As a topic, homeschooling can be a powder keg of controversy. Anyone who doubts that should read through the 376 comments that Tim Challies generated in his recent (and excellent) series on that subject.
I experienced the controversy firsthand several years ago, after running an article on the Pulpit blog entitled, “Home, Private, or Public School?” It addressed the decision Christian parents face about where to educate their children. The article concluded that the issue is ultimately a wisdom decision—one in which parents have freedom in Christ to do what they believe is right on a case-by-case basis.
The post itself was simply a summary of a seminar that one of our staff pastors had given at a Shepherds’ Conference. And when we initially posted the article, it seemed fairly benign.
It didn’t say homeschooling was bad. In fact, it noted a number of positives that can come through educating children at home. It also pointed out some of the potential challenges and drawbacks. But it did so in a way that was balanced, courteous, and non-controversial.
At least that’s what we thought.
The next day, I logged on to find a comments section that had exploded.
In the darkness of the early morning hours, like a team of paratrooping special forces, homeschool-only advocates had stealthily descended into the comments section and established a defensive perimeter.
Homeschooling, they argued, is not a gray area. Instead, it is a biblical mandate; the only option for obedient Christian parents. Not to homeschool, they said, is to compromise.
That kind of dogmatism is not uncommon on the battlefields of the blogosphere. Some of the comments (like one that compared choosing public school to choosing divorce) were more amusing than anything else. But when that type of narrowness shows up in the local church and threatens the unity of the body, it can have devastating effects.
As the comment-thread developed at Pulpit, one passage of Scripture surfaced more than any other. It was clearly a favorite of the homeschool-only advocates. Like a rhetorical hand grenade, it was repeatedly lobbed into the discussion without any exegetical explanation.
Boom. Argument over.
Supposedly, at least.
But, smoke screens aside, does Deuteronomy 6:5–9 really mandate homeschooling?
That’s a fair question. And it’s one I decided to investigate in a follow-up article on the Pulpit blog. Nearly 150 comments later, I realized I’d hit a nerve. My wife asked me later why I invited that kind of controversy into my life. My feeble answer sounded more like a question, “Because that’s what bloggers do?”
Well, call me crazy, but I’ve decided to post a large portion of that article again. I’ve made a few edits, but the essence of it is the same.
So, let the shooting begin. (I’m speaking facetiously, of course.) Seriously though, I’ll be monitoring the comments from the safety of my underground bunker.
Here’s the article, beginning with the following note:
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NOTE: Our objective here is not to attack homeschooling. We have many homeschool families here at our church; and I personally have good friends, and even extended family members, who were homeschooled or who practice homeschool with their kids. In instances where parents choose to homeschool their children—assuming their reasons for doing so are genuine and noble—our church gladly supports their efforts. So this post is not an attack on homeschool as either an institution or a community.
Our objective, rather, is to dispel the notion that homeschooling is the only option a Christian can legitimately choose—such that those who do not homeschool their children are in violation of a biblical mandate, and therefore in sin. We believe homeschooling is an option, and in fact a good one for many families.
But is it the only legitimate choice that Christian parents can make? Or perhaps more to the point: Does the Bible mandate homeschooling?
We can discuss more passages in the comments section, if our readers would like. But in today’s post we will consider Deuteronomy 6:5–9. The passage (in the NASB) reads as follows:
(5) You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (6) These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. (7) 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. (8) You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. (9) You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The command here, given to the second generation of Israelites (after the Exodus) on the verge of entering the Promised Land, is that parents must actively and consistently disciple their children in the truth—being faithful to teach them the things of the Lord as a regular part of life. It is a call to lifestyle discipleship, as parents bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
But does it provide a mandate or a model for the modern convention of homeschool?
Despite the good intentions of many well-meaning homeschool-only advocates, this passage is really not the end-all proof text that some might suggest. In thinking about this passage, here are a few things to consider:
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First, and perhaps most obviously, these verses do not directly command formal homeschool (in the sense that homeschool is practiced today in Christian circles).
Rather, they instruct Israelite parents to consistently teach their children the things of the Lord within the normal activities of life. The passage says nothing about subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Thus, the question of whether or not one should homeschool is outside the explicit command(s) given in Deuteronomy 6. Obedience to this passage demands that a parent consistently teach his or her children the things of the Lord as a regular part of life. Whether that parent teaches his children algebra or English grammar is not the point.
On a side note, because homeschooling is not directly commanded in this passage (or in any other biblical text), it can correctly be identified as a “gray area” or a “wisdom issue”—one in which Christians must make wise decisions based on biblical principles and within God-given parameters. Romans 14–15 gives New Testament believers guidelines for how to think through these types of issues; it also warns Christians not to force their own personal convictions (in gray areas) onto other believers.
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Second, Deuteronomy 6:5–9 is an Old Testament passage. Even if the passage instructed the Old Testament Israelites to practice formal homeschool (which it does not), such would not be a binding command on New Testament believers.
In the same way that that laws governing the Sabbath (Deut. 5:12–15); dietary restrictions (Deut. 14); the Sabbath year (Deut. 15); and the ceremonial feasts (Deut. 16) are no longer binding on Christians today—so also, the type of schooling mandated for Old Testament Israel is not obligatory for the New Testament church.
Those who wish to find homeschooling in Deuteronomy 6, must apply all of the specific instructions in that passage if they are to be consistent (including writing Bible verses on their doors, gates, hands, and foreheads). And that doesn’t include the specific instructions found throughout the rest of Deuteronomy (or the Pentateuch).
The church is not under the Law of Moses, but rather the Law of Christ. And while much of the instruction in Deuteronomy 6:5–9 is repeated in the New Testament (in places like Mark 12:30–31 and Eph. 6:1–4), the New Testament nowhere mandates homeschool.
[NOTE: If anyone is interested in my perspective on the NT believer’s relationship to the OT law, you can find an extended series on that at this link.]
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Third, the Jews did not understand Deuteronomy 6 as a mandate to homeschool. Alfred Edersheim, in chapter 8 of Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ explains that while children (primarily sons) did receive some education at home (from ages 3 to 5), they were sent to the synagogue for their education starting at age 6 or 7. There they would attend formal classes with the other boys from their community. This Jewish application of Old Testament instruction accords more with today’s Christian school model than it does with the contemporary convention of homeschooling.
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Fourth, Edersheim further indicates that, for Old Testament Jews, the application of passages like Deuteronomy 6 was primarily the responsibility of the father. If a “homeschool-only interpretation” of Deuteronomy 6 is granted, it is inconsistent to place the primary responsibility for the child’s education on the mother (as most homeschoolers do)—since as Edersheim notes, “There can be no question that, according to the law of Moses, the early education of a child devolved upon the father” (p. 128).
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Fifth, as we noted in our second point, the primary application of this passage (that parents are to constantly and consistently disciple their children throughout the normal activities of life) is an application that is echoed in Ephesians 6:4. That application (as a command given directly to New Testament believers) is mandatory for parents today. However, it is an application that can be fulfilled no matter which type of formal education parents choose for their children.
Whether the child learns math, history, science, and grammar in a public school setting, a Christian school setting, or a homeschool setting—it is still the direct responsibility of Christian parents to bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
This responsibility is not necessarily met just because a child learns math at home. Nor is this responsibility necessarily abdicated when a child attends the public elementary school across the street. In either case, parents must proactively teach their children the things of the Lord, discipling them in the faith throughout the regular activities of everyday life.