By Joel Settecase / 13-minute read
While Christians approach the subject of education from different perspectives and come to diverse conclusions, the Bible does present clear answers to questions like whose responsibility it is, what the curricula should center around, and the desired effects and goal of education.
With home education growing worldwide and about ten percent of American students enrolled in private, non-governmental schools, this seems like a good time to talk about education from a biblical perspective.
The endeavor of entering a discussion of how Christian parents ought to educate their children is one fraught with peril. Inevitably any discussion or teaching on the subject is going to step on toes and aggravate raw nerves of Christians with strong convictions on the matter. Even those of us who ostensibly consider themselves “Bible Centered” (which, according to the Barna Group only amounts to a paltry 5% of Americans) have undoubtedly had our views on education shaped by both Scripture as well as external influences, including memories (good and bad) of our own childhood education. If we were to listen to the voice of God through the cacophony of voices speaking about this issue, what would we hear him saying?
In a (now postponed) episode of The Think Podcast, my guest and I enjoyed a robust conversation about Christian approaches to education, although we did not answer the question many want to jump to: “Should Christian parents put their children in the public (government) schools?” This is the question many want to jump immediately to answering. However before we can answer that we need to see what God tells us in his word about three vital elements: the responsibility of education, the focus of the curricula and the goal or desired results of education.
I want to close this introduction with two quick thoughts.
First, note that just now I did not say we are going to look at the goal or desired results of education “for Christians,” as though there were separate norms for believers that unbelievers would be free to accept or reject. Of course anyone may accept or reject whatever the Bible says (and we reject it to our peril), but if Christ really does possess all authority in Heaven and on Earth (and he does according to Matthew 28:18), and if the Bible is his word (and it is according to Luke 24:27 and John 5:39, etc.), then the Bible’s prescriptions for education apply to the whole of humanity, not just those who accept them. So there’s that.
Secondly, in terms of defining what education is, I roughly have in mind the definition expounded upon by Douglas Wilson when he speaks about the paideia of God (quoting the Apostle in Ephesians 6:4), which I loosely summarize as:
A system of teaching and enculturation that transcends (though not excluding) the formal schooling happening typically between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and that is built upon the foundation of, and in support of, a robust biblical worldview.*
I want the rest of the article to serve as a resource for parents and other Christians who are thinking (or want to begin to think) biblically about their children’s education. Under each of the three headers, I will list the answers and supporting biblical passages. Feel free to leave any comments in the appropriately-marked “comments” section below.
Who “Owns” Your Children’s Education?
Whose responsibility is it to education our children?
Fathers and Mothers
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
Note: as a good New Covenant Theologian (as I am, which was pointed out by Joe and Jimmy on a recent episode of the podcast Doctrine and Devotion), I recognize that these commands were given to Old Covenant Israelite parents, that they would teach their children the commands of the Mosaic Law. Believers are not under that covenant or law, but the O. T. Law is instructive for us (Romans 15:4) and the pattern of parents teaching their children persists throughout Scripture into the New Testament, as we shall see.
Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching
O sons, a father's instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, he taught me and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Interestingly, the same verb (ektrepho) Paul uses for how fathers are to “bring up” their children is also used in Ephesians 5:29, when Paul commands husbands to “nourish” their wives as their own bodies. Husbands and fathers therefore have a special responsibility to oversee the educative environment of their homes (see also 1 Cor. 14:35, Eph. 5:25-26).
God may directly impart wisdom or knowledge to people. Because Christians enjoy a personal relationship with God through Christ Jesus, we enjoy the benefits of God teaching us (often through his word, and always in direct agreement with his word, when the instruction comes by way of other means).
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.
As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
Just as parents are to foster the household of the immediate family as an educational environment, so also is the “household of God” a place where teaching and learning take place. In fact the leaders of each local church, the elders, are required to be men who are “apt to teach” (2 Tim. 2:24). Education is a mission of the church given by Christ himself in the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And elsewhere, the Apostle Paul instructs the church to teach:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching
Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.
