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    Mr. Challies and the Strong Man

    July 7, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    I‘ve been reading with great interest Tim Challies’ short series of posts on school choices. Titled The Weaker, The Stronger, The Homeschooler {that’s Part 1, read Part 2 and Part 3 if you like}, Challies takes the text of Romans 14 and the discussion of those who are weak and strong in regard to eating meat or going vegetarian, and superimposes it over the homeschooling issue. Personally, I think his posts are riddled with problems. I’m sure a lot of folks waaaay smarter than me are discussing this, but I’d like to take three problems I see here, say what I think, and then give all of you the opportunity to share your own thoughts in the comments.

    Text Selection
    Romans 14 is an interesting passage. There was division over food choices within the Church at that time {and also observation of days, but let’s stick with food for the moment}. In the context of the passage, we first assume what we already know from the rest of Scripture. There was a day when certain foods were considered clean, and certain unclean. Jewish Christians were coming from a long tradition of avoiding foods for religious and ethical purposes {here I am considering whether or not it was sacrificed to an idol as an ethical and not merely religious issue}. Peter is clearly told that all foods are clean in the book of Acts, and we know that early Christians began to live out what Paul talks about in I Timothy 4, that everything created by God for food is good and not to be rejected, but rather to be received with gratitude.

    Romans 14, then, is dealing with the issue of those who are still tender in conscience. Perhaps they were raised Jewish, and old habits die hard. Perhaps they were raised sacrificing their meat to idols, and they are plagued by wicked associations. Whatever the issue, Paul tells us that vegetarians are weak in the faith, and so those of us who are strong must be careful with them. I always think of this as analogous to how we treat babies in our home. You humor them more than you would even a toddler. You’re careful with them. You fuss over them, even though once they go to bed you are free to be “strong” again with other adults. {The drinking of alcohol comes to mind here as well.}

    Paul obviously doesn’t want us to crush the weak in the name of our own strength. He leaves room for conscientious objection. If your eating isn’t done in faith–if someone hands you a steak, and you just can’t do it–to you it is sin. This is a personal weakness, and those around you shouldn’t tempt you, shouldn’t criticize you, shouldn’t judge you.

    In this context, we see that the “strong” are those who are strong in faith–they know that God’s will is for us to recognize that all the food He made for us is clean and good to eat and we should be thankful for it. This strength, however, is not an excuse to plow over the weak. On the other hand, it is made clear that the vegetarians are weak in faith, and our actions toward them ought to be careful, respectful, and faith-building.

    In regard to observation of days, Paul only says that “each one ought to be convinced in his own mind.” His judgment of day observation seems to be very egalitarian, as if there really wasn’t a weak or strong position on this issue, and his only desire was to see men abide by their own consciences. And Paul asks us, then, why in the world we would judge our brother based upon a non-issue, a seemingly neutral issue.

    What does all of this have to do with homeschooling? Well, that is what I’m trying to decide. It is very convenient to try and frame the issue this way, if we really want to be able to do what we are already doing and not have others hassle us about it, but the fact of the matter is that we have to decide where homeschooling falls in this area. Are there definitely positions of strong and weak? Or is it truly an egalitarian, be-convinced-in-your-own-mind issue?

    The reason I raise this question is because Challies equivocates on the issue. In Part 1, Challies equates the issue of a child’s education to the idea of observation of days. He paraphrases Paul, and believes that each one ought to be convinced in his own mind. The problem is that he is still insisting on utilizing the terms “weak” and “strong” in regard to this issue, while claiming there is no right answer. {Note: Challies claims that those who see every day as the same are “strong” while those who observe days are “weak” but the text does not actually say this.}

    In Romans 14, it is very obvious that those who eat meat are strong in faith. They are the ideal. Those who are weak are those upon whom the strong are to have compassion. But if the weak got up and preached a vegetarian gospel, Paul would have had a fit! It was fine to be weak, but Paul makes it clear in his other writings that the strong were to lead and teach others to become strong themselves {hence the aforementioned letter to Timothy on this exact issue}.

    All of this is to say that I think Challies chose the wrong text to frame the discussion. How can we talk about it in this context without first discussing what God has to say about the issues itself? Is it a neutral issue, where each man ought to abide by his own conscience? Challies says that it is, but without referencing any of the passages that discuss a child’s education:

    The way we educate our children is important—let’s not downplay this—but it is not a matter that is central to the Christian faith and not a matter in which the Bible indisputably demands one path or the other.

    Or is there a strong position and a weak position? It cannot be both.

    Who is the Strong Man?
    In Part III, Challies attempts to define who is weak and who is strong. As I mentioned above, Paul’s assertion that those who eat meat are strong is reinforced by his other letters. Paul is aware of what the ideal right answer is, but he is leaving room for Christians to be weak, or to grow into it, or what have you.

    I agree with Challies that we shouldn’t spend time judging each other for educational choices. The more I’ve talked with other families, the more I understand how complicated the issue can be in certain homes. With that said, in the issue of food, Paul obviously knew the “right” answer. He just wasn’t willing to make a secondary issue a deal-breaker.

