To Whom Belongs the Child?
We are interested in children. Teachers are interested in children. If there were no children, you would be out of your present jobs. Those of us who are parents are interested in children.
The question I would put to you today is: To whom belongs the child? The children in your classrooms – to whom do they belong?
When I ask that question, I don’t mean, of course, in the sense of chattel. What I do mean is: Who must care for the child? Who has authority over the child? Who bears responsibility for the child? These are important questions.
Who must care for the child, for its food, clothing, health, development, education, preparation for job in life? Who must give the child leadership in this? Help him make choices? Pay for the costs?
Who has authority over the child? Who decides the direction in which he shall be brought up? The school he goes to? The church to which he will belong? Whom must the child obey? Whom must he acknowledge as his master? Who has the right to control the child’s life, even by force – the force of a stern word or even the rod?
Who is responsible for the child: over against the child himself, society, and God?
How we answer these questions has great significance for the present and the future of the child as well as for society and the church. We also know that many different answers are given.
Does the Child Belong to the State?
Preparing for this speech made me crack for the first time a book I’ve owned for many years. 1 I read through a number of essays and was not surprised to read that many people really believe that the child belongs to the state. This, as you know, is not a recent belief. It is very old. It goes back to Ancient Greece. But let me not go that far back to show that this is so.
In an essay entitled “John Swett: The Self-Preservation of the State,” we read that Mr. Swett 2 spoke of “the children of the State.” He said that “...children ... belong, not to the parents, but to the State, to society, to the country” (Rushdoony, p. 79). By this opinion:
Schools are thus not extensions of parental authority, but “wards of the State,” extensions of state sovereignty, and so to be respected. Children accordingly become wards of the school on entry therein, and parental rights are forfeited, except, as Swett noted, in private schools. In recognition of this fact, an antipathy to and assault on private schools was not lacking or long in developing.Rushdoony, p. 81
In another essay, “The Divine Child in the Divine State,” we learn that this idea that the child belongs to the state is not unique to late 19th century USA. We are reminded of Adolf Hitler’s position: “German youth belongs to the Fuehrer” (Rushdoony, p. 109).
At the same time Hitler was expressing his opinion in Germany, the White House made a similar declaration. President Hoover, who presided over the USA during the depression years, issued “The Children’s Charter” of the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. Rushdoony says:
The Charter is a children’s “bill of rights” which in effect makes the child both the concern and ward of the State. Prenatal care, love, understanding, “health protection from birth to adolescence,” and “for every child the right to grow up in a family with an adequate standard of living and the security of a stable income as the surest safe guard against social handicaps,” these and more were pledged by the Conference.Rushdoony, p. 217
These notions, that the child belongs to the state, have become well entrenched, as we can learn from something as “kitchen variety” as an article in Western Report. 3 Verburg quotes Thomas Fleming, an analyst of culture, who says that “...unlike a century ago, parents and families are no longer responsible for their children.” In the context of discussing how the state (society) handles delinquent adolescents, Fleming notes that the standard method is to pass a law:
Too many kids drinking? Let’s pass a law. Too many kids doing drugs? Let’s pass a law. Too many kids cutting school? Let’s pass a law. Through our laws we have said that kids belong to the state.
Verburg continues: Prior to the late 1800s, it was an assumption in common law that family members are responsible for each other, explains Mr. Fleming ... Parents answered for their child’s torts and misdemeanours. If a child stole or broke a window, the father made restitution. The assumption was that he knew or should have known it would happen and could have stopped it.Verburg, p. 31
But now, the government has become a surrogate parent. As western society turned ever more from the Word of God, which speaks about these things, children more and more became wards of the state. In 1904, American psychologist G. Stanley Hall published a two-volume work called Adolescence. Social historian Kett (quoted in Verburg’s article) says that Hall defined the teen years in Darwinian terms as a distinct state in life that begins at puberty and is marked by inner turmoil. Adolescence “was essentially a conception of behaviour imposed on youth,” recounts Mr. Kett, “rather than an empirical assessment of the way in which young people actually behaved.” The result was that teens were put into a very special category needing, according to theory, very special treatment – from professionals. The influence of parents became less and less appreciated. The state would take care of the education and upbringing of the children (Verburg, pp. 31-32).
The Shapiro report, 4 well-known in school circles in Ontario, is informed by the same philosophy. Shapiro’s first “Matter of Principle” is:
That (public) elementary and secondary schools are important institutions whose goal is to develop, nurture and enhance the intellectual and moral autonomy of the young. This goal and attendant responsibilities are shared with parents and other societal agencies.
And so we find ourselves today living in a society which largely believes that the child belongs to the state.
