Marcie and I have two children. Our son will be four in the fall, and we began to ask ourselves what we should do about his education. How do we make this crucial decision? What guidance is there for us in the Scriptures and in our church? What does good, biblical education look like?
Unfortunately, like so many others in our position, we found precious few answers that were satisfactory or well-grounded. Instead, we received opinionated quick fixes and from-the-hip answers to questions we didn’t really ask. Few topics, it seems, are more polarizing or opinion-evoking than the question of educating Christian children.
The conclusions below are partly the fruit of an interview with three men familiar with this topic: Joel Belz, founder of World magazine, who has been involved in private Christian schools for several decades; Dr. Michael Farris, co-founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association and founding president of Patrick Henry College, who homeschooled all 10 of his children with his wife; and Dr. Nelson Jennings, professor of world missions at Covenant Theological Seminary, who, with his wife, has seen all of his children through public schools as an involved parent. These men spoke at length about the three basic models of education.
One thing was clear from the start: Joel Belz was right when said “what the Church most needs is to learn how to talk civilly about God’s commands to us about educating our children.”
The Purpose of Education: Shalom
It is hard to overstate the purpose of education—not because of its complexity, but because of its significance. At its most basic, education is about knowledge and truth. These cannot be divorced from God (Proverbs 1:7; John 8:31-32), yet knowledge of the truths of God alone is not enough—this, we’re told in 1 Corinthians 8:1 can lead to arrogance. Knowledge of truth must be applied, even lived. We call the living out of truth “wisdom” (Proverbs 1:1-7). Wisdom is not simply knowing and understanding God’s truth, but knowing God Himself (Micah 6:9). Indeed, God is the very source of wisdom (Proverbs 2:6-7).
The wisdom defined by the Scriptures implies a complete worldview, an ability to discern and think critically about the world around us. Such wisdom has a purpose: to bring peace, fellowship, and right relationships to all, even those outside of the Church. Even creation itself is restored to a proper place in the life of man, a place where understanding, benefit, and stewardship are harmonized. Some call this “shalom.”
And this, ultimately, is the purpose and goal of education. We educate to bring about the restoration of souls, selves, communities, and creation into the majesty they were created to be. “The goal for which Christian educators are to teach,” said Nicolas Wolterstorff in his book Educating for Shalom, “is that our students be agents and celebrators of shalom, petitioners and mourners.”
The responsibility for ensuring that this takes place rests squarely on the shoulders of parents. But it is also shared by the wider Christian community. We have a function and place in each others’ lives, and in the lives of one anothers’ children. Our own baptismal vows affirm this when we commit to “undertake the responsibility of assisting the parents in the Christian nurture of this child” (BCO 56-5).
Any responsibility beyond that—for example, a responsibility born by the civic community—is not immediately clear from Scripture. (But neither is it explicitly clear that it is forbidden.)
What is clear, however, is that the responsibility is not the parents’ to bear alone; the Church also plays a significant role.
The effectiveness of education is measured by its fruit: children who grow into mature Christian adults and apply the truths of God (3 John 4). In short, we know we have educated effectively when we have educated for shalom.
Deuteronomy 6 describes this completely: God has commanded us to teach our children (vs. 1-3, 7-9) the truths about Him (v. 4) and to love Him (v. 5) in order that we might prosper in God’s blessing (vs. 10-15) and be faithful to Him (vs. 16-19) and that our children may understand that God has delivered us (vs. 20-25).
Having considered these foundational ideas, let’s take an honest look at each of the three models: private Christian schools, homeschooling, and public schools.
Private Christian Schools: The freedom to discuss God and faith openly
Private Christian schools present an obviously good option. They offer the potential to fulfill the goal of educating for shalom. The freedom to discuss God and faith openly in the classroom and to engage the varied disciplines from a distinctly Christian perspective certainly opens the door for fulfillment academically.
Class size, and the number of students in a school generally, are important when it comes to the discipleship of students. The smaller classroom and overall student-body sizes can be a nice balance between homeschooling and public schools. Where in public schools, classes are often too large for even the most godly teacher to have much personal impact, private Christian schools often have small classes that allow teachers to have deep relationships with their students.
Yet these classes still represent the diversity of a group that homeschooling sometimes misses. “To have a well-rounded group of trusted Christians thinking about economics, law, architecture, home economics—to have Christian thinking in a way that builds on the past—I think that is what the community of faith offers,” said Joel Belz.
Still, some substantial concerns arise in private Christian schools. “In the early years, people doubted that the schools would succeed academically. They were confident in the spiritual strength but not the academic strength,” said Belz. “Now the question is, do they hold onto the hearts of the kids?” Combine this problem with the push for excellence in academics and extracurricular activities that surrounds the culture of many private schools and you have a recipe for disaster. If the schools do, indeed, fail to hold onto the hearts of the kids, then the result is often legalism and arrogance. Rather than living in shalom, students live in a “who is holier” hyper-individualism.
