[EDITOR’S NOTE: It would be very easy to misunderstand the intent of Pastor Mathis’s article, or Chalcedon’s intent in publishing it. Chalcedon will continue to be one of the most committed supporters of the homeschooling movement, in keeping with our founder’s reputation as the father of the homeschooling movement in America. We’ve not changed our mind about the value of homeschooling and its significance (viz., the fact that parents are willing to exercise Christian self-government and take back education from the state).
A strong emphasis on homeschooling can leave faithful Christian day schools (those that impart a full-throated Biblical worldview) in limbo, depending on how homeschooling is marketed. This becomes troublesome when such marketing bends a text of Scripture for promotional purposes. Faithfulness to Scripture must absolutely come first. The homeschooling movement doesn’t need to drive a square peg into a round hole to promote itself. A favorite proof text may amount to a total misfire when scrutinized more closely. Moreover, seizing upon texts without first studying them with care is the fast track to becoming “a workman ashamed.” This cannot fail to then raise the question, “What other scriptures are being force-fitted to promote this agenda?”
So, correcting a misuse of Scripture is always legitimate: whether it was inadvertent or intentional, the potential harm that can be inflicted remains the same.
As for other potentially controversial aspects of Pastor Mathis’s exposition (e.g., dealing with family, church history, revival, or his enumeration of various Christian leaders and ministries by name, etc.), a charitable reading is called for. Look for nuance: Pastor Mathis (himself a homeschooling father) may be discussing a matter of degree rather than setting forth absolutes. Keep in mind that Dr. R. J. Rushdoony routinely published articles where he didn’t agree with the authors on many points, but he still felt that the main point was important enough to share with a discerning audience who would know not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
We don’t agree with every point Pastor Mathis makes, but his main point (which was anticipated in 2010 in Faith for All of Life magazine, as his fifth endnote acknowledges) provides a cautionary tale we cannot ignore: always support good ideas with the right scriptures, and drop any proof texts (however popular or sloganized) that do not faithfully represent what God Himself has written. Better to reprint your stationery or redesign your website than to continue to treat His Word, which He magnified above all His Name (Ps. 138:2), without unalloyed respect. As Warfield warned, if you want to be God’s mouthpiece, you’d better get His Word right. We owe our King nothing less. – MGS]
What’s the Big Deal?
I personally think that [homeschooling] was the beginning of a spiritual revival as the hearts of parents turned to their children and vice versa … I believe that home education is producing, and will produce, the future leaders of our culture. I believe that you will lead America into decades of revival and national reformation. (Rick Boyer, Take Back the Land, 2011)
Such an amazing sentiment is not uncommon in homeschooling circles. For the last decade, there have been various claims that the homeschooling movement is a revival stirred up by God. And some of the leaders within homeschooling offer Malachi 4:6 as proof:
Homeschooling is a spiritual revival … More and more parents are beginning to teach their children at home. God is beginning to “restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6) … the Holy Spirit has moved on hundreds of thousands of families in the United States and around the world to understand the need for training their children in His ways. (Chris Klicka, The Heart of Homeschooling, 2002)
Home educators, almost by definition, have turned their hearts to their children [Mal. 4] . . . So there’s been a revival that’s taking place in the heart of these homeschool families. And this revival works itself out to the local church … our prayer: every Christian in the world is in a family-integrated church. And there should be nothing but that, but you know what that is going to lead to? That’s going to lead to people homeschooling! (Doug Phillips, Generations Radio interview, June 12, 20061)
I see the hearts of fathers turning to their children and the children to the fathers. That’s the explanation as I see it for the homeschooling movement. (Rick Boyer, “How to Change the World,” sermonaudio.com, 2012)
Ministry of youth includes the hearts of the fathers turning to their children and the hearts of children turning to their fathers, as we read in Malachi 4:6. We know that a sign of revival, a sign of the Gospel, is that hearts of children and parents turn toward one another. (Scott Brown, “Scripture is Sufficient for Ministry to Youth,” sermonaudio.com, 2012).
What should Christians make of these claims? Is it Biblically acceptable to invoke Malachi 4:6 for the homeschooling movement? Is homeschooling a sign or even an instrument of a God-honoring revival?
These are serious claims. If homeschooling is a revival sent by God to unite families, then the church needs to espouse homeschooling with the same fervency as these advocates. But if these claims are exaggerated, then these advocates are adding unnecessary burdens upon the children of liberty.
But what are the sources of these claims?
These claims may arise from two intersecting mindsets or ideology. The first I dub radical homeschooling. This view claims, in practice or in theory, that homeschooling is the sine qua non of Christian education. Since homeschooling is part and parcel of God’s law in this viewpoint, then revivals would include homeschooling because revivals, by definition, include a renewed interest in God’s law.
