During my childhood, a sermon in August on Christian education was not uncommon. There was no doubt that the minister was speaking about the local Christian school that had the Reformed faith as the basis for this education. It was preached unashamedly as the right thing to do for the training of covenant children in the church. It was understood that how the children were taught to think about everything would have an impact not only on each individual child but also on the future of the church. It is hard to believe, but the average student will spend somewhere around fifteen thousand hours in school. Just imagine the influence this can have on a child for good or bad.
Since the time of my childhood so much has changed in Reformed circles concerning education. Home education has become more popular than would have ever been imagined years ago. Some of the historically Reformed Christian schools have morphed into a more generic form of Christian education for various reasons (Reformed people have moved out of the community, schools want to attract more students, Reformed faith is not as important anymore). There are also schools that have continued to stand firm on the philosophy of Reformed education. New Reformed schools have started, some taking a classical approach to education, others a more traditional form. There is also a growing trend to use public or charter schools or free public school curriculum in the home.
There once was a uniformity of what was being taught to covenant children; a relative harmony in the three-legged stool of home, church, and school. All of this reminds me of when Ronald Reagan was running for president against President Carter in 1980. Reagan famously asked Americans about their economic condition when he said, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The question today for us may be, “Are Reformed Christian schools (education), Reformed families, and Reformed churches better off than they were in 1980?” The point of this article is not to comment on and critique every detail of these different strains of education that are being used by Reformed people today. Many of the following thoughts have been articulated in one form or another over the years, but it seems that this message needs to be reiterated at this time. This article summarizes some difficulties facing Reformed Christian education and argues for its necessity.
Some Factors Influencing Change in Reformed Christian Education
There seem to be a few major factors of why Reformed Christian education has changed over the years. One is traditionalism. Sometimes families can get caught up in the tradition of a certain school rather than what it stands for and teaches at present. Gloria Stronks put it this way, “They [Christian schools] all started with a vision but as time went by they became more and more like public schools in teaching, in the textbooks they were using . . . Tradition has carried the schools along and tradition is a good thing. But when all you have is tradition and that breaks down, you have nothing left.”1 What has happened is that the school as an organized entity can become more important than what it teaches today. If all you have is tradition without a foundation set in Scripture, what is left?
Second, what it means to be Reformed has been lost. I see Christian schools advertise that they are Reformed but no longer hold to the doctrinal standards in any meaningful way. Reformed doctrine is held in contempt as outdated and out of touch by some. But what is Reformed doctrine? It is to look at all of Scripture, see what it teaches on a particular subject, and bring all of these verses together in context and in an organized (systemized) way so we know what Scripture actually teaches on this subject. Is the Bible out of touch? Unfortunately, the interpretation of the Bible (or some new Bible translations) by some seems to twist biblical teachings for their own agenda (2 Pet. 3:15–16) or use it to give license to be more like the world. This has confused many, disenfranchised some, and infected the thinking and teaching of a whole generation. You can call something Reformed, but if it is not biblical (in its proper context) it is not Reformed. Historically Reformed doctrine and theology made people look at themselves and recognize their sinfulness and need for the Savior, Jesus Christ. We live in a culture that wants Christians to accept everything as good. We are not to think critically or talk about consequences that come with sin. These ideas and actions are presented often under the guise of diversity or plurality, but this leaves people in their sin and with no need of Christ. This, unfortunately, has permeated the world of education, even Christian education. To be Reformed is not outdated but is needed more than ever to combat the permissiveness of sin and lack of understanding of who God is. Our society needs a witness consistent with Scripture, and our children need to be taught from this perspective.
The third reason is cost. Some schools have priced covenant families right out of being able to attend their local Christian school. They have become private schools with Christian teachings. Too many Christian schools act as if every new program, piece of technology, or a new building is needed to give an excellent education. There is nothing wrong with any of these, but what happens to the families who can no longer afford this education for these reasons? An excellent Reformed Christian education is not defined by buildings, programs, or technology. There seems to be waning monetary support by the churches for the school and the families. I wonder sometimes if it is the priority it once was? The covenant commitment that once tied these institutions together has withered away. Money is more accessible now than probably in any other generation, but the use and the attitude toward money have changed dramatically. The idea of work has shifted from the idea of vocation or calling in kingdom service to the Lord (Col. 3:23) to the worldly notion of a job. Money has shifted from a blessing and gift from God that is a tool to be used, to something the individual has earned for himself or herself. Christian education comes at a financial cost but not without an even greater blessing. I rarely hear of parents who wished they didn’t send their children to a Reformed Christian school but many who later regret they didn’t. Also, a school has to be careful where it accepts money. A school can get used to receiving money from a third party; over time this money becomes part of the school’s budget. Later, strings may become attached to this money and what is required to be taught by the school with it. What is a school to do: raise tuition rates, allow unbelievers or students of other religions who can afford tuition attend, or give in to the strings?
