DISCIPLESHIP AND FORMAL EDUCATION:
THE BIBLICAL DISTINCTION
by Saul Plotkin (pseudonym)
A mother’s hopes for her son
There does not exist in the English language a four word sentence that more cogently captures the prideful exuberance of a Jewish mother for her child: “My son, the doctor!” Growing up in a Jewish home in a primarily Jewish community, I knew from the time I was able to say my first word that I was destined to go to a good college and get a first-rate education. I distinctively remember the internal struggle I faced as a Jewish child wanting to be on the baseball field with the Gentiles rather than in the books at home like my Jewish friends. It is quite humorous, in my case, that it took Jesus and the New Testament to convince me to hang up my cleats and to pursue an education. My Jewish mother, exceptional among the majority of Jewish mothers in the world, can now proclaim, “My son, the missionary. Oy!” No problem, mom, at least I got a good education.
To home-school or not?
Now that I am a believer in Jesus with a family of my own and now that I am ministering to fellow-parents, I am forced to revisit the question of education, particularly as it relates to important choices we as parents must make: “Should—or must—we home-school our children?” “Is it okay to send our children to public school?” “What about Christian school?” In this essay I would like to address the issue of education as a believing parent speaking to believing parents.
A more fundamental question
Before we can find answers to the “where” questions, it is important to consider the purpose of education. But, even before we consider the purpose of education, I believe it necessary to address a more fundamental question: Does the Bible make a distinction between religious education (discipleship) on the one hand, and formal education (math, history, science, and all that other fun stuff) on the other? In this essay, I will argue that the Bible makes a distinction between discipleship and formal education. While the former is universally incumbent upon every parent, the latter is neither universally binding, nor, necessarily the task of the parent. Furthermore, acknowledging this distinction leads to more refined questions and more informed answers to the questions regarding the “who’s” and the “where’s” of formal education.
Discipleship and Formal Education: the Biblical Distinction
As I searched the Scriptures to more adequately understand the purpose of education, much to my surprise, I found an interesting distinction between religious instruction—discipleship—on the one hand and formal education on the other. In what follows, we shall turn to the Bible to see that this distinction is real, and, as a consequence, noting this distinction helps to clarify issues of Christian freedom verses compulsion.
Unity of Knowledge and Parental Responsibility
At this point, I must offer two qualifying stipulations. First, the doctrine of creation necessitates the unity of all knowledge: all knowledge must blaze a doxological trail back to the source from whence it flows. All truth is God’s truth no matter where it is found. Science, properly understood, necessarily leads to the praise of the All-Wise Creator. Second, though I hope to demonstrate a biblical distinction between two forms of education, I wholeheartedly affirm parental responsibility in both cases. Freedom does not equate with recklessness. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable” (1 Cor 6:12; NASB). Choices regarding our children’s formal education—that is, in societies where formal education is a choice parents can make—must place priority of emphasis on the divine calling of parenting and the parental responsibility for providing the very best physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being for our children to the glory of God.
Shema (Hear!) and Teach!
The classical focus in the Old Testament (OT) for the parental responsibility of discipleship is found in the section of Scripture known as the shema (Hebrew for “Hear!”).
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut 6:4–9; NASB; emphasis added).
The word for “teach” in this passage comes from the Hebrew word “to sharpen, ” a word most typically used with reference to arrows and spears (see Deut 32:41; Ps 45:5; 64:3; 73:21; 120:4; 140:3; Prov 25:18; Isa 5:28). Only here does this word refer to education or teaching. In Deut 11:19, a text practically identical to Deut 6:7, Moses uses the word for “teach” rather than “sharpen” or “diligently teach.” There is a semantic overlap in these two terms; yet it appears that Moses selected the word “sharpen” in Deut 6:7 to make an important point (no pun intended). Sharpening is an ongoing process, necessarily involving friction and repetition—in context, the continual repetition of “these words,” or Scripture, in any and every conceivable context.
Teaching as Loving God
Furthermore, teaching is part of a chain of eight commands all relating to loving the one and only true God. Integral to loving God is the diligent teaching of our children. This parental duty cannot be severed from loving God: the former is a fruit of the latter (see also Deut 4:10; Ps 78:5; Prov 1:8; 3:1; 22:6).