The second is a form of familism: an unhealthy focus on the family. For purposes of this paper, this will be considered practically part of the radical homeschooling mindset, although logically distinct.
The most well-known proponent of radical homeschooling was Doug Phillips. Quoting him is not an attempted ad hominem. Vision Forum was the preeminent proponent of radical homeschooling until its demise in late 2013. It reached hundreds of homeschooling conferences and thousands of homeschoolers. And that does not count the influence they had (and still have) through other pastors and organizations that promoted its work and his ministry.2
Doug was talented at making clear what many others implied about the superiority of homeschooling:
Gregg [Harris] argued that we must charitably and sincerely, but soundly, make the case for the superiority of distinctively Biblical Christian home education … I believe that Gregg is spot on. And don’t kid yourself: both government and Christian school advocates vigorously make the case for the superiority of their own systems and methods. They actively attempt to evangelize Christians into sending children to their institutions. And let them do so. Bring on the debate. It’s healthy. Methods are not neutral. Education is religion externalized. May God prosper all those who seek to make the Word of God the exclusive sourcebook both for the content and methodology for the training of their children.3
The superiority of homeschooling made sense to Vision Forum because of its message that fixing the family will fix the church and society:
The defining crisis of our age is the systematic annihilation of the Biblical family … It is God’s primary vehicle for communicating covenant promises to the next generation … minimize the father and the family will perish. Minimize the family and you have neutralized the church … The mission of The Vision Forum is to address this problem.
The end of the about-page explains the connection of homeschooling to Malachi 4:
The Significance of Home Education to God’s Kingdom Work: Home education, with its emphasis on relationship-driven training, is a distinctively Hebrew approach to education, while the modern classroom, with its emphasis on efficiency, is a distinctively Greek and pagan approach to education… The last verse of Malachi and the New Testament passages heralding the coming of John the Baptist indicate that the turning of the hearts of parents to their children is a sign of great revival.4
This reasoning—that American society needs revitalized families and homeschooling is the tool that will accomplish revitalized families—spread from Vision Forum and other like-minded organizations. It was the explicit or implicit assumption in the books, seminars, and blogs for fourteen years with virtually no push-back.5
Even in circles in which this sentiment is not endorsed in an explicit manner, the palpable expectation that homeschooling is from God and will do great things for American conservatism is widespread. Norm Wakefield’s organization is named after the Malachi passage: The Spirit of Elijah Ministries. Other groups (usually homeschool related) also tend toward this view of Malachi 4 to one degree or another: the National Center for Family Integrated Churches, Voddie Baucham Ministries, Family Renewal (Israel Wayne), Generations Radio, and various state homeschooling organizations.6
This essay will examine these claims while exploring the meaning of the Malachi passage. Various other related arguments about homeschooling being a revival will be evaluated as well. Finally, the ramifications of such a view will be explored while offering a Biblically balanced alternative to the question of reviving America and homeschooling’s place therein.
What Are the Arguments for a Homeschooling Revival?
The homeschooling leaders who make the connection between homeschooling and Malachi 4 have not made a formal argument for this position.
Since there is no known exegesis of this passage from those who make this claim, its specific nature is unclear. Yet the seriousness of these claims demands a response anyway. And this can be accomplished through exploring the underlying assumptions.
There appears to be a tower of assumptions beginning with the phrase “will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). It is assumed the phrase is about homeschooling. Or more precisely, the assumption is that the phrase is about biological families being drawn together. And that the drawing together is accomplished through homeschooling.
This in turn is apparently based on the assumption that schooling children at home by their parents is the way to turn hearts of fathers to children and children to fathers. It is not just homeschooling but home discipleship in the widest sense to the inclusion of the family integrated church movement as Phillips and Brown pointedly assert.
These latter two (and those who follow them) make some grand claims about Malachi 4:6 that should be highlighted: homeschooling families “almost by definition” fulfill Malachi 4:6 and the turning of hearts in the family (both homeschooling and family integrated churches) is a “sign of revival, a sign of the Gospel.”
Do these grandiose claims stand up to scrutiny? Does the tower of assumptions stand firm?
To answer these questions, it would seem logical (out of Christian charity) to place these assumptions upon two different but related foundations to the text in question.
The first foundation may be that this text is directly about biological (homeschooling) families, especially in today’s American context; thus, this usage of this text is by way of explication. A prima facie reading of Malachi 4:6 seems to support this position:
And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.
A second foundation may involve similar reasoning but buttressed with some nuance: Malachi 4:6 is indirectly about the biological (homeschooling) families, especially in the American context; thus, the usage of this text is by way of application.
If either of these foundational approaches to the text is found weak, then the house of reasoning built upon them will collapse.
