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The Responsibility of Instruction

President Raymond M. Branstad

1974 Synod Convention Essay

On each of the two previous days of this convention we have heard papers presenting the Purpose and the Task of Instruction. Today we consider the Responsibility for it.


Christian education begins with the premise that responsibility for a child is basically that of its parents. The child, as a creation of God, belongs to God but is given to parents who have a God-given responsibility to train him up in the way he should go. Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Because it is Scriptural, it is also Lutheran. Luther regarded the right training of children as a divine requirement. Parents are not free to do with their children as they please. They are entrusted with parental authority that they may train up their children for society and the church, and they are held to a strict account for the manner in which they discharge this duty. This thought is presented again and again in Luther’s writing. He says:

“But this is again a sad evil that all live on as though God gave us children for our pleasure or amusement, and servants that we should employ them like a cow or ass, only for work, or as though all we had to do with our subjects were only to gratify our wantonness, without any concern on our part as to what they learn or how they live; and no one is willing to see that this is the command of the Supreme Majesty, who will most strictly call us into an account and punish us for it, nor that there is so great need to be so intensely anxious about the young. For if we wish to have proper and excellent persons both for civil and ecclesiastical government, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, that they may serve God and the world, we must not think only how we may amass money and possessions for them… Let everyone know, therefore, that above all things it is his duty, (or otherwise he will lose the divine favor,) to bring up his children in the fear and knowledge of God; and if they have talents, to have them instructed and trained in a liberal education, that men may be able to have their aid in government and in whatever is necessary.”

Luther is not content with merely showing parents their duty. He urges them to its performance. The divine requirements are set forth; the evils resulting to society and the church through neglect of their children are clearly pointed out; their gratitude to God and their obligations to mankind are urged as motives; and the guilt and punishment they bring upon themselves and their children are fully portrayed. Hear what he writes in the “Large Catechism”:

“Think what deadly injury you are doing if you be negligent and fail to bring up your child to usefulness and piety, and how you bring upon yourself all sin and wrath, meriting hell even in your dealings with your own children, even though you be otherwise ever so pious and holy. And because this is disregarded, God so fearfully punishes the world that there is no discipline, government, or peace, of which we all complain, but do not see that it is our fault, for as we train them we have spoiled and disobedient children and subjects.”

Protestant Christians generally have held that the parent or guardian of a child has the right and duty to determine that child’s education. It would seem that most Americans share this view. The impetus for the “ward of the state” concept which we will discuss later took a dramatic turn by World War II when Americans were shocked by the Nazi take-over of the youth. The tales of children informing on their parents and turning them in as enemies of the state caused Americans to shudder in horror.

The state acknowledges the right and duty to determine the child’s education. In the 1920’s a law was passed by the state of Oregon giving the state the ultimate right to determine the child’s education, by requiring all children to attend the public schools of that state. But the law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court with the famous words:

“The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” (Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. at 535).

While we may not dispute the prime responsibility of parents and home, and the principle remains a constant, the assumption of that responsibility and the extent to which the home can function as an educational unit are variables.

It would seem logical that since America has the highest literacy rate of any nation of all time, the American home should be better able to assume responsibility for the education of its children and be able to provide more education in the home than any time in history. Unfortunately, other factors prevent this ideal; and American home life has changed radically in the last few decades.

Already twenty years ago the National Evangelical Association published a report which it commissioned Dr. Frank E. Gaebelein to write, in which he stated:

“It is not easy to evaluate sociological trends, least of an those of our own day. Yet few thoughtful observers can fail to recognize that something has been happening to the American home during the first half of this century. We are not just ‘viewing with alarm’ when we speak of the decline of family life we are discussing facts.

“That nothing short of a revolution in respect to the most basic unit of society has been taking place is apparent. Not that the American home is in danger of changing—it has changed, and we are faced with a fiat accompli in that the home built upon spiritual and moral ideals, the center of life for parents and children, is no longer characteristic of America. The shift from country to city; a plethora of amusements from movies to radio and television; greatly increased leisure with insufficient inner resources to use it well; automobiles for almost everyone; alcoholic intemperance; divorce so prevalent that only two out of three marriages endure; men and women who, having been given a thoroughly secularized education, think they can do very well without God—all these are factors in the decline of the American home.” (p. 237.)

