Impressing Our Children:
A Case for Christian Education
They are among the greatest words a parent can
hear. "Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of
the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are
the children of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver
full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but shall speak with their enemies
in the gate" (Psalm 127:3-5, NKJV).
The psalmist reminds us of both the blessing and responsibility
of parenthood. We see that every child matters greatly and should
be cherished as a gift from God. Since children are so special, they
can make a difference. Whether that difference is for good or evil
depends on how seriously parents take the responsibility of spiritual nurture.
To rear a child who stands mature in faith has never been easy. Today,
it is a task which is further complicated by the rush of modern life, the
amount of things to which children are exposed and the number of competing
ideas which can be broadcast right into our homes in our media-driven society.
I write as a parent of two teenage sons when I ask, "What
are we to do?" How are we to go about the all-important task of nurturing
our children into mature men and women who have their own faith in God?
It is because I have lived the rigors of parenting even as I have continued
a lifetime of biblical studies that I am more convinced than ever that
Christians should be committed to Christian education, a process which
finds its basis in the pages of God's Word and the practices of his people.
Impressing Our Children - Deuteronomy 6
As Moses delivered his final message to the children of Israel,
he spoke to a generation who would lead the way into the promised land
because of the disobedience of their parents. His words were both
pointed and practical to the task at hand. The people were told to
never forget that obedience to God is always vital for real success (Deuteronomy
6:1-3). They were to remember that they were but one generation away
from abandoning the Lord. Failure to pass on his teachings in a way
that nurtured mature faith would not only create problems for individual
families, it would doom the nation as a whole (Deuteronomy 6:10-12, 16,
20-25). Finally, the teaching which was expected in order to maintain
the faithfulness of the people had to begin with the nature and work of
God himself. Any education which leaves God out of the process is
poor education (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
It is in this context that we read Deuteronomy 6:6-7:
"And these words which I command you today shall
be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children,
and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the
way, when you lie down, and when you rise up."
The New International Version translates verse
7 this way: "Impress them on your children. Talk about them when
you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and
when you get up." In light of the instructions in the latter part
of the verse, the word "impress" captures the broader meaning of what Moses
says. To nurture children in the ways of God is not a matter of merely
teaching a few Bible lessons as adjuncts to the urgent demands of daily
living. Rather, to nurture in faith is to impress that faith upon
children everywhere they turn, in as consistent and regular a way as possible.
The Principle in Action - A Survey of Israel's Education
Both biblical accounts and what we know of how God's people
applied them to their education practices point us to the direction we
should take as we think of nurturing our own children in the ways of faith.
Turning first to the Old Testament, we remember again the high regard for
children which we see in Psalm 127. Indeed, so associated with the
nation's well being was the presence of children that Zechariah, writing
of the glorious return of the Lord to the Holy City, would speak of
"the streets of the city [being] full of boys and girls playing in its
streets" (Zechariah 8:5). In light of this positive view of children,
it is no surprise that we find an emphasis on educating them. The
priests were expected to "teach the children of Israel all the statutes
which the Lord has spoken to them by the hand of Moses" (Leviticus 10:11).
Moses stressed that he had "taught [the people] statutes and judgments,
just as the Lord my God commanded me" (Deuteronomy 4:5). The future
glory of Zion was characterized in part by the "children [being] taught
by the Lord [so that] great shall be the peace of your children" (Isaiah
54:13). Even the Lord himself is described as "he who teaches man
knowledge" (Psalm 94:10).
There were three aims in Old Testament education.
First, they determined to pass on the heritage of Israel, centering on
what God had done (Deuteronomy 4:5-7). Second, they sought to provide
instruction in ethical living, a style of life which arose from and imitated
the holiness of the Lord to which all Israel was called (Leviticus 19:22ff.).
This ethical instruction was immensely practical, extending even to the
social justice and etiquette which were to characterize the people.
Third, they aimed to provide basic instruction in human relations and in
dealing with others (Proverbs 1:2-4).
