Christian Schools · Education - General

Reformed Education: whose responsibility?

To whom belongs the child?

In 1996 Rev.  G. Van Popta delivered a speech at a teachers’ convention which was published in Clarion, in which he addressed this question. In it, he summarises and evaluates an extensive discussion which our Canadian brothers and sisters had at that time about this question, in which he also addressed the position of the schools.

We now live in a climate in which the state is more and more inclined to claim the authority to teach our children what to believe and how to behave with regards to all kinds of moral issues. It is to be expected that in the coming few years the state government in Western Australia will be trying to exert its influence more and more on what is being taught in Western Australian schools, how it is being taught, and by whom. It is important to consider the question: where do we stand as Christians? But also: what are the practical implications of this for our schools?

In this article, I will look at what the Bible teaches us, and how throughout history this question has been dealt with. In a second article, I hope to come to some conclusions relevant to our own situation.


We don’t read about schools in the Old Testament. The education of the children was the task of the parents. During the early childhood years, this was mainly done by the mother. When children grew up, the sons were entrusted to the fathers and the daughters to their mothers. It is one of the most important duties of the father to instruct his children, both regarding the religious education (Exodus 10:2, 12:26, 13:8, Deuteronomy 4:9, 6:6-9, 20-25, 32:7-16, Joshua 4:21-24, Psalm 78:5) and the general education (Proverbs 1:8, 6:20). References from apocryphal books show the same (see Sirach 30:1-13).[i] The fifth commandment emphasises that children must obey their parents, for their own benefit.

It was the responsibility of the father, to instruct his children in the ways of the LORD. It was also the father who instructed his sons in the trades. As a result, many sons followed in the footsteps of their fathers in their choice of a trade.

In addition, Israelite children often had opportunities to learn from traveling merchants and caravans (Judges 5:10-11), by witnessing the meetings of the elders in the gates, and from the occasions that their families travelled to the holy places (Shiloh, Jerusalem) for the feasts and other important occasions.

Although much of it was done in the family, the religious instruction was often also done by the priests. They had the task to teach the Law to the people, which included the children. The priest was sometimes seen as a father (Judges 17:10-11). In Hosea 4:6, the priests are being held responsible for the lack of knowledge of God’s people. Also the elders had a task in the instruction of the people, including the children (Deuteronomy 32:7, Psalm 78:1-4). In the New Testament the Ministers of the Word (elders who labour in the word and doctrine, see 1 Tim. 5:17) have received the special task to teach the people of God. With that, not only the preaching but also the catechetical instruction finds a firm basis in the Bible.

The New Testament makes clear that the parents are responsible for raising and instructing their children (2 Cor. 12:14). Paul emphasises the importance of the parents in the religious instruction of the children (2 Timothy 2:3-5).

We can conclude from this that the education of the children is given by God to the parents, while the church also has a responsibility regarding the doctrinal instruction of parents and children.

Church Order

We will not find any mention in the Bible of the school as we know it. While the catechetical instruction is based on the Bible, the schools are not. Even though it is good and important that parents consider sending their children to Christian schools, we cannot argue from the Bible that children should attend school. For that reason, 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 school system as we know it now, with primary, secondary, and higher education, already existed in the Hellenistic world in the time of the New Testament. (For an overview of the history of education and the development of the school system, see the Encyclopedia Britannica.) However, it always was the decision of the parents to have their children receive education. In the Hellenistic time as well as in the Roman Empire, it was mainly the rich who could afford education for their children.  After the fall of the Roman Empire the schools in Europe got into decline and it was mainly the church which established schools, by bishops and in monasteries. For the church schools were important to prepare men for the clergy, but also lay people were being taught. Emperor Charlemagne was a great supporter of making education available more broadly, also for the poor, and he worked together with the church to establish as many schools as possible. However, after his reign, the invasion of the Vikings led to a decline again. In the second half of the Middle Ages schools were established to prepare men for service in the church. Schools for lay people were mainly found in the cities and they always needed a license from the bishop to operate.

In the sixteenth century, church and state were often very much intertwined and as a result of the investiture controversy (1076-1122 AD) the church usually had the upper hand. After the Reformation, the power of the pope and the Roman Catholic Church decreased in many European countries and the ruler often determined the religion of his country. As a result, the state had the authority over the schools but often left it to the church to run the schools.