But what does the Bible say?
Let us go to the Scriptures to see what the Word of God has to say about this question. We all believe that the Scriptures are holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith. We believe without any doubt all things contained in them (Belgic Confession, art. 5), also the things it has to teach us about the question: To whom belongs the child?
The Child Belongs to the Parents
There is only one correct answer to the question. And that answer is: To the parents! God gives children to the parents. The parents are responsible under God to care for their children in every way. I strongly suspect that I won’t find any disagreement with that position. But, do we actually (still) make that answer function?
Parents must Care for the Physical Wellbeing of their Children
Every parent will agree that it is his/her responsibility to feed and clothe his children. That is clear, self-evident. It’s so natural that we don’t need a command of God. Even unbelievers take care of their children. In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul said: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Human instinct powerfully tells us that we must care for our families, our children. It would seem redundant for there to be a command of God in this regard.
There are sad exceptions. There are those who abuse their children, physically, sexually, mentally. There are parents who do not give their children the food and drink they require. Even unbelievers say that such people are worse than animals. For animals instinctually care for their offspring. Even without the Bible expressly commanding parents to feed and clothe their children, we all understand that it is their task and responsibility to do so.
Scripture treats it as self-evident. And so we read of Hagar who feels it to be her responsibility to find water for her son, Ishmael. The Lord Jesus treats is as self-evident. In Luke 11:11-12 he said: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; (12) or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”
The apostle Paul treats it as self-evident: In 2 Corinthians 12:14 he said: “...children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.” And if we page back and forth through Scripture, we come across a mother beseeching Elisha for the life of her son; a father pleading to the Lord Jesus on behalf of his son; a Canaanite woman begging the Lord to heal her daughter.
Although there is no explicit command in Scripture, it is completely clear to everyone that the bodily care of children is the (divine) obligation of the parents. It is wrong and it goes completely against nature if the parents begin to feel this responsibility less, if they begin to download it on to others – for instance, the school (state) providing food for the students.
Parents must Care for the Spiritual Wellbeing of their Children
Who is responsible for the spiritual, intellectual, and moral development of the child and for his religious upbringing? In answer to this question, the Scriptures speak very clearly. Even if we were to say that it was a matter of course, natural, and completely in line with the above that the parents must also look after their children’s spiritual, intellectual, and moral development, yet the LORD found it necessary to impress this upon the parents, so that there would be no doubt; so that no matter how strong the inclination may be to download it on to the state or society or some other organization, we would remain convinced that it remains the duty of the parents to look after the spiritual growth of their children.
In the Bible, the fathers are called to teach their children about the great things God has done for His people. At the Passover celebration, the fathers were to teach the children about how the lamb was “...the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, for He passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when He slew the Egyptians but spared our houses” (Exodus 12:27). As you read through the book of Joshua, you come across a number of monuments made of piles of stones. One example: When Joshua led the people across the Jordan River, then he set up a monument of twelve stones.
And he said to the people of Israel, ‘When your children ask their fathers in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” (22) then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ (23) For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up for us until we passed over, (24) so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty; that you may fear the LORD your God forever.Joshua 4:21-24
The fathers of Israel were to indoctrinate their children in the great deeds God had done for their salvation. 5 This task still falls to parents, as the NT teaches us. Timothy’s mother taught him to know the Scriptures from when he was very young. Paul says in Ephesians 6:4 that fathers are to bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
All of this is nicely gathered together in LD 39 of the catechism where we summarize what God requires of us in the fifth commandment. Among other things we say that children are to submit themselves to the good instruction and discipline of their parents. If children must do that, then parents must give good instruction and discipline.
Woe to the father who lets his children walk in self-chosen ways – ways which invariably are the ways of sin! Think of Eli who let his sons do as they pleased and the curse which fell on the house of Eli because of it. Fathers and mothers will have to answer to God with respect to what they have done with the children God gave them. And it will be terrible if they hear from the throne the words: You took My children and made them pass through the fire (Ezekiel 16:20, 21).
Let these few examples from the Bible suffice to underline in our minds that parents are responsible for the spiritual, religious and moral development of the child. The child belongs to the parents. Let us not be led astray by the notion that we must let the child make up his own mind. Let us not be taken in by those who say that we may not use force to interfere with the spiritual progress of the child, but must, rather, just give the opportunities so that what is hidden in them will come out. Don’t be fooled by those who say that we are not to indoctrinate the children. Parents must indoctrinate their children. They must get the doctrine in. They promise that when they present their children for baptism. They promise (third question) to instruct their child in the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. Doctrine is not a dirty word. Let us not believe those who would have us believe that the children belong to the community, or the state.