A factor which this report does not refer to is the economic one. World War II brought women out of the home and into the labor force as a war effort. Women never really went back to the house. Higher standards and higher costs of living have kept them out. As Gaebelein states, we are discussing facts, not dangers, when we speak of the decline of family life in America. Therefore we must do a great deal more than preach an ideal, we must face facts and deal with the problem as it is.


While the responsibility for the education for children rests primarily with parents in the home, it is quite another issue whether the home is capable of providing this education. In general, it must be said that the home never has had this capability. Cultures which have relied upon the home for the total education of children have been extremely slow to progress and have often failed to rise above a minimal level. In most cultures, parents have sought help outside the home to aid in the education of their children.

In the Christian context, the church shares the responsibility for the education of its children. What the parents cannot do alone, they have the right and duty to ask the church, the fellowship of believers, to do for them. So the church organizes, maintains, and supports schools of various types in accordance with need and opportunity.

Again this is Scriptural. Jesus commanded His disciples, not as parents, but as founders and leaders of the New Testament church: “Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17.)

One cannot easily imagine the Christian who would argue that it is not the responsibility of the church, as well as parents, to provide spiritual training—religious education—for young and old. No one would argue that it is not the church’s responsibility to provide more advanced training for pastors. This is one of the basic reasons for organizing larger church units, such as synods. But frequently there is an argument as to the church’s responsibility for providing schools for what are called “secular” or “liberal arts” subjects. These are regarded as the responsibility of parents—or parents and the state.

This is not the problem of a state-church system. So it was not a problem for Luther and the Reformers. As we heard earlier, Luther believed in a “liberal education,” i.e. not only what might be called strictly religious subjects, but also the languages, which he held in extremely high regard, “poets and orators whether they are heathen or Christian Greek or Latin,” arts and sciences, law and medicine.

Naturally Luther placed the greatest importance on religious instruction, and he declared it to be the first duty of the parental relation. He writes: “See to it that you first of all have your children instructed in spiritual things, giving them first to God and afterwards to secular duties.”

At the same time, Luther recognized the difficulties, if not the impossibility, of adequate home training. Some parents are so lacking in piety, he believed, that like the ostrich they hardened themselves against their own offspring (Job 39:13-18). Others, by reason of their ignorance, are unqualified to raise their children in a proper manner. And still others, who have the requisite piety and intelligence, are constantly burdened with cares and labors. As a matter of fact, Luther states that only such persons should marry as are competent to instruct their children in the elements of religion. “No one should become a father,” he says, “unless he is able to instruct his children in the Ten Commandments and in the Gospel, so that he may bring up true Christians.” He was, however, realist enough to recognize that such an ideal was beyond attainment. This he offered as another important reason for establishing schools to assist parents in their responsibility.

In the context of his times, Luther did not hesitate to appeal to the state rather than the church to establish and maintain schools for Christian education. His “Letter to the Mayors and Aldermen” of all the cities of Germany is a passionate appeal for “public” Christian education and led to what is often regarded as the first truly public educational system.

In this letter he outlined a curriculum with a strong emphasis on religious subjects because he believed the church schools of the day were no longer either competent or spiritual, but he included the liberal arts curriculum as well.

He chided parents who failed to recognize the value of a liberal education. He wrote:

“Because selfish parents see that they can no longer place their children upon the bounty of monasteries and cathedrals, they refuse to educate them. ‘Why should we educate children,’ they say, ‘if they are not to become priests, monks, and nuns, and thus earn a support?’” … “In my judgment,” he continues, “there is no other outward offense that in the sight of God so heavily burdens the world.”

Then, turning to the city officials, he continues:

“But each one, you say, may educate and discipline his own sons and daughters. To which I reply: We see indeed how it goes with this teaching and training. And where it is carried to the highest point, and is attended with success, it results in nothing more than that the learners, in some measure, acquire a forced external propriety of manner; in other respects they remain dunces, know nothing, and incapable of giving aid or advise. But were they instructed in schools or elsewhere by thoroughly qualified male or female teachers, who taught the languages, other arts, and history, then the pupils would hear the history and maxims of the world, and see how things went with each city, kingdom, prince, man, and woman; and thus, in a short time, they would be able to comprehend, as in a mirror, the character, life, counsels, undertakings, successes, and failures, of the whole world from the beginning. On this knowledge they could regulate their views, and order their course of life in the fear of God, having become wise in judging what is to be sought and what avoided in this outward life, and capable of advising and directing others. But the training which is given at home is expected to make us wise through our own experience. Before that can take place, we shall die a hundred times, and all through life act injudiciously; for much time is needed to give experience.”