Two OT customs further illustrate the unavoidable parental obligation to disciple our children within the covenant: circumcision and Passover. I personally remember the day well. While holding my brand new baby boy, the Rabbi looked at me and said, “In biblical times the father was responsible for circumcising his own son. The responsibility for discipleship belongs primarily to the father, and circumcision was the very beginning of the child’s religious education.” Although I am perfectly content that modernity has relieved me of these surgical responsibilities, I have never forgotten the simple fact that God has given to me the task of raising my son as a member of the covenant community.
In addition to circumcision, God also commanded the yearly reenactment of the Exodus event through the Passover celebration—a celebration my taste buds make a point never to miss. This feast was commanded specifically for the purpose of inculcating the knowledge of Yahweh’s redemption to the next generation (see Exod 12:24–27).
In the New Testament: Discipleship as Nourishment
As far as the New Testament (NT) goes, Eph 6:1–4 is a key passage. Paul writes:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (NASB; emphasis added).
Here, Paul commands fathers (mothers included) to bring their children up in the Lord. He uses the word ektrephō, a word which literally means “to nourish” or “to feed.” This same word is used in Eph 5:29 for the very basic and unavoidable necessity a man has to nourish and care for his own body. Just as it is unthinkable that we would fail to physically nourish our own bodies, so it is inconceivable to neglect to spiritually nourish our children. Furthermore, this command to “nourish” children in the Lord is a present tense imperative. This suggests the ongoing and continual responsibility of a parent to disciple his/her children. As in the case of Deut 6:7, this responsibility is not merely a suggestion; rather, it is a command from God Himself.
These key OT and NT texts are clear: mothers and fathers are obligated to disciple their children. The spiritual lives of our children take precedence over all other parental decisions. Furthermore, this command is universal. It transcends every time period and every culture. Even in cultures where parents cannot read or write, they are still held accountable for discipling their children. Discipleship begins with introducing our children to the love of God poured out through the glorious gospel, and continues through the recitation and application of God’s word in all of life’s situations.
What About Formal Education?
What about formal education? Are parents obligated by God to personally train their children in the finer points of algebra, science, astronomy, writing and grammar, etc. (please remember that I’m not trying to fragment knowledge into secular and spiritual compartments)? In so far as the Scriptures are concerned, the parental responsibility for teaching these skills to our children is entirely optional (unless, of course, we live in societies where formal education is mandated by law). The Bible does not make a single reference to a parent’s personal obligation in this matter. In fact, every reference to formal education in the Bible takes place outside the home (which is not a point against home-school).
The examples of Moses, Daniel, and Paul
Take Moses, for instance. He received an excellent formal education compliments of the guy who tried to drown him in the river (see Acts 7:22). Moses was trained in the very best wisdom Egypt had to offer: a pagan education if ever there was one. Daniel and his friends also received excellent formal educations: three years of Chaldean literature and language, compliments of their captors (see Dan 1:4–5). Paul (Saul at the time) was formally educated at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel (see Acts 22:3). Paul, in fact, is the only known individual in the Bible to have had formal Bible training, albeit, a training which contributed to his anti-Christian sentiment. Now, it is important to note in the cases of Moses and Daniel, formal education was imposed from the outside, and was more than likely against the wills of their parents (this is a reassuring truth for parents living in countries and/or in situations where decisions concerning formal education are entirely out of their hands). But, it is clear that the Bible does not mandate formal education, quite unlike discipleship.
The examples of Peter, John, and Another
On the other side of the educational fence, we know of three prominent biblical figures who did not receive formal training; and in their cases, this was not a bad thing. Peter and John, for instance, were called to give an account to the Sanhedrin for their teaching. Acts 4:13 records a rather ironic situation: “Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (NASB; emphasis added). According to the top Greek lexicon, the word for “uneducated” (agrammatos) means “illiterate,” “unable to write,” or “lacking legal proficiency.” The word for “untrained” (idiōtēs; not the same as an “idiot” in the modern vernacular) means “a person who is relatively unskilled or inexperienced in some activity or field of knowledge.” At the very worst, Peter and John were unable to read and write (perhaps this was a skill they latter acquired); and, at the very best, they were laypeople, amateurs in their religious training.
Besides Peter and John, there happens to be one more individual who was noted for having had no formal education: Jesus. In John 7:15 we read, “The Jews then were astonished, saying, ‘How has this man become learned, having never been educated?’” The phrase used for “educated” is “trained in the letter.” Like His two disciples, Jesus never received a formal education. There is plenty of Scriptural evidence, however, that Jesus was quite proficient in the OT (see Luke 2:47). Furthermore, we can see from Luke 4:17–19 that Jesus could read and even had to have known the vowels of this text beforehand in order to properly read this unpointed text (vowel pointing was added centuries later).
