Christian ethics and Reformed education - Rev. C. Stam

Text copied with permission from "Clarion", 1985 Year End, and Volume 35, No.1 (1985-86)
Speech held for the Canadian Reformed Teacher's Convention, at Burlington, Ontario, on Friday, October 18, 1985.

You have asked me to address you today concerning a question which has more or less plagued you these last months, namely, the relation between Christian ethics and Reformed education. I formulate it this way in order to get a better grip on the material myself. The question is one of great concern because of the obviously un-Christian behaviour of some (most?) of our young people. The question was specifically formulated by one of you as follows, "After receiving so much Reformed education, why do we still see so much un-Christian conduct? Why have the students not internalized this Christian behaviour?" In that question, already, the formulation of Nicholas Wolterstorff has been assimilated - the matter is one of internalization indeed. [1]

I said, the question has more or less plagued you. Some of you have expressed great concern in this matter, stopping short of outright panic. Others have downplayed the matter, seeing this behaviour as a fairly common course of events in the process of growing up. Meanwhile, in various articles the inevitable analysis has begun under the general heading, "Where did we go wrong?" It is then assumed that we indeed did go wrong, somewhere, somehow. And if only we could put our finger on it, the problem could perhaps be corrected.

With all due respect to those who attempted to study this problem, when we now look at the various analyses given of the situation (where did we go wrong?), we find that a number of pretty standard answers are given, answers which have already done us good service at previous occasions of reflection and evaluation.

"After receiving so much Reformed education, why do we still see so much un-Christian conduct? Why have the students not internalized this Christian behaviour?"

You could blame the current malaise among our youth on the sad moral state of our present society. In a society as we live in today, with very little true morality or very loose morals, how could our youth not be affected? Is it perhaps due to our deranged society that the youth are generally so footloose? J. van Bodegom has written in the School Bulletin of Dufferin about the "trickle down principle" which also touches our youth. [2] Society has caught up with us, or, you could say, we have caught up with society. Van Bodegom admits that this does not entirely explain the problem, but it does make the problem stand out. Indeed, the world is "closing W' on us, and the youth have their own modem questions which we as educators and office-bearers perhaps have not fully understood or addressed correctly. Our answers may not fit the real questions.

Others have put the finger on the home environment and the failure of parents adequately to nurture their children in godliness. P.H. Torenvliet has written, "Many Reformed homes are in a shambles." [3] Parents cannot cope with their own children, while secular media and the rock culture destroy the home. Many parents, it seems, have abdicated their parental responsibility to the teachers, who are, meanwhile, having their own problems. J.M. vander Meer in Clarion also points, among other things, in the direction of the parents, and feels that parents fail to exemplify the faith which is taught. [4] He extends this to the entire communion of saints and speaks of "the result of a failure of us all as community of saints to effectively exemplify a Christian life-style." We are told to look at the problem "in the wider context of the spiritual climate in our churches."

Dr. F.G. Oosterhoff has voiced, as her opinion, that perhaps our doctrine is too one-sided, and that more emphasis should be put on the necessity of conversion of our youth. [5] Do we still presume too much when we approach the children as (all) being born again? The doctrine of - presumptive regeneration" may officially be out of the door in our churches, but has it not crept back in to slay its thousands? [6] Perhaps in reaction to this, P. H. Torenvliet has written, ". . . our point of departure must be covenantal, in the sense that we must accept that these children are His and as such they are already converted."[7] (emphasis mine, Cl. S.) Some more remarks on this point later.

Meanwhile, we have come full circle. Society, home, and church are all indicated for the youth's apparent lack of Christian life-style. And who will deny that here, indeed, do lie major causes of our youth's current unresponsiveness? At the same time we should also recognize that such causes were also singled out in previous times. In 1940, Prof. B. Holwerda wrote about the breakdown of the family (the absenteeism of the father, also due to the mobilization) and he added, "A feeling of tiredness and uncertainty will again grab many, with as typical symptoms, on the one hand, syncretism and relativism, and on the other, agnosticism. On the one hand, I don't know anymore, so indifference; on the other, fear for life which drives people to all kinds of unhealthy, heretical trends." [8] Perhaps in our time things have become more acute, but these things are in themselves not new.