The seriousness with which they took these aims is evident
in both biblical and extra-biblical references. In the first place,
literacy was more common than many think, even among the poorest in the
land. Copies of the Law were present in many private houses by late
in the Old Testament period, a practice continued throughout the intertestamental
era (see the articles on "Education" in Interpreter's Dictionary
of the Bible [IDB] 2:27-38). In ancient Israel, we find schools
for prophets (1 Samuel 10:5, 10; 19:20; Isaiah 8:15). We see the
work of Ezra who sought to guard Israel from duplicating the apostasy
which led to the Babylonian captivity by dedicating himself to seeing that
the people were taught the Law (Ezra 7:6, 10). So well did he accomplish
his purpose that, among later Jews, his name came to be treated on
par with those of Abraham and Moses.
This tradition continued into the New Testament era.
The synagogue, while devoted to worship and community gatherings, was "above
all . . . a place of study" (IDB, 2:36). The Pharisees,
known for their commitment to the Law, had established elementary schools
which were often considered more important than even the local synagogue
(IDB, 2:33). Later accounts reveal that, while the
first education steps were parent-centered, a child was to begin formal
study of the Scriptures at age 5, the Mishna at 10, the commandments at
13, the Talmud at 15 and professional education at 18. Nor can there
be any doubt that this was God-centered education, for the Jews were not
known for their belief in secular pursuits.
Among New Testament Christians, emphasis was given to
Jesus' well-rounded education (Luke 2:52). The term used most often
to describe his followers was "disciple," which at heart means "a learner."
Teachers were included among the leaders in the early church (James 3:1;
Ephesians 4:11ff.). And the New Testament writings themselves were
written as instructional documents, incorporating forms and organization
patterns similar to the educational literature of the day.
What Are We To Do? Getting All the Help We Can
If our children will develop mature faith in God, it will
not happen by accident, by a method (?) which leaves to their discretion
the attention they will give to instruction in the ways of God. The
home has the fundamental responsibility for Christian nurture. Parents,
especially fathers (Ephesians 6:4), are accountable for whether they seek
to impress their children with God's ways.
But even the best of homes need help. Churches are
to be communities of believers dedicated to the task of making disciples,
learning followers. Any Christian who loves children ought to be
concerned to see that as many as possible are given every opportunity to
receive the greatest possible amount of faith nurture. Traditionally,
in a heritage dating back to Alexander Campbell, our brotherhood has recognized
the value of establishing schools in which an education which both teaches
the Bible directly and relates it indirectly to other disciplines is made
available for children at various stages of development. Not coincidentally,
it is in those locales where the schools have existed the longest that
the church has seen the greatest numerical growth.*
In Psalm 78, the psalmist calls upon the people to take
seriously the teaching of God's Law. He is especially concerned for
the children, noting that the Lord
"appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded
our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the
generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that
they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their
hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments"
It is still possible for parents committed to God's ways
to bring up children in the nurture of the Lord. In some exceptional
cases, it is even possible for parents to do so without the support which
comes from fellow Christians dedicated to purposeful faith nurture.
But in a society which is not merely unsympathetic, but is so often overtly
antagonistic to God and his ways, parents need all the help they can get.
They need the support of formal Christian education.
*While this paragraph is
intended to encourage schools at all educational levels, I would like to
add a comment about the needs of college students in particular.
A youth minister friend of mine cites statistics to the effect that adolescence
lasts longer in America than anywhere in the world, lasting on average
until the mid- 20's. Yet, it is our society's custom to turn our
young people loose to adulthood at age 18. How often have we heard
laments over the fact that about 50% of our young people leave the church?
How much urgency, then, should we give to stressing the value of formal
Christian education at the college level? While I believe in such education
at the lower levels (where such opportunities exist), the fact remains
that, because they reside at home, students through high school are more
easily influenced toward faith than they are in college. How important
is it, then, to do all we can to see that our young men and women make
the crucial decisions of the college years — when mom and dad are no longer
looking over their shoulders — in an environment which supports rather
than attacks faith-nurture? Opportunities for this kind of education abound.
Some are found in colleges which undertake to include biblical instruction
in a general liberal arts program. Some are found in Bible chairs
and similar programs which offer biblical instruction and Christian nurture
in settings which complement the programs in their local colleges. Parents
— and churches — who love their kids ought to consider doing all they can
to make these opportunities available to young men and women who are at
a crucial juncture in their development of faith.