In that Titus passage, Paul essentially tells Pastor Titus to commission the older women to facilitate a kind of practical-theology-meets-home-economics-meets-marriage-counseling program.
The State (in the right circumstances) may provide some facilitation
Again, this deals with Old Covenant Israel, however it is instructive:
David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals...And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.
King David, as head of state, set up a worship music arts teaching program for temple worship. Note that David was not doing the teaching, nor were any of his governmental officials leading the department. Rather David set it up and entrusted it to faithful and gifted instructors, under God’s leadership.** Translated to modern times this may look like a government giving a public award or even a tax break to an arts program that seeks to instill the love of truth and beauty in its students, which would be in line with the responsibility of government (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-14) to sanction good behavior.
What Should the Content or Curricula of Education Be?
Education should found its foundation in the worship and reverence of the Lord:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
As for the subjects to be covered, anything good, true and beautiful is fair game. Classically, students were taught according to the Trivium of subjects, namely Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. This format is followed by classical schools today. In my own perusal of Scripture I found support for inclusion of the following subjects. The list is not certainly not exhaustive but may be instructional.
Natural sciences. Adam’s first job was to classify the animals. Proverbs 6:6-8 encourages entomology as a source wisdom.
Biblical Hermeneutics. Jesus says one who has mastered the Old Testament and is also trained in the New Testament is like a man who “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
Philosophy and poetry. The Apostle Paul quotes from pagan poets and philosophers when he needs to demonstrate a point, indicating the value in this study (cf. Ti. 1:12, Acts 17:28).
Literature. Jude (1:14) quotes from the Book of Enoch, even citing the passage he quotes as an authority. Paul asked Timothy to bring him his books (2 Tim. 4:13).
Cosmology and Astrophysics. Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of God. The study of the heavens ought to aim to find out what the heavens are saying.
History. Scripture is itself a historical text and is filled with commands for God’s people to “remember.”
Christology and Theology. Jesus tells his followers to teach disciples “All that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20), just as Paul tells Timothy to pass on “What you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 2:2) and to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 1:13) .
What Is the Biblical Goal of Education?
Ultimately, the goal is that the student would own his own learning and be able to test doctrines and studies himself, to discern truth from error. For example, the author of Hebrews admonishes the Hebrew Christians for their inability to have achieved maturity, calling them children in need of “milk” (Heb. 5:12).
The Berean Jews, on the other hand, took ownership of their own education and searched the Scriptures as soon as they heard the new teaching of the Gospel; Luke (the author of Acts) calls them “noble” (Acts 17:11).
Good instruction is life-giving (Prov. 4:13); as parents we ought to seek to educate our children in such a way that, when they are older, we will be happy if they stick with it (as they most likely will according to Proverbs 22:6). We want our children to become the kind of learners who intertwine their righteousness with their learning and become wiser still (Prov. 9:9).
Ultimately our goal is to ensure that our children are provided with the tools to become mature and complete through their studies, studies which are rooted in Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17) but which branch out into every area of God’s world, and studies which are supplemented by rigorous testing, which produces maturity (cf. James 1:4).
There are many more passages we could have cited and dissected, but this should at least provide parents with a framework for thinking robustly, from a biblical worldview, about these three pertinent questions as they seek to pursue their children’s education in a way that honors the Lord.
*Wilson sees full-orbed Christian education as not being fully possible to achieve apart from a Christian civilization, but as a Postmillennialist he believes we are on our way there. As an Amillennialist I disagree with him. However, I do consider myself something of an “optimistic Amillennialist, to which, when I told that to Doug Wilson in a recent phone conversation, he replied, “Well, that works.”
**King David, the man of God and prophet, was himself “apt to teach,” and apparently enjoyed teaching children the fear (worship and reverence) of the Lord (Psalm 34:11).
This article by the Institute for Faith, Works & Economics helped me find the 1 Peter passage about government praising good behavior: Dr. Art Lindsley, “What Does the Bible Say about the Role of Government?”, tifwe.org, accessed on July 30, 2019, at https://tifwe.org/bible-role-of-government/.