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The biblical and historical basis for parental rights

With the onset of parenthood, couples suddenly find that this new role is now dominating their lives. Children have become a central factor in how time and money are spent, and these same children also become a source of anxiety. Are they okay? Are they alright? The well-being of their children becomes an overwhelming feature of parents’ lives.

Parents want what’s best for their children so the decisions they make are with this objective in mind. Christian parents will want their children to be instructed about God and his Word because they understand that spiritual matters are of the greatest concern. This normally includes education in a Christian school or homeschooling.

Historically, in the English-speaking democracies, parents’ ability to choose Christian education for their children has frequently received widespread support. Of course, parents can choose what education their children are to receive! Who else could make that kind of decision?

Sadly, there are threats on the horizon. Powerful forces in the media and various governments are increasingly suspicious about parental influence in education. These kinds of threats make it imperative for Christian parents to understand the basis of their rights in making authoritative decisions for their children.

One excellent source of information is American lawyer John Whitehead’s 1985 book entitled Parents’ Rights. Many of the matters he discusses in the book are dated because it was written thirty years ago. But the biblical and historical information he provides about parental rights are still valid and useful to know today.

The Bible

In the Bible, God has ordained three key institutions: the family, the church, and the state. Each one has specific roles and responsibilities. Each one also has specific powers and authority. However, the power and authority are not inherent in the institutions themselves but are delegated by God. Family, church and state have “derivative” authority from God – it comes from Him. Therefore the authority they exercise must always be used in accordance with God’s revealed will. There is no just authority that can be exercised in opposition to God’s truth.

To which of the three institutions did God give the oversight and care of children? Clearly, it is the family. Already in the first chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply. Whitehead notes:

“Not only is there a command to have children, but there is the teaching that children are from God. When Eve had borne a child, she recognized that she had not done this alone and understood that the Creator was the ultimate source of the child. She said: “I have gotten a man from the Lord.”

In Genesis 33:5, Genesis 48:9 and Joshua 24:3-4, it is explicitly stated that children are given by God. As Whitehead explains:

“These verses indicate that children are given by God to families and not inanimate institutions or governments. Not only are children given, but they are also called gifts and blessings: “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward.” As such, children are not just given to any family. The implication is that specific children are given to particular parents as a gift from God.”

The centrality of the family in the raising of children is further buttressed by the primacy of the family as an institution:

“The family was the first institution created by God, even before the state. Because it was the first, it can be considered to be the foundational institution upon which all others are built.”


John Whitehead is American, so the historical discussion he provides about parental rights is primarily about the United States. Nevertheless, the USA is part of the broader Anglo-American culture (“Anglosphere”) that shares legal precepts descended from Britain. The other Anglosphere countries have operated under the same basic principles.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, Puritan settlers from England began arriving in the North American colonies. This area became known as New England. Later in the century the colonies adopted laws requiring children to learn to read and to be catechized. It was clearly recognized that teaching children was the responsibility of parents and these laws reinforced that fact. As Whitehead points out,

“All of these enactments were concerned simply with the basic education of children, and should not, therefore, be confused with modern compulsory education laws which require classroom attendance at state-approved schools.”

Parents in the colonies did, in fact, take their responsibility seriously and children learned to read on a wide scale. “At the time of the Revolution, literacy rates had reached unprecedented heights, and by 1800 literacy was virtually universal.” That is, decades before the public school system was created in the USA, almost everyone (excluding slaves, unfortunately) could read and write in that country. Universal literacy was not the result of public education.

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) has been one of the most influential political philosophers in the history of the English-speaking world. He was the key philosopher behind the founding of the United States, and his thought underlays many early American documents and institutions. Although there is a debate over the degree to which Locke reflects a genuine Christian perspective, there are some clear biblical ideas in his work.

Locke understood that God had created the world and everything in it. As Whitehead explains, Locke saw children as being the creation of God:

“Therefore, instead of belonging to their parents, children belong to the Creator. Parents, then, hold children in trust for God. This means that parents, as stewards, are to take care of their children for God. The child must be raised to live the sort of life which is pleasing to the Creator.”