He makes his appeal in behalf of both church and state, as well as youth:

“There is consequently an urgent necessity, not only for the sake of the young, but also for the maintenance of Christianity and the civil government, that this matter be immediately and earnestly taken hold of, lest afterwards, although we would gladly attend to it, we shall find it impossible to do so, and be obliged to feel in vain the pangs of remorse forever. For God is now graciously present, and offers His aid. If we despise it, we already have our condemnation with the people of Israel, of whom Isaiah says: ‘I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people.’ (Isaiah 65:2) and Proverbs 1:24–26; ‘I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at naught all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; 1 will mock when your fear cometh.’ Let us then take heed. Consider for example what great zeal Solomon manifested; for he was so much interested in the young that he took time, in the midst of his empiral duties, to write a book for them called Proverbs. And think how Christ Himself took the little children into His arms! How earnestly He commends them to us, and speaks of their guardian angels, (Matthew 28:10) in order that He may show us how great a service it is, when we rightly bring them up; on the other hand, how His anger kindles, if we offend the little ones and let them perish.

“Therefore, dear sirs, take to heart this work, which God so urgently requires at your hands, which pertains to your office, which is necessary for the young, and which neither the world nor the spirit can do without.”

It would be a gross misunderstanding of Luther to insist that, because of his appeal to public officials, he indicated that he believed liberal arts not to be the responsibility of the church. The fact is he made no distinction between the sacred and secular in education. He did not compartmentalize education. Luther continues:

“But, you say again, if we shall and must have schools, what is the use to teach Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and the other liberal arts? Is it not enough to teach the Scriptures, which are necessary to salvation, in the mother tongue? To which I answer: I know, alas! that we Germans must always remain irrational brutes, as we are deservedly called by surrounding nations. But I wonder why we do not also say: Of what use to us are silk, wine, spices, and other foreign articles, since we ourselves have an abundance of wine, corn, wool, flax, wood, and stone in the German states, not only for our necessities, but also for embellishment and ornament? The languages and other liberal arts, which are not only harmless, but even a greater ornament, benefit, and honor than these things, both for understanding the Holy Scriptures and carrying on the civil government, we are disposed to despise; and the foreign articles which are neither necessary nor useful, and which besides greatly impoverish us, we are unwilling to dispense with. Are we not rightly called German dunces and brutes?”

Luther appealed to the government because the Lutheran church, newly separated from Roman Catholicism, was not in a financial position to establish the schools he proposed and, further, in the state-church system, he did not hesitate to ask the state to support Christian education.

The state-church, so prevalent in Europe, was transplanted to colonial America. By the early 19th century this system began to disappear from the American scene and Protestant education underwent a quiet transformation and the dual pattern, the typical parallelism of public school and Sunday School emerged. This dual system was not planned, it simply developed, and once it was established, it was accepted as the likeliest arrangement for that time and place. Before long most Protestants were ready to defend it as the American way and the Protestant ideal. Unfortunately, it was far from it. Enthusiasm for Sunday School has ebbed and flowed several times, but, overall, education and church leaders have given up on the Sunday School as a valid parallel to the public school. The best that could be said of it is that it is better than nothing.

Those who felt that way looked for other alternatives. One of these was Walter S. Athearn, professor of religious education at Boston University during and after World War I. He is the author of the “Molden Plan,” a community-wide program of “weekday religious schools sharing the child’s time with the public schools during the regular school year.” This “shared time” or “released time” concept has also had its ups and downs and again has not proved an adequate parallel arrangement.

Only a minority of American Protestants by the middle of the 19th century advocated a system of parochial schools as a continuation of the educational practices from the colonial period. By the turn of the century the public school system came into full stride. In 1870 only 57% of American children were enrolled; by 1918 the figure had passed 75%. Horace Mann and some of his fellow crusaders worked for a universal, tax-supported education. In such a system they could see no place for private education, which they believed could not afford to compete.

This did not mean that religion was eliminated. It simply meant that somewhat by default the state took over what had traditionally been part of the work of the church but which it could no longer really afford, partly because it had lost its commitment for its own schools. Instead the public school incorporated religious training in its system.