We must consciously maintain the teaching of Scripture that the child belongs to the parents. The parents must care not only for the physical wellbeing of the children God gives them; they must also be busy with the spiritual development of their children. For children are a heritage from the LORD. The LORD gives the children to the parents. Before the LORD, parents are responsible to raise their children in the fear and knowledge of God. It is the task of parents to lead their children to Christ. Parents may not abrogate this responsibility.
Parental Responsibility not Absolute
This does not mean that the say which the parents have in the lives of their children is absolute. No earthly authority or concern is absolute. All earthly authorities and concerns have boundaries, both vertical and horizontal. Vertical, for every authority is under that of God. He alone has absolute authority. Parental authority is bound to the law of God. Further, the exercise of this authority must show itself to be God working through parents. As LD 39 says, it is God’s will to govern children by the hand of their parents.
Parental responsibility also has horizontal boundaries. There are others, other people, other spheres of people, who have something to say about the child and who have responsibility towards the child. The state does, for instance. If parents abuse their children, then the state has the duty to intervene. The state must even remove the children from the parental home if they are put at risk by being left there. Romans 13 teaches us that the government is “God’s servant for your good.”
It is also God’s servant for the good of the child. The state has been ordained by God and has a divine calling towards the children and may, at times, need to intervene to protect the life of a child. We could also think of compulsory immunization programs or compulsory education until age 15. The state makes these laws for the good of its young citizens.
The Responsibility of the Church towards the Child
The church also has something to say about the child and has a responsibility towards the child. For the children belong to the church. As we confess in LD 27, infants, as well as adults, belong to God’s covenant and congregation. When a child is born, it is born in the parental home; however, it is also born in Zion (Psalm 87:5). From birth a covenant child is a member of the church.
In John 10, the Lord used the image of a sheepfold to describe the congregation. A sheepfold will also have lambs. Those lambs belong to the sheepfold just as much as the older sheep do. In the spring when lambs were born, then the shepherd did not wonder what to do with them. He understood perfectly well that those lambs were also his responsibility. They often needed special care. The shepherd would have to carry them in his arms.
Just as a lamb belongs to the flock from birth, so a child born to members of the church belongs to the church from birth. They are lambs of the flock of Christ, the Good Shepherd. What a privilege for the lambs. They do not need first to make a decision for Christ before they can be numbered among the members of Christ’s flock. They are by birth. And this is guaranteed to them by baptism.
Peter (in 1 Peter 5:1ff) exhorts the elders of the church who labour under Christ, the Chief Shepherd, to tend the flock of God. When the elders grant the request for a child to be baptized, then the elders, the under shepherds, take upon themselves a certain responsibility for that child. They must give the same care and attention to the lambs of the flock as they do to the older members – of course, in a gentler way. They must do so in obedience to the command of Christ: “Feed my lambs!” (John 21:15). They must do so in obedience to the command of the apostle Paul to the elders of Ephesus and so to all elders everywhere: “Take heed ... to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which He obtained with the blood of His own Son” (Acts 20:28). All the flock, also the lambs.
The third question directed towards parents having their children baptized comes again into view here. Parents are not only asked whether they will instruct their children in the doctrine of Holy Scripture; they are also asked whether they promise to have them instructed therein to the utmost of their power. This question implies the responsibility which the church has for the youngsters.
What is this responsibility? The Scriptures show us this. E.g., when Joshua led the first worship service in the Promised Land, then he assembled the whole congregation, infants included. Joshua read the law in the presence of all Israel including, as Joshua 8:35 makes emphatically clear, “the little ones.” When Joel called together the congregation of God’s people of Israel in a time of disaster to lead the people in repentance, then he said:
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; (16) gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants...Joel 2:15-16
And then think of the care which the Lord Jesus extended to the children. He took them in His arms and blessed them (Mark 10:16). He admonished those who would keep them away from Him (Mark 10:13-14). He threatens with eternal punishment those who would cause a little one to stumble (Matthew 18:6). He said that their angels are always looking upon the face of their Father in heaven (Matthew 18:10). He sticks up for them when the priests and scribes complain about them (Matthew 21:15-16). His heart was filled with compassion for them when He thought about how they too would suffer in the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44).
He is the Good Shepherd who takes His lambs up in His arms. Following Him, the church must do likewise.
