Faith in Focus

Covenantal Education


Roberts Raikes (1735-1811), one of the founders of the Sunday school Movement, had a very interesting and laudable motive. He wanted to see non-Church children in Britain educated. He wanted that, because he knew that education was part of the answer to their poverty. He chose to use the Bible as the textbook the children were going to use to learn how to read and how to write. Raike's motive is an illustration of the sort of motive parents should have for the education of their children. The motive should be that they become educated, but educated according to the Word of God, with the Bible as central to their education. But as soon as you say that, the question arises: How thoroughly and completely do I educate my children according to the Bible? Greg Bahnsen put it like this: "[F]rom the very beginning of history, then especially with the introduction of manís rebellion against God, as well in the light of the fundamental nature of any genuine knowledge, it is a parental duty to train and educate their children, regardless of the subject matter, in the nurture of the Lord and the light of His revelation (Eph. 6:4;Prov.5:1-2; Ps. 39:9; 119:105, 130)." It seems to me that if we are to do justice to our responsibilities as Christian parents, there are two important criteria the parent has to consider in the education of their children.

A learning environment

If you are going to teach your children according to the Bible, then this will need to be understood and agreed upon or defined. You will need a learning environment. By this I mean you need to decide on what outward form you use when you set about educating your children. Will it be the form of a school where other children come and learn with your children, with teachers trained to teach those children? Or will it be in the form of home schooling, where you educate your child at home? It is not my purpose to get into this debate of day school verses home schooling in this brief reflection, except to make a few observations. Home schooling can be a valid choice for some parents. Your choice may be home schooling or a state school, for example. Income limitations might also force you to choose home schooling over other forms of education. However, home schooling is not always successful if the parent(s) lack what it needs to be a good teacher. The ability of the child will also vary. Some children might be better suited to an individualised approach to learning than others. These are some of the issues that affect the choosing of home schooling over other forms. For most people the preferred option will be a day school, which provides skills and opportunities that the parents canít.

There are other forms of schooling usually available in your area, unless you live in a particularly remote part of New Zealand. State schooling is one of them. Again, State schools vary in the type of children who attend and in the quality and beliefs of the teachers. It is possible to find state schools (very rare), which have predominantly, Christian schoolteachers, who require a high standard of behaviour and where the children come from caring and well-disciplined homes. It must also be good that Christians teach in State Schools where they can be salt and light. Another alternative form is that of the local non-denominational Christian school. These may be integrated or fully independent, but either way there will be a mixture of children from Christian and non-Christian homes. The School may be seen by teachers and headmaster as a kind of evangelism opportunity, with a heavy focus on Arminian attempts to 'save' the non-Christian kids by getting them to make a Ďdecisioní, or even perhaps their parents through the children. However, because the school does not like to offend its constituency, a bland kind of approach to the presentation of biblical ideas may be adopted, as it seeks to avoid controversy.

There are usually a lot of positive things that can be said about such schools as well. There is a Christian 'flavour' to the way the teachers interact with the children and there is usually an attempt to integrate some biblical truths with the curriculum. Then there are Church-only schools of which there are two varieties. There are the denominational schools, Anglican, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist and Roman Catholic. The first two are non-evangelical, with a formal nod in the direction of the Christian faith only. Often very high fees are payable making them the preserve of the wealthy and so they offer a kind of protection from some of the elements of society, which are seen as undesirable. The second is more evangelical, but the Churches behind the school hold to some suspect positions, which in the eyes of some, disqualifies them as true churches. The Roman Catholic Schools are integrated, which means they are supported by the taxpayer and although children are not compelled to attend mass or take religious classes, the Roman Catholic distinctives are lying there just below the surface. Attending one of these schools will expose your child to idolatry and other false doctrines - even if in a limited way.