An examination of Malachi 4:5–6 will demonstrate the unsoundness of the first foundation. And a logical and historical examination of the second foundation will demonstrate its inherent weakness.
What Does the Text Mean?
The book of Malachi was written about the time of the book of Nehemiah, during the post-exilic age (c. 450 B.C.). The book is generally accepted as being divided into six sections: God proves His love for Israel (1:1–5); God rebukes the priesthood (1:6–2:9); God rebukes the people’s mixed marriages (2:10–16); God announces His coming messenger (2:17–3:6); God rebukes the withholding of tithes (3:7–12); and God predicts the destiny of the wicked (3:13–4:6).7
The last section (3:13ff.) contains the passage in question:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse (NKJV, vv. 5–6).
Some commentators may include verse four (“Remember the Law of Moses …”) with these verses, but that does not materially change the meaning of this passage. All parties would agree that any revival would include a renewed interest in God’s law. Nevertheless, verse five seems a natural place to start a new thought with the declarative behold (compare 4:1 and 3:1).
The relation to the earlier verses is not immediately clear. It is likely related to this last section of Malachi (3:13–4:4). These verses begin the last of six formulaic expressions of God’s pronouncement (“Says the Lord”) and the Jewish nation’s complaint (“You have said”):
“Your words have been harsh against Me,” Says the LORD, “Yet you say, ‘What have we spoken against You?’ You have said, ‘It is useless to serve God; what profit is it that we have kept His ordinance, and that we have walked as mourners before the LORD of hosts? So now we call the proud blessed, for those who do wickedness are raised up; they even tempt God and go free’” (NKJV, vv. 13–15).
The post-exilic Jews complained that obedience to the Lord was for naught. And that the wicked got away scot-free.
God’s answer is two-fold: He shall write a book of remembrance for “those who fear the Lord” (3:16) and He shall bring judgment on the wicked (4:1). The righteous will be exalted, trampling the wicked under the soles of their feet on that day (4:2, 3). Verse four, then, would be a reminder to Israel to be righteous by remembering the law of Moses. They should trust in God’s promise that the wicked will be judged and the righteous vindicated, and that trust should be expressed in obeying God’s law (v. 4).
But God in His infinite mercy will provide what He requires in verse four: renewed hearts (vv. 5–6). The law was never given in the absence of the gospel in the Old Testament. And this last prophecy and promise of the older dispensation points to a great movement of God in the future when hearts will be united together by the coming prophet.
That future is described as the “coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.” This day is either the first coming of Christ, the fall of Jerusalem, the second return of Christ, or some combination. The first two instances would decisively narrow the fulfillment of this prophecy to the New Testament era.
Without detailing my eschatological bent, I will take it as a given that all parties concerned will take the first two options. This would naturally fit with the view that the prophet in question was only John the Baptist and not some future iteration as well.
Now the text still has other outstanding questions: who is this prophet? Who are the fathers and children? And what does it mean to have hearts united?
The Jews of old believed that Elijah himself would come to fulfill this prophecy. Apparently, some of the Roman Catholic commentators agreed. And a number of the early church fathers believed that there are two Elijahs: the first fulfillment is John the Baptist and the second is Elijah in the flesh.8
But the bulk of commentators retain the simpler reading of the New Testament explanation: John the Baptist is the fulfillment of this prophecy. Specifically, Christ links John with Malachi 3:1:
For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You” … For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. (Matt. 11:10, 14, cp. Luke 7:27).
But is the Elijah in Malachi 4 the same as John the Baptist? The angel that spoke with John’s father, Zacharias, declared:
And he [John] will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:16–17)
John the Baptist is the fulfillment of Malachi 3 and 4. He fulfills the prophecy, not by being the reincarnated Elijah, but by having the same “spirit and power of Elijah.”
The question of who exactly are the fathers and children of 4:6 is already answered in Luke 1:17: the disobedient and the just.9 But even without this explicit New Testament testimony, the book of Malachi had the answers within it already.
One theme in the book is the contrast between the faithful Israel of the past and the faithless Israel of the present. Consider Malachi 2:10–11: “Why do we deal treacherously with one another by profaning the covenant of the fathers? … The Lord’s holy institution which he loves; he has married the daughter of a foreign god.” The reference to the fathers is clearly to the church members of the original generations.
Malachi 3:7 makes a similar point about tithes: “Yet from the days of your fathers you have gone away from My ordinances and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you …” Again, this is clearly a reference to the religious fathers of old.
A less overt allusion to the religious fathers is found earlier in Malachi 2:8: “‘but you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ Says the LORD of hosts.” Levi is the father of the then current priests. God is comparing the just father with the disobedient priests (children).
