consist of seeking the truth together as can be done in a secular environment. The teacher, the school "parent," has the godly task of presenting biblical truth authoritatively. Because the unbelieving world does not recognize the authority of God or of his Word, its concept of authority must of necessity be only utilitarian.
Because the teacher as father or mother has to impart to children the fear and wisdom of the LORD, that is, true life, therefore the authority of a teacher must be life-producing. It must be exercised as a parent would do it, with love, encouraging the pupils in the Lord. One sometimes reads of overzealous teachers who make all kinds of rules which cannot be enforced. Then such a teacher is not a school "father" or "mother" but a police officer. As the saying goes: "If you act like a warden, your students will behave like prisoners." Something of the beauty of a family atmosphere must be present in the school, for the teacher is as a parent and the teaching is for life instruction. After all, properly seen, the school is ideally nothing but an extension of the home.
The nature of such life-inducing authority does not of course mean a lack of discipline, as teachers know only too well, for our sons and daughters are inclined to sin. For them accepting the direction and teaching for life here on earth and starting a life eternal neither comes naturally nor easily. But the discipline can never simply be a conditioning, a making of something from a blank slate. Our sons and daughters are recipients of God's covenant promises and a school father or mother has the holy obligation to recognize that reality and encourage the true life in Christ. Therefore Proverbs 13:24 can extol the virtue of godly discipline. "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." The late Prof. H.J. Schilder has shown in what a sly and humorous way the Proverbs often speak. According to his translation, Proverbs 23:13-14 goes something like this:
Do not withhold discipline from a child; give it to him with a stick. Don't worry. It won't kill him! Just give him a spanking. You will save his life from death.1
Scripture makes clear that parents have to entrust the great deeds of God to their children. God's works have to be written on their hearts (cf. Deuteronomy 6:6-9). Undoubtedly much was therefore committed to memory. Nowadays memory work is often viewed with disdain. But it was and still should be a very important means by which the father and mother can fulfill their task. Also the school parents should ask their students to memorize for with memory work great principles are at stake.
Judging from the first part of Psalm 78 these principles include, in the first place, the transmitting and remembering of the great deeds of God in life and, in the second place, in this way to learn from the sins of the parents and so to be encouraged in true obedience to God with the result of having life with God (Psalm 78:4-8). It was therefore important that the fathers tell their children the great deeds of the LORD, lest they forget the LORD and stray from his ways. Fathers are repeatedly told to keep on telling the LORD'S doings to their children, continually, whether they were sitting, standing, lying down or rising (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). In this way, God's works would be committed to memory. Sometimes the LORD aroused the curiosity of the children to help them remember his saving works. For example, stones were placed in the Jordan River so that the children would ask their parents concerning them (Joshua. 4:4-9, 20-24).
This continual instruction and the memorization that went with it resulted in later generations being able to speak of the Exodus in detail that exceeded the written record so that the LORD could use details of the memorized accounts to be included in his Word at a later stage. So, for example, one can find in Psalm 77:18-19 a reference to thunder during the crossing of the Red Sea which we do not read about in Exodus. Clearly the fathers had an important task. They had to keep operative in the lives of the people the reality and greatness of their God.
There was an added urgency in passing on God's great deeds for written copies of the Bible (as far as it was then written) were probably relatively scarce. In all likelihood, only the priests and the wealthy had access to written copies of the Word if the example of the Middle Ages before the advent of printing can be of any guide. It is possible therefore that for many the Scriptures were the memorized words of the LORD as they had been handed down by their parents and the priests. If this was the case, as it appears to be, then the memory aids which the LORD gave, such as the piled stones (Joshua 4:4-7) and feast days (e.g., Deuteronomy 16:9-12) take on added significance. The Word of God and the great covenant deeds had to be kept alive in the memory of the people.
The Living Word
Keeping the contents of the Word functioning is perhaps where the greatest challenge lies today. We do not have to worry about the Bible dying out, in view of the many printed copies available. The easy access to the Scriptures discourages committing the Word to memory. When we need it, we can always read it. But, then the Bible is not readily integrated into the fullness of life the way it was to be in ancient Israel by speaking of it during the day and by being reminded of the LORD'S great doings in everything they did (Deuteronomy 6).