Holwerda spoke of the nihilism and lawlessness of his time, which, he said, according to the Scriptures can only get worse. Syncretism, relativism, agnosticism and indifference, are not these the dangers we see with our own people? It has become worse, to the extent that even secular teachers in public schools have, since the 1960's, begun re-emphasizing "Moral Values Education" (MVE). But the problem for the secular teacher is that he knows of no constant norm on which to base any moral values. Some of the more courageous MVE teachers incline toward compilation of a list of "timeless principles," but others are quick to warn against any form of indoctrination. [9] At most the teacher can engage in a process of "values clarification." Generally today the moral role of the school is being questioned and examined; we are not the only ones with certain misgivings on this point.

Perhaps some impact of this "moral values education" affects us as well. If I see it correctly, we are struggling basically with two questions, not one, but two:

a) how far may the school go in teaching moral values?

b) how do we get the youth to "internalize" these values?

And so we reflect today on the relation between Reformed education and Christian ethics.

Ethics and dogmatics

We should be clear in our terminology. There is a difference, as J. Douma has pointed out, between ethics and morals. Morals are the totality of customs or rules as adopted by a certain group, while ethics are the reflections on these morals. In ethics we examine existing morals; in Christian ethics we subject such morals to the only norm of the Word of God!

Of course we understand that ethics never stand on their own. Very often they are taught at theological seminaries in conjunction with dogmatics. Ethics do not stand over against doctrine, but are a part of it, for life and doctrine are not to be separated. I specifically mention this because there is sometimes a tendency, when faced with what is perceived as a dead orthodoxy (and the accompanying breakdown of morality), to flee from the straight-jacket of doctrine to a more lively pietism. Ethics can then suddenly become the "in-thing" to promote. But we need piety, not pietism. For example, merely emphasizing conversion will not do, as if "conversion" is the missing link in our theology or pedagogy.

The connection between ethics and dogmatics is also otherwise important. Before we begin to apply any morals to the children, we must know something about the nature of the children. We must have a clear understanding of the Scriptural doctrine of man. Our confession teaches us that we are all conceived and born in sin, that we have a corrupt nature, one that is totally depraved. It would hardly be ethical to overlook this obvious Scriptural truth. Of course, our view of covenant children as having been born in sin, and therefore being sinful, should not become an excuse to rationalize away sinful behaviour. But it should make us more understanding of the great personal and collective struggle which the youth have in this present evil society.


Should it not first be said to educators, to Reformed teachers, "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you, too, be tempted" (Galatians 6;1). What applies for a man, applies even more for a youth, or a child. When we remember our own weaknesses constantly, when we know of our own struggle as mature adults to serve the Lord according to His Law, we do not easily become discouraged with our youth whom we must teach. The youth have to learn to see, to understand the terrible reality and the ugly potential of their own depravity (in ethics we speak of the "secundus usus legis," the second function of the law, namely, to teach us our sin and misery, cf. Lord's Day 2), and that is not something which is learned overnight. You know yourselves what the characteristics of adolescence are, how often the youth act impulsively, rashly and wrongly, without truly realizing the possible consequences of their actions. It is not without reason that David prays in Psalm 25, "Remember not the sins of my youth. . . . " for who will not, when looking back at his/her own youth, think, "How could I ever have done such things?" The youth are still in a process of maturing and must come to grips with themselves and with this world, and often the time of youth is an emotional battlefield. Things which are not at all a problem for us, mature adults, are big problems for them. Therefore, the last thing that we as teachers and educators may do is come down on the youth with a lack of gentleness or downgrade them. Upbraiding someone is not the same as downgrading them.

If our educating is to be ethical, it must be empathic. Empathy is, according to Webster's dictionary, "imaginative projection of one's own consciousness into another being." More popularly said, we should not tower high above the youth, but stand beside them, trying to imagine their situation, trying to gauge the depth of their feelings. Show a spirit of gentleness, knowing that you yourself are a sinner and that your own path is not without stumbling. Empathy means the ability to listen and observe carefully before coming with a prepared lecture or sermon. If a teacher is empathic, I am sure it will increase the student's confidence and will foster trust.

