The church order of the Free Reformed Churches (article 53) stipulates that the elders shall see to it that the parents take their responsibility in providing their children education which is based on Scripture and Confession. It doesn’t speak about the elders sending children to Reformed Schools, or about parents having to do so. It only speaks about the responsibility of the parents, and the elders reminding them of it. (Rev. Bouwman wrote a few articles about this shortly after the Synod Byford (1994) of the FRCA added this article 53 to the Church Order: Christian Education and the Church Order, Baptismal Promise and Education, and Christian Education and the Task of the Office Bearer, which are relevant for this topic.)
We must keep in mind that the church order uses the word ‘education’ and not ‘school’. Education is broader than only school and can include homeschooling, or alternative forms, for instance, if government decisions make it hard to maintain our own schools. At the baptism of the child, the parents make the promise to instruct their children and have them instructed in this Christian doctrine to the utmost of their power, not the congregation. The Christian Church has always rightfully emphasised the responsibility of the parents towards the education of their children. We must maintain and strongly emphasise that and resist any push from the government or others to take that responsibility away from the parents.
The Communion of Saints
From time to time we can hear the claim being repeated that when a child is baptised, the whole congregation is charged, in one way or another, with responsibility for the education of this baptised child, as if in the form, in one way or another, the congregation is addressed with this charge. I can’t find it and no one has been able to show me where the form does so. Still, this claim is being repeated. In the form for the ordination of elders and deacons, the congregation is addressed directly and charged with the duty to receive these office-bearers. Not so in the form for baptism. The congregation is witness when the parents answer the questions, just as the congregation is witness when someone publicly professes his/her faith. The congregation has a responsibility to hold those who make their promises to account, whether they did it at the baptism of their child or their public profession of faith. But that does not give the congregation the duty or authority to make decisions about the education of the children. That is the responsibility of the parents, as is correctly formulated in article 53 of our Church Order. The congregation, under the leadership and authority of the elders, has the duty to remind the parents of their vows regarding the instruction of this child in this Christian doctrine.
If that creates a financial hardship for the parents, then the congregation has the duty to support the parents in that, in the same way as the congregation has the duty to support the elderly or those with special needs in the congregation who make use of the care offered in Christian institutions which are established for that goal. The school does not have a separate position in the communion of saints but is only a form of cooperation between parents who are finding ways to instruct their children in the Christian doctrine and have them instructed therein, to the utmost of their power.
In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the triangle has often been used in the Netherlands as an illustration of the need for Christian schools. Parents have the duty to instruct their children in the Christian doctrine. They may expect that the instruction of their children in the three main areas of their life (home, church, and school), is in agreement with each other. This illustration of the triangle was broadly used in the Netherlands, not only in Reformed circles but also by Roman Catholics and others in support of ‘religious’ schools. Still today we can see this image being used to illustrate the importance of Christian schools, also in our time.
There is nothing wrong with using this as an illustration, to indicate the three important areas in the life of a child, where the instruction in the Christian doctrine should agree with each other.
However, it becomes a problem if the triangle is being elevated to a doctrine and is being used to establish a separate position and authority for the school within the church. The only authority we recognise is that given by God to the parents and that given to the office-bearers. Within the church, the school has no authority whatsoever. The parents have delegated part of their authority to the teachers, and they have done so by forming an association for the education of their children. That is how it has been in the Reformed Churches already since the nineteenth century. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, while encouraging parents to establish Christian schools, maintained that according to Reformed principles the schools, belonging not to the churches but to the parents, should seek acknowledgement from the government as Associations of parents (and not as schools of the church). See Joh, Jansen, Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening, Kampen, 1937 (in Dutch), and the decision of Dordrecht 1893 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, article 235.
This association is the initiative of individual church members, as a way to fulfill their promise to instruct their children in the Christian doctrine. There is no separate position for the school within the church other than other institutions have, for instance, those for the care for the elderly or for those with special needs.
A Little Bit of History
This article 53 (especially the second part) in the Free Reformed Church Order and article 58 in the Canadian Reformed Church Order, is new. It was not part of the Church Order of Dort. The situation in our time, both in Canada and Australia, as well as the Netherlands and some other western countries, is completely different from how it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first part of article 53 (FRCA) mentions the catechism instruction, and that was something that was addressed by the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619. However, the second part, and the entire article 58 of the Canadian Reformed Church Order, has been inserted in the twentieth century. In the FRCA in 1994.
