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The threefold cord of Christian education

And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; 

and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.  

Ecclesiastes 4:12 

 

I’ve experienced a great privilege to have been educated by Christian teachers throughout my entire life. This started before I ever walked into a classroom with the work of my faithful mother and continues to this day as I sit under the preaching of my pastor each week. In between my earliest memories of home and the place of worship where God has led me today were a host of other teachers who shaped, guided, informed, and corrected my life through the work of Christian education. I am deeply thankful to God for these individuals, men and women who love the Lord and patiently instructed me alongside my siblings and classmates. Sitting under their instruction has truly been a privilege!  

In today’s world, however, Christian education isn’t necessarily seen as a privilege. Ironically, it is in the halls of higher learning where such an education is most disparaged as being narrow, bigoted, and little better than brainwashing. This opinion isn’t just in public institutions of learning, either. Young people will encounter sneers and eye-rolling about Christian primary and secondary education even in so-called “Christian” colleges and universities, which want to see Christianity so interwoven with mainline culture that the idea of children being educated separately and according to their faith seems ridiculous. 

Don’t fall for this view, young people. And don’t be ashamed of the Christian “bubble” in which you were raised. Christian education is a gift—not a hindrance—to your development as a believer. You certainly mustn’t be proud of having been educated as a Christian or think of yourself more highly than you ought to think (Rom. 12:3). But at the same time, understand that the few short years you have to learn about God’s creation, his purpose with this world, and how you ought to live from a biblical perspective are being used to prepare you to exist in a world where your views will likely be in the minority. Just as hatchling birds are raised in a nest until they are ready to fly, you have been raised in a spiritual nest under the shadow of God’s wing in preparation for the day when you’ll enter the wider world as a student, employee, or citizen instead of a church member. Flying isn’t easy, nor is it safe. Good preparation for that day matters immensely! 

It’s good if the picture you have in your head right now is of sitting in a high school classroom with other young people your age. But there is more to consider when we look at education in its broadest sense. Christian education certainly does involve formal classrooms, but in God’s plan it should begin much earlier than that. The very first educational influence that God has ordained for his people is in the home. The sphere of family is the first and most fundamental institution that God created in the beginning when he made Adam and his wife, Eve. This is where teaching starts. 

If by God’s grace you were raised in a faithful, God-fearing home, then your first teachers were your parents. The calling to them from Scripture was to bring you up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). The two words used in this text aren’t the same, but they are complementary. The word “nurture” is the broader term that in other passages is translated as “chastening” or “instruction.” Nurture implies the right use of discipline and the demonstration of how one is to do something by actions that can be imitated. In contrast, the word “admonition” points to verbal instruction that calls a child to attention or offers a warning. In his commentary on this passage, Martyn Lloyd-Jones offers this summary of parents’ calling: 

Thus, there are two aspects of this matter. First, we have to deal with general conduct and behavior, the things we have to do by actions. Then, in addition, there are certain admonitions that should be addressed to the child: words of exhortation, words of encouragement, words of reproof, words of blame. Paul’s term includes all these, indeed everything we say to the children in actual words when we are defining positions and indicating what is right or wrong, encouraging, exhorting, and so on.1  

The second sphere of influence in your education is the church. Most children in Christian homes begin to attend church well before they start formal schooling. Alongside the home, it is in church that they begin to learn how to reverence God, to honor the voice of their Lord in the preaching, and to actively participate in worship through singing and confession of faith. Even though the understanding of young children may be limited, it is nonetheless important that they begin to assimilate the patterns of the Christian faith ordained in Scripture early in their lives. Families ought to worship God together in the church for this purpose. 

By now most readers of this article are either participating in or finished with catechism training. This official work of the church is another important means of Christian education in the life of young believers. In the Protestant Reformed Churches, “we believe that catechism teaching in the church is serious business. It ought to be placed on an equal plane with the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s Day.” This is why a key qualification for pastors and elders, the men who lead catechism instruction, is that they are “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24).  

Catechism instruction reinforces and builds upon the teaching that begins in the home, producing a firm biblical foundation for the life of believers. Without it, we are prone to being “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” that blows up around us (Eph. 4:14). It is the responsibility of the church and its officebearers to ensure that catechism instruction is carried out faithfully every year until a child is able to make a knowledgeable and heartfelt confession of his or her faith and become a full member of the church. 

What begins within the walls of your home and continues throughout a lifetime of membership in the church is further extended through the third sphere of influence, Christian schools. In reality, the Christian school is an extension of your home in which God-fearing teachers stand in the place of your parents to lead instruction. Importantly, Christian education happens in the context of a covenant community that is precious to Reformed believers. Christian education is not simply about gaining knowledge or becoming prepared to enter the workforce. Rather, it is the presentation of every subject and discipline as a means to better know, love, and serve our heavenly Father.  

Though our relationship with God stands at the forefront of Christian education, that isn’t the only reason why it is covenantal in nature. Central to the idea of Christian schools is that they are communities of believers who work together for the purpose of training children in the fear of the Lord. Like church membership, involvement in a school community involves commitment to other people and a willingness to act as a servant when the need arises. Any parent who has sent children to a Christian school can tell you about the sacrifice of time, energy, and finances that is required to make a school run—especially if the community is small. Living together in fellowship as believers who are united in the purpose of glorifying God through self-sacrifice is exactly the description of a covenant community. Though distinct in their purpose, both church and school can be described in this way. 

Together the combination of home, church, and Christian school are very much like the threefold cord described in Ecclesiastes 4:12. Each strand in the cord reinforces and supports the work of the other two strands, providing a strong education that can withstand the many attacks of this world and its dark prince. When one of the strands is weak, as sometimes happens in the life of a young believer, the other two can compensate for that weakness and provide the necessary support needed for faith to grow and thrive. These are key means that God graciously provides to his children so that they may “increase and grow up in the Lord Jesus Christ” and “acknowledge [His] fatherly goodness and mercy.”

Do you see the incredible gift you’ve been given through the threefold work of Christian education? Thank God for his providential care that has made such an education possible, and then commit to providing this same education to your children and those of other fellow believers when God gives you the opportunity in your life.