Well, this is what we call our education service. And I want to say straight up that I’m not primarily speaking to teachers this morning, because in the Bible, God tells us that the primary educators of children are their parents. So this morning I’m primarily speaking to those of us who are parents. And to those of us who are not, and are asking how it’ll be relevant to us, the answer is: that many of us who are not parents today one day will be; and that even now, within the ultimate family – the church family – those who are parents need the understanding and help and support of those who are not. (It’s equally true that those without children or who are single also need the other’s support – but that’s a different sermon.) Now I’m not going to say nothing about teachers and schools – they have a large role to play in the way parents delegate their children’s education to others. But in God’s ordering of things, parents are the primary educators of their children, and that’s our view-point this morning.
Now I’ve been asked to speak from part of Mark’s Gospel, so would you turn in the Bible to Mark 9.38. And as you find it, let me say: this passage isn’t directly about educating our children but it applies to it, which is why we’re looking at it today. And it raises two questions which are my two headings this morning:
1. WHAT ARE WE TEACHING OUR CHILDREN?
2. WHAT DO WE MOST WANT FOR OUR CHILDREN?
Firstly, WHAT ARE WE TEACHING OUR CHILDREN? (or allowing others to teach them?) (v38-42)
Look down to Mark 9.38, the apostle John speaking to the Lord Jesus:
"Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us."
Which is perhaps the first example of denominationalism in the Bible – ‘They can’t be Christians or doing proper Christian ministry because they’re ‘not one of us’ – not part of our group.’ To which Jesus replies: what matters is not whether they’re ‘one of your group’ but whether they’re for him. Look at v39-40:
“Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name [i.e. for me] can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”
I.e., people are either for Jesus or against him. Putting it more personally, you are either for Jesus or against him. There’s no neutrality, and no fence. So if you’re thinking, ‘I’m not a Christian, but I’m not against Jesus; I’m on the fence’, Jesus is saying, There is no fence.’ And if you think there is, and that you’re on it, it really means you’re still against him – but thinking about whether you want to be for him, and maybe even quite close to accepting him as Lord of your life. But then Jesus gives two examples of people for and against him. First, v41, for him:
“I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.”
But then, v42, against him:
“And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.”
Now we’re going to spend most of our time on the implications of that verse. So let me clarify who Jesus means by ‘little ones’. Just before this, the disciples had argued about which of them was the greatest. And their idea of greatness was of high office in Jesus’ church, where they – the ‘important ones’ – wouldn’t have to bother with looking after those they saw as the insignificant ones, the ‘little ones’. So, as a visual aid, Jesus took a little child into his arms and basically said, ‘Real greatness is looking after everyone – however insignificant, however ‘little’ they are in your eyes.’ So in v42, ‘these little ones who believe in Jesus’ doesn’t only mean children who believe in him. But it certainly includes them – which is why we can apply this verse to the education of children of Christian parents, who are growing up in the atmosphere of their parents’ faith with the prayer that they too will put their faith in Jesus. So, v42 again: Jesus says:
“... if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin [literally, to stumble, to be hindered in their faith or coming to faith], it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.”
I.e., it would be a matter for God’s judgement – because children are a trust from God. So straight away, this is a reminder of the Bible’s view-point that children do not belong to their parents, still less to the state. They belong to God and were created to relate to him. So that all of us who have dealings with children – teachers, grandparents, godparents, whatever we are – are accountable to God for how we steward that trust, for whether our influence helps or hinders them in their faith. Parents bear the primary responsibility for that in God’s ordering of things. Teachers obviously bear a large responsibility because parents delegate a large part of their children’s education to them. But delegation of responsibility doesn’t mean abrogation of responsibility, so parents should be active in choosing, supervising and influencing the education their children are getting from outside the home – whether it’s from school, the media, or Sunday school here at church.
So what would be an example of v42, of an unbeliever causing a believing child to stumble? Well, let me say at this point that I don’t intend to speak about parenting from my vast experience of nothing. Instead, during this week, I phoned a good number of you who are parents to ask you about how you’ve tried to choose, supervise and influence your children’s education. So as an example of v42, one mother mentioned an RE teacher who had said very strongly to her fairly young daughter’s class that he was an atheist. And not surprisingly, that shook the daughter up. Now somewhere along the line, she needs to learn that there are people who say ‘There is no God.’ But there’s all the difference in the world between us teaching our children from the Bible that there are such things as atheists, and an influential figure in their lives saying, ‘I am one,’ with the kind of force that says, ‘And I’d like you to follow me.’
And that’s a good illustration of the fact that there is no neutrality: people are either for or against Jesus and consequently their whole world-view will be either for or against him. And that doesn’t just surface in the obvious areas like assemblies, RE or PSHE. It surfaces, e.g., in biology when a teacher says, ‘Now some people believe that life was actually created by God, but we’re obviously not going to spend any time on that view.’ It surfaces, e.g., in an English lesson on Samuel Becket’s play ‘Waiting for Godot’, when the teacher says, ‘It’s all about the fact that we’d like there to be a God but that we have to grow up and face the fact that there isn’t one.’