Children, of course, are born without the ability to take care of themselves or make decisions for their lives. They will eventually develop those capacities and become independent adults. But in the meantime, it is necessary for the parents to care for them and take steps to see that they grow morally and mentally into responsible individuals. As Locke saw things:

“the child’s weakness is a source of parental authority, which in turn is a source of parental obligation. Thus, parents are under a God-mandated obligation to “preserve, nourish, and educate” their children. This is not a choice parents have. The obligation is not to the child, but to God.”

In other words, parents are accountable to God, first and foremost, for how they raise their children. The children are really God’s children entrusted to the parents, so those parents must answer to Him for their child-rearing efforts.

The courts

Locke’s perspective on the position of parents reflects the Christian thought that dominated the US during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whitehead states that, “it was this parental authority and obligation that was embedded in the law and protected by the courts.”

Whitehead discusses particular American court cases from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that demonstrate how strongly parental rights were upheld in common law. He summarizes the situation thusly:

“Parental power, the early court decisions indicate, is essentially plenary. This means it should prevail over the claims of the state, other outsiders, and the children themselves ‘unless there is some compelling justification for interference.'”

It is important to note that the erosion of parental rights that has occurred in recent decades is strongly related to the decline of Christianity in the USA and in the other Western countries as well. This is reflected in American court decisions:

“The older cases specifically noted that they were relying on Christian principles. However, the modern phobia over the separation of church and state prevents any reference to the Christian principles in terms of them being truth.”

Parental rights were historically based on Christian ideals. As the Christian basis of the West has deteriorated, the foundation for parental rights has weakened as a result.

There is still some support for parental rights in the USA and other countries like Canada. But Whitehead thinks that continuing support is best explained as being part of “the cultural memory” of the past “when the Christian idea that children are gifts from God was an assumed principle.”


Whitehead suggests that there are two key commitments Christians must make if they are to secure parental rights. “The first is, of course, the commitment to be good parents.” Parents must raise their children in accordance with God’s loving commands and expectations. In other words, parents must take their responsibilities and obligations seriously if they want their parental rights to be recognized.

“Second, as Christians, we must be committed to stand strong for the truth.” Parental rights are ultimately rooted in Christianity, so it is especially incumbent upon Christians to advocate for them. The purpose and rationale for parental rights need to be explained.

In the end, parental rights are not primarily for the benefit of parents, but for the benefit of children. Children need the loving care of their parents. No institution can take the place of the family in the lives of children. As Whitehead puts it, “The state is simply, and will always be, a poor and ineffective parental substitute.”

This first appeared in the June 2015 issue.


"Be Fruitful and Multiply" tour comes to Albertan April 19-22

Families are having fewer babies, and the world’s population is expected to peak and then decline later this century. The world isn’t prepared for the impact that this is going to have. However, what may be the greatest challenge of this century can also be a huge opportunity for the Church to shine…. if we embrace the blessing of children, and are prepared to raise them faithfully.

In this presentation, Reformed Perspective’s Mark Penninga will unpack data, history, and God’s Word to make the case for embracing the gift of children with open arms.


Ages 16-116, single or married, children or no children, these presentations are suitable for all mature Christians.


Edmonton: April 19 at 7:30 pm at Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church

Barhead: April 20 at 7:30 pm at Emmanuel United Reformed Church

Ponoka: April 22 at 7:30 pm at Parkland Reformed Church


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Christian education

Christian education as violation of children’s “human rights”