This integration of the Word into life is of course the beauty of a Christian school. It can thus be a great help to the home, for in a controlled atmosphere of a school we have "fathers" and "mothers" who teach students subjects all day long in the light of God's Word. At school the great deeds of God can be transmitted in such a way that they are not left forgotten in a book, but are relevant and meet the needs of the day. At school all facts, whatever the subject may be, can in one way or another be related to the Lord and his plan for us and the world. Then teaching is "torah," giving direction for life, for the full life in Jesus Christ on this earth, but which is at the same time the beginning of life eternal.
In view of all the subjects and circumstances one can meet in the classroom, this direction will be given concretely, for the wisdom of God is not an abstraction, but relates to real life. We see this relevancy for example in the book of Proverbs, but it is true of all Scripture. The Word of God never speaks of things on a theoretical plane. Rather it relates to life's issues and temptations so that one can learn from the sins of the previous generation and be encouraged into a true and full life in fellowship with the Lord. The "fathers" and "mothers" in school must therefore bring the truth of the various subjects to bear concretely on the lives of the students, their "sons" and "daughters." Such teaching in the fear of the Lord is the beginning of true knowledge which is so relevant to life here on earth which is to be the beginning of life eternal.
Fathers and their Sons
The above has important repercussions. We are once again reminded of how great the influence of teachers can be. They are like fathers and mothers, for they fill the lives of their "sons" and "daughters" in a very real way. Daily and systematically, with the authority and discipline which come with a school situation, the students are worked on, at a time when they are most productive and attentive. When the biological parents see them, they have already given their best. The potential impact of the "fathers" and "mothers" in school is therefore immense! We should never underestimate it. Life direction is given in the school. Yes, life – which must include eternal life.
Such is the impact that the successful teacher literally moulds his "children" in his image. Just as a biological parent has children in his or her image. This can happen and does happen in the classroom. Teachers are like parents. They give life instruction and influence life outlook and the very image of their students.
One can sense that this can raise problems. A teacher's influence is immense. Is it not too great? Do parents not have the first right to influence? Do the sons and daughters not belong to them? An Aramean story recounts how a mother took her child to school and entrusted him to the teacher with these words: "His flesh is yours, his bones are mine." That is, the teacher is given the authority to teach and discipline the child, but the child belongs to its parents. The flesh is given to the teacher to be moulded or beaten, if necessary, but the bones, the basic structure, remains with the parents.
There is something sound about this approach, for the teacher is not to remake the child he receives; the child belongs not to the school but to the parents. We are reminded that the first five or six formative years are in the parental home. This is also of comfort if one happens to be living where Christian education is not possible. However, the fact that children belong to their parents is also a reminder that we cannot just leave our children in the care of the "parents" at school without any further involvement, no matter how good the school is. The school is to be an extension of the home; that's where the real father and mother are. Therefore parents must be very much involved with the teachers at school.
This involvement does not mean interference. It means praying for the teachers. It means using the channels available to show interest in their work and to find out how our children are doing. It also means equipping the teachers as well as possible so that they can do their work and calling with undivided attention. It means above all that our children clearly see that there is no competition between the home parents and the school "parents" but that in the unity of the faith both are steering the child in full obedience to the Lord in all areas of life.
This unity of home and school is the beauty of true Christian education. The "problem" of the teacher moulding students in his or her image is then in a sense always limited. For when our children are moulded in the image of the teacher, it should not be a direct source of concern, for both the "father" in the school and the father at home have another Teacher to whom they both submit. He gives true wisdom, yes, he is true wisdom. He gives and is life, even life eternal (1 Corinthians 1:30). He was not called "father" as a title of honour, as teacher, for his teaching ministry revealed the great Father in heaven. Those who saw him, the Lord Jesus, were to see the heavenly Father (John 14:9), and those who obeyed him would be the image of Father on earth (Romans 8:29; Colossians 3:10)! And is it not the image of that Father that we seek to impress on our sons and daughters, also in school?