Category Archives: Christian education

Being Subversive

Over the weekend, I finished reading Charlie R. Steen’s A Chronicle of Conflict: Tournai, 1559-1567.  Tournai was the city where the Belgic Confession was penned and where it first became public in 1561.  This book covers the years before and after, though the Belgic Confession is never actually mentioned.  This book is a disappointment in some respects.  The author portrays the Reformed churches and their pastors as revolutionaries.  He seems to adopt the view of the government of this period that Guy de Bres and the other Reformed believers were actually seditious people intent on overthrowing civil order.  In that regard, Steen also makes several crucial errors in fact.  For instance, he argues that de Bres was involved with leading nocturnal psalm-singing in the streets of Tournai (30).  In point of fact, de Bres warned the Reformed believers not to do this.  Moreover, Steen often confuses the rabble that used the Calvinistic label  as a pre-text for their civil disorder with devout Reformed believers who opposed it.  In short, this account of this period in Tournai’s history is not sympathetic to the Reformed churches, nor does it even really present a balanced view of things.  Instead, in some places it seems like Steen has an axe to grind with the Calvinists.  Finally, even though it is a scholarly work, many of the author’s statements are unsubstantiated.  There are end notes, but there could have been many more.

Nevertheless, it is an engaging read and there are some interesting and helpful points to take away from it.  One thing that I was reminded of was that there were at least three main things that the Reformed held to which were considered subversive and seditious by the government in Brussels:

1)  Psalm-singing.  This was mostly because of the obnoxious chanteries, or public psalm-singings that always took place at night in Tournai.  Margaret of Parma eventually made psalm-singing a capital crime.  The psalms (the Word of God!) were considered to be seditious words — it became treasonous to read or sing them.

2)  The deaconate.  When the time seemed right, the consistory of the Reformed church in Tournai began taking collections for the care of the poor.  A deaconate ministry was established.  Margaret of Parma regarded this as a “obvious and pernicious conspiracy.”  The Reformed were seizing privileges and prerogatives that belonged only to the civil magistrates.  Welfare belonged to the state and the church was out of bounds to try and work in this area.

3)  Christian education.  The consistory in Tournai wanted to establish Christian schools for the children of the Reformed church.  This was also regarded as seditious since education belonged to the realm of government.  After Philip II regained control of Tournai in 1567, a law was made which stated that Reformed children had to be sent to Roman Catholic schools.  If they were not, they could be taken away from their parents.

One item that Steen doesn’t mention is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  This was actually the reason why de Bres was hung on May 31, 1567.  He was hung for celebrating the Lord’s Supper against the orders of the civil magistrate.  In fact, the celebration of both sacraments by the Reformed was regarded as seditious.  Babies who were baptized in the Reformed church during its brief time of relative freedom later had to be rebaptized in the Roman Catholic Church.

The three main items mentioned above could still be regarded as subversive, even if they are no longer regarded as seditious.  They are counter-cultural.  The singing of psalms is virtually unheard of in churches today.  Ironically, some of our own Reformed people would be happy to get rid of most of them too.  The deaconate too is a rare institution in Christian churches, though I don’t think the government would complain if our deacons were to do more.  As for Christian education, it is also a niche endeavour for the most part.  As for the civil government, in most Canadian jurisdictions Christian schools are just barely tolerated.

Church, Home and School

Last week, I mentioned the WSC Evangelium dealing with education.  I concluded by noting that it is important for church, home and school to be working on the same confessional basis.  This has been a sentiment held by many Reformed people for nearly two centuries.

Back in the early nineteenth century, the Reformed church in the Netherlands was in a sorry state.  God’s Word was hardly taken seriously except as a “moral guide” and the gospel was nearly lost.  As just one example, an article was published in the early 1830s that denied the existence of hell and defended the view that death is not the result of sin (sadly, such views are still found today in Reformed churches).  However, God brought about a remarkable reformation.  This is usually referred to as the Secession of 1834 or, in Dutch, Afscheiding.  Most Reformed churches in North America (including the CanRC and URCNA) are heirs of this reformation.

One of the minor players in the Secession was an ancestor of mine named Dirk Hoksbergen.  He was my great (4x)-grandfather.  Hoksbergen was a farmer and an elder in the Reformed church in Kampen.  He later became a “teaching elder” or lay-pastor.