Another significant problem facing some Christian schools is that of parents taking “in loco parentis” too far. Some parents will abandon their responsibilities once their students are enrolled in a Christian school, wrongly believing that the work is all done for them.
Cost is another problem. Even the least expensive schools charge tuition rates that are out of reach for many families. Full-time enrollment can easily reach into the thousands of dollars for most schools, and tuition exceeding $10,000 for secondary schools is not unheard of.
High tuition costs also contribute to the problematic lack of diversity. So many private Christian schools are uniformly populated with white, suburban, upper-middle class students. If we are educating for shalom, then where is the social, ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that must be present?
Homeschooling: Parental involvement and authority
For many, homeschooling is the defining paradigm of the discipleship of children. There is much to support this position. There is no better way for parents to remain in a prominent position of involvement and authority in the education of their children. “What they’re learning is the tools of learning,” says Michael Farris, “and homeschooling allows you to do that in an atmosphere that furthers Christian discipleship.”
While some say that homeschooling is the only truly faithful way to educate children, this position is difficult to accept. Farris agrees: “As they pass from children into the adult phase—and each parent needs to decide for themselves when their child hits that phase—I think there is room and benefit for other Christian voices to enter into the child’s education.”
Homeschooling also has practical drawbacks. “Homeschooling is an incredible amount of hard work,” said Michael Farris. “For some, it is too hard—they shouldn’t be homeschooling.” That hard work brings with it the question of ability. Can we home-school our children to the level that they need us to? Henry Vanston of St. Louis, Mo., said, “We homeschooled our son throughout elementary school. However, as we approached seventh grade it became obvious that somebody would need to go to school in order to see him through graduation.”
As with private Christian schools, cost is also an issue for homeschooling. The loss of a second income is difficult in today’s economic climate. And while a second income is possible with private Christian schools—the parent can work while the children are in school—it isn’t possible when the parents are the teachers.
There can also be a social/relational problem with homeschooling—that students do not learn daily lessons about their place in a larger community. They don’t learn lessons of selflessness and self-denial, or of obligation and contribution to a community. The lesson that “it’s not all about me” is a lifelong lesson, but it needs to start as early as possible, and both public schools and private Christian schools teach this in a way that homeschooling sometimes does not.
Public Schools: A step toward shalom that’s hard to find elsewhere
At first glance, public schools may strike Christians familiar with the goal of educating for shalom as antithetical to that goal. There are additional obstacles facing public schools that are absent for private Christian schools or homeschooling. But in way, public schools offer a step toward shalom that is hard to find in the other two models.
Unquestionably, one of the greatest burdens of shalom is that of unity among diversity. The recent surge in interest in racial reconciliation, social justice, and cultural diversity attests to their need in a shalomic Church. Public schools represent a virtual lab for discovering and developing tools for living Christianly in a world of diversity. “State schools are not all darkness,” said Jennings, “and as Christian people we live in the world. In public schools, students forge Christian thinking within the context of a plurality of thought.”
Some, therefore, have made the conscientious choice to send their students to public schools. They may choose public education because of available specialization in an academic discipline, or for superior arts or athletics programs.
A student gifted in the performing arts, for example, may find public education the only available outlet with substantial programs to develop these gifts, as few private Christian schools have arts programs on the same level as good public programs. One pastor’s daughter I know was thankful to attend a public school, since it was a magnet school focused on dance. She later attended college on a dance scholarship, mostly because of the training she received at school that she could never have afforded elsewhere.
Some choose public schools because, in the right circumstances, the education is actually good. And within that education, some find that their student’s faith is strengthened, rather than being stripped from them. “My education has forced me to strengthen my faith,” said Wendy Jennings, Nelson Jennings’ daughter. “I have never had a teacher tell me that Christianity is irrelevant. They just teach all of the different views and opinions, which has given me great insight into my friends’ beliefs and opinions.”
Perhaps the most compelling argument for enrolling students in public school, is that it is, ostensibly, free. For families where the financial cost of private Christian schools or homeschooling is unattainable, public schools are the only option.
Nevertheless, the shalom-hindering problems facing families who send their children to public schools are substantial. “I appreciate the point that public schools are not all darkness,” said Joel Belz. “But that is not the way I want to describe the place where I want my grandchildren to be— ‘not all darkness.’ I worry that many think about state schools in a 1950s or 1960s understanding of what they are like.”
Parental involvement in public education takes on a higher level of importance. Not only must parents remain involved for the sake of meeting their own responsibilities, they must also work to supplement and, sometimes, counteract the teaching their students receive. Otherwise, the danger of losing children from the Church is a real one. “My dad used to refer to that as the great bleeding side of the Church,” said Joel Belz. “It is something we don’t talk enough about—the young people that the Church loses every year.”
