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Education and Division

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I will probably regret writing this article. It is an article about homeschooling and is posted in a place where thousands of people are going to read it and have the ability to comment on it. You do the math! But I feel compelled to post on a subject that I feel is of great importance to me and, even more importantly, of great urgency to the church.

Yesterday my sister forwarded an article to me. It was written by Kim C., a blogger who is quite popular, especially among the young mom crowd and who blogs at Life in a Shoe. This particular article, which was since enthusiastically picked up by some other bloggers and which gained many positive comments, dealt with homeschooling and was actually Kim’s response to a question posed by one of her readers. The question was, quite simply, “Could I ask, what motivated you to make the choice to educate your own children, and what has sustained your decision when other people put their two bits in?” Kim’s reply was quite short but very telling and she appended to it some information for the rest of her readers. I felt compelled to write a reply not because her article offended me, but because the things she said are so often said by proponents of homeschooling. And I want to reply to a few of them because they represent some serious misconceptions and even dangers to the church. So in a sense my reply to her is a reply to many homeschoolers I’ve spoken with, emailed with, or whose articles I have read.

The crux of Kim’s answer is this: “To put it simply, we believe that God has entrusted these children of His to our care, with a charge to train them up in the way they should go (Prov 22:6), to raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4), to speak of Him with and to our children when we rise up and lie down, in the house and out, through every part of our days and our lives (Deut 6:4-9).” Kim believes, as do I, that parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. But there are some significant areas in which she and I would disagree. In her next sentence she writes, “We can’t do this if we send them away for 8-10 hours/day.” In other words, we cannot fulfill the mandates of Scripture if we send our children elsewhere for 8 to 10 hours every day.

I have three things to say about this, all of which are premised on my view that Kim and many other homeschoolers misuse these texts, but most notably Deuteronomy 6. The sentence “We can’t do this if we send them away for 8-10 hours/day” is unsupported by the passages listed.

First, do a Google search for “Deuteronomy 6 homeschooling” and you’ll see just how often these verses from Deuteronomy are used as a defense of homeschooling and as rationale for not sending children to public schools. I have encountered this line of reasoning many, many times. I am confident in saying that these verses do not require parents to serve as school teachers to their children. It may inform the way we school our children but it is not meant as God’s word on methodology. This understanding cannot be supported by the text without doing damage to its most natural meaning. I don’t have a lot of commentaries on Deuteronomy but I certainly couldn’t find one that even hinted at this meaning. People who use these verses need to be very careful not to rip them out of context and make them say things they do not mean. These verses certainly do teach that parents are to raise their children to love and fear and serve the Lord. The verses teach that this is a task that requires more than Sunday morning sermons. But they do not teach that we need to be with our children every moment and through every life experience. We are to raise our children so that they love the Lord and this is the end to which these verses point. This does not mean that we need to teach our children Christian math, but that we need to teach our children what it means to be a Christian and to be one in this evil, fallen world.

The second thing I’d like to say about this line of reasoning is that it assumes that being involved in a child’s education requires being immediately involved by taking the role of teacher. The reality, though, is that at some level we all delegate responsibility to someone else. For example, homeschooling parents typically delegate the preparation of a curriculum to someone else. They may also delegate marking or tutoring or other elements. They delegate spiritual instruction (in most cases) to pastors or Sunday school teachers. On the other hand, parents who choose to send their children to public or Christian schools choose to delegate both the curriculum and the teaching to someone else. This is but one step removed. Either way, we all have to make choices about who is involved in the training of our children and how much involvement we allow them to have. To suggest that only homeschooling parents have involvement in the education of their children is far too simplistic. I believe I can best teach my children the fear and admonition of the Lord by placing them in public schools.

Third, these two lines of reasoning can be extended to ridiculous levels. Are parents to keep their children at home through college or graduate school? Should parents also take immediate responsibility for driving lessons or swimming lessons? Sooner or later we have to come to the end of what parents feel they need to be responsible for. Sooner or later we come to the end of home-based education, but I am not convinced that a woodenly literal reading of the verses quoted earlier can be adapted for this. I’d also suggest that the line of reasoning could be applied to other issues such as personal holiness with dangerous consequences. The Bible tells us to be holy and to live in a way that is holy. We could just as easily argue that this is difficult or impossible to do in a secular setting. Should Christians then refuse to work with unbelievers lest they keep us from our ultimate goal of becoming holy? To what extent do we surrender to the world and assume that we can no longer coexist?

