Reformed Education: Responsibility of the Parents

To whom belongs the child?
In 1996 Rev. G. Van Popta delivered a speech at a teachers’ convention which was published in Clarion , in which he addressed this question. In it he summarises and evaluates an extensive discussion which our Canadian brothers and sisters had in that time about this question, in which he also addressed the position of the schools.

We now live in a climate in which the state is more and more inclined to claim the authority to teach our children what to believe and how to behave with regards to all kinds of moral issues. It is to be expected that in the coming few years, the state government in Western Australia will be trying to exert its influence more and more on what is being taught in Western Australian schools, how it is being taught, and by whom. It is important to consider the question: where do we stand as Christians? But also: what are the practical implications of this for our schools?

In this article I will look at what the Bible teaches us, and how throughout the history this question has been dealt with. In a second article I hope to come to some conclusions relevant for our own situation.

The education of the children was the task of the parents. During the early childhood years, this was mainly done by the mother. When children grew up, the sons were entrusted to the fathers and the daughters to their mothers. It is one of the most important duties of the father to instruct his children, both regarding the religious education (Exod 10:2; 12:26; 13:8; Deut 4:9; 6:6-9; 20-25; 32:7-16; Josh 4:21-24; Ps 78:5) and the general education (Prov 1:8; 6:20). References from apocryphal books show the same (see Sirach 30:1-13). The fifth commandment emphasises that children must obey their parents, for their own benefit.

It was the responsibility of the father to instruct his children in the ways of the LORD. It was also the father who instructed his sons in the trades. As a result, many sons followed in the footsteps of their fathers in their choice of a trade. In addition, Israelite children often had opportunities to learn from traveling merchants and caravans (Judg 5:10-11), by witnessing the meetings of the elders in the gates, and from the occasions that their families travelled to the holy places (Shiloh, Jerusalem) for the feasts and other important occasions.

Although much of it was done in the family, the religious instruction was often also done by the priests. They had the task to teach the Law to the people, which included the children. The priest was sometimes seen as a father (Judg 17:10-11). In Hosea 4:6, the priests were held responsible for the lack of knowledge of God’s people. Also the elders had a task in the instruction of the people, including the children (Deut 32:7; Ps 78:1-4). In the New Testament, the ministers of the Word (elders who labour in the Word and doctrine, see 1 Tim. 5:17) have received the special task to teach the people of God. With that, not only the preaching but also the catechetical instruction finds a firm basis in the Bible. The New Testament makes clear that the parents are responsible for raising and instructing their children (2 Cor 12:14). Paul emphasises the importance of the parents in the religious instruction of the children (2 Tim 2:3-5).

We can conclude from this that the education of the children is given by God to the parents, while the church also has a responsibility regarding the doctrinal instruction of parents and children.

Church Order
We will not find any mention in the Bible of the school as we know it. While the catechetical instruction is based on the Bible, the schools are not. Even though it is good and important that parents consider sending their children to Christian schools, we cannot argue from the Bible that children should attend school. For that reason, the Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches (article 53) stipulates that the elders shall see to it that the parents take their responsibility in providing their children education which is based on Scripture and Confession. It doesn’t speak about the elders sending children to Reformed Schools, or about parents having to do so. It only speaks about the responsibility of the parents, and the elders reminding them of it.

Here we must keep in mind that the Church Order uses the word ‘education’ and not ‘school’. Education is broader than only school and can include home schooling, or alternative forms, for instance if government decisions make it hard to maintain our own schools. At the baptism of the child, the parents make the promise to instruct their children and have them instructed in this Christian doctrine to the utmost of their power, not the congregation. The Christian church has always rightfully emphasised the responsibility of the parents towards the education of their children. We must maintain and strongly emphasise that and resist any push from the government or others to take that responsibility away from the parents.

The school system as we know it now, with primary, secondary, and higher education, already existed in the Hellenistic world in the time of the New Testament . However, it always was the decision of the parents to have their children receive education. In the Hellenistic time as well as in the Roman Empire, it was mainly the rich who could afford education for their children. After the fall of the Roman Empire the schools in Europe declined and it was mainly the church which established schools, by bishops and in monasteries. The church schools were important to prepare men for the clergy, but also lay people were being taught. Emperor Charlemagne was a great supporter of making education available more broadly, also for the poor, and he worked together with the church to establish as many schools as possible. However, after his reign, the invasion of the Vikings led to a decline again. In the second half of the Middle Ages, schools were established to prepare men for service in the church. Schools for lay people were mainly found in the cities and they always needed a license from the bishop to operate.

In the sixteenth century, church and state were often very much intertwined and as a result of the investiture controversy (1076-1122 AD) the church usually had the upper hand. After the Reformation, the power of the pope and the Roman Catholic Church decreased in many European countries and the ruler often determined the religion of his country. As a result, the state had the authority over the schools, but often left it to the church to run the schools.
That was the situation in the Netherlands when the Synod of Dort convened. This synod made some important decisions about the catechetical instruction of the youth of the church , but regarding the schools it left the situation mainly unchanged: the local governments usually had the authority to establish schools, and governments often left it to the ministers of the Reformed Churches to supervise the schools and the teachers. There was a strong bond between State (which was Christian), Church (which was state church) and School: a triangle of State, Church, and School.

No one was allowed to establish schools without the approval of the government, but it was usually not hard to get this approval and it happened regularly that people who could afford it sent their children to private schools. There was some freedom for the parents to determine how their children were educated.

Modern time
This situation changed dramatically during the French occupation of the Netherlands (1795-1813). The connection between church and state was severed and only the government had authority over the schools. That was the time that also in many other countries, the idea of separation of church and state, promoted by the French revolution and enshrined in the constitution of the USA was applied. Rousas John Rushdoony (quoted in the earlier mentioned article of Rev. Van Popta) shows the developments in the USA. It was a general tendency in European countries and their (former) colonies.

In 1848, a democratic revolution took place all over Europe. For the Netherlands that meant a new constitution, in which for the first time in the Netherlands freedom of education was guaranteed. However, the practical arrangements had to be worked out in separate legislation and it took nine years until this legislation was adopted by parliament.

In those days the results of the ‘enlightenment’ and all kinds of new ‘scientific’ ideas got more influence and the schools had to be ‘neutral’ (or secular) in their teaching. Christian morals could still be taught but no Christian doctrine. Then in the Netherlands and many other countries, a movement started which led to the establishment of parental schools. Finally, the responsibility for the education of the children had returned to the parents.

More about that in a following article.

Rev. Anthon Souman
FRC Kelmscott

1. Clarion, June 14, 1996
2. From: R. De Vaux, Hoe het oude Israel leefde, deel 1, p.
97, Roermond 1960.
3. For an overview of the history of education and the development of the school system, see the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ).
4. See my article in Una Sancta Vol. 67, no. 5, 4 April 2020, page 120: Synod of Dort, Catechism teaching in church, home, and school.
5. Thomas Jefferson introduced the idea of separation between church and state, which led to the inclusion of the clause in the constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
6. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education: Studies in the History of the Philosophy of Education, 1963, reprinted 1995, Ross House Books.

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