The theme of contrasting the faithful past with the faithless present is reiterated in the prophecy of chapter 3. There Jesus Christ is presented as the Messenger of the Lord, one who is “like a refiner’s fire and like a launderer’s soap.” He will purify and clean the faithless priests of the present to become like the priests of old: “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasant to the LORD, as in the days of old, as in former years” (verse 4, emphasis added).
The idea of children is reciprocal to the idea of fathers. Thus, wherever the idea of spiritual or institutional fathers is highlighted, the then current Jewish audience would be the children (descendants). Two words express this idea: seed/descendants and sons/children.10 The moral or institutional usage of seed is explicitly seen in the condemnation of the faithless priests in chapter two: “Behold, I will rebuke your descendants and spread refuse on your faces, the refuse of your solemn feasts” (verse 3). These descendants are institutional descendants of the priests in verse one.
The only usage of descendant (seed) as biological children is in chapter two wherein the Lord judges Israel (possibly the priests) for marrying outside the covenant:
“…the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth.” (vv. 14b–15)
Yet even here, the spiritual accent of the Old Testament is not missing (“a godly offspring”). Biological continuity was never the main point of generational faithfulness. Both were desirable, of course, but only one was essential.
However, Malachi 4:6 does not use the word descendant but son. This word is used four other times: Malachi 1:6, 3:3, 3:6 and 3:17.
The first usage clearly refers to biological ties: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master: if then I am a father, where is mine honor?”
The next two verses use the word in the religious-institutional-collective sense: “ … and he will purify the sons of Levi … For I, Jehovah, change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”
Malachi 3:17 is an interesting passage since man, and not father, is used in connection with son: “‘They shall be Mine,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘On the day that I make them My jewels. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.’”
Of more significance is that the two verses that allude to the biological father-son relationship are metaphors. In the book of Malachi, biological relations are used as comparisons for religious (moral) and institutional relationships. And only one passage is directly about biological families (2:15). Biological families are not the primary focus of this book.
The last question, what does it mean to turn the hearts, is already answered: to bring them to follow the faith of their fathers.
This interpretation is based upon the object of the verb, (re)turn. The Hebrew word (shub) can be translated turn or return. And this key verb is used four times outside of the text in question: Malachi 1:4, 2:6, 3:7, 3:18.
Malachi 1:4 is not relevant to the question at hand, dealing with the arrogant claims of Edom to return to their broken land and rebuild it.
The next verse, 2:6, is an interesting complement to the verses in question:
The law of truth was in his [Levi’s] mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned [shub] many away from iniquity.
Levi is painted as a powerfully upright and spiritual leader. He is so powerful that he “turned many away from iniquity.” The verb “turned” is the exact same word and form as 4:6.11
The parallel here is quite informative: Elijah and Levi both are described as those who turn people. The objects of Luke’s description are similar to the language of Levi’s turning: uprightness (just) and iniquity (disobedient).
Although not explicitly mentioned in the text, this turning is a repentance of the heart toward God manifested in some outward obedience to His law. This is the assumed moral stance of the entire Bible. In some contexts, this verb is translated as converted or converting (cp. Psalm 51:13, 19:7, NKJV).
Malachi 3:7 begins the section on tithes:
“Yet from the days of your fathers you have gone away from My ordinances and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” Says the LORD of hosts. “But you said, ‘In what way shall we return?’”12
God is urging Israel to follow the old paths of obedience, to imitate the faithful fathers of old.
The last verse, 3:18, is a promise of God to turn the people back to a healthy spiritual life that discerns between right and wrong:
Then shall ye return and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not. (ASV)13
Turning or returning is used consistently in a moral sense outside of chapter one. This matches Luke’s usage of the verb.14 Malachi frequently laments the current generation’s faithlessness in comparison to the previous generation’s faithfulness, even using the comparable ideas of father, son and seed frequently.
Thus, Malachi 4:5–6 is a fitting ending to a book that frequently uses the parental relationship as a picture of spiritual and institutional relationships.
Even so, Luke’s interpretation is decisive in answering all these questions: John the Baptist fulfilled Malachi 4:6 by being used of the Spirit to turn the hearts of the disobedient, unrighteous, and wicked to the obedience of their spiritual, institutional and just forefathers.
What about Homeschooling as an Application of Malachi 4?
If the text of Malachi 4:5–6 is not directly about homeschooling then could it be indirectly about homeschooling? Could homeschooling be an application of this passage?
Theologically, to apply Malachi directly to the homeschooling movement of today would seem to involve several assumptions. The first assumption would be that the fathers and children of the passage refer to biological families. Such an assumption has already been found wanting in a close reading of the book of Malachi and its fulfillment in Luke.
But even if one were to ignore the book-level context of the words, two theological facts would call this interpretation into question. The first is Christ’s own words about the effect of the gospel upon families:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to “set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; and “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:34–37, NKJV)
How can this round peg be squared with a prophecy about families being united lest He strike the earth with a curse? A biological reading of the text would mean the gospel brings a curse upon the earth since it divides and unites families.
