Covenantal vs Missional Enrollment, Part 1

By: Riley Kaminer
By: Riley Kaminer

Who should be able to enroll in a Christian day school? Today there are differing viewpoints on this topic. In this blog post I hope to explore covenant-based enrollment and next month mission-based enrollment strategies in Christian day schools. In the history of North American Christian education, there has been a strong tradition of covenant-based enrollment of students. By definition and in current practice, covenant-based enrollment policies would require that at least one of the parents of a potential student enrollee be a believer and would assent to the mission, vision, and beliefs of the school. In recent years there has been a movement toward a missional approach, which by definition allows a certain percentage of student enrollment from non-believing families. What are the origins and what is the thinking behind these practices?

Covenant-based enrollment

Covenant-based enrollment policies are currently the practice in many Christian schools, although this practice is undergoing scrutiny and change in many other Christian schools.

While I can’t speak to the history of every Christian school, I will speak from the perspective of schools founded primarily by the Christian Reformed Church and those that have been a part of Christian Schools International. We find a helpful background to covenant-based thinking in John VanderArk’s chapter in the book, “One Hundred Years in the New World”, which celebrates the centennial of the Christian Reformed Church. Some parts of the following paragraphs are a paraphrase of this information.

Christian schooling in North America had its roots in the dissatisfaction of Dutch immigrants who were unhappy with the “liberal church” in the Netherlands and their inability to establish Christian schools free of state control. They viewed the Christian school as vital to the ongoing wellbeing of the church: “the school as nursery of and for the church.” Passing on faith and heritage were key for the early Christian school.

Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper used the theology of the Covenant of Grace as foundational thinking to give parent-society Christian schools a rationale in theology; in essence, children of believing parents were a part of God’s covenant of grace and parents needed to follow the admonitions of Deut. 6:1-9, Psalm 78:1-8, and Ephesians 6:4 to instruct their children in the ways of the Lord. His argument for sphere sovereignty – that church, home and school were separate spheres and schools therefore should be separate from the control of both state and church – sought to give schools the necessary freedom to prosper.  Due to his influence, a recommendation was made in 1892, by the Society for Christian Instruction on a Reformed Basis, that all schools be parent-society owned and operated. Even though this caused a movement away from church parochialism, the Christian Reformed Church continued to give strong support to Christian education through its synodical pronouncements of 1898, 1932, 1934, and 1936. VanderArk concludes: “Christian schools are an outgrowth of the covenant idea. Christian education enables the child to appreciate his covenant blessings and obligations. He understands more fully the significance of his baptism in the name of the triune God.”

Louis Berkhoff, in a chapter entitled “The Covenant of Grace and Its Significance for Christian Education” (found in the book, Voices from the Past, written in 1953), gives a comprehensive articulation of the covenant through the points below.

  1. In the absence of other governing bodies, early individuals and tribes in Bible times circa Abraham used covenants to clearly set forth the rights and obligations of two parties.
  2. While God established a covenant of grace with man, it was unlike man-made covenants in that it was made between unequal parties. In his covenant with man it is clear that all power belongs to God, and man cannot keep the agreement.
  3. In a covenant there are promises and requirements. God offers eternal life through Jesus Christ in his part of the covenant and through Christ’s obedience satisfies the terms of justice that man cannot achieve after breaking of the covenant. However, man has a choice to respond to God’s promises in the covenant.
  4. Men and women enter the covenant through birth from Christian parents or by profession of faith in Christ. After responding to the Holy Spirit, they obtain the full enjoyment of covenant blessings by faith and sanctification and by a life of consecrated obedience. Part of this obedience is “the duty to diligently train their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, in order that these children, when they come to maturity, may willingly take upon themselves their covenant obligations and may, with their parents, enjoy the rich covenant blessings.”
  5. Parents then have an obligation to honor and uphold the covenant extended to them by God, but also agreed to and upheld by their parents and grandparents.
  6. How do the previous points involve, for parents, the use of a Christian school?
    • Children are adopted into the family of God – this is a high and privileged status. How could such nobility be educated in the most comprehensive and “royal” way as King’s children about the King and their calling of service?
    • Children, despite their and their parents’ unworthiness, are heirs to the kingdom of God. What is the best way to teach them of the blessings of the covenant and to help them to be appropriately grateful for their blessings? How can they offer their lives in gratitude and service to the King? They will only be grateful in relation to the depth of understanding of what they possess: “we must employ all means at our command to unfold before their very eyes the treasures of divine grace of which they are heirs in Christ Jesus.” With wealth also comes responsibility. How can we best teach our children to be stewards of the riches of the kingdom?
    • Through Christian education children can be called not only to salvation, but also to discipleship. They must understand they are called apart by God to be agents of reconciliation to a broken world.
    • In summary, Christian schools “are the most effective agency to train our children for their high dignity as members of the household of God, to teach them a due appreciation and the right use of the covenant blessings, and to qualify them for their covenant responsibilities.”

