The Theology of Christian Education


Protestant Evangelical High Schools are a comparatively recent phenomenon. Most of those that now exist in our area are younger than Covenant High School which has been existence only these sixteen, going on seventeen years. When I was in High School in the middle 1960s virtually every one of my evangelical peers attended public high schools. There was a small Lutheran school not far from my home but otherwise parochial schools were Roman Catholic in those days in St. Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, as in so many places in our land that is no longer the case.

Indeed, Mr. Hannula showed me some very interesting and illuminating statistics. As of 1998, ten years ago, there were 25,616 private elementary and secondary schools in the United States of which 20,682 were church affiliated. Almost all of those were Christian schools. Those 20,000 and more Christian schools were almost evenly divided between Roman Catholic and Protestant. But here is the interesting part of the picture. Of the Roman Catholic schools only 1.7% had been in operation 10 years or less. 45% of the Protestant schools had been in operation for ten years or less. [Paul A. Kienel, “The Amazing Growth of Christian Schools,” Comment: A Publication of the Association of Christian Schools International, vol. 28, Number 6.] I’m quite certain that if in 1998 the question had been how many Protestant schools had been in existence 25 years or more the percentage would have approached 90% or still higher. Protestant Christian education is a remarkably rapid development of the very recent past. The absence of Protestant Christian schools from the American Christian landscape until very recently begs for an explanation.

There were broadly two reasons for the lack of Protestant schools and the contentment of evangelical Protestants with American public education until quite recently. In the first place evangelical Protestants, even as late as the early 1970s, looked upon the public schools as their schools. They expected the schools to show reverence for American public religion, which was Protestant not Roman Catholic – Roman Catholic schools had long been taken by the American Protestant majority to be evidence of the fact that Roman Catholics were not part of the dominant American culture – and they expected the public schools to be supportive of the Protestant ethos. And so they had been and still were to some degree. There were prayers before football games and at graduation ceremonies, prayers that invoked the name of Jesus Christ; there was a general support for public morality as defined by the Protestant establishment; and if there were disagreements, the administrators and faculty members in general knew better than to voice them. It was the loss of this Protestant social and moral ethos – precipitated by the social revolution of the 1960s – that precipitated the flight of so many Christian families from the public schools. It was this development and its cascade of consequences in public education that perhaps in largest part as well precipitated the home-schooling movement that now accounts for the education of more than a million American school-aged children, slightly more than 2% of the total, a number that continues to grow every year. Some evidence of how great an impact the rapid growth of home-schooling has had is furnished by the fact that Chris Jorgensen, a former Deacon here at Faith Presbyterian, has a new position in the Lynden, Washington public school district, in which he is responsible to provide certain educational services to the home-schooled children in that district. Home-schoolers now represent a sufficiently substantial body of school children that the public schools are having to reckon with them in their planning.

Those who grew up in that earlier time, as I did, and attended public schools, remember very well how easily we fit in to that public school world. We were aware, certainly, that our teachers were not all Christians – one of my best teachers in High School was a non-observant Jew (a bachelor who, by the way, was desperately in love with Barbara Streisand, then a young Jewish star of popular music and movies). But we rarely heard anything in class that would have offended evangelical sensibilities. The moral tone of the school was not all that it could have been, but it was tame in comparison to what is now taken for granted in American public education. Pregnant girls dropped quietly out of school – and there were few of them – widespread teen drug use was mercifully still over the horizon, profane language was strictly suppressed, and student newspapers would not have imagined running an article on the high incidence of oral sex among classmates as did one of our local Tacoma student high school papers recently or of student groups sponsoring a gay pride day. I remember not long ago being at one of the local high schools and listening to students talking as they passed me by and being disheartened by the toxic character of their conversation. It was not nearly so bad in my day and it was the generally polite and moralistic tone of public education that kept evangelicals content to have their children in those schools.

