Training Up a Child: Educational Options for Orthodox Christians (His Grace Bishop Thomas)
My son Timothy, you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:10-15, RSV)
We read in this passage from St. Paul’s second epistle to St. Timothy, his child in the faith, that he puts great weight on Timothy having observed his teaching, his conduct, his aim in life, his faith, patience, love, steadfastness, persecutions and sufferings. St. Paul is also quite adamant that Timothy continue in what he has learned and has firmly believed from his childhood. The assumption here is that Timothy has been acquainted with the sacred writings—that is, the Holy Scriptures—for the purpose and benefit of his salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
In recent times, there has been much discussion among Orthodox people regarding how we should raise and instruct our children, which is a good thing, since, as St. Theophan the Recluse tells us, “Of all holy works, the education of children is the most holy.” In pursuing this holiness, there are people who are firm believers in the public school system. There are people who firmly believe in Orthodox parochial education. We also have people who are strongly committed to homeschooling. Indeed, Orthodox Christianity in America has all been influenced by all three of these. I have been asked to make some commentary on the benefits of these, inasmuch as I have spent time teaching in the public school system as well as working within the Church itself.
In the middle 1980s, I left public school teaching to open a professional teaching service that taught children in their homes and also instructed their parents on how to teach their children in their homes. The young people with whom I dealt were not Orthodox Christians but were students who were failing miserably in the public school system and needed special attention in their education. I did not leave the public school system because I was necessarily dissatisfied with its ability or inability to teach academics to children. I left the public school system because its basis and foundation was completely the opposite of what has for two thousand years been taught in the Orthodox Christian Church. I had to make a decision in my life as to whether I would be more concerned with preparing young people for success in this fallen world for sixty, seventy or eighty years or rather in preparing them for eternity. The public school systems with which I was associated in my teaching career lent little or nothing to the spiritual wellbeing of a traditional Christian.
I thus began an effort in my life to do everything that I could to find a teaching situation that would be most beneficial for my own salvation and that of the people God had given me to oversee. This being the case, I want to stress in this article that, if you are considering sending your child to a public or parochial school, it is most important that you do an evaluation of that particular school. Before you examine the school’s ability to teach academics, however, it is absolutely necessary that you determine whether the school is Christian-friendly, Christian-tolerant or anti-Christian. If you find the school to be Christian-friendly and capable of teaching academics, you may want to utilize it as part of your responsibility to rear and educate your children. If, however, the school is merely Christian-tolerant or is anti-Christian, it behooves you to look for other choices. Let me stress that in raising your children, it is their eternal salvation which should be at the top of your priorities. This is your responsibility before God.
I am blessed in my diocese that within its geographic area there are three excellent Orthodox parochial schools that I can heartily recommend to people that live in their area. Unfortunately, however, many people cannot afford to send their children to private school or do not live near such a school, and so they look at the option of homeschooling their children. The idea of homeschooling is bittersweet to me. Homeschooling is bitter in that it has come about for the most part because our public schools have ceased to be fertile ground for people who are trying to work out their salvation. Homeschooling is sweet, however, in that it gives an indication that there are parents who are genuinely concerned with the Christian education of their children and who love them enough to commit to spend hours upon hours—indeed, most of their lives—teaching them. The icon of St. Paul and St. Timothy seems to be written on the hearts of many of these people.
We have to be very careful in examining our options. It has been my experience that there is arrogance in people who work in the public schools. There is also arrogance in some people who work in parochial schools, even some that are Orthodox. There can also be great arrogance and selfishness in people that homeschool their children. The problem with all these approaches is that they are dedicated to an ideology rather than to the Gospel. The method has become more important than the purpose which the method should serve—our salvation. The Scriptures tell us to work out our salvation in the situation in which we find ourselves, whatever it may be. There is no one educational situation which is absolutely necessary for our salvation.
In the early days of the Church, Christians often found that the available schools fell short in providing for an environment that was healthy for working out their salvation. With no other choice, they took their children home and taught them in their homes. This was very much like when the liturgical life of the Church was in persecution. We read in the early Church that people worshiped in caves and sometimes even in their homes, because that was their only option.
In our churches and in this country as it exists today, for the most part, this is not our only option. It is true that many of us have had to or will have to abandon the public school system, much as I did twenty-five years ago. This surrender of the school system to the world is a sad one, but in many cases, there is no other choice, because sometimes we have to make the choice that Joshua made so many centuries ago: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
Times are such, however, and communication is such that there is no reason why our children must be taught only by their parents. Within our communities we have the ability to pool our resources and pool our children together and expand a homeschool so that it becomes a mini-church within which is an Orthodox school. In many homeschools, people are involved aside from the parents. Whatever we do, the parish priest must be in the center of this, as the priest must be in the center of all our lives as Orthodox Christians. If we are doing things in our lives that are separate from the Church and also without the blessing of Christ’s successors, then we are no better than that fallen system which we abandon. My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to live and learn together as a community that exists as a bridge from the heavenly to the earthly.
A few days ago, I was with a group of people who had a long discussion about this subject. One priest commented to me that it was a good thing that our children learn from their parents at home and that their interaction with other children was only necessary for an hour or two a week. Another woman that was involved in our discussion said completely the opposite. She believed that our children really only need to be exposed to the Church a couple hours a week; she believed that these couple hours would somehow sanctify the rest of the week in the public school. I believe that there is great arrogance and selfishness in both of these opinions. Children need to have priests, deacons, subdeacons, parents, teachers and other children whose holy teaching, conduct, faith, patience, love, and steadfastness are an icon for them all day long, wherever they find themselves. Children learn best from other children and elders who facilitate their journey to the Kingdom of God. Christ’s Kingdom must be present for us whether we are in the public school, a parochial school or a homeschool.
It is my prayer that the faithful of Christ’s Church will not dismiss out of hand any option that might offer their children as well as other children the opportunity to seek first the Kingdom of God. Our Lord has given us a ministry to baptize and teach all nations in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Some of us will successfully be able to teach and learn in the public school system and be witnesses there to our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Some of us will be able to develop and build formal Orthodox parochial schools that will be sacramental and mystical and an extension of the Divine Liturgy. Some of us who live distances from Christian-friendly, academically capable schools will be able to be apostolic in our neighborhoods and build little churches within our homes that welcome not only our own children but the children of our neighborhood to study the teachings of the Church while also teaching academics.
I urge you to dismiss nothing. Take a good look at all the opportunities that are open to you and your children. Light candles, pray and fast to discern where God wants you and your children. More importantly, understand that in every situation, the true Teacher is Christ Himself. Whatever teaching method you choose, Christ must be at the head of the classroom. The icon of Christ is what your children must view in you, in their teachers, on the screens of their computers, and in the faces of their peers. Within our Antiochian Archdiocese, programs exist—such as camping and Christian education programs—that are absolutely vital in helping you to choose. Be sure that you make use of them.
We commend you to your bishops, your priests, your deacons, your subdeacons, and all your teachers in the faith “to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
The Right Reverend THOMAS (Joseph), Ed.D., is Bishop of Charleston, Oakland and the Mid-Atlantic of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.