How must the church do that? We must be brief. The ministers must make sure that their preaching reaches the children and the youth as well as the more mature members. Mr. Pieter Torenvliet said in 1993 in an article in the CRTA Magazine: “...most ministers do very little to make a church service or a sermon meaningful or understanding (sic) for the children in the church.” 6 Mr. Torenvliet is probably overstating things somewhat, but the point should be taken by ministers. If we hold that the children belong in the worship service, then it is the task of ministers to make the church service and sermon meaningful and understandable for the children in the church. I heard once that Dr. A. Kuyper would keep two pictures on his desk: one of a young member of the congregation and one of an old member. As he wrote his sermons, he would often glance at the pictures remembering that his sermons needed to reach both. The story may be apocryphal, but it’s a nice story. And it illustrates well the audience for which ministers prepare their sermons.
Further, the church must call the children as well to the worship service. We must resist any movement towards during-church-Sunday Schools. If the children belong, they must be there, in the worship service, worshipping God and hearing the preaching of the Word. Some people say that children should not be subjected to the sermon because they don’t understand it. Such people do not understand how God also works in the hearts of the lambs by the preaching of the Word. As Richard Bacon said:
The things of the LORD are spiritual in nature, and not necessarily apprehended by the reason. As a result, God often hides the things of His kingdom from the wise and prudent and reveals them instead to speechless babes. 7
The words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 28:19, 20 underline the task of the church towards those who have been baptized. The Lord Jesus commanded the apostles, and in them the church of all ages, to teach those who have been baptized to observe the commandments of Christ. The order of words is instructive. After baptism comes further instruction in the things of God. The Reformed churches have taken this seriously. And so we have catechism instruction in which the youth of the church are further instructed in the Word of God and the true faith.
The Responsibility of the School towards the Child
On the horizontal level mentioned above, another institution comes into view when discussing the various spheres of responsibility with which the child comes into contact, and that is the school. The school has no inherent responsibility or authority, but only that which it is given to it by the parents. What is the responsibility of the school towards the child?
When I accepted the gracious invitation to speak at this convention, then I asked your secretary to send me some articles to get me up to speed on various topics addressed at past conventions. In response to my request, I received five years of CRTA Magazines plus a book. You teachers know how to assign homework! I began to feel some sympathy for the complaints of my children.
I found an interesting chain of articles – articles which had been delivered to you as speeches. In March of 1991, the late Rev. J.D. Wielenga spoke to you about the now near infamous “Profile of the school graduate” (22:3). A year later, the Rev. K. Jonker spoke on the topic of “The relationship between church and school” (23:1). He was, here and there, critical of Wielenga. Then in 1993, Mr. Henk van Beelen summarized the views of Wielenga and Jonker, assessed them, and came to his own conclusions in “The place of the school in reformed education” (24:1/2). In between, Mr. Torenvliet responded to some aspects of Wielenga’s speech in “The profile of a grade 12 student revisited” (23:3). As well, the topic of the relationship between church, home and school has also been addressed in conventions in the East.
I am not going to recapitulate the articles and criticize them. They are there for you to read. And you can form your own opinions.
I do, however, want to make some comments about the place of the school in light of the biblical principle that the child belongs to the parents. And if I am going to hook into a speech which has touched this point, it would be the last one, the speech of Mr. Henk van Beelen.
I greatly appreciate many of the positions which Mr. Van Beelen took in his speech. I am not going to critique it; rather, I want to extract from his speech (article) some of the things I agree with.
Van Beelen makes the point that we ought not to identify Reformed education with Reformed schools. Reformed education is bigger than the Reformed school. If Reformed parents leave all the education of their children to the Reformed schools, the children, the families, the churches, and the schools are headed for disaster. The Reformed school is part of the picture, but not the total picture. And the parents’ role must remain primary, also in the instruction of their children.
Van Beelen also makes the point that while the family and the church (and I would add, the state) are divine institutions, the school is not. The Bible does not demand the establishment of a Christian school. You will hunt in vain for such a commandment. However, it is only a matter of consistency for Reformed believers to want to establish and have their children attend a confessionally Reformed school. I gladly work with the well-known “triangle” paradigm, as long as each point of the triangle knows its place and the place of the other two points. The late Rev. J.D. Wielenga spoke against the triangle paradigm which he saw had, in the views of many and often in practice, become a trinity. If we change the triangle into a trinity, then we are headed down the wrong road. And inasmuch as the triangle has become a trinity, I fully endorse Rev. Wielenga’s concerns. Then the school ends up being a divine institution alongside the family and the church with the goal to “lead the children to Christ.” That is not the task of the school. It is the task of the parents and the church to lead their children, who at the same time are lambs of the flock, to Jesus Christ. Let us not change the triangle into a trinity. God has ordained the family and the church. Reformed families of a Reformed church will organize a Reformed school. The school is, thus, “a parentally ‘ordained’ institute” (Van Beelen, p. 6). Let each of the three, church, home and school, know what they are about and what the other two are about. Then the potential for problems will be greatly decreased.