This is especially so for young people who receive very little empathy at home.

At the same time I added the word critical: empathic-critical. For empathy should not be taken to mean: overlooking or shrugging oft wrong behaviour. We are to be critical of the youth, in the sense that we must discern what is right or wrong, and the youth must be made to understand this as well. We cannot condone wrong behaviour, no matter how much we understand its reasons. Being empathic to the person, we must be critical of his behaviour. It is good to question certain behaviour or a specific action, to apply the norm of God's Law to it, to help the youth towards critical self-evaluation. Not in a high-handed fashion, but in a sincere and sympathetic manner, firmly criticizing specific attitudes or behaviours. Then the youth will expect and receive from you, both, understanding and guidance.

All the above remarks may seem superfluous, but they are certainly in place in this gathering. The attitude of the teacher in the classroom is of decisive importance. If a teacher is constantly going off "the deep end" and is erratic in his approach, it will show in teacher-student relations. The youth will feel very quickly: this teacher is not on our side, and insolence will result. Some teachers actually do not like kids, and it shows in the way they treat the pupils. Condescension is, at best, their only method of approach. This becomes even more acute when a teacher gets the feeling, "No matter what I do, the students do not respond anyway." Then you get a burned-out teacher in the midst of an inflamed class, hardly a successful combination.


Therefore, it is important that, besides being empathic-critical, Reformed education be positive-covenantal. I emphasized at another time that Reformed education must be covenantal education, and I now add the word "positive."

I mean by that: we should unceasingly approach the children as being ingrafted into the covenant of grace, as heirs of the kingdom of God! That is, so to speak, their status and privilege. The binding factor of this covenant should be a joyful reality, not a grey prison. I do not know if we always approach it from this positive angle. It is striking how the Lord's approach to His covenant people is always one of great patience and compassion, how the Lord time and again forgives His people and restores them, how He keeps appealing to their position as His covenant people, His treasure, His Bride. Something of this should be seen in our manner of educating. It should contain a lively and compassionate appeal.

I mean by that: we should unceasingly approach the children as being ingrafted into the covenant of grace, as heirs of the kingdom of God! That is, so to speak, their status and privilege. The binding factor of this covenant should be a joyful reality, not a grey prison.

Here is where I would like to bring in the matter of regeneration or conversion to which I referred earlier. It appears to me that there is some confusion on the matter. We should not conclude from the fact that our children are included in the covenant that, as such, they are converted. That, indeed, comes too close to the theory of presumptive regeneration. The covenant does not imply the possible existence of conversion, but the covenant poses the necessity, and states the promise of regeneration. At baptism, where we are publicly ingrafted into the covenant, it is said that we must be born again. That is a covenantal condition. At the same time we are promised: the indwelling of the Spirit who will impart to us, among other things, the daily renewal of our lives! Our children are sinful; they must be born again, and the promise of that regeneration is a covenantal promise.

This promise is one which specifically the Holy Spirit fulfills. He is the One who causes our youth, and all of us, to internalize Christian morals. Internalization is not a result of a responsible psychologically sound method - and I do not at all deny the merits of psychology - but it is the distinct work of the Holy Spirit. I must say that in many publications about Christian education, the work of the Holy Spirit is a forgotten chapter. This is also the case with N. Wolterstorff's Educating for Responsible Action. I know that Wolterstorff's book discusses only one phase of pedagogy and is based mostly on the findings of contemporary psychology. I appreciate his attempt to make these findings useful for Christian education, but in that vital area of tendency, learning the work of the Holy Spirit, as well as the spiritual climate (prayer and devotion) in the classroom, should have received prominence.