In the rural areas the religion of the public schools reflected the predominant denominationalism of the community. Many southern rural systems became Baptist parochial schools. Less common were the Roman Catholic controlled public schools, such as the extreme case at Pierz, Minnesota, where buildings were owned by the Roman Catholic church and rented by the school district, staffed by nuns salaried by the district, and generally supported by state funds. In my own case, I attended public elementary and public high schools which were nothing less than Lutheran parochial schools. Each school day, as long as I can remember, began with devotion. In high school chapel services were held twice a week and classes often began with prayer and sometimes with Bible readings. Under such arrangements, it is not difficult to see why some church bodies and communities found little need to maintain separate church-supported schools.

This was not characteristic of all communities. The more heterogeneous population of the cities demanded a less denominational approach. The non-denominational brand of Horace Mann seemed to many evangelical protestants to be suspiciously “Unitarian,” and, at best, what passed as “non-sectarian” religious teaching seemed to many Unitarians, Roman Catholics, and others to be evangelical protestantism. And thus the Protestant denominations—each fearing the Roman Catholic, but also distrusting one another—became committed to a school which was more secular than they would have otherwise desired.

There is another factor which has contributed to the decrease of church-related schools. Horace Mann looked to the public school as the unifying force in a nation of divergent backgrounds. This opinion gained favor in America and resulted in James B. Conant’s famous charge which has gained wide acceptance among church people: “The greater the proportion of our youth who fail to attend our public schools and who receive their education elsewhere, the greater the threat to our democratic unity. To use taxpayer’s money to assist private schools is to suggest that American society use its own hands to destroy itself.”

Closely related to the cost factor is the problem of quality. As ever increasing amounts of tax money were poured into the public schools, the standards for buildings, equipment, and teacher training rose dramatically. Where once the church was the prominent and costliest building in the small towns and cities of church-oriented communities in America, now the schools took over and reflected the change in focus and interest of the people. Granted, money cannot be equated with quality, but it gives that impression. Meantime, lack of money certainly did hamper advance in quality in some of the church schools. Lack of equipment and materials now available and free to use in public schools discouraged many teachers. Minimal education requirements for teachers failed to keep them abreast of the great advances both in knowledge and in methods. Again, lack of money does not necessarily mean poor quality, but it also gives that impression to the public.

These and other factors have led to the demise of the parochial elementary and high school in mainline Protestantism with the notable exception of the church bodies which once belonged to the Synodical Conference and some Reformed bodies.

Church-related higher educational institutions have not suffered as high a casualty rate until recent years. However, they have undergone a significant change. Most of them have lost their direct ties to their church bodies and so also direct church support. More important, they have lost most of their distinguishing character. While they have religion departments or at least religion courses in their curriculum, they often no longer reflect the doctrinal position of the church which begat them.

Because most American church bodies have failed parents, they have turned almost totally to the state to aid them in their responsibility.


After the parents and the church, the state is an order authorized by God to promote the temporal welfare of the people.

That the state has a responsibility for its citizens is not challenged by the Christian. Scripture delineates this responsibility and authority in Romans chapter 13. Luther and the Lutheran Confessions expound this responsibility.

Included in this responsibility is a concern of government for the education of its citizens. Luther not only acknowledged such a responsibility, he placed it squarely on the shoulders of civic officials, as we heard earlier in his “Letter to the Aldermen and Mayors.” He pointed out the necessity of education, not only for the maintenance of Christianity but also for civic government, and he concluded: “Therefore, dear sirs, take to heart this work, which God so urgently requires at your hands, which pertains to your office, which is necessary for the young, and which neither the world nor the spirit can do without.”

Surely in a democratic form of government such as ours, where the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” this responsibility is no less urgent. In order for such a form of government to function, it must have an “enlightened electorate”—voters who not only can read, write, and count, but can make sound judgments by analyzing and evaluating what they see and hear.

Thus far there is no argument. The problem is the extent of this responsibility. For Luther, as we pointed out earlier, this was no problem. In the state-church system, an education which served the good of the state served the good of the church, for the rulers and citizens of the state were also members of the same church.

In our form of government which guarantees the freedom of religion and forbids discrimination, the problem is a crucial and a sensitive one. How can the state assume its responsibilities without infringing upon the freedom of its constituents or discriminating against any of them?

