The Reformed School (2) – Grounded in Covenant, Church and Antithesis

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The reformed school is grounded in the covenant which the LORD has established with believers and their children. As the covenant community of the Lord they share in a wonderful, glorious relationship with God through our Saviour Jesus Christ. It is the most amazing, totally undeserving, priceless gift imaginable! Those believers come together under the true preaching and form the communion of saints, which is the church which Christ gathers, defends and preserves through the ages (LD 21). However, Christ and His church have a strong enemy, Satan, and those people who do not belong to Christ are in Satan’s camp. Satan uses his followers to oppress and deceive Christ’s people. Even though on the surface relations between those who belong to Christ and those who belong to Satan may appear quite rosy, there is always an underlying enmity. That enmity is rooted in the ‘mother promise’ of Genesis 3:15 and is often referred to by reformed people as the antithesis.

Just as the church is a gathering of God’s covenant people whom He has drawn out of the world as His people, so it follows that the church’s school has a separate, God-given position. For by baptism the children of believing parents receive the sign and seal of that covenant and are thereby “grafted into the Christian church”. At baptism the parents promise to instruct their children in the ways of God’s Word and have them instructed therein. To “have them instructed” refers to parents using others to help them carry out what they promised at baptism. Those ‘others’ can refer to the preaching and catechism instruction by a minister but also to the instruction by teachers at the reformed school.

Hence we can speak of the covenant as one of the characteristics of the Reformed school. This school was established to help the parents fulfil their baptismal vows. Our schools are church schools in which the children of the church are taught about the Lord and provided with knowledge and skills to serve Him in love and faithfulness. It is supported by the whole congregation because the church is “the communion of saints” wherein everyone is to “use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and wellbeing of the other members”.

However, we cannot speak about the covenant without speaking about its twin, the antithesis. For covenant means separation. Through baptism the children of believers are “separated from the children of unbelievers” (LD 27). The covenant children are “set apart from all other peoples and false religions, to be entirely committed to Him whose mark and emblem [they] wear” (BCF 34).

Being committed to Christ, however, means warfare, for when Christ was caught up to heaven, out of Satan’s reach, Satan was enraged and went to make war against the woman’s (the church’s) offspring (Rev. 12). The devil “is filled with fury because he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12). In that warfare Satan employs those who side with him, using persecution and deceit. Christians, however, are characterised by upholding the Truth and trusting in their Saviour.

Hence children are to grow up confessing Christ as Lord of all creation. Everyone owes Him allegiance and obedience. But when Christians confess the lordship of Christ, they can expect opposition. The enmity established in Genesis 3:15 will manifest itself. “If they persecuted me they will persecute you,” said Jesus. Yet preparing children for their 3-fold office of prophets, priests and kings in this world is the task of the school and to the extent that children grow up to do this they can expect enmity and antagonism because of the antithesis.

Like the church, the reformed school is therefore distinctive by virtue of the covenant and its corollary, the antithesis. I’d like to say a little more about these two attributes.

The covenant

The most amazing thing about God creating man is that God did so in order to live in covenant fellowship with him. The everlasting God, who created the universe and created man after His image, and who gave him dominion over the earth – this God who is clothed with unapproachable light and surrounded by holy angels who continuously worship Him – condescended to have fellowship with His creature, man. He came and spoke with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening. And in this fabulous fellowship of love and trust God came with further blessings and obligations (be fruitful and multiply, develop the earth, eat of any tree except a particular one).

So we can speak of a covenant in paradise – a beautiful communion with God. In the beginning things were completely right and bright between God and man. When Adam and Eve heeded Satan, broke the covenant relationship with God and plunged the world into sin, God graciously brought them back into fellowship with Him, into that living bond between God and man which characterises the covenant. Of course, this covenant took on a new dimension after the fall into sin (just as it took on another dimension later with Abraham and at the coming of Christ). God retained the covenant relationship through the promised Redeemer. But only for those who believe in Him. They are the covenant community, the church which Christ gathers, defends and preserves through the ages.