Finally, the doctrine of the covenant and what it means has been lost or compromised. Historically, Reformed Christian education was rooted in the doctrine of the covenant. A correct understanding of the Bible will recognize that believers are in a relationship with God for their good not because of anything they have done but out of God’s grace. This relationship is total; there is nothing that falls outside it. Thus, everything has to be explained to children from this vantage point. This includes that all of creation is God’s (Ps. 24:1) and all their education, no matter what subject, has to point them back to God and Christ as their head (Col. 1:16–17). To do otherwise is to give a false origin of all facts and not give God the glory he deserves (1 Cor. 10:31). Reformed parents have an obligation to provide covenant-grounded education to their children, not only because they promised to do so at their children’s baptisms but also because God is a covenant God. This is how he deals with us, and we are required to teach our children in kind (Deut. 6:1–9). Biblical covenant education is a divine directive for believers’ children. This is the foundational reason why Reformed schools are not to accept children of unbelievers. They are outside the covenant and in a deadly relationship with the Lord and should not be intermingling and influencing our children at school (2 Cor. 6:14–18). The duty of the Reformed school is not to evangelize; that is the work of the church. Children are not missionaries; their minds have not been trained yet to take on the world and to be discerning of every false philosophy that might be presented to them under the guise of knowledge. I know of no Bible passage where children are told to experiment in the world, but many urging them to be wary of it (2 Cor. 6:17; Rev. 18:4). The mission of the Reformed Christian school is to help covenant parents in the instruction, training, and nurturing of their children for kingdom service (2 Tim. 3:10–17).
Philosophies of Education
The covenant makes us realize that Reformed Christian education is philosophical. How one thinks about and looks at life and this world will affect how you come to decisions concerning everything including education. All true knowledge comes from God, and because of this God has to be the starting point for education (Col. 1:15–17). Reformed education is presuppositional. It assumes that the Bible is true in all things and has a commitment to its infallibility.
John Calvin put it this way: “There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.” God is the fountainhead of all knowledge; to go anywhere else is foolish. The world will look for truth everywhere except in Christ but will never find it (John 15:18–21; 1 Cor. 3:18–20). Christian education must teach that knowledge comes from God and that we are to use that knowledge and our talents to the glory of God (Col. 3:16–17). Our education and our faith have to be integrated so they are able to be acted out in pleasing lives to the Lord (James 1:21–25; Rom. 12:1–2). This philosophy of education will never be accepted by the world because the world is at war with God (1 John 1–2; James 4:4).
Everyone has a worldview: a set of beliefs held consciously and unconsciously about the most important issues in life. A worldview is affected by knowledge, experience, convictions, interpretation, and for the believer, the Holy Spirit. Those who teach children will always teach out of a world-and-life view. It is what is in each teacher’s heart that determines how they will teach and how they will present the information of God’s world (Prov. 4:23). The world wants us to conform, not to be transformed. The world and the devil want education to be atheistic, evolutionistic, materialistic, humanistic, and relativistic. The world wants the Christian to accept these premises on which facts are to be taught and believed. It is a religious way of thinking, but it is devoid of any influence of the Christian religion. This leads us to the fact that Reformed education is antithetical to the world. It recognizes that we are in conflict with Satan and the world (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 48; Westminster Longer Catechism Q&A 191). The world would argue that the Bible has no role in understanding facts or in the philosophy of educating children. Worldly people by nature are unable to understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14). The idea of removing Christ from public education in America has its roots back in the 1840s with Horace Mann in Massachusetts. He wanted an education for all the children that would have a generic form of Christianity that would be supported even by Unitarians. These changed policies in schools of Massachusetts in many ways are the forerunners of our secular public schools of today. It could be argued that the most influential educator in the public sector of the last hundred years was the atheist John Dewey, whose educational philosophy believed that man is a product of his environment because he is an animal. This evolutionary philosophy is the prominent underlying philosophy of the American public school system and its curriculum today. This means absolutes are out and relativism rules. Theologically and practically speaking, God’s ways are out and man is in charge. Look at our society and decide if this philosophy is being played out right before our eyes.
Education is not just about imparting facts to students and their ability to repeat them back to the teacher. Facts are to be understood and interpreted. All facts have to be taken in proper context. There are no neutral facts in this world (Deut. 10:14). You don’t read a chapter in the middle of a novel and expect to understand what is going on in the story. Education needs the right context for it to make sense. President Lincoln has been attributed with saying, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.” Lincoln understood that while the facts may not change, the philosophy in how they are presented and interpreted affects the students’ thinking for the rest of their life. This change of philosophy affects not only the philosophy and actions of the government but also society as a whole, down to each individual school. This has become self-evident; all one has to do is look at our government and society and see how it has changed. Do you think how people are acting in society today has a direct correlation to how they were taught (philosophy) in school? Facts, knowledge, and wisdom can be related, but they are not the same thing. Biblical Reformed Christian education gives students the foundational context that is necessary for true knowledge and also wisdom (Prov. 1:1–7). Calvin said it this way: “What wisdom can we have without the wisdom of God.” Godly wisdom allows us to interpret the facts, have the correct philosophy, and gain knowledge in the only correct way (Col. 2:2–4, Prov. 3:1–20). Worldly wisdom cannot know God and is in a fight with God (1 Cor. 2; Prov. 4; James 4:13–17; Eccl. 12:9–14).