The second theological fact that calls this interpretation into question is the truth that spiritual families are more important than biological ties, as Christ asserts:
“Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:48–50, NKJV)
Another assumption is the belief that the turning of hearts is a strengthening of familial ties between family members. Fathers would love their children and the children would obey their fathers. Obviously if the family of this text is the house of God, the church, then the turning of hearts has a different signification.
According to Luke 1:17, this signification is the turning of the disobedient to the ways of the obedient:
He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Luke purposefully parallels the language of biology (father and children) with the moral categories (disobedient and just). The chiastic form (ABB’A’) of the original Malachi passage is retained in Luke: the fathers are the just and the children are the disobedient.
In fact, the turning (or repentance) is primarily toward God as Luke first notes: “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (v. 16). This goal is reiterated at the end of verse 17: “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The purpose of turning of the disobedient to the just is to make a people holy for God.
Even if biological families are in view (and they are not), the instrument of the Spirit to bring about the turning of hearts is Elijah. But Elijah is John the Baptist. And both men, for all practical considerations, are church officers—prophets—if one were to take the text as applicable for today.
In other words, even with this view one could not logically conclude that homeschooling is the instrument of the turning of hearts. That would be the church leader—a prophet, or at least a pastor.
But there are particular positions about the relationship between homeschooling and Malachi which shall be addressed.
Some assert that homeschooling as such is an instrument of revival or transformation. Others assert it is “almost by definition” a fulfillment of Malachi 4. Still others seem to believe it to be a sign of revival. The mildest version simply offers Malachi 4 as the “explanation” for the homeschooling movement.
The first claim is the most extreme view: that homeschooling “is producing, and will produce, the future leaders of our culture” because it is a “spiritual revival as the hearts of the parents are turned to their children and vice versa …” This is a claim that homeschooling is an instrumental cause of revival or renewal. But based upon a careful exegesis of the text this is false. Theologically it is false as well when the rest of the Bible is taken into consideration (cp. Matt. 10:34). Statistically and historically (see below) it is equally false. There is no sound reason for this claim.
The second claim—that homeschoolers “almost by definition” are turning hearts toward each other—can be taken in one of two manners. It could be taken in a qualitative sense that the simple act of homeschooling is a fulfillment of Malachi 4. “Almost by definition” could also refer to the demographic makeup of the homeschoolers: that the vast majority could be described in terms of Malachi 4 while an insubstantial minority could not.
The fuller quote helps shed light upon its meaning:
So there’s been a revival that’s taking place in the heart of these homeschool families. And this revival works itself out to the local church … our prayer: every Christian in the world is in a family-integrated church. And there should be nothing but that, but you know what that is going to lead to? That’s going to lead to people homeschooling!
This clearly expresses the idea of radical homeschooling. The idea is that the vast majority—“almost by definition”—of homeschoolers are fulfilling Malachi 4. They are part and parcel of a revival. And this revival “works itself out to the local church”—implying a cause and effect relationship.
In either case—qualitatively or quantitatively—the adverb almost is the Achilles heel: almost is not completely. It is a statement that allows for wiggle room in contrast to the passage in Malachi which is a blanket statement, a prophecy that Luke said was fulfilled with Christ’s first coming.
The third claim that homeschooling is a “sign” of revival suffers from similar analysis. Consider Voddie Baucham’s claim:
According to Reid and McDow, “Revival is God’s invasion into the lives of one or more of His people in order to awaken them spiritually for kingdom ministry.” It is on the basis of this definition that I believe that the recent rise in parental awareness, desperation over the future of our families, churches, and communities, the homeschool movement, and the family-integrated church movement constitutes a modern revival on the American landscape … God is truly turning the hearts of fathers toward their children. Anyone who has been around the Christian church in America knows that these people are way outside the mainstream. The lifestyle choices they have made are not the kind we typically hear about in Sunday school. Something has happened to these folks. Something that God ordained.15
But Malachi 4 is not about biological families as such. The Bible does not offer homeschooling as a sign of revival. It was not offered as a sign during Christ’s ministry or in the revivals of the book of Acts. And statistically and historically it is false.
Granted, the drawing together of family members could be construed as a “sign” of revival in the loosest sense. However, a proper revival would have various and sundry positive effects upon the people of God, any number of which one could point to instead of homeschooling.
But this is a far cry from a strict and proper sign of revival as described in Malachi and understood in the rest of the Bible. The powerful preaching of the gospel, a renewed interest in God’s law, widespread repentance, many conversions to Christ—these are strict and proper signs of revival. Such things will always and everywhere accompany a full revival. Renewed family relationships can and have accompanied revivals but since families are also divided by the gospel, it cannot be a strict and proper sign of revival.