Now, it needs to be said that the public schools in those halcyon days did not really support evangelical Christianity. They were not even benignly neutral toward it. They were, in fact, undermining it and had been for several generations. But the drip, drip of passive indifference and the neglect of the truth and of more subtle disagreement had not yet aroused much concern among Christian parents. Some perceptive people had seen long before the 1960s that American public education would prove a disaster for the Christian faith of the general populace. In 1890 the celebrated Presbyterian theologian of Princeton, Archibald Alexander Hodge, wrote:

“It is capable of exact demonstration that if every party in the State has the right of excluding from the public schools whatever he does not believe to be true, then he that believes most must give way to him that believes least, and then he that believes least must give way to him that believes absolutely nothing, no matter how small a minority the atheists or agnostics may be. It is self-evident that on this scheme, if it is consistently and persistently carried out in all parts of the country, the United States system of national popular education will be the most efficient and wide instrument for the propagation of atheism the world has ever seen.” [Lectures in Theology, 241-242]

Lest anyone miss his point, Hodge went on to prophesy:

“I am as sure as I am of the fact of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion…will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social, nihilistic ethics, individual, social, and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.” [245]

That must have sounded harum-scarum in 1890. It sounds remarkably prescient in 2008. It is very interesting to me that British evangelicals and the Reformed among them are just beginning the same process of disaffection with their public schools. Christian schools were virtually unheard of in Great Britain until very recently, but they are now beginning to appear. That is, there is a principle at work here with predictable effects.

In the second place, and more important by far, Protestant evangelicals supported American public education because Protestant evangelical Christianity had been deeply affected by revivalism and a particularly American form of voluntarism. Voluntarism refers to that view of salvation that makes a special emphasis of the exercise of the human will [voluntas) is the Latin word for “will”]. Another term for voluntarism is decisionism. Salvation was widely seen as requiring of the individual an intellectual decision for Christ, something children were incapable of making. Consequently the notion of the spiritual nurture of Christian children, while not entirely forgotten, was to a very great extent in eclipse in the church and was certainly not a focus of the church’s teaching. Indeed, most children in American evangelical churches, including Presbyterian churches, were not seen and did not learn to see themselves as belonging to a different class than the unchurched children with whom they went to school. Like them, they too needed to be converted and become Christians, usually through some crisis experience leading to a decision sometime in their adolescence or young adulthood. The expectation of both church and parents was of the adolescent conversion of their children, not of them growing up in faith from their infancy. Even though many of them were baptized as infants – certainly those in Presbyterian churches – they were still regarded as Christians-to-be, not as Christians themselves, not as members of the church, and not as needing, as all Christians, to be nurtured or discipled. That being so, Christian education, being an instrument of nurture not evangelism, did not seem to be necessary or important.

In 1940 Lewis Bevens Schenck, a young Southern Presbyterian scholar, published his Yale dissertation The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: An Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church in America. Schenck’s study was a demonstration of the fact that Presbyterians had to a great extent forfeited their theological inheritance when it came to their children. The grand doctrine of covenant succession, of grace running in the lines of generations, of infant faith and of the nurture of that faith in home, church, and school – the theological system developed by John Calvin and handed on to the Reformed church by the magisterial reformers – had been overwhelmed by the revivalist impulse from the 18th century onwards and largely forgotten. True, Presbyterians still baptized their children but, argued Schenck, they did so in an unnatural way. Baptism, in the nature of the case, inducts a person into the membership of the Church, but Presbyterians had come to view their baptized children as something less than full members of the church. They continued to see them as needing to be saved, needing to be converted, not as Christians who needed to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord and as needing to be discipled in a faith that was already theirs. As Schenck himself put it:

“Those who pride themselves on being orthodox are really the unorthodox. The Presbyterian Church has a glorious doctrine received through the medium of John Calvin and the Westminster Standards. Yet the church as a whole does not know it. The historic doctrine of the church concerning children in the covenant and the significance of infant baptism has been to a large extent secretly undermined.” [158]

Schenck’s valuable study was not widely read and was soon out of print and, in any case, fell largely on deaf ears. The Presbyterian public and ministry were still too revivalist in mindset to heed Schenck’s call to return to a robust Reformed theology of covenant children and of their nurture. But through the 1980s and after, as American public education turned more overtly hostile to evangelical interests and commitments and as conservative American Presbyterianism reconnected with its Reformed heritage, the way was opened for Presbyterians and other evangelicals to consider again the Bible’s teaching about the family, about covenant children, about the nurture of Christian children as a means of grace, and about the meaning of infant baptism. It is often the case in church history that it is when a biblical idea comes under direct attack that the church is forced to think through that idea in a way she had not before. And over the last generation, in a way that previous generations of Americans, Christians and non-Christians alike, would have found incomprehensible, the very idea of the divine origin and the social importance of the family came under direct attack in our society. And one consequence of that attack was the rebirth among evangelicals and Presbyterians among them of interest in Christian education as an instrument of the nurture of Christian children.