This loss is not a sure thing, by any means. Attentive parents can do the necessary work to protect their children. “There are remarkable exceptions,” said Michael Farris, “And those exceptions are usually because the parents take an extraordinary amount of time—to their credit and praise—to counteract what the students are getting in the school system.”
On the whole, however, it seems that in most cases public schools are not partners in educating for shalom, but passive co-participants at best, and outspoken opponents at worst. Parents who have no other choice should take care to seek support with other like-minded parents to ensure that they are among the exceptions, not the casualties.
All three models have strengths and weaknesses
On the issue of education, there are no experts and there is no limit to researching the options. All three models have strengths and weaknesses.
If private Christian schools cannot answer, in a manner faithful to Scripture, the questions it faces—and if these questions are not recognized as the challenges immediately before Christian schools for the next generation—then the measure of Christian schools is bleak. If, however, Christian schools can rise to answer these questions faithfully, they represent a hopeful opportunity for the future of the Church.
Homeschooling, like private Christian schools, represents a great opportunity for the Church in coming generations. As with Christian schools, however, there are questions and concerns that must be answered with faithfulness to Scripture if homeschooling is to meet the goal of educating for shalom. First and foremost, the homeschooling community must work toward a greater partnership with the institutional Church, welcoming the blessings offered by it.
The bottom line on public schools appears to be this: There are some contexts and circumstances that make public schools a good option, and even a preferable one. There are also, however, many circumstances that make them a difficult choice at best. As hard as it may be to justify enrolling children in public schools, though, it is equally difficult to claim that others who do so have made the wrong decision.
Will we learn to discuss these issues? Will we be able to accept the decisions of one another? Will we learn to deal with each other graciously and lovingly? An appropriate closing admonition comes from Walter Chantry in The Shadow of the Cross:
“You must be more charitable to others than you are to yourself. You have no access to a fellow Christian’s heart, no ability to test his inward devotion to the Lord, which is the all important matter in using things indifferent. But you can scrutinize your own heart. You can examine your inner man to detect your own motives and aims for every act. Paul brings you back to this point: ‘None of us liveth to himself.’ All is ‘unto the Lord.’”
Ed Eubanks, Jr., a recent graduate of Covenant Seminary, lives in St. Louis with his family where he is the director of administration and development at Wildwood Christian School.
Asking the right questions
We often ask about whether one model is always right or wrong, or biblical or unbiblical. These are the wrong questions. The questions that do matter are these:
• Biblically, what is the purpose of education? What is the goal?
• Who is responsible for educating children? What does this mean for its practice?
• What makes good education “good”? How can it be measured?
“The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight– a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
Cornelius Plantinga, NOT the Way It’s Supposed to Be (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), p. 10.
Educated in the totality of knowledge, culture and life
In 1982 Francis Schaeffer delivered a short speech on the nature and purpose of Christian education. He concluded his remarks by saying:
True Christian education is not a negative thing; it is not a matter of isolating the student from the full scope of knowledge. Isolating the student from large sections of human knowledge is not the basis of a Christian education. Rather it is giving him or her the framework or total truth, rooted in the Creator’s existence and in the Bible’s teaching, so that in each step of the formal learning process the student will understand what is true and what is false and why it is true or false. It is not isolating students from human knowledge. It is teaching them in a framework of the total biblical teaching, beginning with the tremendous central thing, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. It is teaching in this framework, so that on their own level, as they are introduced to all of human knowledge, they are not introduced in the midst of a vacuum, but they are taught each step along the way why what they are hearing is either true or false. That is true education.
The student, then, is an educated person…who will have the tools to keep learning. Is life dull? How can it be dull? No, a true education, a Christian education, is …giving the tools in the opening the doors to all human knowledge, in the Christian framework so they …can keep learning as long as they live, and enjoy, really enjoy, the whole wrestling through field after field of knowledge. That is what an educated person is.
In short, Christian education should produce students more educated in the totality of knowledge, culture, and life, than non-Christian education rooted in a false view of truth. The Christian education should end with a better-educated boy and girl and man and woman, than the false could ever produce. Protecting the Christian school must carry with it more than the negative; it should produce a superior education in all areas of human knowledge.
Copyright by Francis A. Schaeffer, 1982, “Priorities 1982.”
What Is the Church’s Obligation to Public Schools?
Regardless of a family’s particular perspective on the educational models, there is a responsibility for Christians and the Church to be involved in improving public education. “I believe it is the responsibility of Christian adults to do as much as they can to make public schools as good as they can possibly be,” said Michael Farris.
That obligation stems from the “common grace” that we share with non-believers, and from our shared citizenship in this world. “It is a matter of public good for education to be as good as it can be,” said Nelson Jennings, “And the way that public education has developed in our society and around the world, is that these systems do have a role to play.”
“As people who live in the world and care about our communities,” said Jennings, “there is a privilege and responsibility for helping the wider education in our communities—be that in a school board meeting, PTA, or other levels.”