What Does Church History Show?
If it were granted that renewed family relationships or homeschooling are signs of a Malachi 4 revival, then historical and statistical analysis would reinforce this claim. A revitalized family via homeschooling would imply a history reflective of this fact, and current statistics would demonstrate powerful spiritual growth in homeschooling. But the history of Christian education and the current statistics of homeschooling do not demonstrate such.
The most obvious fact against this thesis is that none of the major commentators, theology works, or confessions makes such a claim. And the proponents of this view have offered little to no historical proof in their favor.
In fact, a review of the Reformation and the First and Second Great Awakenings will demonstrate the opposite of this claim.
The Reformation is considered by many historians as partly an educational movement.16 Yet not one Reformer promoted homeschooling as such. They taught the importance of parental instruction of basic morals and life skills. They promoted family worship. But formal, non-parental schooling was equally emphasized.17
The Reformers shared a common concern for the education of the covenant children, especially that they be able to read the Bible. Luther’s letters and sermons reflect a strong desire for public education (“Letter…in Behalf of Christian Schools” and “The Duty of Sending Children to School”). After traveling through the local region and noting the deplorable state of learning, he wrote his catechism for the children. He and Melanchthon helped establish more and better schools in the Germanic lands.
Similarly, Zwingli, Bucer, Beza and Knox also supported their local day schools, not just the colleges. These men were not anomalies but were part of a larger church-led movement that included the Reformed bodies of Poland, Holland, Germany, France, Scotland and England that created, supported, and promoted schools for children. Catechisms were created along with catechism classes.
Calvin is well-known for his Geneva Academy, but many do not realize that Geneva also had a city-school for children. This lower-level school (schola private) was divided into seven grades, admitting children as young as age six. Most boys stayed in each grade a year, but could advance earlier. School began at six in the summer and seven in the winter and lasted until four in the afternoon. Classes were on Saturday as well and included an afternoon recess.
Over a century later, the typical New England child would begin instruction before age six, attending a local Dame school wherein an older woman (usually widowed) would teach the rudiments. After mastering reading through the hornbook or The New England Primer, he would advance to a writing school. If he were proficient he would next attend a grammar school, learning the classics. It was common for the schoolmasters to teach the catechisms as well. At times, such catechizing was furthered through assemblies of the children, not unlike Sunday school (perhaps following the Scottish pattern).
Leaders, such as John Eliot and Cotton Mather, promoted Christian day schools. The Synod of New York and Philadelphia publicly called for more schools. Eye-witness accounts from Professor Samuel Miller (late 1700s) and Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (1812) describe an America with a large school population. By 1840 perhaps 55 percent or more of school-aged children attended school for some amount of time. These statistics do not include attendance to school overseas, local tutors and informal local schools run by rich households.
This growth and encouragement for day schools for children occurred through both American revivals. There is no indication that the First and Second Great Awakenings in America were brought about by or were accompanied with homeschooling as a “sign” of revival.
Historically, the Reformation and the first two Great Awakenings in America were not centered on educational methods. Instead, preaching repentance from dead works and faith in the Living Savior was central. Calvin, Luther, Knox, the Puritans and the Pilgrims all promoted schooling for education and the church for revival. Today too many homeschooling leaders are confusing the two agencies.
In point of fact, a simple public declaration by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America during the height of the Second Great Awakening conclusively proves that revival was not associated with homeschooling:
In those parts of the church, without exception, in which vital religion has flourished, in the course of the last year, the fundamental doctrines of the gospel; viz. the total depravity of human nature, the divinity and atonement of Jesus Christ, justification by His imputed righteousness, the sovereignty and freeness of divine grace, and the special influences of the Holy Spirit in the regeneration and sanctification of sinners have been decidedly received and honoured.18
What About the Modern Homeschooling Movement?
If the Malachi passage is not about biological families and homeschooling as such, could it still apply to the modern homeschooling movement? Possibly.
It could apply in the sense that many prophecies of old could apply today in a less-than strict sense: when there are moral truths embedded in the prophecy, those truths are still applicable. And since Malachi is a prophecy about turning the hearts of a new generation to the old paths of the church fathers it could be loosely applied to any similar scenario.
But is the modern homeschooling of the last thirty years just such a scenario?
It is hard to evaluate since the statistics of the movement tell us very little. One could argue that its meteoric growth (partly exaggerated) or its academic success is evidence of the moral superiority of homeschooling. And if morally superior, then it could be a sign of a Malachi revival.
