“In Loco Parentis – Covenantal Schools in Action” by Russel Dijkstra


Parents who send their children to schools providing reformed education have, over the decades, understood that teachers at these schools operate “in loco parentis” (in the place of the parent). This implies that teachers will nurture the covenant children entrusted to their care during school hours as though they were the parents, with the intent that the children will grow up to love and serve the LORD with the knowledge and skills they learn. Reformed parents recognise that just as children must obey their parents (Eph. 6:1) they must obey the teachers who nurture and instruct the children on their behalf (5th commandment, LD 39 HC). It’s what makes schools where members of God’s covenant community have their children educated, so much finer than state schools where this important and beautiful principle of teachers operating “in loco parentis” is lost. The following article by Russel Dijkstra of the Protestant Reformed Churches (The Standard Bearer, 10/1/2005)[i] explains nicely how this principle is to work in covenantal schools.


“In Loco Parentis – Covenantal Schools in Action”

One of the most significant blessings that God has given to the Protestant Reformed Churches is the system of Protestant Reformed Christian schools. My experiences as a father, my personal observations as a pastor, and the testimony of Scripture concerning the instruction of covenant youth all confirm that conviction.

Reformed, Christian education is a central blessing of God’s covenant of grace. The covenant is the foundation of the Christian school. Exactly because God has established His covenant with believers and their seed, believing parents are duty bound to rear their children in the fear of the Lord. An inestimable aid to the parents for teaching their children the fear of God is the faithful Christian school.

Parents and teachers work together in this glorious task of training covenant children. For this reason it is essential that the right relation exists between parents and teachers. In fact, it is safe to say that where faithful, believing parents and teachers maintain the proper relationship, they can expect the Lord’s blessing on their endeavors. On the other hand, where the relationship is wrong, the work is doomed.

That right relationship is captured in the Latin phrase in loco parentis, which means “in the place of the parents.” As the translation indicates, the phrase describes the particular relationship between parents and teachers where the teacher performs his labors in the place of the parent. It indicates that the teacher neither replaces the parent nor takes over the responsibilities of the parent. It indicates likewise that the teacher is not a lowly lackey doing what the parents do not want to do. Rather, the teacher stands in for the parents, performing the noble, God-given task that the parents would do if it were possible.

Behind this concept of in loco parentis are two realities.

The first is that God demands of parents that their covenant children be trained to His specifications. This training of covenant children includes both their rearing and their instruction, tasks that go hand-in-hand. Parents are expected to “train up the child” (Prov. 22:6), and to “command” their children to “keep the way of the Lord” (Deut. 18:19). They must give instruction, reproof, and chastisement (Prov. 1:8, 9; Prov. 29:6). Fathers, upon whom the first responsibility lies, are admonished to bring up their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

Believing parents take this obligation of the covenant seriously. They are vitally interested in the full and complete development of their children—spiritually, intellectually, and physically. They take their goal from God’s Word, namely that the child of God “may be perfect (complete), thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:17). Their children must know God, know His creation, and be equipped to serve God with a life of gratitude. The responsibility for this training rests on the parents.

The second reality is that parents have higher spiritual and educational goals for their children than they as parents can ordinarily accomplish alone. For a variety of reasons, many parents find it impossible personally to teach all that their children need. One reason is that the father spends many hours away from the home at work, and his work is demanding. Thus father can teach but little. The result is that virtually the entire load of teaching would fall on mother, who already has the duties of running the home, caring for the needs of the entire family, and being a faithful help for her husband. She has more than enough work already. In addition, most parents cannot do justice to all the different subjects that their children ought to learn. The world has changed much from the days of Israel when fathers and mothers trained their children in the home and on the farm. It is estimated that the sum total of information possessed by man doubles every couple of years. Although it is neither possible nor necessary that anyone absorb all this additional information, it does demonstrate that to live in today’s world, children must learn far more than their parents did just thirty years ago.

Believing parents recognize the importance of imparting knowledge, understanding, and wisdom to their children. To serve God, children must know God and His creation. That teaching begins with the most basic elements—teaching them to read and write, add and subtract, and spell. The child must learn good grammar, see something of the wonder of living creatures in biology, and stand in awe before the glory of the solar system in the universe. He must see the sovereign hand of God controlling all the events of men and nations, and how all things serve His purpose of gathering and preserving His church. And through this instruction, the child must be equipped to serve and praise God.

This goal demands thorough instruction in all the disciplines, instruction which has Christ at the center, by whom and for whom all things exist. The task is staggering. It requires dedicated preparation and full-time study. Parents become convinced that they need help in realizing their goals, or, more properly, God’s goals, for their children (His children).

For this reason, the parents hire trained and dedicated godly teachers to stand in their place. By so doing, parents do not relinquish their God-given responsibilities. Hence they place strict requirements on the teachers. “You must do what I cannot because of time, or ability, or lack of preparation. You have the abilities, the education, and we trust are prepared to teach the curriculum from a biblical perspective.” If that is not enough of a burden, the parents have more demands. They insist: “You must instruct our children as we would, if we could. Teach them with the love, patience, and understanding that believing parents ought to have. Treat them as covenant children. Give them the knowledge of God, the same Jehovah whom we love and serve. Demand of them obedience to God’s commandments. Teach them a godly walk and set before them the Reformed world and life view.” And the teacher agrees to this.

That is in loco parentis in action.

The question arises: How is this possible? How can this work?

The answer is: Only when schools are truly parental schools, and when parents are deeply involved in their schools.

Understand, in loco parentis is not automatic. It is does not govern the relationship of parents and teachers in all schools.