Two topics that are commonly discussed in Reformed Perspective are Christian education and the modern notion of “human rights.” Christian education is a good thing, of course, and its supporters need to be encouraged. On the other hand, the phrase “human rights” is too frequently used as a cover for anti-Christian positions on abortion and homosexuality. Now what happens when Christian education and “human rights” are thrown together? An outcome that is bad for Christians, that’s what. Christian education and the modern notion of “human rights” don’t fit well together. Diminishing parents The clash of so-called “human rights” and Christian education is discussed by American law professor Martha Albertson Fineman in an article entitled “Taking Children’s Interests Seriously.” She is a “children’s rights” proponent. But children are too immature to exercise their rights, so “children’s rights” are commonly used to empower government officials at the expense of parental rights. From a Christian perspective, we know parental rights should be paramount in education. But Fineman certainly doesn’t think so. She says that an emphasis on parental rights in education can be an obstacle to children’s best interests. For example, it is assumed by many that parents are in the best position to determine which school subjects and methods of preparation are most likely to prepare their children for the future. But that assumption is flawed, according to Fineman. As she sees it, that “type of expertise is almost certainly within the province of certified teachers and school boards, not parents." In fact, having parents making decisions is seen as a problem: “Certain parental decisions can create handicaps and inhibit a child’s entry into the secular and complex world in which she or he must live and function as an adult.” In her view, it makes much more sense for educational decisions to be made by public education professionals. Parents don’t really know very much, after all. Why allow them to make the important decisions? Besides, the parents are clearly up to no good, at least those who send their children to Christian schools: "Parents in these contexts are often part of a larger religious or ideological community, a community with an independent interest in and intent to indoctrinate children. Such communities conspire with member parents to separate their children from diverse secular, and therefore competing and dangerous, alternatives." So, those of you reading this who send your children to a Christian school are, in her view, conspiring with church leaders against secular society. Mandatory public education? To fix this situation, Fineman thinks that “human rights” rather than parental rights should be the paramount consideration in educational decision-making. Her perspective reflects that of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which, in a 2006 ruling, upheld a decision by authorities in Germany to prevent a Christian couple from home schooling their children. The ECHR said that home schooling would violate the children’s right to education. Fineman warmly welcomed this decision, noting that the "approach of the ECHR provides a competing framework for making decisions regarding the educational and social welfare of the child: that of the best interests of the child, as evaluated through the paradigm of human rights." In this view, educational decisions must be made in light of “the child’s interest in the diversity and independence-conferring potential of a secular and public education.” By allowing parents the option of selecting private Christian education for their children, the children’s interests are being neglected, according to Fineman: “Indeed, the long-term consequences for the child of being home schooled or sent to a private school cannot be overstated.” Think of the specific consequences for female students, for example. Fineman cites one notable study which: "has exposed the ways in which private Christian schools instill sexist beliefs into children and pressure young girls into traditional patriarchal roles rather than professional careers." That’s right. Girls in Christian schools are taught that being wives and mothers is a worthy and meaningful role in life. They are encouraged in this direction rather than being steered towards rewarding professional or business careers. But what about their “human rights”? Who’s watching out for the interests of these girls? Clearly it’s not their parents, who are allowing them to be guided towards the demeaning and worthless roles of wives and mothers. What should be done about this? Well, the choice is obvious for Fineman. In her view, the solution “for our current educational dilemma is that public education should be mandatory and universal.” What she is demanding comes down to this: secular humanism is the truth, with its various permutations of feminism and “diversity” (read: homosexuality) therefore all children should go to schools where the truth is taught, namely, public schools. In this way the children’s interests and “human rights” will be protected. When two worldviews collide Of course, what she calls “human rights” sounds more like “might makes right” to a Christian. A secular humanist government should (in Fineman’s view) force all children to learn secular humanism in its schools. This is not really a case of “human rights” versus oppression, but an issue of one worldview versus another. From a Christian perspective, using the power of the state to force all children to attend secular humanist public schools does not advance “human rights” one bit; quite the contrary, in fact. Fineman opposes the Christian worldview and wants to ensure that children from Christian homes are taught her worldview instead. This is what’s really involved in her proposal. She would not see it this way because for her, secular humanism is the one true religion and she wants everyone to believe it. I don’t say that to demean her — everyone has a religious perspective they consider to be true. But she doesn’t seem to be self-conscious of this or the implications. Conclusion Originally, human rights involved protecting people from the state. In recent decades a new perspective of “human rights” has arisen that involves using the power of the state for social engineering. This is Fineman’s conception of human rights. So when the issues of Christian education and “human rights” are mixed together, the outcome is bad for Christians. For those with a social-engineering view of “human rights,” Christianity is oppressive and Christian children need the “independence-conferring potential of a secular and public education” as Fineman puts it. If academics like Fineman continue to promote this agenda, it may be that Christians will need to defend their schools from accusations of “human rights” violations. This first appeared in the November 2012 issue under the title "For the sake of the children?"...