This brings me to a related point. We should not flee into a superficial speaking about the need to lead the youth to regeneration, as if that is the panacea for our educational woes. For the question whether the children are or are not (yet) converted is immaterial. You may have a born-again child who nevertheless does a very sinful and ugly deed, or a not born-again child who lives a seemingly orderly and irreproachable life. Important is that in the classroom we use the means of regeneration, which is the Word of God. I think here of I Peter 1:23, "You have been born anew of imperishable seed, through the living and abiding Word of God." We must unceasingly use the means - the Word - and let the Spirit of God bring this to fruition. We expect it positively from the power of the Word of God, also in the classroom - above any technique which we might employ. Failure to see the decisive work of the Holy Spirit also results in failure to see the prime place of the Word in the classroom! I am happy that e.g. Wolterstorff does acknowledge the "centrality of the Bible" in this respect, but I worry when I read the following statement, "True, God's speech to us today is not confined to the Bible, but what He says there is the touchstone, the criterion for what He says to us in other modes and manners." [10] What other modes and manners (even in the plural), I wonder, are there?

To get back to a positive-covenantal approach, we should stress that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit, a promise of God powerfully realized by the Word of God, and that not only the initial regeneration is important, but also as the Form for Baptism emphasizes the daily renewal of our lives. In that sense we cannot say, "The youth are already converted," for they must be converted every day again.

In that sense we cannot say, "The youth are already converted," for they must be converted every day again.

Because of this "daily renewal," our students can be, and should be, encouraged to start over again. There are especially two words in the Greek which we translate with conversion. The one means: to have a change of mind. The other means: to turn around. Both elements need to be emphasized. Conversion is, indeed, getting a new (Scriptural) outlook on things and concretely breaking with specific evils. Conversion is never "vague," but is always directed to concrete sins. So conversion is: letting the Word get a grip on you. Every day a new start. Young people need to be encouraged in this way. They need to know of the compassion and the faithfulness of the Lord, who knows that they are prone to stumble (Psalm 103). Teenagers, especially, have many inner conflicts, struggle with their own developing personality, and sometimes have very low self-esteem. Therefore much positive assurance and reinforcement is required. When we speak of the necessity of regeneration, it should never be used at a threat ("Better be born again, kid, or else!"), but it should be related as a wonderful covenant promise for which we may pray daily. That is what I mean by positive covenantal. Then we are not easily discouraged as educators when it appears that much patience is required to let the youth mature. It does happen - praise the Lord - that youth who have had a very difficult adolescence mature into faithful Christians, refined by their trials.


Here is where there should be a clear line from the school to the church. The purpose of Reformed education is also to make the students church-oriented. Perhaps some of you may think that I should say: Christ centred. And I do mean that, of course, but I purposely bring the church into the picture. For I find that much educational literature emphasizes, at the cost of a solid church concept, that we should be kingdom oriented and teach the youth to be responsible citizens of the Kingdom, the civitas Dei. [11] Meanwhile, the church is often relegated to the lesser commonwealth of denominations, aside even from the question whether a correct concept of "the Kingdom" is employed. I wonder if, with respect to the church, we are not often vague and thus cause confusion among our own youth. Do they really understand what it means to be Reformed? Do they take pride in being members of the Canadian Reformed Churches?

I do not mean that we should foster some kind of sectarian superiority complex, but we should certainly uphold the wealth of being Reformed and the privilege of belonging to a truly Reformed church. This, too, is a matter of obedience to God's revealed Law, a matter of sound morality, and we should foster love for the church, urging the youth towards a living membership. After all, the school is only tutor, the church is mater (mother), and the heart of the Kingdom lies in the church (Lord's Day 48).

Am I far from the truth when I conclude that many of our youth are somewhat down on our churches? To what extent is this perhaps a result of the attitudes of parents and - may I say teachers? I have heard it said at a public meeting that the school is not to make better members of the church, but better citizens of the country. In my understanding, a wrong and unhealthy dilemma. There is such a close bond between church and school, that at school we should not hesitate to foster a living membership of the church, and in this way alone do we make better citizens of our country. The "tutor" will always guide to the "mater." We go to school only for so long, but for our whole life we are members of the Church of Christ.