That was the situation in the Netherlands when the Synod of Dort convened. This synod made some important decisions about the catechetical instruction of the youth of the church, but regarding the schools it left the situation mainly unchanged: the local governments usually had the authority to establish schools and governments often left it to the ministers of the Reformed Churches to supervise the schools and the teachers. There was a strong bond between State (which was Christian), Church (which was state church) and School: a triangle of State, Church, and School.

No one was allowed to establish schools without the approval of the government, but it was usually not hard to get this approval and it happened regularly that people who could afford it sent their children to private schools. There was some freedom for the parents to determine how their children were educated.

Modern time

This situation changed dramatically during the French occupation of the Netherlands (1795-1813). The connection between Church and State was severed and only the government had authority over the schools. That was the time that also in many other countries the idea of separation of church and state, promoted by the French revolution and enshrined in the constitution of the USA[ii] was applied. Rousas John Rushdoony[iii] (quoted in the earlier mentioned article of Rev. Van Popta) shows the developments in the USA. It was a general tendency in European countries and their (former) colonies. 

In 1848, a democratic revolution took place all over Europe. For the Netherlands that meant a new constitution, in which for the first time in the Netherlands freedom of education was guaranteed. However, the practical arrangements had to be worked out in separate legislation and it took 9 years until this legislation was adopted by parliament.

In those days the results of the ‘enlightenment’ and all kinds of new ‘scientific’ ideas got more influence and the schools had to be ‘neutral’ (or secular) in their teaching. Christian morals could still be taught but no Christian doctrine.

Then, in the Netherlands and many other countries a movement started which led to the establishment of parental schools, where, finally, the responsibility for the education of the children returned to the parents.

State Control

The system which we are familiar with nowadays, that parents have the right to establish and run their own schools, often even with financial and other support from the government, is, therefore, from recent date. It is only in the past one to one and a half centuries that in several countries parental schools have been established. Throughout the Middle Ages, schools in Europe were mainly established and run by churches and governments to prepare young men for tasks in the church, state, or business life. Only those who could afford it sent their children to school. After the Reformation, the state often assumed the responsibility to educate the children, at least for primary education. However, with this the state also got more influence on what the children were taught.

Dr. A. Kuyper in his speech to parliament in 1875[iv] mentioned that both the Church and the State had done a lot of good in providing education but emphasised that the principle is wrong. Education should be independent from both church and state. In line with this, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, while encouraging parents to establish Christian schools[v], 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 school of the church).[vi]

In America, the situation started off a bit differently. Initially, parents themselves (not the church or government) took the responsibility, with the support of the village or town community, to establish and support schools for their children. However, Rushdoony[vii] shows that through the influence of the ideas of Horace Mann (1796-1858), in the USA the state saw it increasingly as its responsibility to educate the children.

Even though the state increasingly regulated the education of the children, until the 19th century it was still the responsibility of the parents to send their children to school. However, this changed at the end of the 19th century when compulsory education was introduced in many countries: in Western Australia in 1871, in the Netherlands in 1901, and in many of the states of the USA in the second half of the 19th century. Initially, this was only for primary school, but throughout the 20th century this was bit by bit extended and now it is in most countries up until the ages of 15-18. Papua New Guinea is only one of a handful of countries which doesn’t have compulsory education.

State or Parents

It was that desire of the state to take control of the education of the children, combined with the introduction of compulsory education, that made it the more urgent for parents to fight for the right to establish parental schools. It is about the fundamental difference of opinion: who is responsible for the child: the state or the parents? It is again urgent in our days to defend this right of the parents, now that we see the push of state governments in Australia to determine not only what but also how and by whom our children are being taught, and not only about the factual knowledge but also about morals and values.

Education or Schooling

In many countries compulsory education means compulsory schooling, where parents are compelled to send their children to schools which are registered and regulated by the government. However, in North America and Australia, compulsory education can also mean that the parents teach their children (‘home schooling’).  But even when we establish Christian schools, registered by the government, it still is important that we see those schools as a way of parents working together in the education of their children: a cooperation between parents and teachers, in which everything is focused on the best education for the child. It is time that we refocus on this goal and in the first place ask: ‘What is best for our children?’, and not ‘what is most efficient?’ or ‘what works best for the teachers?’

Private or parental

There is a difference between private, or independent schools, and parental schools. There are many independent schools in Australia receiving government support. But they are not all parental schools. Many of them are run by a church (Roman Catholic, Anglican or other), an organisation, or maybe even run as a business. However, as mentioned before, it is a Reformed principle that the school should be established and run by the parents. Private schools are often run like a business, with a board of ‘experts’ and a large administration team taking over involvement and input from parents. These schools provide a service to the parents, but they determine what is being taught and how. Parents are no more than customers who accept the whole package or else go somewhere else. It is my concern that in the metro Perth area, with the massive organisation the FRSA has become, our schools are practically moving in that direction.

