How should Christians educate their children? That's the question this morning. And faced with any issue like that, a Christian should ask, 'Where does the Bible address this?' And with education, the answer is that, explicitly or implicitly, the Bible addresses it from beginning to end – but most explicitly in the book of Proverbs. So would you turn in the Bibles to Proverbs chapter 1, because we're going to begin by mining some Biblical first principles from Proverbs 1-9, and then we'll think about our context today. Now if you know Proverbs at all, you might think it's just a hotchpotch of advice, and observations on life. Like,
"Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife."
(Proverbs 21.9, NIV)
Well, from Proverbs 10 onwards, you do get collections of those kinds of wise sayings, often switching from subject to subject. But chapters 1-9 are very different – because they give a sketch of the kind of education God wants for the children he's entrusted to us. So my first and much longer heading is:
1. What should Christian Education look like?
Well, look down to Proverbs 1.1-4:
"The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth"
So v4 says who the book is primarily for. It's to all of us, but primarily it's, to 'the simple' and 'the youth' – two words for the same person. And 'simple' doesn't mean 'unintelligent', as people sometimes use the word today. In Proverbs, 'the simple' are those who are still trying to learn and work out what life's all about – which means they're the easily misled, the vulnerable (to use a modern word). As for the word 'youth', elsewhere in the Old Testament it's used of a very young child, a teenager and a young adult. But in Proverbs, it specifically means those who are moving from adolescence towards being young adults – 'standing on their own two feet', as we would say – when the parental home is no longer the centre of gravity or frame of reference it once was. In our context, that would be a child who's leaving home for a first job, or to go to university.
So if that's you right now – a senior CYFA member, or student – especially first year– then Proverbs is especially God's book for you. But it's also especially God's book for the parents – along with grandparents, godparents, extended family, friends, teachers and school governors – who are trying to prepare children for that move. And that's why, throughout Proverbs 1-9, the scene switches between the parental home and the world 'out there'. For example, look down to chapter 1, v8:
"Hear, my son, your father's instruction,
and forsake not your mother's teaching"
So there's the scene of the parental home. And the Bible assumes that the married family is the primary, God-created unit of society, and that the father and mother together are the primary educators of their children. So the education of your children is not ultimately the school's responsibility, still less the State's. Under God, it's yours – whoever you share it with, or delegate it to. So we need to oppose the increasing attempts of the State to usurp the place of parents – such as the Named Person scheme in Scotland. And in doing that, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is on our side, because it says:
"Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."
And the European Convention on Human Rights is also on our side:
"The State shall respect the right of parents to ensure [their children's] education… in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions."
(Protocol 1, Article 2)
So that's the parental home. And then the scene switches to the world 'out there'. Look on to chapter 1, verses 20-22:
"Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
in the markets she raises her voice;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
"How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?"
So there's your child just gone off to university. And you're not there anymore, and the question is: has the wisdom of God which you've modelled and taught them actually got into their own hearts – so that they listen to him above all the other voices? Well now look back to chapter 1, verse 7, because this is the book's foundational word on education:
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning [or foundation] of knowledge"
That is, if you want to understand any subject in life – from marriage to medicine, from love to law, from happiness to history – the foundation for a true understanding is 'the fear of the LORD', or 'reverence for the LORD', as some translations say. It's that fundamental attitude which says, 'God is God, and I'm not. And he has both the right and the wisdom to tell me what life is about, how to live it, and how to interpret it.' Just turn the page to chapter 3, verses 5-7 to see that attitude spelt out a bit more:
"Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil."
And that is the exact opposite of what many educators want to tell our children today. Many want to say to our children today, 'Freedom means not letting anyone else tell you how to live. So trust in your own judgement. Live by your own wisdom. Define reality and right and wrong for yourself.' And David Bowie epitomised that idea of defining and redefining reality for yourself – which is why those who want to push that view have lionised him in the media after his death.
But the Bible says that idea of absolute freedom will actually harm and de-humanise us – because we're not wise enough to define reality and right and wrong for ourselves. We need God to define for us what's real – like the nature of marriage – and what's right and wrong; and then to enjoy our freedom within those limits. That's what's truly 'humanising'.
So that's why my over-riding aim and hope for my children's education is that it helps them come to that fundamental attitude of the 'fear of the LORD' – in New Testament terms, to come to accept Jesus as Lord. Now some would say, 'Isn't that indoctrination – aren't you trying to impose your beliefs on them?' To which the answer is, 'No' – because I can't make my children believe that Jesus is Lord; still less force them to accept his Lordship (and I'd be a fool to try – nothing would be more guaranteed to put them off Jesus). Those are things that can only go on in the freedom of their own minds and wills. All I can do is to present Jesus to them in the way I live and open the Bible to them – alongside the way that you, as their church family, do that for them, too. And as someone put it, "That's not imposing our beliefs; it's proposing them." And that's the model you see in Proverbs. So look back to chapter 2, verse 1, for example:
"My son, if you receive my words…"
And that's the 'if'. Because having Jesus as Lord can't be forced on our children; we can't make it happen. They have to receive him for themselves. So Proverbs models the way to propose the faith to our children, while giving them the space and freedom to process it and respond for themselves.
