Why do we need to discuss what the Bible teaches and what Christians in previous times have done regarding education? Today's answer is because Western education is in trouble. On the one hand, in the West there is no clear agreement as to the purpose of education. Is it, as the earliest European educators held, like the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, to make people "virtuous"? But there is little agreement today over what counts as "virtue". Or is it to help people get a well-paying career? But such careers can now be acquired outside our educational system. Last summer it was reported that in the UK record numbers of bright pupils after school are not going to the university. They are opting instead for enticing apprenticeships that offer salaries of up to £30,000 on completion.
And radical questions are being asked by academics and not just from Christian believers. A distinguished secular humanist from Yale in the US, Anthony Kronman, has recently published Why our Colleges and Universities have given up on the Meaning of life? For universities are now often "multi-versities". These are collections of independent research silos with people learning more and more about less and less. But there is no department helping you know (except physically) about the uni – verse. No one is formally discussing the wood only the trees. Important, too, is John Somerville's book, The Decline of the Secular University. Not least important is his comment on Tom Wolfe's portrayal of some of the sordid sexual and orgiastic decadence of modern university life in the novel I am Charlotte Simmons. He says this:
"One reviewer, who had worked at the university that provided Wolfe's setting, noted that the 'vision of higher education as a place where the young are initiated into the wisdom of the past has turned into a place where the old abandon the young to their own meager resources because the old have nothing of value to say to them."
So what can we say from the Bible and the Christian tradition about education? There is so much you can say, but to help us with our thinking I want this morning especially to look at our Old Testament reading, Proverbs 3.1-12. And my headings are, first, THE FAMILY FOR EDUCATION; secondly, THE PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION; and, thirdly, THE RESULTS FROM EDUCATION.
So first, THE FAMILY FOR EDUCATION
Look at Proverbs 3.1-4:
"My son, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments,
for length of days and years of life
and peace they will add to you.
Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them round your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favour and good success
in the sight of God and man.
What you have got here is a father teaching his son. Such an arrangement was fundamental in Jewish education. Listen to the great confession of Israel's faith, recited regularly by Jews – Deuteronomy 6.4-7:
"'Hear, O Israel: The LORD 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. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children.'"
The family was and is the great educator, and essential for transmitting beliefs and values. So, healthy family-life is vital for society. Certainly the commandment concerning the family in the Ten Commandments heads the list of the six social commandments - numbers five to ten. Number five says:
"Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you" (Exodus 20.12).
That presupposes order in the family and some teaching which has to be honoured. And uniquely – among all the commandments – that is a commandment with a promise of human flourishing: "that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you". That means, of course, where there is family disintegration as you now, sadly, have in the West, there will not be human flourishing.
And in the Old Testament family the father had a special responsibility for teaching. But the mother also had a responsibility. In Proverbs 31.1 you read that King Lemuel was taught by his mother. And the good wife of Proverbs 31.26 "opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue." But the father had a special responsibility, as the head of the household, which was to be a community of learning about God and godliness. Nor was this just for Old Testament times. Paul says in Ephesians 6.I-3:
"Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right [and then quoting the fifth commandment] 'Honour your father and mother' (this is the first commandment with a promise), 'that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land."
Then in Ephesians 6.4 he says:
"Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord"
"Bringing them up," in the original Greek suggests "helping them to flourish". Discipline and instruction" suggest that the mind and the will have to be helped to go in the right direction. So that brings us to our …
… second heading and THE PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION
Look now at Proverbs 3.5-8:
"Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones."
This is where the rubber hits the road. In Jesus' time there were schools where Jewish parents could share the education of their children with other teachers. But these schools had the same philosophy of education as the parents, if they were faithful Jews. And that philosophy is expressed in verses 5-8 and is summarized in the motto of the Book of Proverbs in Proverbs 1.7:
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction."
"The beginning" means the controlling principle. And "fear" does not mean "being frightened" but "worshipping and submitting" to the God who has revealed himself as the "Lord" (Yahweh/Jehovah), and who, we know, has fully revealed himself as "Father, Son and Holy Spirit". Then Proverbs 1 verses 8-9 go on:
"Hear, my son, your father's instruction,
and forsake not your mother's teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
Again both parents are to be involved in instruction and teaching. But teaching is not just to help you make money but also to lead you to a delight in beauty – as suggested by the metaphor of "graceful garlands" and "pendants". And this philosophy of education of "the fear of the Lord" being "the beginning of knowledge" and all that goes with it, has shaped Western and British education to be the envy of the world, until the second half of the 20th century. Let me explain.
The Church's educational tradition has been influenced by the best of the classical Greek and Roman traditions that were filtered through the sieve of the Bible. Much of this education in earlier times was going on around Minster Churches, Cathedrals and monasteries – witness the school at Jarrow, just a few miles from here. And this tradition as it evolved during the Reformation was exported by the Puritans to the United States, with their first college foundation at Harvard. At that level most of those founders had been at Oxford or Cambridge in the early 17th century where Greek and Latin was studied along with Christian theology which put the pagan writers into their proper perspective. But what was the purpose of it all? Here is the answer, as the secular Yale Professor Kronman wistfully describes those founders of Harvard:
"in their minds a college was above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together form the basis for living – the best life that one can live – a life of discernment and piety, shaped by the example of the great men of the past and enlivened by a deep and unassailable love of God."
But how have we got from that to January 2015 where a Christian Free School in Durham has been shut by the Secretary of State for Education with Ofsted seemingly fixated on homosexuality? And while Ofsted attacked the children's bus behaviour, Michael Lightfoot of Durham City Coaches, says of the 13 coaches contracted out by schools across Durham county the two free school buses are, I quote, "by far the best in terms of pupil behaviour."