Another variety of Church schools are those schools associated or supported by a single congregation or denomination, which are evangelical to some degree. There are many Pentecostal Churches, who have started such schools. We should place Confessional schools in this category as well. Such schools will teach the Christian faith along the boundaries of doctrine embraced by the parents and board of such a school. Pentecostal schools, for example, might encourage open prayer in the class-room or school assembly to pray for healing of the common cold, or even the 'rebuking' of illness, implying a demonic force behind the sickness. They may or may not be strict with discipline. Their theology will not necessarily mean that they will be severe disciplinarians or overly liberal and tolerant of bad behaviour. Often the character or personality of the teacher defines an approach to discipline.

But the most important distinctive of these schools is that they have already defined their understanding of Christian faith and the way this will under-gird or shape their presentation of knowledge to the children in their charge.

Faithfulness to the Whole Counsel of God

This brings me to the second component, which must be considered, in the education of our children. Your choice of school will ultimately depend on your understanding of this criterion. It is quite simply what you see as the organising principle of the Bible. When we come to the Scriptures, we come to be taught by the Scriptures. These Scriptures teach us about certain interpretative principles, which we must apply to the Bible if we are to truly understand its message. The study and application of these principles of interpretation is called hermeneutics. The science of hermeneutics covers a range of principles, but there is one organising principle, which is foundational if we are to understand the Scriptures. In fact, not only do we need this principle to understand the Scriptures, but also we need it to understand the world in which we live. If as a teacher or parent or school, I donít understand this principle, then obviously I will be at a real disadvantage, because I will not be teaching the children about the world as it truly is. If we don't understand this principle, we don't understand the Scripture, we don't understand the world, and therefore we will not be able to impart, what Francis Schaeffer used to call, true truth. We will not be educating our children with the truth. What is this principle and which Church teaches it? This organising principle is the concept of Covenant. So important is this concept in the Bible, that it can be said to be the main organising principle, which God Himself brings to the Holy Scriptures. This has long been understood by the Churches that find their roots in the New Testament Church, through the light that shone in the 16th century reformation in Geneva. The Covenant idea was recovered, restored to the Church, and spread throughout the world as Reformed Churches took the gospel to the far corners of the earth. There are three main Church groupings who reject this principle of the Covenant and impose another organising principle instead. The Roman Catholic organising principle is a three-fold one. Tradition, an infallible Church and a subordinate Bible combine to produce a system, which our forebears quite correctly rejected as anti-Christ. Many independent and Baptist Churches still wrongly divide the Word of truth with a concept known as dispensationalism. There is no need to discuss this idea at length except to say that it has a tendency to play down the continuity, which exists between the Old, and the New Testaments. It also seriously affects ethics, because dispensationalist Churches will often reject the validity of the Ten Commandments and leave Jesusí ethical teaching in Matthew chapter 5, for a future physical reign of Christ, ruling from a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. A third counterfeit organising principle is the most common and is closely related to the Roman Catholic idea. This is why Pentecostals and others who embrace this principle are increasingly chummy with Rome and will often use people like the Pope and Mother Theresa as examples of fine Christians. This principle is that of experience. If I have a particular experience, which I like, then I must interpret the Bible in the light of that experience. Or it might be put this way: If I have particular needs that I want met, then I interpret the Bible in line with fulfilling those needs. If I need to be entertained and given new experiences, then I must worship God in a way that will bring this about, not in a way that is taught in His Word. My approach to the Bible will then be very pragmatic. Essentially this is no different than Rome, who interprets the Bible in the light of her own human prejudices and theories. It is little different from liberals or other non-Charismatics who also treat the Bible pragmatically, hurriedly sanitising the Bible's rather clear teaching on homosexuality or abortion, and teaching just the opposite. As I said, this is why the Charismatics and the Pope have a lot in common, but also why theological liberals, who reject the miraculous and the inspiration of the Bible, are also happily making overtures to Rome. If your organising system is similar, you will probably arrive at similar conclusions about what truth is, and thus find much in common. But whatever your organising principle happens to be, if it is not the idea of Covenant, it will produce an idolatrous Church and a distorted view of truth in all areas of life. You could argue that Roman Catholics are very anti-abortion, so they can't be all bad. But the point here is that they owe their ethics more to Aristotle than to the Bible. Human philosophy carries greater weight than Divine philosophy.