To be sure, that new interest in Christian education was not always combined with a biblical theology of children. Many advocates of Christian education nowadays have only the vaguest biblicaldoctrine of the Christian child. It has been a great disappointment to me, for example, that an organization such as Focus on the Family, that has been a champion of the family in American political discourse, has virtually no theology of the family. But in conservative Presbyterian circles there has been more thought about this question – the question of the place of the Christian child in the economy of God’s grace – than perhaps at any time since the magisterial reformation in the first half of the 16th century and perhaps even more now than then. Schenck’s great book from 1940 was rediscovered, read, and reprinted. Articles and books have appeared and discussions of all sorts have swirled through the churches. To be sure, this rethinking has not been without controversy – old opinions and long established patterns of thought and practice die hard – but very definitely a clear biblical theology of the Christian child has emerged in the church today that did not exist a generation ago. For this we can be very grateful and all the more because it represents so obviously a return to what the Bible emphatically teaches.

If I were to summarize the Bible’s doctrine of the covenant children, that is, the child of Christian parents, give it in skeleton form, it would consist of the following propositions.

  1. God’s grace runs in the lines of generations. It simply does. It does in the Bible (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Judah; Boaz, Jesse, David, Solomon; Lois, Eunice, Timothy; and on and on) and it does in the history of the church through the ages since. By far the largest numbers of Christians have been the product of believing homes. I could illustrate this fact at length but I hardly need to. Most of you are the product of believing homes. And of the many of you who are not – who were converted out of an unbelieving family tradition – most of you now have children who are growing up in and walking with the Lord. That saving grace runs in the lines of generations is a brute fact of history.
  2. It is God’s gracious intention that his salvation should be given in the lines of generations. For many Christians the fact that their parents were Christians, they are Christians, and their children are likewise Christians remains a happy coincidence. Whether or not they have ever reflected on it, they have no explanation to offer for the fact that God’s grace has run in their family line. But it is no coincidence, no happenstance in the Bible. Repeatedly a point is made of the Lord’s intention to save the children of his people. “I will be a God to you andto your children after you,” the Lord told Abraham and then repeated that promise time and time again. “The promise is to you and to your children…” Peter told the assembled multitude on Pentecost Sunday morning. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your house,” Paul told the Philippian jailer. The intention of God to save parents and children and grandchildren in the same line is so often repeated and in so many different ways that it has puzzled me that so many readers of the Bible can seem to be so oblivious to this fact. Such is the power of the voluntarist, decisionist paradigm to deafen people’s ears to the actual words of the Bible. Nevertheless Calvin certainly has it right: “Let us then mark this as the principal part of the covenant, that he who is the God of the living, not of the dead, promises to be a God to the children of Abraham.”
  3. Children of believers are members of the church. In the Bible the children of believers are not members-to-be but members. They are not outsiders but insiders. That is why they were given circumcision and now are given baptism. There is not a whisper of evidence in all 66 books of the Bible that the children of believers are to be treated in any other way than as Christians themselves.
  4. The biblical paradigm is that of early faith, even infant faith. Everywhere in the Bible the assumption is that nurture not evangelism is the paradigm of child-rearing in a Christian home. The assumption is everywhere that the covenant child is already a believer and needs to be discipled, not an unbeliever needing to be evangelized. Find me a text anywhere in the Bible that teaches parents to evangelize their children. I can show you a hundred that teach them to disciple their children. Calvin referred to the faith of infant covenant children as faith in the seed, needing to be watered and fed. So it was with John the Baptist who was already a new creation in his mother’s womb, as we read in Luke 1. So it was with the author of Psalm 71 who from his infancy trusted in the Lord. And so it has been with countless multitudes of Christians who cannot remember back far enough to a time when they were unbelievers and so whose testimony is the same as David’s: “I trusted in the Lord from my mother’s breasts.” I do not say, of course, that there are not exceptions – some covenant children are converted later in their lives; surely there are such exceptions – but the biblical expectation is everywhere that of early faith and a Christian life that has already begun, if not in the womb, in early infancy.
  5. There is a responsibility laid upon parents first and upon the church to nurture the faith of covenant children. That nurture comes in three parts: instruction, discipline, and example. It is by this means that the early faith of covenant children matures, develops, and comes to Christian manhood and womanhood. The obligation is put positively in many texts, such as the one read earlier in the service from Psalm 78 and is also put negatively. We are shown a number of family situations that flirted with or ended in spiritual catastrophe precisely because parents – Isaac, Jacob, Eli, David, and Hezekiah come immediately to mind – did not raise their children in the training and instruction of the Lord, a point the Bible makes with emphasis as it describes the parental dereliction of duty in dismal detail. Very interestingly it is in Thomas Manton’s “Epistle to the Reader” prefaced to the original printing of The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1658, that we read this solemn observation:

    “Christian Reader: I cannot suppose thee to be such a stranger in England as to be ignorant of the general complaint concerning the decay of the power of godliness, and more especially of the great corruption of youth. Wherever thou goest thou wilt hear men crying out of bad children – whereas indeed the source must be sought a little higher, ‘tis bad parents – that make bad children – and we cannot blame so much their own untowardness as our own negligence in their education…. The Devil hath a great spite at the Kingdom of Christ, and he knoweth no such compendious way to crush it in the egg as by the perversion of youth and supplanting family duties. Religion was first hatched in families, and there the Devil seeketh to crush it.” [ed. of the Free Presby. Church of Scotland, 7]

Believe me, there are plenty of bad parents, however nice folk they may be, even however devout Christians they may be. We see it all the time: negligent of their duties, worldly in their example, clueless in the discharge of their parenthood and this is, as the Bible teaches us to think, the principal reason why the church is hemorrhaging her children into the world in our time. It is a simple fact of biblical/theological mathematics that if her parents were only faithful to their calling to raise their children in the nurture and discipline of the Lord, the evangelical church would be growing exponentially in the United States, which it is not! The Lord in Ezekiel 16:20 says of Israel in that day, “You took your sons and daughters, whom you bore to me and sacrificed them to idols.” And even real Christian parents – godly folk like David and Hezekiah who were devout people but terrible parents – have done the same times without number. It is also true and needing to be said that many of these parents would have done much better if only they had been taught to do so and their sacred responsibility often set before them. The Christian ministry has a great deal to answer for in the loss of so many of the church’s children.

Now if this is the theology of covenant children and the way of their salvation that is given in the Bible – and this theology is clearly and emphatically given in the Bible – then obviously it is a view of children and of parental responsibility that has immense practical implications. And one of them is that the cultivation of our children’s minds and hearts in school becomes a matter of spiritual responsibility as well. And it is this recognition that has increasingly animated the interest of Christian parents in the kind of schooling their children receive and lies behind the rapid growth of the Christian school movement and of the home schooling movement in American evangelicalism.

Evangelism and discipleship are not the same thing and do not make use of the same instruments. Once it becomes clear to parents that they are responsible to nurture the spiritual life that God has already implanted in the hearts of their children, then it inevitably occurs to them that a school that eight hours every day is reinforcing biblical principles, a biblical way of thinking, a biblical understanding of reality is an important instrument with which they can fulfill their responsibility. It is a way of fulfilling the mandate they were given to teach the way of the Lord to their children when they are sitting down, standing up, lying down and walking in the road.

Now it is important to say at this point that not all Christian parents who seriously accept their responsibility for the nurture of their children’s faith have come to the conclusion that they must abandon public education. I know that. There are Christians, especially Reformed Christians, who take the view that Christian children must be given Christian schooling and anything else is a dereliction of duty. David Engelsma’s book Reformed Education, he of the Protestant Reformed Church,has the subtitle: The Christian School as Demand of the Covenant. We had a division in our church in Boise some years ago in part because some members used the public schools and others regarded that as tantamount to direct and public disobedience to God. Many other Reformed Christians are strong supporters of Christian education but would not go so far as to argue that it is demanded of all Christian parents. Christian parents who continue to use public schools have their reasons. Insofar as Holy Scripture never addresses the question where a child is to learn his history and his mathematics, insofar as the word “school” occurs only once in the Bible and in that instance not with reference to the education of children, one cannot make a law. I am simply explaining what I take and many take to be the implications of our theology of covenant children for the question of their education. All the more in a Reformed setting where everything, absolutely everything – biology, math, history, PE – is understood to fall under the Lordship of Christ, the case for Christian elementary and high school education is a clear and forceful one. Hence all the new Christian schools!

