How should Christian parents educate their children?
“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 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.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, ESV)
How should Christian parents educate their children? In some Christian circles this question of educational philosophy can be one of those highly-emotional hot button issues where equally well-meaning believers can find themselves at sharp odds with each other.
For example, on one extreme there are some Christian parents within the homeschooling movement who are convinced that homeschooling is the biblical method for educating children, period; and who therefore (by implication) believe that all Christian parents who send their children to a public school, a private school, or even a Christian school, are thereby neglecting their educational duties as parents, and thus are guilty of sin.
I remember many years ago having a conversation with a Christian homeschooling father who expressed to me his firm belief that Christian parents who send their children to public school are, in effect, “offering their children to Molech.” (This is a reference to the gruesome and barbaric practice among some of the ancient Canaanites of burning some of their children alive as sacrifices to their god Molech.) On another occasion I was speaking with a Christian who told me that he would never vote at a congregational meeting in favor of electing a man as a church officer (Elder or Deacon) if that man sent his children to public school.
On the opposite extreme, there are other Christian parents who are convinced that they have a duty to send their children to public school as a way of doing their part to fulfill the great commission. They believe their Christian children can serve as young missionaries for Christ, as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), in the secular environment of the public school. They also believe that not sheltering their children from the secular and potentially anti-Christian teachings found in the public schools today will help to train their children to become bold witnesses for Christ in an unbelieving world, and to “dare to be a Daniel!” in the face of opposition. Some of these pro-public-school Christians, it seems, can be highly critical of Christian parents who choose to homeschool or Christian school their children. In their minds such Christian parents are guilty of harmfully sheltering their children from the realities of life in a fallen world where not everyone is going to agree with their Christian worldview, and thus of forcing their children to live in a “Christian bubble” that will one day be burst as those children grow up unequipped to face the harsh realities of a hostile, unbelieving world.
In light of this in-house debate over educational philosophy among devoted Christians, how should Christian parents educate their children? How can God’s people get beyond the impasse of this highly-emotional debate and come to a greater unity of mind and mutual understanding? While I am not going to come down strongly one way or another on this issue, allow me to offer a few suggestions which I hope will bring some clarity and calmness to this issue.
First of all, let it be said that the Bible nowhere explicitly commands a particular method of education (home school, public school, Christian school) as the one-and-only Divinely commanded method.
Yes, the Bible does indeed obligate Christian parents to instruct their children in God’s Word (Deuteronomy 6:6-7), and to raise them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Therefore, in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, when parents present their children for holy baptism they are required to make solemn promises before God and the church to diligently teach their children the principles of our holy Christian faith, as revealed in the Scriptures and as summarized in the Confession and Catechisms of the church; to pray with and for them; to set before them an example of piety and godliness; and to endeavor to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. (See the OPC Directory for the Public Worship of God, chapter III, B.1., (5), p. 145, 2015 Edition.) But notice that this educational responsiblity laid upon parents by Scripture and by their baptismal vows is the obligation to teach their covenant children sound Christian doctrine, proper worship and biblical ethics. It does not place upon Christian parents the obligation to be directly responsible for teaching their children subjects such as Algebra, or Latin, or Biology, or Music, or the Arts.
Certainly Christian parents should seek to teach their children how to view all of the subjects they are studying from a God-centered, biblical perspective. As the Creator, God is Lord over all subjects, even “secular” ones, since all of creation declares His glory (Psalm 19). But to say this is not the same thing as saying that Christian parents are obligated to follow one particular pathway of providing their children with a general education (whether by homeschooling, public schooling, Christian schooling, or some other method). To suggest that God requires one particular educational method only is to come dangerously close to adding merely human requirements to the Word of God (see Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18-19).
Secondly (and closely related to the above), whatever convictions Christians may have in terms of educational philosophy, let us all be warned about the danger of seeking to bind consciences where God’s Word has left the conscience free.