The philosophy of Reformed Christian education needs to be based on the biblical idea that God is sovereign over everything (Isa. 46:9–11). This is the point of Abraham Kuyper’s famous saying, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!“ The five solas of the Reformation can be helpful in understanding this as it relates to education: 1. Scripture alone—The Bible alone is the ultimate authority over all things (2 Tim. 3:14–17). This includes the proper interpretation of facts and how education is to be approached. 2. Christ alone— salvation is accomplished once and for all by the mediatorial and sacrificial work of Christ only (1 Tim. 2:5–6). It is only through a relationship with Christ that you understand that he is the origin of true knowledge. 3. Grace alone— The Holy Spirit brings us to Christ, not out of anything we have done The Outlook or chosen, and releases us from our death into spiritual life (Eph. 1:3–8). It is by grace that we can interpret facts and information correctly by the help of the Holy Spirit. 4. Faith alone—We are declared justified by God based on the work of Christ. Faith is the instrument through which we understand and believe to be saved (Gal. 3:6–11). It is by faith that we look at this world and education through the spectacles of Scripture. 5. Glory to God alone— This is all to be believed so that God would receive the glory that is due him from his creatures (Isa. 43:7; Rom. 11:36). Giving proper glory to God would absolutely include education. God is the one who has given us our minds, including the ability to think and understand. These five points are interwoven with each other and cannot be separated. These points are a good starting point in a Reformed teacher’s philosophy. If they are not properly understood and believed as a whole by the teacher, the foundation on which the rest of the teacher’s philosophy of education is built will be flawed.
God gave parents authority over their children (Deut. 6). Wherever children are sent to school, some of the parents’ authority is transferred or given up to the board, administration, teachers, and curriculum of that particular school for that time they are there (this is called in loco parentis). God also gave parents the responsibility to give their children first and foremost a biblical education that is according to the truth of God’ Word (Deut. 11). When that ceases to happen, we end up like the Israelites of the book of Judges who did evil in sight of the Lord repeatedly. Why? Because they were not educated in the truth (Judges 2:10). My former pastor reminded our congregation in a sermon last year that we are only one generation away from unbelief. Anything less than standing on the Word of God is confusing to a child, but worse, it is not giving the proper honor to God as these are his children (Ps. 127:3). All Christian parents have an obligation to make sure that is happening wherever their children are learning. Parents have to understand the curriculum being used, with its strengths and weaknesses. Parents need to make sure that a Reformed worldview is the philosophical foundation in each subject if they are going to provide a proper biblical education. Everything a child is taught, wherever they are, has to go through the grid of Scripture. A good Reformed teacher will be trained to do this in their specialized content area. The teacher is intentional in bringing the subject content to the student in a way that pleases and is honoring to God. Good teachers never just hand out an assignment, let the students interpret, figure things out on their own, and never discuss it. He or she is guiding the student in understanding and wisdom. Just as parents have this responsibility before God to teach everything rightly, so do teachers. They are to teach their students to think, speak, and act biblically at all times.
The world, the devil, and maybe even some people we know may want us to give up on this type of education for our covenant children, but we are obligated to God to train children in his ways so that they don’t depart from it (Prov. 22:6). We want our children to have transformed minds (Rom. 12:2) that are conformed to Christ (Rom. 8:29), keeping every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5), acknowledging Jesus’ lordship (Phil. 2:11), and giving glory to God (1 Cor. 10:31). We clothe ourselves in humility in this momentous task set before us (1 Pet. 5:5). The only way to ever be truly edified and sanctified for the glory of God is to be educated in the light of his Word (Ps. 119:104–106; John 17:17). May we persevere in this great endeavor to educate in the light of divine truth (1 Tim. 4:16). If Reformed people don’t do this, what will our schools, families, and churches look like in another forty years? If we all are renewed in this great task, we will see the benefits in all facets of our family lives. The three-legged stool will once again be working in harmony in a God-honoring way and for the promotion of his kingdom. God is always faithful to his people (Lam. 3:22–23). May we be faithful to him in providing Reformed Christian education to our covenant children!
Berkhof, Louis, and Cornelius Van Til. Foundations of Christian Education: Addresses to Christian Teachers. Reprint ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1990.
Boice, James Montgomery. Renewing Your Mind, in a Mindless World. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993.
De Jong, Norman. Education in the Truth. Lansing, MI: Redeemer Books, 1989. —. Teaching for a Change: A Transformational Approach to Education Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001.
Machen, J. Gresham. Education, Christianity, and the State. New Mexico: The Trinity Foundation, 1995.
Pratt, Richard L. Jr. Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for the Defense of Christian Truth. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1979.
Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1976.
Sproul, R. C. Lifeviews. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1995.
Tripp, Tedd. Shepherding a Child’s Heart. Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 1995.
1. Gloria Goris Stronk, A Vision with a Task: Christian School for Responsive Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993).
Mr. Dave Vander Meer is the Administrator of Reformed Heritage Christian School where he also teaches Church History and a member of Covenant URC in Kalamazoo.