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Covenant Education in the Twenty-First Century

God is intensely concerned with the training of covenant children. Throughout the Scriptures, God admonishes parents to carefully instruct the children He entrusts to them, to transmit the covenant to succeeding generations.

  • Doug Dahl,
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And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Dt. 6:6-7)

God is intensely concerned with the training of covenant children. Throughout the Scriptures, God admonishes parents to carefully instruct the children He entrusts to them, to transmit the covenant to succeeding generations. In Psalm 78, we learn that God appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children (vv. 5, 6). The age-old question surrounding this command is: how do we keep the torch burning as we hand it off to the next generation? How can we ensure that we are equipping our children with the knowledge they need to take the kingdom of God into the future? The answer lies in how covenant parents educate their children.

Starting in the nineteenth century, Americans of whatever religious flavor were persuaded to hand the task of educating their children over to the civil government. They bought the premise that education could be religiously neutral, training young people to be good and productive citizens, while leaving the task of religious instruction to the sectarian Sunday schools of their parents. The sugar around the pill of government schools was free education; the medicine would turn out to be indoctrination into an alien belief system that would make their children strangers, and hostile ones at that, in their own homes.

By the mid-twentieth century, some Christian parents began to wake up to the fact that they had bought an educational pig in a government poke. They started looking for ways to save their children from the educratic thieves who came only to steal, kill, and destroy vulnerable young minds.

The last four decades of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of two parallel phenomena in American education: the Christian day school movement and the home education movement. While both represent significant changes in the way Christian parents approach education, most parents participating in either movement view their chosen educational vehicle as an alternative to the government schools, rather than as the outworking of their God-given responsibility of training up godly seed.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, both movements stand at a crossroads. Christian day school enrollments have peaked, and many of the problems parents sought to escape by leaving the government schools are cropping up with increasing frequency in Christian schools. In an effort to prop up enrollment to meet the growing financial burden of facilities and staff, Christian schools are expanding sports programs and other extracurricular activities while seeking state accreditation as a way of attracting college-conscious students and parents. At the same time, the schools are de-emphasizing the distinctively Christian aspects of their educational offerings, emphasizing instead academic quality as measured by standardized test scores and admissions to prestigious universities.

Even those day schools which resist such compromises may be running up against a fatal flaw in the institutional school concept. No matter how vigorously administrators in institutional schools promote the principle of parental involvement, they seemingly cannot stop parents from offloading their educational responsibilities onto the institution. Parents have, for the most part, learned how schools work through their own experience growing up. Committed involvement, for them, means attending regular parent-teacher conferences, making all their children's sporting events, and possibly joining the PTA.

While home education continues to grow, it, too, is approaching the limits of its potential in its present form. The home education burden falls mainly on the mother who must teach multiple subjects on multiple levels over the course of 20-25 years to take all of her children from preschool through a high school diploma. Even with the explosion of home educational materials and programs, and the rise of the home computer as an educational tool, only the most dedicated mothers will persevere to the end of such a task.

Given these realities, it may be time for parents and churches to rethink the task of training up the next generation. If we step back and reconsider God's instructions to parents, elders, and the local congregation, we may find a new model for Christian education that recognizes the task not as an alternative to the government schools, but as a covenant obligation for parents and the body of Christ as a whole. This covenant model would merge the best features of the two existing models together to create a structure in which the local congregation, functioning as the body of Christ, participates with parents in the process of training the succeeding generation for the task of dominion in God's earthly realm.

Education: Whose Responsibility?
Christian parents of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries bought into the idea of secular public education so easily because they didn't see the task of training their children as their direct responsibility. Besides, many of them were engaged full time in the struggle to survive on the farm or in the burgeoning industrial cities; teaching their own children, even if they had thought of it, would have appeared an insurmountable challenge. They were more than grateful to have the government relieve them of that burden.

Judging by the continuing high enrollment of Christian children in government schools, it is clear that Christian parents still, by and large, don't see education as their direct responsibility. They assume, as do their pastors, that government schools are the normal educational path. They admire those who undertake the great expense of sending their children to Christian schools or the great inconvenience of teaching their children at home. However, they see Christian education as a preference, not as a moral obligation. They are largely ignorant of God's command to them concerning the children He has given them.

Pastors, for the most part, aid and abet this ignorance by either avoiding the topic of Christian education altogether, or by qualifying their preference for Christian education with the empathetic recognition that some people simply must, for various good and understandable reasons, avail themselves of the government schools. Most pastors send their children to government schools as well.

The Scriptures, however, are unambiguous in their declaration of who bears the responsibility of training the next generation of covenant people. Psalm 78 serves as a virtual Magna Carta of covenant education. It declares that fathers must instruct their children in the ways of the Lord. Fathers must also impress upon their children the critical importance of passing it on to the next generation. This simple instruction alone, if it were followed faithfully, would serve as an effective barrier against covenant ignorance in any generation.