If you are a Christian parent, how you choose to educate your children is a matter of immense importance. If you are wrestling with this question, I would encourage you to search the Scriptures diligently, pray about it, talk it over carefully with your spouse, and seek wise counsel from mature Christians whom you trust and from your church leaders as you seek to reach your own conclusion about the best, most God-honoring method of educating your children. But if you are already convinced in your own mind about what is the best method for your children, be careful about judging other Christian parents who might reach a different conclusion about how best to educate their children. As the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.” (Chapter 20.2) Be careful that you do not seek to pressure your fellow believers into following your own educational method, even if you are strongly convinced it is the best one, lest you be guilty of binding their consciences where God in His Word has left it free.
Thirdly, recognize that educational circumstances can vary widely, which ought to allow for a variety of educational methods.
I think here we need to recognize that circumstances vary. Let’s face it: Not all parents are equally equipped or competent to home school their children. Some would be great at homeschooling their children; others would be lousy at it. It is true that homeschooled students tend to academically outperform their public-schooled peers. This is one of several reasons why my wife and I have chosen to homeschool our son from the beginning. But while homeschooling has worked for us, I can think of Christian parents who have chosen to homeschool, but the choice has seemed to me to be an unwise one, even potentially harmful to their homeschooled child given the circumstances.
Furthermore, not all family circumstances even allow for the same kinds of educational options. For example, some Christian parents live in poor or lower middle class circumstances where both parents have no choice but to work full time just to make ends meet, and therefore the only realistic option they have for the education of their children is the public school. Whereas other Christian parents have the means and circumstances to choose from a number of educational options.
In addition, not all public schools are equally good or equally bad. For example, let us be honest that there are some school districts where academic standards are abysmal, and where students are at high risk of bullying, gang violence, drugs, and other significant dangers. Parents of children living within such dangerous and failed school districts would be well-advised, if at all possible, to either move to a safer school district or to seek alternative methods of education (private school, Christian school, home school). But other school districts uphold high academic standards and encompass communities that are safer and more Christian friendly. Should Christian parents who reside within these better school districts be judged as “offering their children to Molech” if they choose to send their children to the local public school? I should think not.
Again, parental gifts and providential circumstances vary greatly. In the debate over educational philosophy this fact ought to temper all tendencies to be overly-dogmatic in arguing in favor of any one specific educational method.
Finally, when it comes to issues where sincere, Bible-believing, orthodox Christians may differ (like the issue of educational philosophy), let charity and brotherly kindness abound toward fellow believers with whom we disagree.
As Saint Augustine said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This is not to suggest that the debate in Christian circles over educational philosophy is unimportant. Not at all! How Christian parents choose to educate their covenant children is a profoundly important decision, one that parents would be wise to think through with the utmost prayer and care. But it ought not to be a boundary marker of orthodoxy, or a test of Christian fellowship in the church, or something that is elevated to the same level of importance as (say) the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or the resurrection of Christ. By all means, let believers study this matter, and where there are differences of conviction let respectful dialogue and even friendly, lively debate occur. But in the end, where strong differences of conviction remain, let us believe the best about those with whom we might disagree over educational philosophy, and let us esteem them highly as fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord in spite of our differences. Let us “agree to disagree,” and let us seek to do so agreeably.(2)
(1) Orthodox Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians believe that God’s covenant of grace is administered along the lines of successive generations (see Genesis 17:7; Acts 2:39; First Corinthians 7:14b; etc.). That is why we believe in applying the sign of the covenant — which today is the sacrament of holy baptism — to the children of professing Christians. Because the children of believers are part of God’s covenant and church, and have received baptism as the sign of the covenant, we often refer to them as “covenant children.”
(2) Back in September of 2015 the crew at “Mortification of Spin” (Carl Trueman, Todd Pruitt, Aimee Byrd) took on the issue of homeschooling versus public schooling in their podcast, entitled “The Breakfast Club”. In my opinion it was a very balanced and helpful discussion of the issue. You can listen to the podcast here: http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/podcast/38288