So in a Christian home, children are growing up within the ‘circle’ of the Bible’s world-view. But every time they go off to school, they’re entering another world-view, or several other world-views – as different as the teachers who teach them. And the degree of overlap between the truth – the Bible’s world-view – and those other world-views will vary. A generation ago, the overlap was pretty high and much education reinforced the Bible’s world-view. Whereas today, some education is undermining it and there are, sadly, openly anti-Christian teachers and head-teachers. But thinking locally, there are also Christian ethos schools whose aim is to make the school’s world-view the Bible’s. There’s Emmanuel College in Gateshead and Grindon Hall in Sunderland, while one member of our church is leading a project to try to set up another in the Tyne Valley. There are some very encouraging state schools with a strong Christian influence from the top; and there are still some encouraging Church of England schools. I should also mention Catholic schools – to which some of us have chosen to send our children on the basis that the overlap of their world-view with the Bible’s far outweighs some of the Catholic specifics that are at odds with the Bible, and which you can ‘debrief’ with your children to avoid them being a problem.
So, what are the implications of all this to those of us who are parents? Let me mention three things:
1) Where we have choice, we should ask whether a school will reinforce or undermine the Bible’s world-view.
Now there often isn’t much choice. – we don’t all live in a certain catchment area or have money for independent school fees. But where we do have choice, whether a school’s ethos will reinforce or undermine the Bible’s world-view should be a major concern.
Now a non-Christian hearing that might well ask, ‘So are you trying to indoctrinate your children?’ To which the answer is: No. Indoctrination means imposing your view on others, regardless of their own will. Whereas one Christian lecturer recently said this: ‘The Christian educational task is not to impose, but to propose.’ What he means is that we cannot and should not try to impose the Bible’s world-view on our children (or anyone else). But that we should want it to be the first world-view they encounter so that they can willingly grow into it as they come to know God for themselves. But, having said that, our children are individuals with wills of their own, which they will exercise for themselves – either for or against God. And that means we cannot create either a home or school environment which will guarantee they turn out believers – or even turn out well. Another Christian writer put it like this:
“Our aim is to be godly parents, not successful social scientists. We will go astray if the question uppermost in our minds is, ‘How can I rear my children successfully?’ That has only one answer: ‘I cannot, because they are not my products.’ However, if the question is, ‘How can I be a good parent?’, then the answer is: ‘As God is [to me.]’ (Christian Youth Work, Mark Ashton)”
2) We should actively supervise our children’s education and try to influence their school for Christ.
And from talking to a number of you this week, here’s some distilled wisdom on that.
One of you said, ‘Be careful to read all the letters and literature that comes to you from the school.’ E.g., one set of parent got a letter about sex education coming up, and because of the things being advocated; they decided to withdraw their child from those lessons. Another said, ‘Dip into your children’s text-books.’ Another said, ‘Ask teachers for the coming term’s syllabus.’ Another shrewdly said, ‘Probably the least effective way to keep in touch with what they’re learning is to ask them what they did at school today!’ (I guess we were all pretty unforthcoming on that one in our time.) But several people emphasised the importance of being there when the children come home from school, so that they can talk about their day. And several couples had decided together that Mum would either not work, or work part-time and flexibly, so as to be home when children were home, including into the teenage years.
On supervising what children are learning, it’s worth saying that as a parent, you have a legal right to see any text-book or materials being used with your child; to see any teacher’s detailed syllabus or work-scheme; and to withdraw your child from sex-education lessons (except biology lessons on reproduction), from RE lessons and from assemblies.
Now several of you said that face-to-face contact with teachers over these kind of issues had been very good. I guess most of us are naturally reluctant to take issue over things, but we need to remember that good teachers value parental activity over against parental apathy; and that they respect your position as parent; and that these things can be done graciously and in a way that, most times out of 100, is well received. But far more importantly, we need to remember that, if we’re parents, then, under God, we are the primary educators of our children, and we retain that position – we don’t hand it over to teachers and head-teachers whose expertise or authority we then feel we can’t question or challenge. And do remember that large numbers of non-Christian parents are equally up in arms over things like the Channel 4 sex education materials that hit the headlines. It’s not only Christians taking issue with things. But even if it is, it’s our duty to protect our children from what will rot them up.
So how else can we influence our children’s schools for Christ? Well, legally, both RE and assemblies should be ‘mainly Christian’ (the Education Act says so). ‘Mainly’ is a slippery word for those who want to be slippery, but it’s still a good basis for challenging a school on its practice. And if you know other Christian parents in the school, the more of you who can communicate together, the better. One of you also emphasised being positive about the good, not just negative about the bad. – e.g. ten Christian parents writing in to say how much they appreciated a nativity play because it was so faithful to the Bible has a big effect. If there’s a Christian Union in the school, do contact and support the teacher or teachers who run it; encourage your children to go; and ask questions about whether it’s as free as other clubs to use school premises and equipment and to advertise itself. One parent here is planning to see a head-teacher precisely because the CU in his child’s school hasn’t been able to advertise its events like other clubs. And on behalf of parents, can I say to those teachers running CU’s, how much it’s appreciated; and to those teachers thinking of starting one that now is the time to begin. Some of us here are going into our children’s schools as classroom assistants and reading helpers – which is a great way to serve, to get an accurate picture of what your child is experiencing, and to provide a Christian voice in the school. Others can’t help like that regularly, but could help on a one-off school trip. Some can be parent-governors; some can take assemblies (get in touch with our Children’s Worker Andy Gawn or Youth Worker Ken Matthews if you need advice); or you can broker opportunities for people like Andy and Ken to go in themselves.