Even though we may agree that having the parents send their children to Christian schools is a good practice, we cannot base that on the decisions of the Synod of Dort. A dramatic change in the field of education took place in the nineteenth century when governments allowed parents to establish parental schools, where parents took the responsibility to instruct their children in all the things that the government prescribed in the curriculum. In the seventeenth century, the time of the Synod of Dort, the schools were the responsibility of the government. In the Netherlands, the cities had their government-run schools and several of the towns too. There were areas where there was no school and there, private citizens or churches took the initiative to establish and run schools, but they did need the approval of the government. Education in those days was the responsibility of the government.
Synod of Dort
The first part of art. 53 of the Free Reformed church order mentions the catechism teaching. This is a way of instructing the children in the Reformed doctrine which has been used by the Reformed churches since the time of the Reformation and has explicitly been mentioned by the Synod of Dort, even though it did not make it into the Church Order. The Synod of Dort saw the urgent need for this catechism teaching and recommended three ways to instruct the children in the Christian doctrine: at home, in the church, and in the schools.
The churches in the Netherlands at the beginning of the seventeenth century complained that the knowledge of church members was very limited. The Synod of ‘s-Gravenhage 1586 had decided that in the afternoon service the catechism should be preached to address this lack of knowledge, but still in the beginning of the seventeenth century, the churches complained. More had to be done. The Synod of Dort urged the ministers to take this teaching seriously and exhort the congregations to attend the afternoon services.
However, especially for the youth more should be done. Churches asked the synod to come up with a way in which the youth and the older members with limited knowledge could be better instructed in the Reformed doctrine. The synod requested advice on this matter from the foreign delegates. Based on this advice the synod made a decision in the seventeenth session, the 30th November 1618.
The parents first
Advice was received from the delegates from Great Britain, the Palatinate, Hesse, Switzerland, and Bremen. They explained how they did it in their churches and why it was important. Although the submissions had much in common, the decision of the synod mostly follows the advice of the Hessian delegates. The synod emphasised that every opportunity to teach the youth should be used. It starts with the parents. They must teach their children at home:
The task of the parents is to diligently instruct the children at home, and also the entire household entrusted to them, in the principles of the Christian religion, each of them according to their ability, to exhort them seriously and with diligence to the fear of God and the true godliness, make them familiar with the holy prayers at home, take them along to the hearing of the Divine Word, recount with them diligently the preaching they heard especially the catechism preaching, read to them or have them read some chapters of Holy Scripture, have them memorise the most excellent parts of the Scripture and instill it in them, and to explain these to them in an understandable and for their tender youth fitting way, and also prepare them for the catechism instruction in the schools, and when they are attending [the catechism instruction in the schools] to confirm, encourage and, as much as they can, promote it.
Parents should still take these words to heart! The synod told the ministers and elders to exhort the parents and if parents were negligent, they should be seriously admonished and if necessary, even put under discipline. The synod understood very well that it all had to start with the parents.
A large part of the day children were in school, and therefore also there, children should be taught the Christian doctrine. There also the parents played an important role and the parents should actively support the teaching of Christian doctrine in the schools. However, the synod acknowledged that the schools were mostly the responsibility of the state and therefore, first of all, the cooperation of the magistrates was required for this. But that was usually not a problem in the Netherlands. The government in the Netherlands often left it to the churches to propose and supervise school teachers, even though those teachers were officially hired and paid for by the government. The ministers of these churches were often actively involved in supervising and even instructing teachers, and for that reason, the Synod of Dort instructed the ministers to pay good attention to faithful catechism instruction in the schools. The ministers were even told to provide proper training for the teachers in this area. Although the Synod of Dort emphasised the importance of especially primary education for all children and secondary for those who were capable, the main concern of the Synod was in the first place the catechetical instruction and in the second place the preparation of some of those students for the ministry of the Word. The Synod wanted to make sure that capable young men could be prepared through primary and secondary education for their training in seminary. That the Synod included the schools in its decsion about catechism teaching, had mainly practical reasons. The situation of that time offered a golden opportunity to the churches.
Schools, church and state
To understand the decisions of the synod it is good to have some knowledge about the situation in those days and how it came to be. It cannot be compared to what it is now[ii].
Emperor Charlemagne (who ruled over much of Western Europe in the 9th century) was a great supporter of education for all children. He very much encouraged the establishment of schools and worked together with churches and monasteries. Since the 9th century that was more or less the situation in Europe: the schools were either a shared responsibility of church and state or, especially in the cities, the responsibility of mainly the local government. In the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, the schools were regulated by the governments. Several levels of government were involved, each responsible for the schools in their own area. It was not allowed to establish schools without a permit from the government. Often a permit was easily given, but the principle remained that the state had the responsibility for the schools. In those days there was no separation of church and state and churches often had influence in what was being taught in the schools and who was appointed.