The question is far from being solved. We cannot in the short time allotted to us cover the history of the problem. We can only briefly point out where we are and how we came here. In the previous section we indicated that the public school system carne into being partly through default on the part of American Protestantism. It became a question of whether or not private schools should exist at all.

Horace Mann, known as the “Father of the common schools,” believed they should not, and through his writings and his influence created a strong inclination towards a monolithic educational system in America. Mann believed that true religion could be best served by the schools and these schools should be operated by the state. “Society,” he said, “in its collective capacity, is a real, not a nominal sponsor and godfather for all its children.” Rushdoony, in his book, “The Messianic Character of American Education,” concludes: “It is a common assumption that the progressive educational concept of educating the whole child rather than giving the fundamentals or ‘the three R’s,’ dates from Dewey. Rather it dates from Mann, and from every attempt to claim the child for the state.” (p. 24) He continues: “Mann’s work was twofold, first to secularize education and, second, to make it the province of the state rather than the community and parents.” (p. 27)

This philosophy of Mann found ardent disciples who carried it to greater extremes. One of them was John Swett, who was largely responsible for the California public school system. He maintained that schools are not extensions of parental authority but “wards of the state.” Children become wards of the school when they enroll and parental rights are forfeited. That is, except in the case of private schools. It became obvious that the private schools would have to go, for in the minds of Swett and his successors, self-preservation of the state involved enforced state education. In 1874 the California legislature made it a penal offense for parents to send their children to private schools without the consent of the local school trustees. The assault on private schools continued on up and down the West coast and was brought to a head in the Oregon case already mentioned.

A battle was won in the Oregon case, but the war was far from over and the problem not solved. Unfortunately the battle-lines are not clear, and it is often difficult to determine who is on what side. Legislators who must face these issues complain of this. Proponents of a monolithic public school system from kindergarten through college, if they cannot eliminate private education by law, would like to force it out of existence. To help do this, they seize upon such concepts as total “separation of church and state,” “the wall between church and state.” Unfortunately some proponents of private education and Christian education have fallen into the trap and join the very ones who plot their downfall by accepting and defending such concepts.


The responsibility for education must be shared by home, church, and state. In various areas they will overlap in responsibility. The prime responsibility rests with parents. This is God-given. But parents may and must turn to the church and to the state to share this responsibility.

To turn to the state does not necessarily mean to turn to public schools. The state’s interest and concern should not be institutions but people. As long as standards set by the state for its welfare and the welfare of its individual citizens are met, the state’s primary concern is satisfied. Where this can be done through private schools, so much the better. Where it cannot, the state should provide schools. The Christian ought not to turn to a school system which is devoid of Christian perspective, to say nothing of one with un-Christian or anti-Christian views. Nicholas Wollerstorff in his monograph “Religion and the Schools” writes:

“How could the public schools supply what Christians must demand of the schools to which they send their children? For, to repeat, the public school must be affirmatively impartial in its educational policies and practices. It cannot with propriety undertake to be a training ground for the Christian way of life. It cannot rightfully, in our religiously diverse society, systematically inculcate Christian standards for the assessment of art and literature, Christian economic and political principles, the Christian understanding of work, the Christian view of nature, the Christian understanding of the source of evil and human affairs. Yet exactly these things—and many others of the same sort—are what the Christian wants inculcated in his child. For the inculcation of such things is indispensable to training the child to live the whole Christian way of life. It cannot be overlooked that the Gospel speaks to our this worldly secular existence as well as to our other-worldly existence. So I think it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Christians need Christian schools for the education of their children.”

The Christian then will turn to his church for a Christian education that meets these requirements.

The commitment of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod to its own system of schools remains a viable and valid one. At the same time, the Christian can and ought to expect the state to share his responsibility by making it possible to provide the education of his choice.

The church and state share some common concerns. The church wishes the freedom to believe and worship as it chooses and the opportunity to pursue that freedom. The state, under our constitution, guarantees both the freedom and the opportunity. The church and the state also share a responsibility for education. This sharing to the extent that each has responsibility may very well include finances without confusing the issue of church and state relations. Such confusion will not take place where state or church does not presume to perform the function which God has assigned to the other. This takes caution and good judgment. This is necessary always on the part of the Christian as he makes his pilgrimage through this world.

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