    But let it be said: we know who is strong in an absolute sense because we know what the ideal is.

    Challies says there is no ideal when it comes to education, but then he attempts to identify “weak” and “strong.” There cannot be weak and strong in this context unless someone is closer to the ideal and someone farther.

    At one point, Challies seems to equate being strong with being counter-cultural. Once upon a time, it was unpopular {and even dangerous} to be a homeschooler, and so those who homeschooled in that context were “strong.” Now, in some churches, it is unpopular to attend public school {or any school at all} and those who choose this anyhow are “strong.”

    My problem with this is that Paul’s definition of “strong” is based upon an absolute. He knows absolutely that all food is clean, but leaves room for those weak in conscience. In regard to observation of days, which he deals with in a more egalitarian manner, he doesn’t label anyone as weak or strong–they are just different, and as long as what they are doing is done “unto the Lord” they are fine.

    In my opinion, Challies is muddying the waters in trying to hold equally to weak, strong, and egalitarian issue. I do not see Paul doing any such thing. This is why my primary concern here is not necessarily with school choices, but with interpretation of passages.

    Dealing with Tradition
    The tag line for Challies is “Informing the Reforming.” Well, that’s fine and well, but even I, as someone born and raised outside of the Reformed tradition, know that the Reformed church has a long history of promoting a Christian education for Christian children, as well as holding up a Christian education for all children. His assertion that education is morally neutral sounds much more in keeping with the Dispensational tradition {ask me how I know}.

    One of Martin Luther’s first items of business was to turn monasteries into schools for children. All of the reformers–from Luther, to Zwingli, to Bucer, to Calvin, etcetera–believed in the power of education to direct children to God. The original Reformers would never have accepted the idea that education is a morally neutral issue.

    Later down the road we see men, such as Comenius, who carry on in this vein, working towards a Christian education for children.

    The idea that education is “morally neutral” is a result of John Dewey, one of the fathers of pragmatism, who, in applying Darwinism to the classroom, believed that education was totally and completely practical in its ends. It was Dewey who eliminated the spiritual nature of the classroom and recreated it to serve the practical ends of a changing society.

    If Challies has evidence that Dewey’s “morally netural” classroom was actually more in line with Scripture than the Reformers {not to mention the history of the Catholic and Orthodox churches}, I’d love to find out about that.

    I personally have been in all three camps. Growing up, I thought homeschoolers were a bunch of crazies, and if you would have told me I’d be a homeschool mom someday, I’d have laughed at you! Like most pendulum swings, when we decided we were going to homeschool, we just knew homeschooling was the ideal.

    It was only in studying what Scripture actually says about education, from the Old Testament all the way up to the New, that I realized that there was a principle that left a lot of leeway. The principle stands on the foundational idea that education is religious in nature. In Ephesians 6:4 commands fathers to bring their children up in the “paideia of the Lord,” a direct reference to the whole of a child’s education. But what is not mentioned is that the father needs to do this directly. Can he hire a school? A tutor? Do it himself? Have his wife do it? Have a public Christian school do it {if there were such a thing}? Some other option I haven’t thought of?

    Yes. Personally, I think all of those options are equally valid. We here homeschool. This fits our family, our priorities, and our finances. But it isn’t for everyone, and it certainly isn’t the only application of the Biblical principle of Christian education.

    In an age of tolerance, churches still need to preach what is right and true, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us.

    And we still have to have mercy.

    I have met a number of women who would love for their children to have a Christian education, but their husbands have forbidden it, for whatever reason. Paul is also clear that wives must submit to their husbands. In my opinion, especially since Paul directly says that education is the responsibility of fathers, the father’s opinion trumps the mother’s.

    But does this mean our churches ought not to preach Paul’s words on education? That they ought to, in the name of withholding judgment of the “weak,” to leave off the tradition of their elders?

    May it never be.

    I think it is clear that Christians need to speak the truth in love. And we need to abide in love. I can love my brother–regardless of where his children go to school–and still know what Scripture says about the nature of education. I say this especially because I think Paul makes it clear it is the father’s business…which means it’s not mine.

    So What Say YOU?
    Is Afterthoughts overthinking again? Do tell.

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  • Reply Naomi July 9, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Okay, just re-read both your post and Challies’ example and I was clearly off. He is basing his ‘weak’ ‘strong’ analysis on their actions.

    It seems his ‘ideal’ is embracing the liberty the Lord has given.

    “I may homeschool my children while you may place yours in the local public school (or vice versa) and neither of us is necessarily sinning; neither of us has necessarily made a bad choice. This is a secondary issue—a matter of Christian freedom.”

    This would stand true if one believed that the Lord gives us liberty to educate our children in a system that denies His Lordship.

    But I have to agree with what you said that education is religious in nature. Isn’t CM’s great recognition just that?

    Anyway, thank you for your post and tolerating my thinking out loud in your comments section! I appreciate your thoughtfulness on the matter and as always, it is a joy reading your blog!

  • Reply Naomi July 8, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Thank you so much for posting on this! I’m trying to understand if he is talking about who is weak or strong based on our educational *choices*, or our *attitudes* towards others for their educational choices. I keep leaning towards the ‘attitudes’ being what he is talking about here.