Many Reformed schools have in their constitution and mission statement that it is their task to assist the parents in their task regarding the education of their child. This is important, not only to maintain as a principle, but also to practically work with this. I quote from a mission statement of a Reformed school:

Although the church and the state have their own peculiar interests in the school, the school is not an institution dependent on or belonging to the church or the state, but depends on and proceeds from the home … Throughout the entire course of the child’s education, the fundamental unity of the school and the home must be maintained.

This school mentions in their parent handbook:

6.5 Parental Involvement: As children are gifts from God to parents, it is their duty to educate them in His holy name. Coaldale Christian School recognizes this authority and as such, expects that parents are to participate, make informed decisions, and be actively involved in supporting their child’s education and specific educational needs.

Parents are to participate in the education of their child. That can be done in many ways, but it should be more substantially than having parents help in busy-bees, field trips, camps, and that kind of activity. All those serving in school boards and school councils should be parents with children enrolled in the school. Parents should be actively involved in reviewing curriculum, seeking financial and other support from the church community, and giving input, within limits, in the appointment of teachers. Wherever possible, parents should be involved in the classroom, helping with all kinds of practical things, or helping individual students who need special attention. And there are more ways.

No large schools

It is important that we keep a close connection between the school and the home. For this, it would be helpful to keep the schools small. These schools should develop into a community of parents, knowing each other and helping each other, encouraging each other, together determining what is the best way to educate their children. The parents often know best what is good for the child and should very much be involved, especially in situations with special needs, in determining how to teach the child. The focus must be on the child, and not on what is most efficient or what works best for the teacher.

Several arguments have been used to prove that large schools are better. As a parent having had my children enrolled in six different primary schools and three different high schools, I know from experience that smaller schools can provide education at an academic level that is at least the same as large schools. By keeping the lines between board, parents, staff, and others short, they are more flexible and can be as efficient or even more efficient than large schools. All involved know what is going on and take responsibility, while there is a much greater sense of belonging and being heard. Small schools function more as a community and teach children to interact with everyone and not only the people they like. Smaller schools have more opportunities to cater to the needs of individual students, are more open for parental involvement, and have often greater support from the community. There may be some disadvantages to smaller schools, but there are many arguments to consider, and the close connection between home and school must always remain one of the most important considerations.


Smaller schools with high parental involvement stand much stronger against an overbearing government and can put more emphasis on the responsibility of the parents over against the government. A government is much less interested in small schools than in one large organisation responsible for several schools. A school with high parental involvement can easier discern if future teachers are supportive of the teaching philosophies of the school.

The present situation in which our Christian schools are under threat makes it urgent for us to consider what it means to have parental schools and how we should maintain the principle of parental responsibility in the present climate. Let us be well prepared when the attack comes.

I hope that these articles will help to get that discussion started.

[i] From: R. De Vaux, Hoe het oude Israel leefde, deel 1, p. 97, Roermond 1960.

[ii] Thomas Jefferson introduced the idea of separation between church and state, which led to the inclusion of the clause in the constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

[iii] Rousas John Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education: Studies in the History of the Philosophy of Education, 1963, reprinted 1995, Ross House Books.

[iv] Speech of Dr. A. Kuyper during the session of the lower chamber of the Dutch parliament on 7 December 1874, during the deliberations about primary education. (Printed first in magazine ‘De Standaard’, later printed by J.H. Kruyt, Amsterdam, 1875.)

[v] In those days, because of the secularisation, parents were starting to push for the right to establish their own schools. This resulted in an 80-year struggle in the Netherlands, first for the freedom to establish schools, then for the right to receive government funding for these schools. This took place in the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. For a detailed description see: Drs. D. Langedijk, De Schoolstrijd, ‘s-Gravenhage 1935, and Dr. D. Langedijk, De Schoolstrijd in de Eerste Jaren na de Wet van 1857 (1857-1866), Kampen 1937. 

[vi] See Joh, Jansen, Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening, Kampen, 1937, page 86, and also the decision of Dordrecht 1893 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, article 235.

[vii] Rousas John Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education: Studies in the History of the Philosophy of Education, 1963, reprinted 1995, Ross House Books, chapter 3.