Now if you have a child, maybe long grown-up, who doesn't presently accept Jesus as Lord, you may be thinking, 'What did we do wrong?' And the answer, as for every parent here, is, 'Quite a lot.' But is the assumption behind the question that if you'd 'got it right', they'd have responded differently? Because that isn't a true assumption; because the response our children make to Jesus is outside our control, however 'right' we get it – which is perhaps the hardest truth a Christian parent has to face.
So, Christian parents are the primary educators of their children. And that will be through sharing the Bible with them at home – which I think all of us need much more help with, through church. But even more, it will be through how we model living for Jesus as Lord. So for example, if you love your wife as Christ loved the church, it'll teach them more about how good it is to have Jesus as Lord than a whole CYFA series on discipleship. If your children know you get up before them to pray, it'll teach them more about prayer than a whole term on that topic in Explorers.
And then, having said that Christian parents are the primary educators of their children, if we believe the Bible is the most important book in the world, then logically the Bible has to be the primary curriculum. Which is a disturbing thought, isn't it? When you think how almost all our schooling options cover hardly any of the Bible, and leave our children with a fag-end of time and energy for learning it.
But let's just think education through from that premise that the Bible has to be the primary curriculum. That's the number one reason I want my children to learn to read – so that they can read the Bible for themselves. It's also the number one reason I want them to learn to think critically – so they can ask things like, 'Is that the right interpretation of this passage?', or, 'Is there really good reason for believing in the resurrection?', or, 'Are there other beliefs out there which are more credible than the Bible?' That is, I want them to learn to ask questions about truth, and to pursue truth. It's also the number one reason I want them to learn to think independently. Because the most important thing they'll do is to decide about Jesus for themselves.
And, historically, that's why it's Christians who've pioneered liberal education, teaching literacy, and then critical and independent thinking based on a core of Biblical knowledge. It's why the whole modern school and university movement came from Christians starting schools and universities – most of which have since lost their way and gone secular. And although the Bible was their primary curriculum, it wasn't their total curriculum, because the Bible itself sets us the agenda of studying much more than just the Bible itself. For example, Genesis 1 says that God has given us dominion over the physical world. So that opens up all the sciences, and the maths underlying them. And it also says we're to order human society and that we reflect God's creativity, which opens up all the humanities.
So here's the irony: it's actually Christianity that gave us modern liberal education – because it fosters critical and independent thinking based on a core of knowledge, and fosters science. And yet many voices today are saying Christianity is the enemy of liberal education and that only secular education fosters critical and independent thinking.
So Richard Dawkins, for example, has suggested that it is indoctrination, bordering on abuse, to teach young children that the God of the Bible is really there. And, like others, he seems to be saying we should bring up children in a neutral atmosphere, and try to avoid them believing anything before they can 'make up their own minds'. But that's nonsense, because for one thing, there's no such thing as a 'neutral atmosphere'. For example, if you try to be 'neutral' by saying nothing about God in your school curriculum, you're not saying nothing about God, are you? You're saying, 'Either he doesn't exist; or if he does, he makes absolutely no difference at all to your understanding of any subject – from sex education to socialism, from palliative care to Plato.' Which isn't exactly being neutral, is it? So there is no such thing as neutrality anywhere or in anyone. But for another thing, we can't avoid initially imposing beliefs on our children before they can think them through for themselves. For example, every parent (including Richard Dawkins, I guess) has imposed on their children the belief that they shouldn't touch the fire, or run out into the road, or accept sweets or lifts from strangers (and that last one is imposing a very strong view of human nature on them, isn't it?). And that's because we know there are things we need to get into children's heads before they can think them through properly for themselves.
And that principle is actually true of education more widely. Some educators say, 'We don't want to impose a traditional core of knowledge; we primarily want to teach skills like critical, independent thinking.' But studies of child development say that actually the skills depend on, and operate from, the knowledge. So for example there is a classic book on Christian education called Teaching for Commitment, by a Canadian professor of philosophy, Elmer Thiessen. And he sums up the findings of child development studies like this:
"Development towards autonomy [which is his word for critical, independent thinking] is best achieved if one begins with a relatively closed… social, cultural, moral and intellectual environment… In fact, nurture within a stable and coherent primary culture… is a prerequisite to normal development towards autonomy. [Whereas:] Exposing the young child to a variety of belief systems too soon will in fact prevent [that] development."
And that's just research agreeing with the educational model God gives in Proverbs 1-9 – which is that first of all, children take on board the Biblical worldview – largely on trust, under their parents. And then they grow into thinking critically about it, evaluating it and the alternatives, and ultimately coming to an independent mind.
