A few years back I was privileged to join my colleague André Schutten in making presentations to Reformed churches and schools across Canada. We were talking about the political and legal challenges we are seeing against parental authority in education, and in preparing for these presentations I did some research into what Reformed Christians believe about who is primarily responsible for the education of children.
I had assumed that there was a common perspective about parental authority, in light of covenant theology. I was wrong.
Who calls the shots – the Church or parents?
The church orders of the Reformed denominations in Canada can be traced back to the Synod of Dort Church Order drafted in 1618-1619. Article 21 of this document stated that:
The consistories everywhere shall see to it that there are good schoolteachers, not only to teach the children reading, writing, languages, and the liberal arts, but also to instruct them in godliness and in the catechism.
Article 44 adds,
The classis shall authorize a number of its ministers… to visit all the churches once a year, in cities as well as in rural districts, and to take heed whether the ministers, consistories, and school teachers faithfully perform the duties of their offices, adhere to sound doctrine…
What this means is that churches are assumed to have authority over schools, at least when it comes to deciding who teaches and what is taught.
In my research I discovered that the Netherlands Reformed Congregations (NRC) in Canada uphold this 1619 Church Order, and as such, have officially church-run schools. But they are a rarity.
So what do the church orders of the other Reformed denominations say? The Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) have Article 58, which states:
The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions.
Parents are entrusted with the authority to have their children attend a faithful school, though churches are to encourage them in this.
The United Reformed Church’s (URC) version of the Church Order, in Article 14, notes that elders “are to maintain the purity of the Word and Sacraments, assist in catechizing the youth, promote God-centered schooling…” As such, it is similar to the CanRC Church Order but it does not insist that schooling is in accordance with the Reformed confessions.
The 2012 Proposed Joint Church Order of the CanRC and URC churches does a great job combining these by calling on the consistory to “promote schooling at all levels that is in harmony with the Word of God as summarized the Three Forms of Unity.” This creates space for home schooling and also requires conformity to the Reformed confessions.
The Free Reformed Churches have a common theological heritage as the NRCs, but their Church Order has changed on this matter. Article 54 states:
The Consistories shall see to it that the parents, in harmony with the promises made at the baptism of their children, have them taught at schools where the instruction is in accordance with the Word of God and the Three Forms of Unity.
Like the CanRC Church Order, there is explicit mention made that the schooling must be in accordance with the Reformed Confessions.
Are the church orders true to life?
These various church orders do seem to reflect the type of education that we commonly see occurring among families in these denominations. NRC congregations have set up their own church-directed schools. Apart from the Roman Catholic schools, this model is very rare in Canada today.
Members of CanRC churches have started schools where the majority of the students are also CanRC. However, more recently the direction has shifted to working with parents of other orthodox Reformed churches in starting and maintaining schools.
URC churches recently came out of the CRC and as a result many of the children still attend non-denominational Christian schools, though a more recent move is towards explicitly Reformed schools like Heritage Christian School in Jordan, Ontario.
FRC parents don’t have as many options as they have fewer churches. But they work together with NRC, Heritage Reformed, and parents of other church backgrounds to maintain confessional Reformed schools.
All of these Reformed denominations recognize a responsibility for churches when it comes to promoting solid education, but most have moved far away from the 1619 model in which the churches had direct authority and responsibility over schools.
Schooling according to the Bible
One big reason for the difference of perspective on the role of the church in education is because the Bible has very little to say about schooling. There is no mention of schools in Scriptures. The same is true of education in an institutional sense for children in general.
Does this mean that the Bible has nothing to say about education? No. But it does mean that our modern understanding of education is foreign to Bible times. Through the lens of the Bible, life itself is education. In other words, education is not limited to a specific setting or a time in our life. It starts when we are born and never ends. This is important because institutional education has become an industry in the Western world. We associate it with certificates, diplomas, and degrees. But as valuable as these may be, if we think they are necessary for education then the Bible says we are missing the mark.
Making the tough choices
At the baptismal font, parents promise to raise their children in the fear of the Lord as soon as these children are able to understand. The schooling they choose for their child should be consistent with this promise and with the preaching they get from the pulpit.
This raises the question of how far a church can go when there is disagreement between elders and parents of what constitutes “godly schooling.” It is not uncommon for parents in a church to send their children to different schools. And when the consistory addresses the parent’s choice, it can quickly become a sensitive and difficult conversation.
In our postmodern world, we don’t like being told that the choice we make is right or wrong. In fact, even being questioned about our choices in education can get our hackles up. This is a sensitive issue. For example, after one of the ARPA presentations about legal challenges in education I was quite surprised when one homeschooling mom told me that this was the very first time she heard some of our points – about the centrality of parental authority in education and the dangers of teaching within the state-directed education system – being made within the walls of the particular church we were presenting in and which she was a member of. She explained that they had tried to raise related issues for years but most people would refuse to consider it. Although homeschooling seems to have strong biblical support, apparently discussing it at her Reformed church was not welcomed.
All of the church orders mentioned previously are consistent in ascribing elders with the responsibility of holding parents to account about their decision for how they educate their children. The reality is that in this part of life, as everywhere else, there can be many temptations to pursue what we want rather than what is best. The desire to attend a school that has better facilities, teachers, academic standards, sports programs, shop classes, etc. can lead us to compromise how these things are taught. On the flip side, we are wrong if we think our only educational option is a school that has the name “Reformed” on it or that, in its constitution, says it is based on the Reformed confessions. There is much more to education than a name or a constitution. And from another angle, just because education is being done in the home does not make it godly or quality.
The Bible does not insist that schooling has to be institutional (ie within the walls of a school). But it does make it clear that all education has to be in harmony with God’s Word, and our Church Orders make it clear that the consistory has a responsibility in this regard.
Questions for the readers
In an effort to spark some public discussion about this, I would like to submit the following questions with the hope that some of Reformed Perspective’s readers will respond via letters to the editor or article submissions:
- While homeschooling isn’t specifically mentioned in most Reformed church orders, should we assume it to be implicitly included (as just another type of school)? Or should it be included explicitly? Why or why not?
- How should consistories go about ensuring that education being done in a homeschool is godly and in line with the Reformed confessions
- Some Reformed families send their children to public schools (also in places where Reformed and Christian schools do exist). From the context of what is outlined in the church orders, can this be defended? Some Reformed families send their children to non-denominational Christian schools, also in places where an orthodox Reformed school is present. Should the church speak to this through preaching, prayers, and visits? If so, how?
- Some Reformed families send their children to Reformed schools and believe this completes their parental educational responsibilities. What more is required of them? How can the consistory and Church best go about explaining that to them?
- Some schools are structured as parental schools but go by the name of a church federation (ex. the Hope Canadian Reformed School). What happens when the direction of the parents/board of the school conflicts with the direction of the church that these parents have implicitly or explicitly tied themselves to (ex. in choice of Bible translations)? What are the blessings and dangers of a parental school going by the name of a church federation?