The Importance of Covenant Theology

Covenant Theology, contains the idea that God deals with mankind by way of Covenant. A Covenant is a solemn agreement between parties that has five essential elements. It is a declaration of the transcendent God. It establishes a hierarchy, God first, Man last. It involves sanctions (Reward for obedience, punishment for disobedience) and a commitment by way of an oath, it has stipulations or ethics. Finally it caters for succession or continuity. These five elements that make up a Covenant can be helpfully summarised with the Acronym THEOS, the Greek word for God. Transcendence, Hierarchy, Ethics, Oath and Succession. It is only when the Church realises that it is in Covenant with God, that she truly understands God's will for her. We will only understand the purpose for the creation of man, in the context of the Covenant God makes with man. Right at the outset, God gave man a mandate, a task to do. That task is described in Genesis 1:28; 2.15 and restated after the Fall in Gen. 9:1,2. In the giving of this mandate we see God's covenantal dealings with man. A transcendent Lord establishes a hierarchy. He gives man, the junior covenantal party, a task to do, an ethical task - to have dominion over God's lower Creation, to populate the earth and subdue it and to make it a place of worship for God. Culture is related to the word cultus, which means worship. Man has a cultural mandate - a command to shape this earth and society into a place of cultus, a place of worship. Man binds himself by an oath to the sanctions of the Covenant as he commits himself to that task Ė the sanctions of blessing and curse. Godís Covenant also has sacraments, which involve a formal oath. To participate in these sacraments is also to make a solemn oath of allegiance to the superior party. Godís grace is also illustrated at the same time in obvious ways in the sacraments of the Bible. When God made man and established a Covenant of works with Adam. He also provided a sacrament, the Tree of Life. This tree like the Lordís Supper was a picture of Christ (See Calvin Comm. Gen. 2:9 and 3:22). As Adam ate the sacramental meal from the Tree, He was pledging allegiance by the proper receiving of the Sacrament, acknowledging that life came from Christ, the Eternal Word. Godís grace, therefore, was demonstrated and foreshadowed in this sacrament. If man ate of the tree of life unworthily he was to be excommunicated, cut off from the Tree of life, from Christ, and cast out of the Kingdom. Sanctions of blessing and curse were laid upon man in this initial Covenant. Later Godís grace and Adamís commitment is demonstrated once more by the skins, the result of sacrifice, which God provided for Adam and Eve to cover their shame (Gen. 3:21). Included in this illustration of sacrifice was Godís self-maledictory oath. Ultimately God Himself would take the curse of the covenant upon Himself, an astounding truth revealed more clearly to Abraham (See Gen. 15:8-18.). But were man to reject His grace he would bear the consequential punishment for all eternity. Later circumcision and the Passover were to demonstrate this same principle. We too vow or make an oath to enlist under the banner of the great Redeemer King, the transcendent one who is the Lord of Glory in baptism, a covenantal sign and seal. At the same time we acknowledge in baptism that our covenantal relationship with God is all of grace. God Himself has taken the curse on Himself, which arose from man's disobedience. Baptism signifies that we not only acknowledge and own Christ as our Saviour and Lord Ė that life only comes from the Tree of Life, but that we confess that we are only able to be accepted by God in our cultural task in this life as well as in the life to come, because of Christ. The Covenant always takes into account the succession of the ethical task in the coming generations. They too are brought into Covenant with God, by virtue of their birth to believing parent(s). They too receive the mark of the Covenant and therefore make a solemn oath through their parents. The parents teach them the meaning of baptism, leading the little ones to Jesus, teaching them about their transcendent Lord, His ethics for all of life - teaching them about the hierarchy of Covenant, the ethics and solemn oath of the Covenant as the parents faithfully ensure the continuity of Godís Covenant in His grace. The parents are responsible to train up their Covenant children in the way they should go, thus living lives faithful to the cultural mandate. Some object and say, isn't the task of the Church not evangelism? Why should we get involved in the world - isn't it a world of sin and shouldn't we just wish heaven was around the corner and concentrate on singing hymns and attending conferences? And isn't the Great Commission of Matthew 28 what we should be focusing on after all? This, of course, is the raison díêtre, it seems, of many well-meaning evangelical schools where many Reformed folk now send their children. But not only have these schools misunderstood the Covenant, they have misunderstood the Great Commission. Because there is a very real sense that the Great Commission is and should be significant for Christian Schooling.

