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Christian education

School: who should rule?

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. CHURCH 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. PARENTS 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? ...

Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction

The Quest for Comfort: the story of the Heidelberg Catechism

by William Boekestein 2011, 32 pages, $10 US A while back I had the privilege of reviewing a previous children’s book by this author on the life of Guido de Brès.  I was impressed with Faithfulness Under Fire.  It was not only accurate, but also well-written and artfully illustrated.  The Quest for Comfort follows the same model and deserves the same accolades. This is a brief account of how the Heidelberg Catechism came to be.  In a simple way, Boekestein shares the stories of Caspar Olevianus, Zacharias Ursinus, and Frederick III.  He tells of how their lives came to be intertwined in that German city along the Neckar River.  Along the way we learn something about the character and structure of the Catechism.  It was designed to be a pastoral teaching tool for the youth of the church and deliberately based on the arrangement of Romans. I read The Quest for Comfort to our four children, a 3-year-old, an 8-year-old, an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old.  They all enjoyed it and it kept their attention.  Our 3-year-old daughter said, “I wuv it Daddy!” I think she probably enjoyed the pictures more than anything else.  But hey, the pictures are well done.  There’s no doubt that Evan Hughes is a gifted illustrator. Kudos to Reformation Heritage Books for publishing these excellent children’s books.  Let’s hope they make it a trilogy with one on the Canons of Dort.  Imagine that:  a children’s book on the Canons of Dort!  Writing and publishing these sorts of books helps keep up the level of confessional consciousness for generations to come.  Obviously what also helps is buying these books for and reading them to our children and grandchildren – and then, from there, teaching them to know the Catechism itself and the biblical truths it contains. ...

Assorted

Confirming what we've always confessed

On March 11, 2015, Classis Ontario West adopted an unusual proposal from Hamilton’s Providence Canadian Reformed Church: Providence wants an addition made to the Belgic Confession. As they explain in their proposal, our confessions differ from Scripture in that they aren’t perfect or sacred…so they can be amended or edited. That has happened in the past: for instance, at the 1905 General Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands a number of words were deleted from Belgic Confession Article 36 “in an effort to better conform to biblical teachings on the role of civil government.” But why would a change need to be made now? Because “the Canadian Reformed Churches presently face a significant doctrinal challenge in the area of origins.” What change does Providence propose? They want to replace the first line of the Belgic Confession’s Article 14 with the following to clarify “our confessional and biblical stance on human origins” (new wording is italicized): We believe that God created the human race by making and forming Adam from dust (Gen. 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22). They were created as the first two humans and are the biological ancestors of all other humans. There were no pre- Adamites, whether human or hominid. God made and formed Adam after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy. As the proposal notes, many believe that our confessions are already quite clear on this topic. However, the fact is some Canadian Reformed academics have joined together to argue that the confessions leave room for a great diversity of views on how mankind came to be. This group, Reformed Academic, includes some very prominent figures: Dr. Arnold Sikkema, Dr. Jitse Van der Meer and Dr. F.G. Oosterhoff. They have a diversity of views amongst themselves, and it can be hard to figure out just what they each believe about Man’s origins. On the group’s blog they have allowed their most outspoken (and clearest) member, Dr. Jitse Van der Meer, to outline what he considered strong evidence for the possibility that man and chimpanzees have a common ancestor. Does that mean Dr. Van der Meer is affirming the evolution of man from some relation of chimps? Well, there is a nit that can be picked here: relating strong evidence for evolution is not necessarily the same thing as affirming evolution. As Dr. Sikkema noted in a response to the proposal, even a creationist like Dr. Todd Wood has acknowledged that there are strong evidences for evolution. But, of course, there is acknowledging and there is acknowledging. While both Reformed Academic and Dr. Wood acknowledge the evidence for evolution only Dr. Wood acknowledges that God created Man over six literal days and not via a process that involved pre-Adamites and millennia upon millennia of death, disease, and disaster, which He thereafter declared “good.” Context is key. In his response to the proposal Dr. Sikkema argued that Providence Church had misrepresented him in supporting materials by labeling him a “theistic evolutionist”: I don’t “believe in evolution.” It’s not about belief. I don’t believe in Einstein’s theory of gravity either, but I do believe in a good, loving, and covenantally faithful Triune God… Dr. Sikkema uses the term “belief” here in the sense of “place my hope in.” In that sense he believes in God, but not evolution or Einstein’s theory of gravity. However, no Christian anywhere “places their hope” in evolution, so if that is what it means to “believe in evolution” it is not surprising Dr. Sikkema rejects the label “theistic evolutionist.” As he has redefined the term it can’t be applied to anyone at all. But what if we give the term a more reasonable definition? What if we say a theistic evolutionist is "someone who argues that God-directed evolution is a legitimate possibility"? Then the term applies. In a joint blog post (responding to the charge that, “evolution falls outside the tent of the Reformed confessions” Dr. Sikkema and the other members of Reformed Academic wrote: …God-directed evolution does not exclude the direct creation of Adam, because everything that happens is under God’s direct control. Therefore, theistic evolution is not outside the boundaries of the Three Forms of Unity . Other objections have already been raised, some of note (an edit will be needed to acknowledge that Eve, too, was made in God’s image), but very few of which wrestle with what is at stake here. To paraphrase Douglas Wilson, did Adam bring death into the world (Romans 5:12) or did millions of years of death and dying bring Adam into the world?Providence’s proposal specifically and clearly rejects the latter and calls upon our churches to do the same. The proposal’s critics are going to fall into one of two camps. There will be: Those who argue it isn’t necessary because they believe the Confession already rules out pre-Adamites. Those who argue it isn’t necessary but who won’t rule out pre-Adamites. If the critics all fall into the first camp, Providence’s proposed addition isn’t needed. Conversely, if there are any who fall into the second camp, that will highlight why we need to clarify our Confession. There will also be some who make a show of being in the first camp with carefully parsed statements such as, “it could be argued that the Confession already rules out evolution.” While that sounds very first camp-ish, it can be a clever way of saying, “some people – not necessarily me, mind you – could argue…” We should view such critics who won’t be clear as strengthening the case for Providence’s clarifying proposal. Lots of work, research, and thought has gone into Providence’s proposal, and you should read it for yourself. It can be found on their website: ProvidenceChurch.ca....