But having thought about choosing, supervising and influencing our children’s schooling, the most fundamental thing to say is this:
3) We should aim for our homes (and church) to provide a Christ-centred foundation from which our children can process the education they’re receiving.
So I asked those I phoned this week, ‘How do you do that?’ And the most striking answer was: ‘It starts from the moment they’re born.’ It starts with reading the Bible and praying with our children from the very earliest age – and persisting with that through times of non-co-operation and negativity (towards you or God or both). Many of you said those patterns inevitably change with more children and as they get older – e.g., some were currently still reading the Bible and praying with younger children, while older ones were using Bible reading notes on their own. Many of you said that, given the different timetables of parents and children, there might only be one meal a day when you’re all round the table – but that that is a great opportunity to read a short part of the Bible, to lead in prayer and to encourage your children to pray. And the Bible expects fathers to take the lead in that. Now I know many of us feel unconfident when it comes to that side of parenting, so can I commend to you the two-evening parenting course coming up.
But the most repeated comment was to underline the way the Bible calls us to model the Christian life to our children. So, e.g., one of you said, ‘It’s no good reading the Bible with them about money but then teach materialism through our spending and values.’ Another said, ‘It’s no good reading the Bible with them on purity and wholesomeness and then watching questionable films and programmes on TV which we should have switched off after five minutes.’
Now I said under this sub-heading that, ‘We should aim for our homes (and church) to provide a Christ-centred foundation from which our children can process the education they’re receiving’, because parents also delegate part of the education of their children to church children’s and youth-work – i.e., to the children’s extended spiritual family. And on that, can I say, on the one hand, that it remains true that parents are the primary educators: your contact time with your children is perhaps 25 times longer than their time with their Climber or Pathfinder leaders. On the other hand, it’s very helpful for them to hear the same things from others – especially in teenage years when they need more distance from you as parents to question and work out whether they really believe what you believe. So do keep persisting in bringing and encouraging your children along to what’s on for them – which I know can be far from plain sailing.
Above all, keep praying for them, to come to faith and to grow in faith. And trusting that Bible promise which says that with so much out there in the world that is against Jesus, he is
‘able to keep them from falling’ (Jude 24)
That’s my main heading this morning: what are we teaching our children (or allowing others to)? But underlying everything I’ve been saying is the more fundamental question,
Secondly, WHAT DO WE MOST WANT FOR OUR CHILDREN? (v43-48)
And the final verses of this morning’s passage – probably the starkest verses of Mark’s Gospel – put that question into perspective.
If you ask any parent what they want for their children, the most likely answer you’ll get is, ‘The best.’ And the end of this passage reminds us of the ‘best’ that ultimately matters. Look at v43 to 48:
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'”
And I’ve tried to picture those verses like this:
The Lord Jesus is saying there are just two ways to live. The top arrow (from right to left) stands for the way of living in the direction of self – living how we want – having what our hands wants to have, going where our feet want to go, looking at what our eyes want to look at. It’s the way of life that, consciously or subconsciously, says to God, ‘Keep out. I will live it my way.’ And such is the sobering dignity of being human that God allows us what we want – and he will keep out of our lives eternally, if that is what we want.
But that’s not what he wants. Which is why he sent his Son in the person of Jesus to die on the cross so that we could be forgiven for living that first way and turn round and live in relationship with him as we were meant to. And that’s the bottom arrow, going left to right. And if you accept that gift of relationship with God first, then by definition you ‘cut off’ that life of putting self first – Jesus is speaking metaphorically, not literally, and he means you cut off having things that are wrong in God’s sight; you cut off going into situations that are wrong in God’s sight; you cut out looking at things that are wrong in God’s sight. And if someone asks, ‘But is the cost of that way worth it?’ Jesus replies, ‘It is better for you to have an eternal relationship with God, starting now and lasting through death into heaven, than to be separated from God both in this life and the next.’
And that’s a stark reminder of the only ultimate ‘best’ that really matters – either for ourselves or for our children. So getting the best GCSE and A-level results, or the best school facilities, or the best university place leading to the best job and salary is not their ultimate best. Any more than giving them the best house in the best part of town surrounded by the best things is their ultimate best. Their ultimate best is to come to know God for themselves through the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, we cannot control whether that happens: our children are not raw materials from which we can engineer results. They’re unique individuals made in the image of God, who will exercise their wills for themselves – either for him or against him. But we can teach the faith to them, and model the faith to them, and be responsible as we delegate their education to others. But we will never do any of that anywhere near perfectly. So above all, let’s walk in humility before our children and ask God to counteract all our imperfections, to bring them to faith in himself, and then to keep them for the rest of their lives.