In short, I think it is disingenuous to suggest that Christians who elect to send their children to school, whether public or Christian, are somehow disobeying what the Bible teaches about raising our children to fear the Lord and that we are deliberately uninvolved in the education of our children. It also raises many difficult questions. Is a single father, who needs to work to provide for his family, sinning if he places his children in a public school? In nations where homeschooling is not allowed should parents disobey the government and educate their children themselves? Am I sinning by putting my children in public schools? The consequences of this line of reasoning can be dangerous and divisive.

We will move on. Kim’s argument moves into the realm of the painful when she provides unsubstantiated statements like “the system was conceived upon the tenets of Marxism and Darwinism” that it “is paid for by theft.” These statements, which again, I have heard multiple times, are unsubstantiated and painful to read. If homeschoolers continue to use such statements they need to research them, substantiate them and then decide whether they are acceptable criticisms to use as a defense of their choice of education.

Kim suddenly goes on the defensive for a moment, saying “I would love to hear about the ‘negatives’ of homeschooling. I think that many of the standard objections are based upon the false presupposition that institutionalized schooling is a good thing and homeschoolers ought to try to duplicate it in their homes. These people miss the point: we are not trying to do school like they do, but better. We are educating our children in an entirely different way because we have entirely different goals.”

I will take up this challenge, though I will not speak of the “negatives” of homeschooling. Rather, I will speak of what I believe are some of its potential dangers. I term these dangers because not all parents will fall prey to them. Rather, I’d suggest that these are common potential dangers. And, certainly, even the most militant homeschool parent must admit that there must be dangers to homeschooling just as there are dangers to anything else we, as sinful people, undertake. I am well aware that there are potential dangers in sending children to public school. Maybe some day I can address those.

I think one of the clearest dangers of homeschooling is shown in articles like the one I’ve referred to today: it can breed division in the church either through what is said or through how it is said (and in the case of Kim’s article, I’d suggest both). Homeschooling can be and too often is a negative and divisive force in the church. Please hear me when I say that this is not always the case. But I feel that homeschoolers need to be very careful with this issue. I have written before about how a greater ideology lies behind the decision to homeschool and I stand by that belief. In far too many cases that ideology leads to division. Homeschoolers can take what is clearly a disputable matter and elevate it to the status of something far greater. This always leads to disunity! Carey Hardy, who has had far more experience with this than I have, has said, quite rightly I believe, that homeschoolers bear the greatest part of the responsibility for lack of unity arising from this issue within local churches (link). His exhortation is timely and biblical: “A pastor must graciously but firmly bring Romans 14 to bear on the thinking of his people if any disunity over this issue is surfacing.” This is not an issue of sufficient importance that we allow it to divide Christians.

A second danger, which is related to the first, is in the possibility of feeling a sense of superiority over those who choose to put their children in public schools or a sense of superiority in the education homeschooled children will receive. I have addressed in the past the fact that, for my family and for countless others, the choice to put our children in public school is made on the basis of biblical conviction. We are not necessarily committed to having our children in public schools from now until the time they graduate. For the time being, though, and for the situation we are in, we are convinced that this is the best choice for our family and for our children. We are convinced that it is the biblical choice. Statements like this one, “we are not trying to do school like they do, but better,” are all too common and both sting and divide. Not only does it divide us into the two camps of “us” and “them,” but it also suggests that homeschooling is innately, objectively superior and that it is always the right choice for all families. We see this again in Kim’s statement that “We must use the Bible to judge between right and wrong, and we must act in clear conscience (Rom 14:5).” She (probably inadvertently) sets these two statements against each other, saying that there is objective right and wrong and that we must move forward with homeschooling with a clear conscience. Yet if this is a matter of conscience, it must be a matter which is not so clearly defined. So guard against the sense of superiority that can come creeping in.

