Several years ago I wrote a series of articles in which I sought to explain why my wife and I have chosen to educate our children as we have. Since then I have often wanted to revisit the subject but have held back, largely because of the concern that whatever I write will inevitably offend people I love. I know people on both sides of the debate who have been badly wounded. This debate is so personal and so urgent that it is nearly impossible to discuss it without offending someone; I do not want to be a cause of unnecessary offense.
And yet this is an important matter and a matter of growing concern within the church. It is with some trepidation that I begin to take it up once more. I plan to take an approach that I hope will speak equally to people who are on either side of the debate and even to those who may be undecided. Primarily I want to talk about how the Lord calls us to relate to one another—how homeschoolers are to relate to public schoolers and how public schoolers are to relate to homeschoolers. I’ll leave the Christian schoolers among you to decide which group you most closely line up with; for sake of ease and clarity I will largely leave you out of this one.
Here is how I am going to proceed. Today I will take a brief look at the contemporary landscape within the church and make a couple of assumptions about the nature and importance of the debate over education. In the next article I will turn to the Bible to find guidance on how we will be prone to relate to one another over an issue like this one. From there we will see how the Bible can guide us as we seek to make wise decisions concerning education and how we can then relate to those who make a very different decision. What I want to do is get past the debate and to the heart—your heart and my heart.
Some people reading this article will have little context for the debate. In some parts of the Christian world homeschooling is almost unheard of while in other parts the public schools have long since been abandoned. But for many of us, perhaps even most of us, this is a very important and timely discussion. In my travels I have observed that the conservative Christian world, and the Reformed world at least, has begun a great migration away from the public schools so that today the majority of families in many churches, perhaps even most churches, are defaulting to homeschooling. Even those who do not homeschool continue to consider it and debate its merits. In most good-sized churches it is likely that you will find a mix of public and homeschooled families (and probably some Christian school families as well). Many families have or have had children in a combination of all 3. My own church seems typical with about two-thirds of the church homeschooled with the other one-third mostly in public school (there are a couple of children in Christian schools as well).
This represents a massive shift. When I was a child, homeschooling was a fringe option. I knew only a handful of people who were homeschooled. In those days the homeschoolers felt the weight of mockery and condemnation for stepping outside the mainstream. Today the situation is very nearly reversed. If you visit a conservative church and speak to those who have their children in public schools, you may well find that they now feel the weight of condemnation, or perceived condemnation, and that they feel as if they are the ones outside the church’s mainstream.
There are many leaders in this part of the Christian world who are now prescribing homeschooling as the best option. Others are suggesting that the public education system has reached the point where Christians must abandon it. Still others are stating boldly that the only biblically-faithful way to educate children is at home—public schools and Christians schools are equally unbiblical. It can be confusing to sort through all of the voices, to know what is right, to know what is best.
Do I have to homeschool my children in order to honor God? Will I be sinning if I enroll my children in a public school? Will people mock me if I choose to homeschool? Will they condemn me if I choose public schooling? These are all questions that Christians wrestle with.
I am convicted that in almost every case schooling is a matter of Christian freedom. What I mean is that it is for each family to look to their local context, to look to the options available to them, to search the Scriptures, to examine conscience, and then to decide how they will educate their children. What is best for your family may not be best for my family; what is best in your district or your country may be very different for a family in another district or country; what is possible for one family may be impossible for another one and what may be wise for one family may be unwise for another. The upshot is that there are situations in which public schooling may be right or wrong for a family and there are situations in which homeschooling may be right or wrong for another family.
We need to be very careful here. Both sides of the debate can cause undue grief and unfair burden to the other. The person who writes that public schooling can only be done out of ignorance or at the expense of a child may be deeply wounding the single mother who simply cannot homeschool her children because she needs to provide for them and cannot do both; he may be wounding the family who has weighed the options and felt freedom. Not too long ago I heard a prominent Christian leader declare that anyone who enrolls his children in public schools has turned them over to Satan; I have also heard the same cutting jokes you have about homeschoolers and their social skills. Broad statements are unfair and often unloving.
The way we educate our children is important—let’s not downplay this—but it is not a matter that is central to the Christian faith and not a matter in which the Bible indisputably demands one path or the other. If this is true, we must be willing to affirm that our decision may not be the decision of another person and that even in the same context two families can make opposite decisions and both be without sin. The only alternative I see is to declare that people on the other side of the debate are behaving sinfully and ought to be put under the discipline of the church. I do not know too many who would be willing to go that far (though I do know a few).
Where To Begin
At this point we have taken a quick look at the landscape and then agreed that you and I may both make a choice about how to educate our children and that we may come to a different conclusion—I may homeschool my children while you may place yours in the local public school (or vice versa) and neither of us is necessarily sinning; neither of us has necessarily made a bad choice. This is a secondary issue—a matter of Christian freedom.
Christians do not have an exemplary history with secondary matters. We are always prone to be divided over disputable matters and schooling is exactly the kind of issue that can accomplish that kind of evil work. In fact, it is an issue that already has divided far too many Christians. We cannot allow it to be divisive! For the sake of Christianity unity, for the sake of our testimony to the world, for the sake of our love for brothers and sisters in Christ, we must do this one well.
What I intend to do in these articles is to show the particular temptations we will face as Christians who have differing views on the subject of schooling. I want each of us to examine what we believe and then to turn to the Bible to see where we will be prone to sin against our brothers and sisters. When we are aware of the naturally sinful inclinations of our hearts, we can equip ourselves to believe what we believe and to believe it strongly, but still express genuine love to those who believe the very opposite.