Ethics also involves the reflection on what is normative. We must confront the students not with our own opinions (no matter how noteworthy these may be), but with God's revealed norms, His Law of love. And then the Law is also normative for the teachers in the classroom. I think here specifically of the fifth commandment, "Honour your father and your mother . . . ." The teacher must respect the family environment of the child. You shall not replace the parents, for the school has its own place beside the home. It is utterly wrong of any teacher to show disdain for the home situation or for parental values. The children should not at school be set up against their parents, and the teacher should try to show respect for parental values (even if he personally disagrees with such values). It has been suggested that all parents be visited once annually by the teachers, that parents be informed of the atrocities committed by their offspring, but are we here not beginning to set up some kind of home visitation which transcends the duty of the school? Visits may be necessary in specific cases, and contact between teachers and parents is a good thing, but we should not rob the parents of their parental honour or turn the living room into a classroom. Holwerda has written this about the office of the parents, " . . the Holy Spirit has only given to the parents this office, and therefore it cannot be handed over or taken away." The teacher must always recognize the office of the parents and show in his presentation respect for the parents. I am not sure if this always comes out as clearly as it should, especially in communities where everyone (thinks he) knows everyone so well. The school teaches norms, but should not become a moralistic institute.

Reformed education will make the students norm-conscious and make them aware of what the Word of God asks of them - and of us all - in concrete situations. In order to do this, the Bible must be an open Book in the classroom. More emphasis should be placed on teaching the Ten Commandments from the summarizing perspective of Christian love. More emphasis should be placed on teaching responsibility to God first, and also to the neighbour. I would like to ask you, "When do you consciously bring a specific commandment into a lesson in order to make the students aware of the Biblical norm, and to show how the Law of God makes whole, heals life, and so truly is a Law of liberty?" How often do we try to show the beauty of the Law, to instill in our students the refrain, "Oh, how I love Thy Law!?" The tone of Psalm 119 - the Law not oppressive but uplifting - should permeate our lessons.

In this respect I would like to emphasize the idea of responsiblity. Douma speaks of "responsible action." There is a sad contradiction in terms which is commonly accepted, namely, that people say and believe, "it is your own responsiblity." That is ridiculous, to say the least. One can never be responsible to oneself, only to another, namely, to God and the neighbour! The very ideal of "responding" implies another party. It is this sense of responsibility which we should try to nurture in the students by careful and pointed teaching. This alone can break the self-centred egoism of our present age.

You cannot really do more than make the students norm-conscious, because the youth must begin to live, not just according to some, but according to all the commandments of God. They must make the beginning of a new obedience by the power of God's Word and Spirit, while you make them aware of these divine norms.

And then we must be careful, especially at school, that we indeed stick to the norms. Christian ethics does not mean standardizing lifestyle, or handing out uniforms.

And then we must be careful, especially at school, that we indeed stick to the norms. Christian ethics does not mean standardizing lifestyle, or handing out uniforms. Do not give standardized lectures on specific issues about which you may feel very strongly, but go to the Scriptures to present the norms given there. Otherwise our teaching is not moral; it is phony.

J. Douma, following in K. Schilder's footsteps, has warned us for Biblicism, or wrong exemplarism, in which the Bible becomes a rule book for quick and easy answers to all moral questions. The Bible - as Douma points out - is a lamp and sheds light, but we must still use our heart, soul, understanding, and strength in the proper way. We confess the clarity of the Scriptures, indeed, but that does not mean that the Bible gives us an easy solution to every problem we encounter in life. We must grow towards solutions in the many complex situations which we face. We must use the Scriptures in a lawful manner, in the fellowship of the church we must work, think and grow together also in moral issues and not enter into an atmosphere of "uniform legalism or of a fixed morality."

I quoted the above words, not to give room for sinful behaviour, but to urge us all to be busy with the Scriptural norms and their meaning for the moral issues of today which so greatly confront our youth. Making our youth norm-conscious means not giving them, all the answers, but giving them correct tools, so that they begin to discern, out of the Word of God, what is good and pleasing in the sight of the Lord. Then we do not work beside the Word, but with the Word.