Early on in the Secession, Dirk Hoksbergen wrote a 51 page letter to Hendrik de Cock, one of the major leaders of the movement.  The letter was later published by de Cock.  Hoksbergen’s focus was not so much on the church, but on the schools and the education of Reformed children.  Here are some excerpts (I apologize for the bad style, but it reflects the ability of a relatively uneducated farmer of that period):

May the Lord save all of us that we do not bring forth children for Antichrist, the adversary of Christ, who even banned the doctrine of Christ from the schools; when with us our God-fearing ancestors taught our young children that according to Solomon they should be brought up in the ways of the Lord, and when old, they would not depart from it.

…since they are engrafted in Christ, they dedicate their God-given children in baptism, and according to their oath and duty consecrate them to the Triune God; as for the present, they still swear that oath, but falsely, to mock God, for the doctrine of Christ is banned from the schools, and they swallow the fables of anti-Christ which intoxicates them and confuses their head and understanding.

…The schools are as corrupted as the churches; shall we refrain from attending church, but send our children to the schools?

…Oh, may we belong to the few who bow the neck only under the yoke of Christ, and that we would not be led to and fro by all winds of doctrine; although we are compelled to sacrifice the children the Lord gave us to that MOLECH, may the Lord keep me and many of my countrymen from this…

Hoksbergen’s letter was the first volley in a battle for Christian schools that would be committed to the Reformed confessions.  Eventually, this battle would be won.  For him and for countless others,  it made no sense to send their covenant children to receive an education where the basis would be anything other than that embraced by home and church.  Reformation in the church necessarily had consequences for Christian education.

WSC’S Evangelium Education Issue

I was finally catching up with some of my periodicals this afternoon and among them was the Fall 2009 issue of Westminster Seminary California’s Evangelium.  This is the issue devoted to the subject of education.  It was recently criticized in Christian Renewal.  So, I picked it up expecting to encounter serious problems.  What I found was something quite different:  apart from some subtle nuances, the traditional Reformed perspective on Christian education.  In other words, the faculty at WSC is not anti-Christian education or anti-Christian schools.

As an example, consider the five convictions expressed in the lead article by Dennis Johnson.  These convictions are shared by the faculty on the basis of God’s inerrant Word:

1.  Parents are responsible to oversee their children’s whole education — both ‘religious’ and otherwise.

2.  Parents are not alone in their responsibility to nurture their children in God’s wisdom.

3.  The wisdom that our children need centers in the fear of the Lord, and then reaches out to embrace all of life.

4.  No educational enterprise is religiously neutral.

5.  Our children’s education should enable them not only to investigate God’s world, but also to engage confidently and winsomely those who do not see that ‘this is our Father’s world.’

Those sentiments are not unfamiliar to me and I can readily say “Amen!”  However, if I would make one note about what I read in Evangelium, it would be that we should aim for a closer relationship between church, home and school.  It is never desirable to have the Christian school teaching in a way that contradicts the church or the home.  The obvious way to mitigate that possibility is to have all three operating on the same confessional basis.

I conclude that the criticism expressed in Christian Renewal arose from as uncharitable a reading as one could possibly give.


PRCA Synod on Christian Schools

According to this news story (h.t. Confessional Outhouse), the synod of the Protestant Reformed Church has decided that all officebearers must send their children to Protestant Reformed schools.  The background is the dismissal of a PR minister who was homeschooling his children.  This decision raises many questions.  One of them is whether or not exceptions are made for missionaries and church planters.  Or are these officebearers expected to board out their children so that they can attend a PR school?  Or what if a PR church planter or missionary sees his work through to the point where the church is ready to be instituted?  Can he institute the church without a school to which the elders can send their children?  Of course, these questions may all be moot if church planting is not on the agenda of the Protestant Reformed.  Other questions have to do with whether or not a synod can bind its officebearers to something which has no explicit Biblical or confessional basis.  Does the Bible really teach that ministers and elders must send their children to a PR school?  Can you discipline an officebearer who does not?  Which commandment would he be breaking?  As with seminary training, I believe that Christian education has a solid biblical basis, but how that education is to be delivered is an open question that has slightly more to do with pragmatic considerations than principled ones.

UPDATE:  someone wrote me and said that apparently this PRCA decision is only applicable to those PR churches where they have an existing school.  And of course, that raise all kinds of other questions…