So that's just a brief sketch from Proverbs on 'What should Christian education look like?' So much more briefly, my other question is:
2. How can we give our children a Christian education?
You may be aware that the wife of tennis player Andy Murray is due a baby in early February, and that he starts in the Australian Open next week. And in the event of the baby coming early he has said (quote), "As soon as the call comes in, I'll find a way to get home in time." Which makes me question his geography (a 'core knowledge' problem, maybe?). But he also said, "In the few weeks beforehand, you think about [becoming a parent] quite a lot – it's a pretty big thing that's about to happen."
Well spotted, Andy! And once it has happened, you constantly wish you'd thought more about how to do it beforehand, but now you haven't got the time to think, because you're doing it. And I think that applies especially to our children's education. And I sense that my generation is being caught on the hop. Because even compared to when we went through school, things in education have changed drastically and could change more drastically, quite rapidly. Which means we need to ask that question, 'How can we give our children a Christian education?' far more deliberately than previous generations, who could maybe assume some kind of 'Christian-ness' to the schooling on offer.
So here's some fuel for thought – and, I hope, for discussion with one another in our peer groups here in church – about our options. Taking the nurture of the Christian home and the church as a 'given' in all this,
Option no.1 is that we home-school our children:
A number of us do that already. And there are big advantages – above all, education within a consistently Christian worldview, but other advantages besides. One disadvantage is simply that not everyone is up to it. Another is that not everyone is free for it – although maybe we need to re-examine the wisdom of two full-time working parents. Another is the challenge of providing corporate learning, activities like sport, and equipment like microscopes – but the model of home-schooling co-operatives is strong in America, and growing here (and not just among Christians). And depending on how things change for the worse, co-operative home schooling may become an increasingly attractive and necessary option.
Option no.2 is that we send our children to a Christian school:
And that may be public, or private/fee-paying (if we can afford that). If such a school genuinely does have a thought-out Christian philosophy of education, that gets you the big advantage of home-schooling, while overcoming some of the disadvantages. And that's why it's part of our vision as a church to establish a church school. We made an application to open a Free School in 2013 – which the Government turned down. But finding a way forward towards some kind of church school is on our agenda.
I went to a day conference on education with a remarkable French pastor and headmaster called Luc Bussiere. And the most memorable line of the day for me was when he said this: 'I cannot now imagine my church without its school' – so integral is each to the life of the other. (And I should add: as with many Christian schools, many of the parents are not Christian but want what a Christian education offers; the argument that Christian schools mean 'withdrawing into a Christian bubble' is simply not fair).
Now there are some Christian schools open to some of us. There are a few Christian academies around here. There are a few state schools with good Christian heads and a Christian-ish ethos. And there are good Catholic schools, which a number of us have chosen to use – because although we might have to help our children filter some 'Catholicisms', the total worldview of Catholic schools is far closer to what we'd want than would be true of most secular state schools.
Then option no.3 is that we send our children to a 'normal' state school:
And there are such schools where heads are still at least sympathetic to Christians and to the place given to Christianity in current education legislation. And in all of them there are good teachers doing a good job. But let me read you a quote from John Stuart Mill about state education. Mill wrote some of the classic stuff on liberal education in the 19th century, and many state school educators would probably quote him as their champion. But listen to what he says:
"Diversity of education [is of unspeakable importance]. A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government… in proportion as it is… successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind. An education established by the state should only exist, if exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard."
(On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)
And right now there are at least three huge problems with the Department for Education, and 'the mould in which it is casting state schools', to use Mill's phrase.
Problem 1 is the way it's pushing the equality of heterosexual and homosexual relationships. It's sobering to think that one of Nicky Morgan's special advisors is Head of Education for the 'gay rights' campaigning group Stonewall.
Problem 2 is, as a senior Christian headmaster recently put it, that the Department for Education is dominated by a Marxist worldview – which believes that, if only the conditions are got right, all children are equally capable of the same achievement, which isn't true, because abilities differ. And it leads to a 'dumbing down' of education.
Problem 3 is the counter-extremism agenda. We know the problem is Islamic extremism. But the Government is targeting 'extremism' more broadly, as it chooses to define it. So in the wake of action against the 'Trojan horse' schools in Birmingham, Christian schools seem to have been targeted to give the appearance of 'even-handedness' against 'religious extremism' in general. And as the Government targets madrassas, it's also proposing to target church youth and children's work – again, to appear 'even-handed'. And unless successfully opposed, where will that end? Because won't Islamic radicalisation be traced further back to the home? In which case, to appear 'even-handed', will Ofsted be inspecting the way I read the Bible and pray with my children at bedtime? How far will the State go?
Like I said, things in education have changed drastically and could change more drastically, quite rapidly. Christian education is under attack. And we need to realise that the arguments being used against Christian schooling can equally be used against Christian nurture in the church and even in the home, which is one of many reasons why I'm convinced we need to contend for our existing Christian schools – and to contend for the right to open new ones. Because if we succeed in that, we'll establish rights in the public sphere what will then protect us in the private sphere.
I wish I could sound less pessimistic. But enough of you have told me your deep anxieties about our educational options that it's better for us to wake up to the situation, face the challenge, go back to Biblical first principles, and ask, 'How are we, as Christians, going to educate our children?'