Certainly, numerical growth in and of itself is a sign of nothing but popularity. And if academic prowess is a sign of revival, then the touted studies of Rudner and Dr. Ray tells us almost nothing. Neither study incorporated the best statistical tools since they were not random samples. And both men admit their studies cannot be used for comparison with public schools.19
If the homeschooling movement of today is a mighty act of God in turning hearts toward God, then statistics will tell us little unless they examine the spiritual fruits. But there are some studies that are suggestive of the current spiritual state.
The statistics over the last fifteen years paint an ugly picture of doctrinal ignorance and indifference toward piety in the average evangelical’s life. And if the average homeschooler is an evangelical, then they are not exempted from these statistics.
The 2008 massive religious study by the Pew Forum found 57 percent of self-described evangelicals believe there are other ways to heaven. Barna studies show similar levels of doctrinal ignorance as well as problems of piety.20
Homeschoolers are not exempt from such problems. One early Barna study suggested problems in homeschooling circles early on. Half of those polled denied that salvation was by grace alone. In some areas, such as frequency of religious activities during the week, they were slightly more engaged. But church attendance, prayer and devotional time were the same as the national norms. Half of the polled homeschoolers considered themselves somewhere between politically conservative and liberal.21
The Nehemiah Institute (a worldview assessment center) has a worldview test that, although certainly far from perfect, suggests that homeschoolers are sub-par. The 2008 study states:
Homeschool students generally have ranged between the Traditional Christian school students and the Worldview-based school students, [with an] average score for high school level at 48.65 for the past three years. A small percentage of home school students have scored very well, above 80.0 (about 8%) but a surprisingly higher percentage score low, less than 30.0 (about 25%).22
The spiritual ramifications may be seen in the rising second generation of homeschoolers: many complain of their legalistic upbringing and unreasonable burdens placed upon them. Naturally, not all of these complaints are accurate, and some express more confusion than reality. Yet much rings true.
In fact, some of the homeschooling leaders in the trenches admit that the spiritual state of homeschoolers is not as good as it should be:
During the great apostasy, friends, whether they go to public schools, private schools, Christian schools, homeschools, what you have, for the most part, we are seeing failure. Failure everywhere.23
Finally, a 2011 large-scale, longitudinal educational study, the Cardus Education Survey, found normal to lackluster results for homeschool high school graduates.24 The random-sample nature of this study makes it stand out as one of very few such studies that include homeschoolers. The study was able to separate between religious and non-religious homeschoolers.
Religious practices of homeschoolers were similar to those in Protestant schools except for tithing which was noticeably lower. As for academic achievement, homeschoolers had noticeably lower rates of college preparedness, attended “open admission” universities and had generally lower rates of attending college at all. And, contrary to fifteen years of hearsay, they had lower SAT scores compared to other peers in private schools.
Of significance is the section about cultural engagement. Homeschoolers seem to have higher rates of helpless feelings in dealing with difficulties of life; they lack clear goals and direction; they get married at younger ages; they get more divorces than their private school peers. This last point was verified to be uniquely statistical to homeschoolers: more of them are divorcing even when their parents do not.
None of this is to say that homeschooling is a terrible choice. Larger sample sizes are needed. And these statistics are not the final word. Even so, they should be enough to silence those who hype the movement out of due proportion.
Homeschooling is a good, even an excellent option for many families. Yet the Bible, history and statistics all attest that it is neither an instrument nor a sign of revival. The language of Malachi 4 can only be used for those who are being brought back to God, whether they homeschool or not. It cannot be used to describe the movement as such.
Mislabeling something a revival is very serious: it misleads people into a false hope. It leads homeschooling families into a false sense of security. They become less open to challenging any of their own practical or theological errors. It may even harden them in their sins.
And such a mislabeling sets the homeschoolers up to accepting more false teachings and practices from anyone who strokes their ego with such a dangerous claim. It may also blind them to the presence of real revivals in their midst.
The singling out of homeschoolers as those special of the Lord creates a dangerously divisive atmosphere. Under such a mindset families will readily gravitate to churches that promote this view, bypassing good Protestant and Reformed churches that do not subscribe to such a view. It is already happening.
Further, this claim of revival and homeschooling is frequently tied to renewing America, adding a socio-political dimension that further aggravates the negative impact upon listeners:
[H]omeschoolers on the forefront of the battle to restore family, faith and freedom in the 21st century … Folks, one of the passions we have on this radio program is to see a Malachi 4 revival in the hearts of fathers and sons across America. I believe this is the catalyst to the restoration of faith, family and freedom in the 21st century.25
Imagine the burden this puts upon families who homeschool. And imagine the burden upon families who do not homeschool. The former are told they are the catalyst to renewing America (and the faith!). The later feels left out wondering if God is working in them at all.
The church does not need this misguided movement. In today’s climate of spiritual darkness, churches and families do not need to focus on educational method as much as upon the old message. The rank ignorance as noted earlier—denial of solus Christus, theological ignorance, practical godlessness—cry out for reformation and revival not for more homeschooling.