This situation continued in most countries in Europe, until the eighteenth century. In that time the secularisation started in earnest, which had its impact on what was taught in the schools. In many countries, this led to a struggle between Christian parents and the state. Parents more and more claimed the right to have their children instructed in accordance with the Bible. This also happened in the Netherlands. In the 19th century, a long struggle between liberals and Christians took place, which ended with the state granting parents the right to start their own schools. Later the state even decided that these schools should be supported by the government. This all was enshrined in the constitution in 1917. However, also for the private schools, the principle was maintained that education was the responsibility of the state and that the state enabled the parents to have their children instructed in the way they saw fit. That is the situation as it is now in the Netherlands (and in fact also in Australia): the government determines the curriculum, and the parents determine who is teaching their children. With that, we have a unique situation. God has blessed the churches richly with this opportunity in a time in which governments don’t want to be bothered with God’s commandments anymore. Let us be diligent to defend and protect our Christian schools.
Returning to the situation in the seventeenth century, we notice that the Synod of Dort made its decisions about catechism teaching in the schools with the knowledge that they depended on the local governments. Knowing that for every area in the Netherlands, the situation could be different, the synod encouraged the churches to get into contact with the local governments and urge those magistrates to appoint godly teachers, who were members of the Reformed churches and were capable of teaching the youth the Christian doctrine. Besides impressing upon the magistrates the blessings of good education in general and encouraging them to establish schools also in the villages, the synod did not busy itself much with how the schools should be arranged. That was the responsibility of the state.
Let us again take note of the decision of the Synod of Dort, now with regard to the order which we see there: The children should first be taught by the parents and in addition to that in the schools under the responsibility of the ministers. The third way of instruction was the catechism classes taught by the church. The ministers should get groups together of more mature youth and older members who were on their way to make profession of faith and instruct them in the Christian doctrine. It starts with the parents, first and above everything else. It was the task of the ministers to see to it that the parents were faithful in fulfilling this task.
The synod determined that there should be three levels in the catechism teaching. The younger children (the lower grades in primary school) should be taught the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacraments and discipline, and some important texts from the Bible. The second level was a short summary of the Heidelberg Catechism. The third level is for the more mature youth who have increased in knowledge. They shall be taught the entire Heidelberg Catechism. In the schools, only the Heidelberg Catechism should be used for the teaching of Christian doctrine, and all other books should be banned.
The Synod of Dort did not leave it to the schools to take responsibility for the catechetical instruction, but the churches had to take responsibility in that. With that the synod made clear that within the communion of saints, there was no independent position for the schools. The schools were included in the catechism teaching for practical reasons and had to be supervised by the ministers. This is in line with the teaching of the Bible, where it are in the first the parents who have the task to instruct, and then also the priests/ministers and elders who have the task to instruct the entire congregation, including the youth, in the doctrine of salvation (see Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, Hosea 4:6, and many other texts).
It is important for Christians to remember that the education of the children is first and above all a task for the parents. In no way the parents should let this task be taken from them by the schools. They should always be the first to assume responsibility for the education of their children. Also and especially when it comes to the instruction of their children in the Christian doctrine, as they promise at the baptism of their children. They made that promise. Not the school, not the teachers, not the church, not the minister. They all have a task to encourage and support the parents, but the parents have the first responsibility! The school or the church should never force parents to send their children to school, but it must always be the decision of the parents themselves. That is why this article in the Australian and Canadian church order focuses on the task of the elders towards the parents, and not towards the children. The parents shall be encouraged to take responsibility. This is in accordance with what God teaches us.
In Deuteronomy 6 the parents are told that they should take every opportunity to teach their children the commandments. Not only on the Sabbath Day but all the days of the week. Whenever an opportunity arises. The LORD even created opportunities for His people[i], so that fathers would tell their children about the great deeds of the LORD.
The situation in the field of education in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands was so totally different from the present situation, that it will be counterproductive to use decisions of the synod of Dort to determine how we have to arrange our schools. However, with regard to the catechism teaching, the synod made important decisions and showed the biblical way for the churches to go. We must be thankful as churches that we can have Christian schools, and the ministers and consistories have the important task to encourage the teachers in the schools to be diligent and faithful in their teaching. I encourage the schools to develop their Bible curriculum in cooperation with the ministers. This is in line with the decisions of the Synod of Dort regarding the catechism teaching and would be an implementation of the three levels of catechism teaching which the Synod of Dort recommended.
[i] See Exodus 12:24-27; Joshua 4:4-8.
[ii] See Drs. D. Langedijk, De Schoolstrijd, ‘s-Gravenhage 1935, page 5-8.