Under the covenant-based model, parents clearly are seen as having the primary responsibility for educating their children. They rely on the broader family of faith, the community of church and Christian school to help them fulfill that responsibility. This broader community of persons, holding shared beliefs and values, reinforces to the child the understandings and heritage of the community. It is a model that acts as an “authoritative community” to the child – the community of significant adults who teach the child what it means to be a believer and how to live as a Christ follower. When church, home and school are in unity around the purposes and vision of education there is a consistent message about truth sent to the child.

It is sometimes argued that in today’s world, the Christian school has continued to do more for assisting the church than the church has done to assist the Christian school. Churches today are loathe to discuss the concept of the covenant of grace and the need for Christian day school education since they are concerned that they may offend members who do not send their children to Christian schools. By contrast, Christian schools, on the other hand, while not originally designed for evangelization purposes, now give greater time and attention to the spiritual nurture of students for at least three reasons:

  1. They see it as vital to achieving the distinctiveness needed to meet their missions.
  2. They need to compensate for the deficiencies of distracted, time-starved homes that do not adequately disciple children, and to compensate for seeker-oriented churches that abandon deeper discipleship issues through church education with youth.
  3. They recognize attention to faith development as a felt need of students living in a world of materialistic temptation, superficial associations, and non-evaluated Internet worlds of information that require discernment and wisdom. They also hold more holistic views of students and a greater appreciation of the need to help students connect all aspects of their lives.

Here are a few questions for further discussion:

  1. Are covenant-based enrollment schools using the covenantal model as an excuse to keep their schools separated?
  2. Are we valuing our cultural and theological heritage more than being salt and light to parents and families who might benefit from a Christian education?
  3. What is the difference between an unsaved child of believing parents and an unsaved child of non-believing parents? Should believing children of non-believing parents be excluded? What about non-believing children of believing parents – are they more likely widely disruptive to a school culture because they know the “right answers” yet live dualistically and sometimes rebelliously? Is this more potentially dangerous to the belief of a saved student than the bad behavior of a non-Christian student?

Next month, we will explore the rationale for missional-based enrollment. In the meantime, we welcome comments and further questions in our Comments area below.

Resources cited and consulted

Beversluis, N.H.. Christian Philosophy of Education. Grand Rapids, MI: NUCS, 1971.

Christian Reformed Church. One Hundred Years in the New World. Centennial Committee, Grand Rapids, MI, 1957.

Christian Schools International. From Vision to Action: The Basis and Purpose of Christian Schools. Grand Rapids, MI: CSI, 1993.

Edlin, Richard. The Cause of Christian Education. Northport, AL: Vision Press, 1994.

Gibbs, Eugene S., ed. A Reader in Christian Education Foundations an.d Basic Perspectives. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992.

Hauerwaus, Stanley and Westerhoff, J.H., eds. Schooling Christians: Holy Experiments in American Education. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Klassen, Harold. Articles published on his website Transforming Teachers.

Knight, George R.. Philosophy and Education: An introduction in Christian perspective, 2nd. Ed.. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1989.

Oppewal, Donald, ed. Voices From the Past: Reformed Educators. Oxford: University Press of America, 1997.

Stronks, John and Vreugdenhil, J.. Hallmarks of Christian Schooling. Ancaster, ON: OACS, 1992.

VanDyk, John. Pamphlet – The Beginning of Wisdom: The Nature and Task of the Christian School. Grand Rapid, MI: CSI, 1985.

Wolterstorff, N.P. Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker, 2002.

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