However, I want also to say this evening that this theology of Christian children – the doctrine that I have given a sketch of this evening – leaves still much left unexplained and unaccounted for, as do so many biblical doctrines. An anatomy of the doctrine of covenant succession hardly accounts for the experience of every covenant child.

One impression I know that people can carry away from the doctrine of covenant succession, or grace in the lines of generations, is that the experience of Christian children ought to be largely the same. They want their children, of course, and so they expect their children to grow up gradually but steadily and obviously in every Christian grace. They feel that Christian children, nurtured in a Christian home and taught in a Christian school should not experience crises of faith and should not struggle to come to grip with the claims of Christ upon their lives.

But, of course, it is the Christian life into which a covenant child has been introduced at the headwaters of his or her life. And what is that Christian life? Well it is a life of ups and downs. A life of spiritual crises. A life in which the crises are often separated by long periods of spiritual plateau or stasis. We are accustomed to this in thinking about a Christian adult, indeed, about our own spiritual adulthood. We know very well how often we behave badly, how often we are childish, how often we fail to live up to our calling, how often our repentance is superficial. We know that there have been periods of time in which we have not seemed to grow in the grace of God or in the practice of holiness.

But, for some reason, we expect our children to live a different Christian life than ours. We expect them to be deeply and consistently repentant when they have been wrong; we expect them to love God and their neighbor obviously and deeply; we expect them readily to apply their faith to the issues of life and recognize in this way and that how being a Christian must make a very great difference. And they do that haltingly, inconsistently, intermittently or seemingly not at all for some period of time and we parents are ready to conclude that they must not be Christians at all. While I do not deny that it is certainly possible for a covenant child to be an unbeliever it is also possible for real Christians to live the Christian life haltingly, inconsistently, and unimpressively and for young Christians especially to fail to measure up to the fullness of godliness. I don’t know how many times parents have complained to me about the poor quality of their children’s repentance and I have said to them, “Well, you might find this encouraging: I don’t doubt you are Christians but I’m not terribly impressed with your repentance either.”

What is more, all Christians are not the same. The Lord orders one life for one of his children and a very different life for another. This is true for little Christians as surely as it is true of adult believers. Just as some students are bright and others less so; some very athletic and others not; some outgoing and funny and others quiet and reticent; some popular and others more likely to be found alone, so some Christian young people have an easier time of it than others. Some struggle to get it; it takes more time for them to grasp the faith as it concerns themselves. Many parents would tell you, for example, that in general it takes longer for boys than for girls to begin to take spiritual issues seriously. Some Christian young people, for whatever reason, struggle longer with the spirit of rebellion. Some find it easy to be content, others are constantly restless. Such is the variety of human life and such is the variety of Christian life and it is no different for a covenant child than it is for a convert who begins his Christian life at 24 years of age, or 34, or 44. Personalities, backgrounds, life experiences shape a life in profound ways, in ways we will never fully understand, and make life and faith easier or harder accordingly.

All of this is, of course, immediately relevant to those responsible for Christian schooling. Christian students come in all shapes and sizes and can be found at many different points along the continuum of Christian spiritual development and maturity. Just as in any school there are the high-flyers and the low-achievers, whether academically, athletically, or socially, so in a Christian school there are those in the lead and those who are lagging behind. Such is life. It matters not finally so long as the nurture continues and the heart and mind mature. It is great godliness and usefulness that a Christian school is after in its students and whether that godliness comes early or late is not, in fact, the most important issue. What finally matters is that it comes.

But let us remember this as a new school year begins. We do not have a school primarily because we fled from the public schools because of their moral disintegration. That is not the reason. I do not deny that, as the Apostle Paul put it, “bad company corrupts morals.” Parents must be concerned about their children’s peers and the influence that those peers exercise. But we go to the great expense and the great trouble and the great investment of time and energy because we have a theology of our children, a theology taught in Holy Scripture and made real in the experience of life. Our God promised to be a God to us and to our children. And then he said that we who are parents have been appointed “to direct our children to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just so that the Lord will bring about for us what he has promised us.” It is for that direction of our children that Covenant High School exists. It is for the practice of our theology that CHS exists and does its work. And the very best reason to do anything – anything, anywhere, anytime – is so as to practice the theology taught in Holy Scripture.