The Good Jewish Parents of Jesus and His Disciples
The point I am trying to make in citing these examples is that the parents of Peter, John, and Jesus in no way shirked their parental responsibilities for neglecting to formally educate their children. In Jesus’ case, we know that his parents (Joseph being His step-parent) took the discipleship of their son quite seriously. As good Jewish parents they circumcised him (Luke 2:18), and brought him to the Temple for his dedication (Luke 2:22–24) and for the yearly observance of the Feasts (Luke 2:41–42).
God’s Providential Role
The beautiful thing about the stories of Moses, Daniel, Peter, John and Jesus is that in each case God was providentially at work to prepare these young men for their life’s calling. In Egypt, Moses received the necessary skills to write the Pentateuch. Daniel’s book would be missing the most significant messianic passages in the entire Bible had he not learned to read and write Aramaic. Paul’s education enabled him to write two-thirds of the NT. Peter and John, however, were trained, not in the classrooms of the formal institution, but on the hillsides of the Galilee. Their lack of formal education was providentially used by God to confound the religious leaders in Jerusalem. They may not have known their multiplication table, but they knew Jesus. And finally, in Jesus’ case, though never having a formal education, He was the fleshly embodiment of the Word of God. Jesus could truthfully say:
Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have observed your precepts (Ps 119:98–100).
And in every case, the parents of these key biblical figures were held accountable by God for the discipleship of their children, whether or not they could or couldn’t provide formal education.
Discipleship and Formal Education: Two Purposes, One Goal
Having laid a biblical foundation for distinguishing religious and formal education, and having argued that discipleship is a universal obligation upon all parents (literate or otherwise) in all cultures at all times, it is now possible to answer the other questions posed in the beginning of this essay. What is the purpose of religious education? What is the purpose of formal education? Where/who should formally educate our children? And finally, what is the ultimate goal of education in general?
What is the purpose of religious education?
This question, simply answered, is to lead our children to Christ and to equip them with a biblical foundation with which they can meet life’s challenges, and, in turn, reach others with the gospel. Discipleship’s goal is to reproduce: discipleship makes disciplers making disciples (see 2 Tim 2:2).
What is the purpose of formal education?
In one word: vocation (divine calling). Consider the figures who received a formal education in the Bible. Moses’, Daniel’s, and Paul’s formal educations prepared them to fulfill God’s specific calling on their lives. Essential to the discipleship process is training our children to think biblically about their purpose in life and how best they can accomplish this purpose. Formal education fits into the larger scheme of doing God’s work for His glory. Our children must learn to walk in the good works God has prepared for them in eternity past: their formal education prepares them to do this more effectively.
Where/who should formally educate our children?
The answer to this question depends on several factors, but ultimately, it must be understood in terms of Christian freedom exercised with biblical responsibility. Do the parents have the formal education necessary to formally educate their own children (home-school)? This may vary from family to family. For many parents, they simply do not have the wherewithal to teach their children the things of which they do not know themselves. Do the parents have the financial means to home-school and/or send their children to a private school? In many cases, parents and/or single parents do not have an option of home-school or private school. Like Moses’ parents, they are “forced” to send their children into environments quite hostile to Christian values. Take heart, don’t feel guilty, and trust the wisdom and the providence of God; but, by all means, disciple your children to face the challenges of public school. Do those parents who have prayerfully decided to send their children to public school feel they are adequately discipling their children to cope with the ideology of the public school system? It would be a serious abdication of parental responsibility to send our children ill-equipped to face blatant and/or subtle anti-Christian indoctrination. When all is said and done, parents must take their discipleship responsibilities with utmost seriousness. We must ask ourselves, “How will these decisions regarding our children’s formal education best accomplish (or most hinder) our discipleship goals and prepare them for their life’s vocation?”
What is the ultimate goal of education in general?
Paul provides the best answer to this question: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). The final goal of education for Christian parents is not to be able to say, “My son, the doctor!” But rather, “My son (or daughter), the Christian! To God be all the glory!” Whether our children turn out to be scientists or garbage men, whether they get straight As or consistent Fs, my prayer is that the world would know that our children have been with Jesus and that our precious little ones can confidently rest in God’s good pleasure and His maximum glory.
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