Hence we can say that basically the word covenant means fellowship, communion with God. The church is the covenant community of the Lord; it has communion with Him (LD21) when He speaks to His people through the preaching of His Word and when His people respond in song and prayer and walk with Him in their daily life. God’s covenant people are set apart from the unbelieving world to be “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [they] may declare the praises of Him who called [them] out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Our fellowship with God the Creator as our Father, with God the Son as our Redeemer, and with God the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier has a profound bearing on what, and how, we teach our children at home, in church and at school.

The Antithesis

When God gave the ‘mother promise’ of Genesis 3:15 about the woman’s seed crushing Satan’s head, He was referring to Christ who would one day conquer Satan and purchase those he had chosen by His sacrifice on the cross. The enmity between them would, however, continue till Christ returned at the end of time. Moreover, the enmity exists also between those who follow Christ and those who deny Christ’s kingship and follow Satan.

Thus there is division, warfare, enmity, antithesis between the seed of the woman – the church – and the seed of the serpent – the world. That enmity manifested itself through Cain who rejected the covenant fellowship with God, preferring to follow the way of Satan, and who slew his brother Abel – the first martyr. Lamech and countless others have turned their backs to God and sided with Satan. When Jesus began His NT church-gathering work, the Pharisees rejected and opposed Jesus as the Saviour. Jesus called them a brood of vipers, snakes, serpents, and said: “You are of your father the devil”. They chose the devil’s side of the enmity or antithesis that was set by God in Gen. 3:15. Throughout the centuries there have been these two communities—the church of Jesus Christ on the one hand and those who don’t belong to Christ’s people, who don’t trust in Christ alone, on the other hand.

We and our children have been wonderfully incorporated into the Christ’s covenant community, His church. But we cannot speak about the church as the covenant community of the Lord without speaking about our separate position, about this enmity set by God. Our unique schools, and our churches, stand or fall with this. God set enmity, division, antithesis, and we may not sweep it under the carpet; we cannot smother it; we cannot pretend He didn’t set enmity. We ignore it at our peril.

It has been Satan’s aim throughout the ages to draw people away from the covenant with God so that they join Satan’s camp and Satan does that by blurring the boundaries between the church and the world. He did that with the people of Israel and also with the New Testament church. And he continues to do it.

Not ‘general Christian’ but reformed schools tied to Christ’s church

Prior to the Great Reformation of the 16th century most education in Europe was under the control of the Roman Catholic clergy. After the Reformation the reformed communities established their own schools wherein the children of the church would be nurtured in the reformed faith and be prepared for service to the Lord. Why did they not send their children to Roman Catholic schools? After all, wasn’t the Roman church a Christian church? The reformers knew that the doctrine and practices of the Roman church were not reformed. That is, they were not in accordance with the truth of God’s Word.

Similarly the Secession of 1834 and Doleantie of 1886, whereby reformed people left the Dutch state church because it had become unfaithful, led to separate schools in the Netherlands. The parents had promised to nurture their children in accordance with God’s Word. They wanted schools that were faithful to what the parents confessed. The reformed churches recognised the need for faithful, separate reformed schools where the truth of God’s Word would be imparted to the church’s children.

After the church Liberation of 1944, those who were liberated from what had become a false church were faced with the question of whether they could still work together in Christian organisations with people who were not united with them in the true church. Could their children continue to go to the schools they attended before the Liberation? Could these newly instituted churches, now called the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands–Liberated (RCN-L), continue to engage in education, politics, media and other organisations with people with whom they were no longer one in the true faith?

The RCN-L (GKv) members said ‘no’. But they said no not only to those who had kicked them out of what had become false ‘synodical’ churches but also ‘no’ to other Christian schools and organisations. On what grounds? On the grounds that you cannot be divided in serving the Lord on Sunday and pretend to be united in serving Him through Christian organisations during the week. First be obedient to Christ’s church gathering work on Sunday. The dividing line or antithesis does not run between a general Christianity and the world but it runs between Christ’s (true) church (BCF 27-32) on the one hand and those who are not of Christ’s church on the other. This applied also to educating the children. Parents had promised at the baptism of their children to educate them in accordance with the doctrine of the Bible “as taught in this Christian church”. A general ‘Christian’ education that compromised the truth would not be in accordance with what they promised.