Van Beelen also asks what “covenantal education” is. I’ve had that question too, for years. Does “covenantal” function as an adjective of “education?” Does it describe the students (“covenant children”)? Does it mean that the teacher must instruct the children in the ways of God’s covenant? In other words, is the school a mission post? Must the teacher attempt to evoke a covenantal response to God from the students (in the sense of bringing the student from his baptism to a profession of faith)? I don’t think anyone really knows what it means. Van Beelen suggests: “Let us just continue to call the education engaged in at the school either Christian, or reformed, or even confessional.”
Van Beelen makes the point that teaching is not neutral. He is correct. Nothing in life is neutral. However, while it is not the school’s goal to either evoke a covenantal response to God or to lead the students to Christ, this cannot but help function at times as an attending effect or outcome. The stated purpose and goal of the school ought to be to teach the students, to impart to them knowledge and help them develop skills. The Reformed teacher will, however, teach in such a way that he will touch the hearts of the children. His stated goal will not be to shape the soul of the child (to turn the child into a Christian); however, the person he is, the way he teaches and what he teaches will, of course, touch the soul of the child. 8 It is the goal of Reformed education to mold the child’s soul and to impart faith to the child; however, that is not the stated goal or aim of the Reformed school. The objective of the Reformed school is to impart to the student a comprehensive body of knowledge and skills (Van Beelen, p. 10). If we are going to expect the school to impart faith and shape the soul of the child, we are going to have frustrated teachers, parents and children.
And I think that there are some frustrated teachers, parents and children in our schools. I believe that the frustration has several causes: In some instances, parents are neglecting their divine calling to train their children in the ways of the Lord. They believe that training their children in the ways of the Lord is the task of the Christian school – that’s what we’ve got a Christian school for!
The teachers are frustrated because they end up picking up the slack. Other parents become frustrated by this since they feel that the school is then encroaching upon their turf.
Some parents said that they wanted the school to teach their children to live Christianly, to be godly, and to show the fruits of the Spirit. These parents put more emphasis on the development of their children as Christians than on academic development. Other parents put academics first – academics in a Reformed and Christian framework and context. Some expressed frustration that some teachers seem to think it their goal to “lead the children to Christ.” One mother expressed as her greatest concern that some teachers “...are attempting to pour 10 kg of flour (read: faith) into 2 kg bags (read: my children).” Other parents expressed thanks that the schools were teaching their children the academic disciplines in the light of Scripture and the Reformed confession.
The responses of the teachers were also interesting. According to the teachers, some parents send their children out of tradition or peer pressure; others want a “safe” school for the children away from the world; yet others do so out of a sense of covenantal responsibility. According to one teacher, not many parents are very concerned about the integration of faith and learning. He says: “Christian schools are about bringing Christ into every aspect of your studies and I think few parents have thought that one through.”
According to one teacher, parents today are much more demanding of top-notch educational standards than parents of a generation ago. This is seen as a positive; however, it has a negative side in that along with this demand has come a waning in loyalty for “our own school.”
All the teachers who responded to the question about what their task towards the student is answered along the lines of teaching the students skills and knowledge in a Christian context which they will use in their service of God and neighbour.
My Position (Conclusion)
It is only fair that I answer the questions I asked.
I send my children to a (Reformed) Christian school in order for them to receive good academic instruction in all the necessary disciplines by well-trained teachers who are fully committed to the Reformed faith and will strive to teach the students from within the framework of a Biblical (i.e., Reformed) view of God, man, and creation. Further, I send my children to a confessionally circumscribed school because, as a Reformed confessor, I want, if at all possible, the education my children receive and the teachers who have my children from 8:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m., five days a week, to be firmly founded upon the Confessions I love and to which the church holds. 11
I do not send my children there for them to be led to Christ nor for the school to attempt to evoke a covenantal response from them. That is not the task of the school; that is my task as a parent and the task of the church. God calls parents to take care of every aspect of their children’s lives – physical, spiritual, moral, ethical, social, educational. This is the divine calling of parents. Parents need to be reminded of this and, perhaps, called back to this divine mandate. The church also has a divine calling towards the children. The children are lambs of the flock. The church must care for them and teach them. Parents and church must bring the children, the lambs, from their baptisms to the point where they can make a profession of faith.
The goal of the school ought to be to impart to the student knowledge and skills within the framework of a consistently Reformed view of God, man and creation. I want the school to train my children to live in this world able to use their God-given talents to the glory of God and the wellbeing of the neighbour. 12