They have not understood that the Great commission is really a restatement of the Cultural Mandate. There in the Great Commission we see the five-fold pattern of the Covenant as we would expect. The risen Lord directs his disciples to a mountain in Galilee. Here the Lord's transcendence is demonstrated. He is the one who has "all Power". He delegates the task of spreading his kingdom, of shaping the world for Christ as a place of cultus, of worship - he establishes a hierarchy; Christ the head and we the members of His body. He gives His ethical instruction: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nationsÖ" - not just individuals in the nations, but the nations themselves; so that Psalm two will be fulfilled, when the kings of the nations will kiss the Son. What a glorious Evangel or Gospel of redemption that takes seriously God's will for man on earth as well as his ultimate residence in the new heavens and the new earth. Yes those ethical instructions, which give meaning to the word discipleship are summarised in the Ten Commandments and they embrace all of life. God's ethics do not leave untouched or exempt any square inch of His creation. God's Universe has a moral order and He is its moral governor. As this process of evangelism takes place, as lives are changed and nations brought under the yoke of Christ, the new converts make an oath. They are baptised. Then not only are their children baptised, for they are Covenant members as well, but the glorious task is handed on to succeeding generations. What a glorious and astounding vision; and yet this is what Christianity is about. This was the understanding of the Genevan Reformer who wrote these words to the King of France in the preface of his Institutes of the Christian religion.

"But our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above all the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and his Christ whom the Father has appointed King to "rule from sea to sea, and from rivers even to the ends of the earth"[Ps. 72:8;71:7, Vg]. And he is so to rule as to smite the whole earth with its iron and brazen strength, with its gold and silver brilliance, shattering it with the rod of his mouth [10] as earthen vessels, just as the prophets have prophesied concerning the magnificence of his reign [Dan2 2:32-35; Is. 11:4; Ps.2:9, conflated].

The Dutch genius Abraham Kuyper recovered the vision of Calvinism as a "Life-System," in his day, the only world view, which could ensure progress for humanity. The solid world-affirming theology of the Reformed families carry the torch for Godís purposes in our own day as well. However, we must note this sad truth. Those who are not Reformed deny God's glorious plan and purpose. They have jettisoned the theology of the Covenant, the great organising principle of the Word of God. And if this is the case, how can they do justice to God's covenantal demands when they educate children? How can they demonstrate to children that there is a relationship between God's covenantal demands upon them and the way they view the world? Or how can they encourage a gifted young student to pursue a career in politics or local Government and make a difference for Christ, when many have decided even before they open their Bibles that the world belongs to the Devil and not to God and is doomed to further and further decay until the world is so corrupt that it ends with a whimper at the victorious hands of Satan?

Discipling children involves teaching them about their Father's world. But you must first believe that this is their Father's world and what His purposes and demands are as man relates to this world in all of life. Education involves the teaching of these connections across the curriculum, but it also involves a commitment on behalf of the teacher to a biblical, and therefore a covenantal world-view. If the teacher has no confidence in God's ethical demands and purpose, to populate the earth and subdue it for Christ, then he will not impart that confidence to his charges. This, it seems to me, is the crux of the argument. What philosophy of education should the school we send our children to hold to? It must be biblical, but that means that it must be covenantal. Any other philosophy can only, at best, be a poor reflection of what a Christian Education should be all about.