Is there then a specific Christian morality, a Reformed life-style, which the school should promote? Yes, indeed, but it is not found in a list of do's and dont's; it is not a matter of outward form alone. Christians are not better than others, but they are certainly called to be different. We have a different motivation, for we know Christ, our Saviour. We "think" differently, namely, "spiritually." We have a different outlook on life, different expectations, and, therefore, a different life-style. Only from inward renewal comes outward obedience which is pleasing to God. Then our religion is not formal, even if it uses many forms. The youth are to be taught this difference by God's sovereign grace, to appreciate it, and to follow Jesus Christ in this way. Ethically speaking, a good motto for Reformed education is Christ's own word to His disciples, "if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24). Self-denial and crossbearing must be key issues in a Reformed classroom!

And then certain matters are above discussion for all Christians - and the youth know it as well - for Christian morality has not changed much during the centuries. The Christian life, shaped by the Word, is one of thanksgiving, worship, and prayer. The Christian life is one of sobriety in stewardship, purity of speech, and of diakonia - service to the other. A Christian may appreciate all God's gifts within the confines set by God Himself in His Law. It is a wonderful challenge to make the students conscious of these things every day again.


Where did we go wrong? The question may be - at least for this convention - DID we go wrong? We all stumble, especially in teaching. In the letter of James we can read, "Let not many of you be teachers, my brethren . . . ." It is no easy task, but do we not try to make the youth conscious of these norms, of the new and different life of the Christian?

Then, let us admit: a city is not built overnight. Youth must grow. Our Reformed education must foster that growth and be maturity-directed. Lead the students to a responsible discerning of what is right and wrong. You cannot live their lives; you must give them the tools to live their own lives.

Maturity is a Biblical word. It has also found its way into the pedagogical terminology - maturization. Almost as nice a word as "internalization." Mature means: to have reached a goal. Actually it means: to become perfect. And we know, we do not achieve perfection in this life; it remains a small beginning. But we may work toward maturity - that we are no longer, like children, tossed to and fro. We must develop a positive Christian lifestyle that wells up out of a Christian heart and mind to the glory of God.

It takes time to mature. That's the way it is with quality wine. So it is with covenant children. It takes patience ' to let someone mature. It takes a lot of self denying love to be a good teacher, a tutor who directs the child to its mother, the Jerusalem above. I encourage you to go on as you are doing. Do not be discouraged when you see no growth or slow growth. For God will bring His Word to fruition, also through your work. That is your certainty in the classroom where the Book is open.

It is good to reflect on our problems, our concerns. It is healthy to be aware of our shortcomings and limitations. Sins of youth - and of teachers - remember not, 0 Lord. But we must also see the progress, count the blessings. Above all, we must as Reformed teachers believe in the Holy Spirit - sovereign God - who leads the children to maturity of faith despite their own sinfulness. Believe in Christ who is preparing His Bride for perfection, for maturity-inglory.

And if I may give you - besides my great appreciation for your work - a motto for an always fresh, ever humble, Christian approach, it is that Word of Galatians 6, now applied to the classroom, "You who are spiritual restore the youth in a spirit of gentleness." And the Holy Spirit, the great Internalizer, will lead the children of God to full maturity.



[1] Speech P.H. Torenvliet, Reformed Education and Objectives, (stenciled) p. 1.

[2] School Bulletin, Canadian Reformed School Society of Dufferin Area Inc., May 30,1985, p. 4ff

[3] Speech P.H. Torenvliet, Aims and Objectives in Reformed Education and the Consequences for Interpersonal Relationships, (stenciled) p. 2.

[4] School Crossing, Clarion, August 9, 1985, Vol. 34, No. 16.

[5] Speech held for the Canadian Reformed High School Society of Smithville, Spring 1985.

[6] See for the impact of the "Doctrine of Presumptive Regeneration," J. Fennema, The Banner; H.R. vanderKamp, De Reformatie; and Dr. K. Runia, Central Weekblad.

[7] Torenvliet speech, Aims and Objectives, p. 11.

[8] B. Holwerda, De Betekenis van Verbond en Kerk, p. 111, Oosterbaan en Le Cointre, Goes, 1958.

[9] See for a discussion of MVE, Yes Virginia; Kathleen M. Gow, Toronto, 1980.

[10] N. Wolterstorff, Educating for Responsible Action, p. 12.

[11] As e.g. Wolterstorff (following Jellema) in a speech titled, "Where are we now in the Philosophy of Christian Education?"