The renewal Christian families need is the power of the Spirit through the means of grace, especially the public means of grace, in particular the proclamation of the law and gospel. Certainly, many need to take Christian nurture more seriously, and homeschooling is likely a good means toward that goal. But it is neither a sign nor an instrument of revival.
The agency of revival is normally the church. Malachi’s historical prophecy is but an application of the Spirit’s ordinary work of using the church—the pastor in particular—to preach repentance from sin (like John the Baptist) and faith in Jesus Christ to bring the hearts of the disobedient to the path of the righteous in Christ.
If these homeschooling leaders want revival, then they need to promote healthy, mature and confessional churches. They need to challenge their audiences’ false practices and especially false gospels. They need to cry out to the Spirit for more conviction of sins. They need to cry out to the Spirit for more John the Baptists—more faithful ministers—who will preach repentance from dead works and faith in the Living Christ.
May God answer this prayer.
1. National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC) blog, endorsed the original interview on their blog back in January of 2009.
2. The broadcast this quote came from was endorsed on the NCFIC blog in 2009. The NCFIC is the brainchild of Phillips and has never disowned the radical homeschooling claims but assumes them. Other groups influenced by Vision Forum and/or promoted it or shared the speaking circuit with him include R.C. Sproul Jr., Scott Brown (NCFIC), Voddie Baucham Ministries, Botkin’s Western Conservatory of the Arts and Sciences, and various homeschooling organizations such as Christian Home Educators of Colorado.
3. Doug’s Blog, Oct. 8, 2004.
4. from 2001-2011. See Internet Archive, https://archive.org/web/.
5. Thatmom.com (Karen Campbell), Jen’s Gems (Jen Fishburne), Chalcedon and I and others wrote about our concerns from the mid-2000s onward but had no nation-wide platform to express these concerns. Most of these authors published concerns about this aggressive form of homeschooling and patriarchy but did not tie the theme to Malachi 4 except for myself and Chalcedon’s Martin Selbrede in Faith for All Life, March/April 2010.
6. See Scott Brown’s quote above. Israel Wayne, “The Second Generation Homeschooling Movement” (http://www.homeschoolalumni.org). Generations Radio names this theme several times, including in their commercial breaks. State organizations include Christian Home Educators of Colorado (parent institution of Generations Radio) whose former executive director asserted: “[Homeschooling is] beyond any doubt, a veritable reformation of life … unmatched by anything we have seen in the last century or two in Europe or America.” (Homeschool Update, Christian Home Educators of Colorado, Fall, 2008).
7. Kaiser, Walter C., and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, ed., Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, vol. 23, The Preacher’s Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1992).
8. Cp. Lange’s Commentary for a list of names at books.google.com.
9. Greek: apeitheis and dikaios respectively.
10. Hebrew: za’ar (seed) and ben (son).
11. Hiphil, perfect, 3 person, masculine singular.
12. Qal, imperfect.
13. Qal, waw, perfect.
14. Luke uses epistrefou, repent, change one’s ways (Friberg).
15. Voddie Baucham, Family Driven Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), pp. 171, 175.
16. Spitz, Lawson, Cubberley, McNeil, Benedict, to name a few.
17. See author’s last chapter summarizing the history of Christian education in his book, Uniting Church and Family (at Amazon and in Kindle format). More details are found in his unpublished paper on the history of Christian education (you may contact the author for details).
18. Report of the General Assembly in the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1810, p. 443, books.google.com.
19. Reading the studies will demonstrate as much. See my article “The Statistics of Homeschooling” in Uniting Church and Family or my articles at Examiner.com, under Denver Christian Perspectives Examiner.
20. Pew Forum, Religious Landscape Survey, 2008, http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/05/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf. Barna’s UnChristian book collects a host of statistics, showing the widespread ignorance of Christians and the rising lack of piety.
21. Barna Group, “Home School Families Have Different Backgrounds Than Commonly Assumed,” 2001, https://www.barna.com/research...
22. Nehemiah Institute, “Where are we Going?” August 1, 2008, http://www.nehemiahinstitute.c...
23. Generations Radio, Sept. 5, 2011.
24. Cardus Education Survey, 2011, online, http://www.cardus.ca/research/education/survey_schedule/.
25. “Homeschool Education Neglect” (2014) and “Signs of Gigantic Reformation in the West,” Generations Radio, sermonaudio.com, 2013.
- Shawn Mathis
Shawn Mathis is a pastor, writer and homeschooling father. His book, Uniting Church and Family, summarizes his research of historical and modern homeschooling and the family integrated church movement. He writes on various current topics at PastorMathis.com. He pastors Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Denver.