Besides commanding the responsibility for covenant education positively on the fathers, the Scriptures are replete with warnings against delivering covenant children into the hands of God's enemies. In Leviticus 18:21, God commands Israel, You shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, a commandment repeated in Deuteronomy 18:10. While these texts refer to physical child sacrifice, they clearly apply to any act of irresponsibility or negligence by which Christian fathers would sacrifice their children covenantally to pagan gods.

The suggestion that sending covenant children to government schools constitutes de facto sacrifice to pagan gods shocks and horrifies most Christian parents. They will deny the allegation and find some way, however spurious, to defend their educational choice. Yet government schools defy God, mock His law, harass Christian students, and effectively ban any reference to God as they seek to break the faith of the little ones sent to them so trustingly by Christian parents. But this is no less than we should expect. The Bible prescribes no role for the civil government in training the young, and the government intrudes upon the jurisdiction of the family and the church when it arrogates that duty to itself.

The Covenant Model
If we accept the premise that government schools are invalid institutions, that Christian day schools, albeit unwillingly, usurp parental responsibility, and that home schools strain family resources while piling undue weight on overburdened mothers, how, then can we carry out God's mandate to bring up our covenant children in the training and admonition of the Lord? Clearly, the local congregation will have to become involved as a body in the educational task. The charter for congregational involvement in the educational process appears in Ephesians 4:11-16:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

The progress of Christian education in the twenty-first century depends on pastors, elders, parents, and congregation members coming to grips with the implications of Paul's charge to the Ephesians. First of all, pastors and elders need to begin addressing Christian education as a matter of covenant conviction, rather than individual preference. They must teach their congregations that God forbids them to hand their children over to the state for indoctrination into the ways of Molech. They need to make commitment to covenant education a condition of full membership in the body.

Second, parents need to obey the command of God to arise and declare them (the laws, works, and praises of God) to their children so their children will not become stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful to God (Ps. 78). They need to repent of their desire to hand that responsibility off to the Sunday school teacher, expecting him to overcome in one hour the persistent worldly indoctrination the children receive the rest of the week.

Finally, congregations need to embrace the call of Ephesians 4 to act according to the effective working by which every part does its share.... As members of the covenant body, they need to accept responsibility for investing their time, talent, and money in the training of the next generation.

How do these commitments fit into the covenant model of Christian education? When elders call upon parents to shoulder the responsibility for their children's education, the elders need to stand ready to provide whatever common resources they can out of the congregation's treasury. They should make the church building available for parents to use for shared classes. They should provide a library geared toward the educational needs of the congregation's young people. They should provide pastoral oversight and accountability to parents to help them keep their students making steady progress academically and catechetically.

They should make the church building available for parents to use for shared classes. They should provide a library geared toward the educational needs of the congregation's young people. They should provide pastoral oversight and accountability to parents to help them keep their students making steady progress academically and catechetically.

In addition to physical resources, elders must be ready to assist in any way they can those members of the congregation, such as single parents or those who require a second income to meet their basic needs, to fulfill their covenant obligation toward their children. This may mean finding other families or even single adults to bridge the gap between the parents' abilities and the children's needs. No covenant family should be forced by financial need, or any other external circumstance, to send its children to government schools. When families are members of the covenant body, the body needs to care for them, not refer them to the welfare state.

Adults in the congregation, whether or not they have school-age children, should be required, as a condition of membership, to contribute to the education of the next generation. Those who have special knowledge or skills should expect to teach an occasional class. Nearly every congregation has doctors, businessmen, electricians, builders, or people who are simply handy, who can add tremendous value to the young people's educational experience, especially in short, informal, hands-on sessions. With everyone participating actively and enthusiastically, the burden will not be great on anyone. Seniors are a particularly valuable resource; many would be thrilled for the chance to influence the younger generation for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom. Through it all, parents retain direct responsibility for overseeing and evaluating their own children.

While the eldership should avoid like the plague building a professional bureaucracy around its covenant school, it might consider one paid position: master teacher. This person, either full or part time depending on the number of students, would carry the primary responsibility of teaching the parents how to teach their children. The master teacher could also help coordinate shared courses and use of common resources, and work with parents to set and keep educational goals and schedules. Under no circumstances, however, should the master teacher take over any parental responsibilities. That would begin the march toward institutionalization and the loss of the covenant vision.

Will there be a mad rush among American congregations to embrace this covenant model of education? Obviously not. Most pastors, parents, and congregations will scoff at the idea and go right on as they have been, telling themselves that God really doesn't expect them to try to establish anything so crazy. On the other hand, some will embrace the idea, adapt it, refine it, and make it work to the glory of God. Their reward will be generations who build the kingdom of God upon the sacrifice of the parents and churches who chose obedience to God over the seductions of Molech.