Certainly it is not found in government-run schools. In such schools, the state and, increasingly, the federal governments are in control, not the parents. The government raises the necessary tax money. The laws of the land determine what shall be taught. The state hires the teachers and informs them how they must teach. Parents are out of the process, except for a kind of support role.

In loco parentis is dead in the public school. This system denies everything that undergirds parental education. It denies that the parents have the responsibility to train their children. It rejects the notion that teachers must teach both what and as the parents desire. Rather, the state decides these matters by decree. Believing parents find the education in the public school deficient—not so much because the education is usually inferior academically, but because Christ is lacking in it all. As for the public school teacher, he is but a paid servant of the state doing what the parents are averse to doing themselves.

However, parents who see the importance of the right relationship between parents and teachers will not be content merely to have their children in a Christian school. Far too many Christian schools have quietly disposed of the principle of in loco parentis by making the teacher sovereign in the sphere of the school. The school was no longer considered an extension of the home and thus under the authority of the parents, but a separate sphere. Connected with this was a drive to remove the Reformed confessions and the Bible as the basis for the school. The remaining authority in such a school is the trained teacher, the professional, with a school board and society to approve the budget and rubberstamp the desires of the faculty. This philosophy of education is taught in many a Christian college. In such a school, in loco parentis is dead.

That, however, is not the only way to damage the principle of in loco parentis. It should be obvious that where a difference in doctrine and practice exists between the teachers and the parents, the heart of this relationship is cut out. If a Protestant Reformed father sends his children to a Christian Reformed or Baptist school, the teacher is not teaching the children as that father would. Rather, if the teacher is faithful to his own confession, he will inculcate the doctrines, lifestyle, and world and life view that his church maintains.

No, in loco parentis exists rightly in parental schools that faithfully maintain the truth confessed by the parents. Within the covenant, parents gladly shoulder their God-given responsibility. They band together, form a society, and establish a school founded squarely on the Bible and the Reformed confessions. The parents, joined by the covenant community, the church, faithfully raise the needed funds every year, make the rules, set the curriculum, and hire the teachers. And if need be, they fire a teacher that is not performing in loco parentis. Obviously, steady, continued, enthusiastic involvement by the parents is necessary for the principle to work. Right understanding of the place of teachers and high regard for the same is necessary on the part of parents and teachers alike. Beware, parents. Beware, teachers. This relationship is easily lost if you parents lose your heart for the work, lose touch with the school, and speak of it in terms of “they” instead of “we,” and of “their school” instead of “our school.” As for the teachers, serious damage is done to the principle if you become haughty, and consider yourselves more knowledgeable about the needs of a particular child—more knowledgeable than the parents of the child themselves(!).

In loco parentis is a principle worth striving to maintain. In such a school, teachers and parents are unified in their goals. They may not always agree on the application to every child and circumstance. Yet they are agreed that the goal is to rear the children in the fear of the Lord, to teach them to know God and walk in His commandments and to equip them to serve God in this world as His friend-servants.

When in loco parentis is the guiding principle, parents send their children to school confident that students will receive a thoroughly Reformed education. Parents and teachers agree upon this before the school year begins. Parents need not worry that the child may be taught evolution, or a social gospel, or Arminianism, or Christian reconstructionism. Parents have the assurance that the teacher will strive not only for academic excellence, but to teach every subject in the light of Scripture. By their representatives, the school board, the instruction is observed and the requirements maintained. Obviously, if it becomes evident that the instruction is not both Reformed and striving for academic excellence, parents collectively have the right to dismiss the teacher. Parents must be certain that what is taught at home—reverence for the Word of God and godly living—will not be contradicted at school, but rather reinforced.

What a blessing!

But what a blessing also for the teacher to know that, because he is one with the parents in faith, doctrine, practice, and goals, he has their confidence and support. He does not wonder, as he prepares the history lesson, whether some parents might object to his demonstration that God rules sovereignly over all events in history—including wars, evil kings, genocides, famines, and church splits. He will not have an angry parent calling him with objections when, in teaching the history of Abraham, he demonstrates that God’s covenant with Abraham is a sovereign, particular, unconditional covenant of grace in Christ. Furthermore, the teacher knows that he is expected to discipline biblically, that is, with the rod and reproof, as the parents do. And he can trust that the parents will strive not to criticize him, but to honor him before their children, for he is their servant, in loco parentis. To cut down the teacher is to do damage, serious harm, to the very work the parents ask him to do.

Yet the greatest benefits of in loco parentis in a Reformed, Christian school accrue to the children. Where in loco parentis does not govern the relationship between teachers and parents, the student is in a position not unlike a child with divorced parents. Father and mother will assuredly have different goals, lifestyles, and religious practices, and thus are frequently at odds. Both do their best to influence the child and draw him to their views. These contrary influences do harm to the child. But in the case of a teacher/parent relationship, it results in differences between the teacher and the parents that tug at the student.

On the other hand, when this principle is known and diligently maintained, there is blessed harmony. The student can grow and develop in peace. The instruction he hears in school is in harmony with that received in the home and the church. In such an environment, the covenant child—young or old—is nurtured in the truth, and grows deep roots, not being whipped and pulled by winds of contrary instruction. He does not have two masters, between which he must make a choice daily. He has one Master, the Lord Jesus, who uses parents to teach him the way that he should go, and teachers who stand in loco parentis

[i] This article is accessible at http://standardbearer.rfpa.org/articles/loco-parentis%E2%80%94covenantal-schools-action and is printed here in full with the kind permission of the publishers.