A Confessional School

A faithful school will be covenantal, and this means that it will also be for Covenant children who are taught at home on the same covenantal basis that is taught at School. This inevitably will mean that a faithful Christian school will be confessional. It will also mean that it will not have undisciplined non-Christian children whom the Devil will use to teach your children all the sins and evil they are taught in their families. It's an absurd notion that our children should be evangelising all the pagan children from down the road. The School we should send our children to, if one exists, should be covenantal and confessional. If it does not exist, we should prayerfully look at starting one.

But hold on! Isn't this just a little bit too idealistic? After all can't you just teach your children to learn reading, writing and arithmetic, French, history, computing and economics in an environment where they won't be tainted by evolutionism and humanistic ethics? Why will an accountant be an inadequate accountant or a nurse be a sub-Christian nurse or a mother a deficient mother if they haven't been to a confessional and covenantal Christian school? I don't say that God is incapable by His grace to make up for all our bad decisions. That He can do, although to ignore His advice and expect to receive a blessing in spite of that is really to tempt God. But education is more than imparting packets of knowledge to enable us to perform mechanical tasks. Godly education involves ethics - covenantal ethics. Yes this is the role of the teaching ministry of the Church, but it is also the role of the parent and the schoolteacher. As we fulfil our responsibilities in God's Covenant arrangement, we are to impart His ethics to our Children. An hour of Sunday school will not do that. When our children attend school, ideally there should be, under-girding every area of learning, an awareness of God's covenantal ethics. So when the children are learning any subject whatsoever, they do so with an awareness that they are being prepared for the glorious task of subduing the earth. No, it won't mean that there is a special spiritual form of mathematics or chemistry, but it will mean that maths and chemistry are taught in a climate that makes it crystal clear to these children that they had better learn their work thoroughly, because it is kingdom work and the facts, which they learn are Godís truth. And as they proceed through their schooling they will receive constant reminders from their teachers, that they are being trained for dominion under Christ. If our children were so trained, then whether a nurse, a carpenter or an engineer, are they not more likely to bring to their job an attitude radically different from others? Will not the nurse not more readily show the compassion of Christ, or the carpenter and the engineer not approach their task with a diligence and carefulness which will most likely make them more successful than others? It is all very well to suggest that an adult Christian will do his work christianly, but habits take a long time to form. This is why the Lord tells us to train our children up in the way they should go. The Holy Spirit recognises that the raw material He is working on is best moulded over time. When the transcendent Lord said "disciple the nations", He meant more than tell your neighbours about three spiritual laws. He means that we are to transform the institutions of society by the application of Kingdom ethics. Ultimately it should be our prayer and aim to not only see every New Zealander come to Christ, but to see our Parliament instituting the ethics of Christ in legislation. It should be our aim to see business conducted according to those covenantal ethics Ė a compassionate capitalism, and every school a covenantal and confessional school. Sunday should be claimed for Christ and every evil thing overthrown in His name. Not only is this our duty to pray and work for dominion, but it is our glorious and pious hope. Only Christians schooled in Covenant ideals will even be able to begin this task, let alone carry it on in the face of discouragement and the raging opposition of Satan. Perhaps we could put it this strongly: Faithfulness to the Covenant of Grace by which God binds us in love requires us to strive to educate our children with a covenantal worldview. Anything less is a betrayal of our Covenant obligations and oath. For those who home-school they will need to bathe every learning experience their child has with covenantal ethics. For those whose children are taught in non-Reformed schools, the parents also have the added task of helping their children fit their learning into, and challenge their learning with, a covenantal worldview. But ideally we should be praying and working for the establishment of confessional covenantal schools. This is not going to be a practical option for many, but we can pray and support the attempts at training Reformed teachers as well as the establishment of such schools.

Mr Gary Milne is the Minister of the Reformed Church of Wainuiomata.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised July 2000 / Copyright 2000