When God set enmity, He set it between two communities: Christ’s church and the world. And the ‘world’ includes those who are not faithful to the Lord, however religious they may appear. The Pharisees who rejected the Christ were very religious, but Jesus said: you are of your father, the devil. The Remonstrants were also very religious but their teachings were condemned by the Synod of Dort. When God graciously liberated His people from false doctrine and a hierarchical church government, our forebears in the RCN-L came to see again the antithesis between the true church and those who deviated from the Truth. They established Christian schools on the basis of it. The antithesis, said Prof. B. Holwerda, is the foundation of our reformed schools. Our children are separated from the world, grafted into the church, holy to the Lord.

We need to be so aware of this because lately in the Netherlands the RCN-L (GKv), which saw things so clearly after the Liberation, are now compromising the truth. Their synod deputies have recently brought out a report saying that in the past the antithesis was between Christ’s (true) church and the world but that today the antithesis is between Christianity (so-called Christian churches in general) on the one hand and the world together with Islam on the other. This view brings us back to where we were before the Liberation. This is what happens when you don’t see the antithesis anymore as being between Christ’s true church as we confess it in our BCF, on the one hand, and those who are not of Christ’s church, on the other.

If the antithesis between church and world is no longer the basis of reformed education we can start opening up our school for others. This is what is happening now in the RCN-L (GKv). For some the triangle ‘home, church and school’ has been changed to ‘home, Christ and school’. They use the school for evangelism purposes and open up what were once distinctly church schools to children from other religious bodies. Note the difference one word can make to that triangle. Not the church but Christ. It sounds so good, does it not? But how will you determine who belongs to Christ unless it’s on the basis of the true church? If you leave the church as confessed in the BCF out of the picture, the distinction between church and world is gone. Then the school is no longer the school of the church and teachers can no longer tell their children about the great deeds of the Lord in the history of Christ’s church to which they are privileged to belong because lots of children won’t even be members of that church. In effect the unbiblical pluriformity of the church concept is then reintroduced.

Covenantal distinctiveness

This covenantal distinctiveness – this being-set-apart as the people of the Lord on the Lord’s side of the enmity that separates the Lord’s camp from those who do not belong to Him – is an essential characteristic of the reformed school. At baptism the Lord says to the child: You also belong to me. I have established my covenant with you also. It is the one covenant of Christ’s covenant community through the ages. I promise to be your Father, to forgive your sins in Jesus Christ and to renew you by my Spirit and Word. I give you my grace and gifts and call on you to serve and glorify me. And, in order for my Spirit to work with my Word, you parents must acquaint your child with that Word; take your children to catechism and church; tell them about Me, about My great deeds for them, and nurture them in My ways so that they serve Me more and more as was intended at Creation. I instructed them there, in My instructions to Adam and Eve, that they are to be fruitful and multiply and develop the earth, to walk with Me, to confess Me, to dedicate themselves to Me and to fight against sin and the devil and the world.

As parents we promise to teach our children about the Lord and what He has done and what He requires of us. Much of this we can do, but we have limitations: teaching our children to read and write and learn and do many of the things needed to serve the Lord in daily life are beyond parents’ ability to give, and so we have set up schools so that reformed teachers can help them provide the right education, an education that is in everything subservient to God’s Word. They do it in the joyful awareness that our almighty Triune God, in whose name they were baptised, has incorporated them into His covenant and set them apart to be holy to Him whose name they bear.

The reformed school is grounded in the covenant and in God’s covenant community, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. In conformity with the promises made at baptism, Christian parents established church schools where children are to be nurtured in the Truth to serve the Lord in their three-fold office of prophets, priests and kings. Our faithfulness to God’s Covenant Word—which speaks of the great ongoing drama of the enmity (antithesis) throughout the history of Christ’s church—and our continual awareness of the distinct position we and our children have in relation to that covenant, church and antithesis—are imperative not only if the church is to remain the bride of Christ but also if the churches’ schools are to function as truly reformed schools.