And how has a Christian school in Sunderland with the highest GCSE grades of all Sunderland State Funded schools been put into "special measures" for being too Christian? Ofsted, in the first draft of their recent report, said this: "The Christian ethos of the school permeates much of the school's provision. This has restricted the development of abroad and balanced curriculum." And again Ofsted seemed fixated on homosexuality. To answer how all this has come about we must go back to the 17th century scientific revolution.
This was mainly concerned with measurable regularities in the material world - laws of nature. But while scientists saw these laws of nature causing things to happen, they still believed that God was the ultimate or primary cause of all things. God was using natural laws as secondary causes to secure his creative purposes. But as Francis Bacon, the first philosopher of modern science warned at the start of that revolution, in time scientists who worked with these secondary causes – the laws of nature – might forget the primary cause - almighty God. And this they did in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in France and Germany. It meant people fell into the temptation of Proverbs 3 verse 5 - they lent on their "own understanding" and (verse 7) became wise in their "own eyes". Things, however, were different in the UK because of the late 18th and 19th centuries' Evangelical revival, which led to the founding of many schools for the rich and poor, all with a Christian tradition.
But that school Christian tradition started to crumble in 1960s and by the 1980s even secular humanism was under attack. People were arguing that there were no permanent features to human experience; and morals and values were subtle ways of people seeking power over other people. So patterns of human living were seen as infinitely variable. Anything, therefore, can be reshaped – witness biblical marriage corrupted into "same-sex marriage" which children now learn about in schools. A 5 year old son of a man I know was recently taught at home that when a man marries, he marries just one woman (not two). However, the little boy, returning from school soon after that, said he had been taught wrongly at home because he had learnt at school that a man can now marry a man! Such is the education our 5 year olds can be receiving at school! But as this continues and "the old abandon the young to their own meager resources", the consequences are clear from Proverbs 3 verse 8. There will not "be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones" and human flourishing but the very reverse. So that brings us to our …
… third heading, THE RESULTS FROM EDUCATION
Look at Proverbs 3.9-12:
"Honour the LORD with your wealth
and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
and your vats will be bursting with wine.
My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the LORD reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights."
William Temple, a great former Archbishop, famously said:
"An education which is not religious is atheistic … If you give to children an account of the world from which God is left out, you are teaching them to understand the world without reference to God."
He knew that you could not be neutral in education. There has to be a controlling world view. At the moment, according to the current 1996 Education Act, that world view still has to be Christian and it follows from our constitutional monarchy. And I pray it remains so. For as God is real, atheism, agnosticism or multi-faithism, even when disguised as neutrality, has measurable negative consequences. The business of human life on this planet, according to the Bible, is to worship God in Spirit and in truth and who is revealed in Jesus Christ, with all that that means in terms of human flourishing. And social studies show that, on average – you must underline "on average", it is not true in every case – but, on average, Church people do better physically and materially than non-Church people in comparable conditions. And verse 10 speaks of "barns" being "filled with plenty" and "vats … bursting with wine" as you "honour the Lord with your wealth."
So socially and educationally, if you are concerned for the poor and needy, it must be right to secure for children, in so far as you can, the option of Christian education. Nor is this to "impose" belief, because God doesn't impose belief. Rather it is "proposing" God's truth. But practically what can you do in the present situation?
First, face the facts. Nationally the situation to-day is bad. A recent Bible Society survey indicated that 43 per cent of our 8-15 year-olds had never read, seen or heard about the Crucifixion of Jesus. And a survey last Easter found that nearly a third of our children aged 8-15 did not know that in the Bible account of the Resurrection God raised Jesus from the dead.
Secondly, realize, as Kronman says, that with colleges and universities abandoning any claim to address the question of what living is for, I quote, "such authority [to address that question is ] entirely in the hands of the churches, who now enjoy a near monopoly in the institutionally organized provision of instruction in the meaning of life." That is why (verse 10) "honouring the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce" is more important than ever before. That is why this year's giving review is so critical. Times are increasingly critical; and in a university city, at this church we have a special responsibility for children and students; and that means more work, as the need grows, and more work needs more funding with our wealth. Thirdly, realize the truth of Proverbs 3.11-12: "do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights."
Yes, children in the home and in the school need to be disciplined. But so do we who have left formal education. And maybe believing Christians have some responsibility for the current situation which is God reproving us all, to make us wake-up. Whether that is true or false, let's make sure we do not incur the Lord's "reproof" by our sins of omission as we face the future. So pray for our Christian families and their children; then for our schools, our teachers and head-teachers and school governors.
And when you are a teacher, head-teacher or governor, pray for the strength, when in a hostile situation, to be in a minority of one when you need to be. That is hard - I know. But Jesus was in a minority at his trial. We read that "all left him and fled" (Mark 14.50). And what about parents? Too, often it is secular people who make the noise. A head-teacher with a letter from an aggressively atheistic parent against Christian teaching, finds it much easier to resist when there are also strong letters of support.
I must conclude with two things to remember: one, those solemn words of Jesus from our Gospel reading/Second Bible reading:
"whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18.6);
and, two, Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 1.30:
"Christ Jesus … became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption."
Jesus does not only make you right with God and help you to be more obedient. He is also your "wisdom". So, yes, pray, for the first time if necessary, for Christ's righteousness to cover your sins for which he died in your place. And pray for his sanctification so that by the strength of his Spirit you are able to witness to him and be salt and light for him in a corrupt and dark world.
However, also pray for Christ's wisdom which will come as you "trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding" (Pro 3.5).
And be encouraged. For as you humbly do that and obey his word, Proverbs 3.6 promises he will "make straight your paths". He will guide and help you right through all the challenges and conflicts, including educational conflicts, of this life and ultimately through to the eternal glory of heaven.