A third great danger is that it may breed fear of what is outside and security in what is inside. Sometimes explicitly but more commonly implicitly, children can be taught that worldliness is a force that exists outside of themselves and something they can be sheltered from. Defenses of homeschooling are absolutely filled with this viewpoint. They are taught to fear what the world can do to them and how it may corrupt them. Parents can also spend time looking outside to the world and attempting to understand how it is influencing their children. Yet the harsh reality is that there is more than enough of the world in our own hearts that we don’t need to go any further to become just as worldly as we can be. Homeschooling is absolutely no guarantee of avoiding worldliness and, in fact, may put children at greater risk for worldliness. I do not fear the public school system. When I look at my children, I fear what I see in their hearts. I fear the rebellion in my son’s heart that allows him to doubt God’s existence or to scoff at the strangeness of a person dying as another’s substitute. I fear the doubt in my daughter’s heart far more than I fear a teaching explaining the theory of evolution to her. What the world can do to my children is nothing compared to what they can do to themselves. It is ironic that Reformed Christians, those with the strongest and most biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty, are often those who most fear the consequences of placing their children in public schools. We should know that God’s sovereignty is far bigger and far stronger than our educational decisions.

A fourth danger is that it may insulate children from a world they must learn to live in. The greatest reason that my wife and I send our children to public school is that we feel this is where they can best learn how to exist as believers in an unbelieving world. It is our conviction that we could not as easily teach them this if we were to keep them at home. In the world they will see sin and will see that sin always carries with it painful and negative consequences. We hope they will learn by the example of others around them that there is great danger in sin and that the Word of God is true when it tells us how sin harms and holiness protects and preserves. We want them to learn these lessons when they are young. Every person will, sooner or later, need to learn this lesson. Visit a Christian college that has attracted a large crowd of homeschooled children and you can see what happens when children only learn this lesson later in life. It is painful to see.

A final danger I would outline is that it may turn Christians against teachers and educators. My wife and I have been thrilled with the teachers our children have had to this point. We know that some will prove better than others, but to this point we have found them to be serious, committed, and far from the Marxist idealists many seem to think they must be. This has been true of both the younger and the older teachers. They truly are committed to providing a good education to our children and work long and hard to do this. When we portray all educators as either deliberate or unwilling players in a grand conspiracy to destroy our children we negatively portray people for whom this is not true. We also negatively portray many of our brothers and sisters in Christ who work as teachers. I recently spoke to the husband of a public school teacher and he told me that he and his wife, knowing how many committed Christian teachers there are in the public schools, have no qualms about placing their children in these schools. They feel their children will be in good hands.

I am going to repeat myself. Do remember that these are potential dangers and may not be true in many or most cases. These reflect my observations and the observations of others. If you find them difficult to swallow, perhaps it provides the opportunity to reflect for a moment to see if you have fallen into any of these dangers.

The long and short is this. When researching what the Bible teaches about education and raising our children, I have not been convinced that either public schooling or homeschooling is objectively correct in all situations. And so I move forward with that assumption. If we allow that there are times that it may be right for a family to send their children to public school, we must also allow that there are times when it may be wrong for a family to homeschool. At the very least we allow that education is a decision of conscience and that parents must make what can be a long and difficult decision. If you disagree with this, please turn to Scripture and defend this viewpoint. And do realize that such an understanding will necessarily be divisive within the church. If you can prove it from Scripture it will be necessary division. If you cannot, it is unnecessary and must be avoided.

So here is my exhortation for those in either camp: we must not let education divide the church. For the sake of church unity, be careful! The church does not need to be fractured between the homeschoolers and the public schoolers. Satan is no doubt doing all he can to set one Christian against another and to make disputable matters into so much more. Homeschoolers need to love and support those who choose to send their children to public schools. When difficult times arise they must not using these times as an opportunity to say “I told you so!” Rather, they can use these difficult times to pray for their friends, to comfort them, challenge them, support them and to bear with them. The same is true of those who send their children to public schools. They must support their homeschooling brothers and sisters, bearing with them and supporting them, understanding that these people are following their conscience. In either case, parents must teach their children to love and embrace children who are educated differently lest we see children divided from one another on this basis.

The church is big enough for both those who homeschool and those who do not. We absolutely cannot afford to make this an issue of division. There are bigger battles to fight and to fight them successfully we must stand together. A little understanding, a little respect, will go a long way to fostering the unity that is so important to the church. So think through the issues, choose carefully, and prepare to love those who choose differently.

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