Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

Vol. 1, No. 9 Page 5 September 1999

Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

Impressing Our Children: 
A Case for Christian Education

By David Anguish

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" (Psalm 78:5-7).
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.

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