Faith in Focus


(The first segment of this article appeared in last month's issue)

5. Education for the Christian Family Today

We now live in a situation where the covenant community is a composite of covenant families. Each of those families is a building-block of the covenant community; a nursery of the covenant community; a product of the covenant; and a "user" of the covenant as a strategy to advance God's Kingdom. The Christian family is well and truly immersed in the covenant, and that creates strong corporate, as well as familial, responsibilities.

It is true that institutionally, the Christian day school is distinct from the church. Parochial schools, in which the church, as church, has jurisdiction over the school, tend to blur the distinctions. The Session therefore does not run the school; neither does the school board or the association run the church.

At the same time, the Christian school is partly an extension of the covenant family. The teachers operate in loco parentis. In that sense the school is an extension of the building-blocks of the covenant community. If the church is defined as the chief agency of the covenant, then we can define the church/school relationship as follows: the Christian day school is an extension of the building-blocks of the chief covenant-agency. This definition makes it possible to talk about a "Covenantal school," and yet distinguish it from a parochial school.

Because of this relationship, the church has a responsibility to encourage the surrounding and permeating of the covenant children by God's Word, through "covenant" schools. That responsibility springs from the fact that the school is an extension of the covenant families that make up the church. Since we live after the Patriarchal period, it is not enough for the church to promote Covenantal family schooling. For the local covenant community is not coextensive with the individual covenant family, as we have seen.

Thus, if there is no suitable Christian school in the area, the church will do well to encourage the establishing of one. Until something eventuates, though, home schooling may well be advised by the church.

In some cases, there may also be special needs of the child which warrant home schooling. I am not arguing for a universal rule in favour of day schools. It is not a "black and white" situation.

Nevertheless, if there is a suitable Christian day school available, "home-schoolers" should be aware that they are pursuing an individual path, one which isolates them (at that point) from the covenant community as a whole. In a sense, it returns them to the Patriarchal period.

Home schoolers will often point to academic and spiritual advantages in their approach. It must be admitted that there may very well be instances in which the home school will have the advantage. No doubt private tuition will often have the advantage over a larger group situation.

We could spend some time arguing over the relative academic advantages of the two systems. But for the sake of argument let us assume that your home school is academically superior to the local Christian school. Even then, I would maintain, the academic advantage does not automatically outweigh the corporate responsibility. Personally, I am prepared to "lose" a little academic advantage for my children - if it really is lost, and it is not just arrogance on my part to think that I can teach better than the teachers at the local school - so that I may gain for them a lot of "corporate" advantage. Then as a family we learn the better what is involved by life in the covenant community. We move out of the Patriarchal setting and into the NT.

The other argument concern the spiritual advantage to the child. Those families that are better disciplined, and have been blessed with particularly mature children, may be inclined to reject the day school. For the day school contains children from many families, some of them weaker, and some stronger. Parents may feel that their children are being "dragged down" by the other children.

Now there are certainly limits on the kind of company to which we should expose our children. Christian day schools are not filled with perfect children, and sometimes the average standard will be lower than the standard in a particular family. Parents may often be heard complaining, "It's worse than in the State schools," though I believe that if we observed the local State school for any length of time, we would be less inclined to make such statements. At any rate, there will always be some who have a lower, and some who have a higher standard.

Having acknowledged that there may be situations where this kind of problem becomes serious enough to warrant home schooling, I would like to point out some dangers on the other side. In particular, there is a danger of forgetting that in the covenant community the strong help carry the weak (I Thess. 5:14). Sometimes that will mean that we feel that we are held back from our own full spiritual potential. For example, you might want your Bible study group to jump light years ahead, to keep up with your spiritual growth-rate; but the group is unable to move that fast, because not every member is as advanced as you. Of course, it is also possible that you are not as mature as you think.

This is also a lesson that we have to teach our children - to help the weak - and a lesson we often have to teach ourselves as parents. The fact is that our covenant children are not born believing. Personal faith is something that develops (or sometimes not) at a later date. For most covenant children, that coming to a living faith appears to us as a transition, rather than a dramatic overnight conversion.

The children in the Christian school will therefore be at many different stages, from no personal faith, to weak faith, to strong faith. A failure to appreciate that this is the usual situation in the Christian family, church and school, can lead to unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations can lead to impatience, frustration and withdrawal - within the church as well as within the school. If we were nothing more than believing families living in the period when the family and the local covenant community were more-or-less coextensive, we might not have to put up with that - especially if our family contained only children strong in the faith. Such disappointments and frustration would not have to be endured. If, on the other hand, our family contained a mixed bag, we might not have any choice. Isaac had to put up with an Esau as well as a Jacob in his home school, at least until the boys reached the age where they went their own ways.

The point is that under the new covenant we are all "family," as a whole covenant community. That family is a mixed bag. It will often contain those of weak, sometimes perhaps those of no genuine faith, alongside the strong. If we would be a useful member of that community, it is not so easy to isolate our children from the family, to keep them from contamination by the weak. What happens in the school will also happen in the Catechism classes, in the youth clubs, in Cadets & Calvinettes, and in the church yard. We must be very careful not to teach our children a wrong principle of isolation, of withdrawal. In a sense, when we isolate our children from the day school for this kind of reason, we are practising a unilateral, individualistic form of discipline - we are shunning, rather than teaching our children and ourselves how to help the weak and live as community. To accomplish that, our children may be exposed to some things we could keep from them in a "pure" family environment. But as in the church, so in the school: the "price" we pay for being able to learn from and with others, as a community, is that we are exposed to the sins of others. Of course, they are exposed to our sins, too. That is the way the Lord has ordained it for the covenant community in the new dispensation. I would argue that He has also ordained it that way for the "Covenantal" school which is formed by extension of the several member families.

The case becomes even stronger where the day school is struggling to survive. With well-established schools, it is not so urgent that every member helps share the burden, for the sake of the whole community. But where, for example, the school is low on numbers, the consequences for the rest of the covenant community may be enormous. A strong "home-schooling" movement can kill a struggling Christian day school. Maintaining a school is quite a burden for Christian parents, and the more families opt for home schooling, the heavier that burden becomes.

It is important for home schoolers to remember that many of their Christian brothers and sisters are not well equipped to meet the demands of home schooling, either academically or pedagogically. These that are gifted in these areas are the very people that the day schools need to help direct the course of the school. By home schooling, however, they deprive the covenant community of these skills. The rest are left - and this is a key point - to sink or swim as they will. What are the rest supposed to do if there would be no Christian school, if the school would be forced to close due to lack of resources? But even when the need is less urgent, the question must be asked: are we doing justice to our corporate responsibilities?

Let us take care not to let frustration and impatience with the weakness of others lead to unwarranted isolation from other covenant families, especially when they are crying out for our help. We must take care not to let an individualistic determination to provide our own family with nothing but the best, lead to unwarranted isolation from other covenant families. May the Lord grant parents much wisdom in weighing up these factors. May He give us insight into both our Covenantal family responsibilities, and also our broader, corporate covenant responsibilities.

Rev. P. N. Archbald (Masterton)

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised August 97 / Copyright 1997