    In his example he is saying that the one who judges another’s choice to send their children to public school is weak, and the one who feels the freedom to *thoughtfully* choose to send their children to public school is strong. (I probably would have used the example of one who judges and one who doesn’t rather than one who judges and one who feels freedom, since these seem two separate things. The one who judges may also feel freedom or not so I’m not sure that was the best comparison.)

    And it’s at this point where things begin to blur for me because in the scripture – one is weak or strong based on their actions; their choice to do something or to abstain from it, and Paul condemns those who judge whatever choice a person makes. In Challies’ posts, he is saying one is either weak or strong based on whether we judge another’s choices, which I don’t think is right no matter how we look at it. I’m growing more confused as I write this! I think this may be beyond my thinking ability.

    In any case, thank you for posting – I don’t know that I’ve exercised my brain quite this much since the baby was born ;-p

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts July 8, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Mystie, Your comment is intriguing. I have subscribed to Challies off and on for many years, so that first homeschooling to public schooling article must have been during a time I wasn’t reading him. I suppose if I had that in the back of my mind as a context, I might not have been so concerned. He says *nothing* in his current series about the need for a Christian father to provide a Christian education for his children. In my experience, when people are choosing between public school and something else, they are really choosing between Christian and nonchristian education *and they know this*. What they are doing is deciding how important Christian education really is to them. Or, as you say, they haven’t really been instructed that Christian education is important, so they only have a vague intuitive sense that Christian education might be superior in some way, but usually even then they are thinking academics, not that education is a spritual enterprise.

    Goodness. I need to go hold a sick toddler now. I’ll try and get through the rest of these comments sometime this weekend…

  • Reply Rebekah July 8, 2011 at 12:21 am

    What an interesting post. I know we do not share the same religion but all the same I too believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The same sort of debate goes on amongst those of my faith. Often we speak of praying to know if homeschooling is the right thing to do. To me that is a misguided way to think that is highly influenced by socially accepted norms. I think instead we should be praying if sending our kids to public school is the right thing to do. In addition to all the great scriptures in the Bible about teaching our children we have scriptures that say we need to teach our children with the Spirit (Holy Ghost) and many of our leaders have emphasized the importance of parents for children to be responsible for their children’s education.

    One leader said, “I can say that it is good and wise and judicious in parents to instruct their children in the way. If they wish the word of the Lord upon the subject, I will give it to you and you may, any of you, write it down if you please. It is the will of the Lord our God that we teach our children the way of righteousness from the Holy Scriptures and there is no better method than for mothers to teach them at home, and in the Sunday Schools.”

    Anywho…I hope you don’t mind my sharing a different perspective… I enjoyed reading yours.:)

  • Reply Heather July 7, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    I wasn’t aware of this series by Challies so thanks for the heads up. I doubt I’ll read the posts and comments since you have provided such a nice summary. I don’t know to how to say this exactly, but I don’t find his posts as pithy or helpful as I once did. In this case, I don’t think he understands (or perhaps he doesn’t want to understand) why Christians are rejecting the pagan school system. If he truly did, I don’t see why he would go to Romans 14. Brandy, thank you as always for taking the time to think out loud about these issues. I find your posts and the ensuing discussions very pithy. 🙂

  • Reply Daisy July 7, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Where to start? First, I appreciate Challies and his blog much of the time. Second, I was glad he brought up the issue because there does need to be more GRACE shown within the Christian community in regards to this issue. Third, if this was truly as issue that fit within the Romans framework, I’d agree with him.

    But…Nicely put, he doesn’t have a clue. LOL. His views are so myopic.

    There is so much more here than just an argument over spiritual freedom. He offers no Biblical argument for secular education of covenant children. He just assumes it is Biblically permissible.

    I could go on about other issues within the posts, but this is the biggest one. He is very clear about his position and will not be moved from it. Because he knows his position is not Biblically tenable, he had to resort to attacking the conflict surrounding the issue.

    Typical really. Isn’t it easier to do that. We saw the same thing with Rob Bell (Note, I am NOT comparing Challies to Rob Bell at all!). But it is man’s nature to put focus on the heat of the debate when the position itself is indefensible.

  • Reply Sallie @ A Quiet Simple Life July 7, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    No, I don’t think you are overthinking. 🙂

    I skimmed the articles and skimmed a few comments on the last one. But I agree that I don’t think Romans 14 works well here for what he is trying to accomplish. He obviously wanted to address the topic, but I would never have thought of Romans 14 as a way to do so.

    And in light of what David and I have been deciding for Caroline (homeschool vs. a primarily Reformed Christian school)… I was rather surprised that Challies (as a prominent person in the Reformed camp) basically dismissed Christian school out of hand. That struck me as really weird. But if he is trying to make his point based on using Romans 14, then there is no room to discuss a solid Christian school because it doesn’t fit with the stronger/weaker paradigm.

    I think his dismissal of Christian school bothered me more than anything since it completely eliminates what should be a very viable option for many parents. Not all, but many. As someone with a Reformed view, I would have liked to have seen him address why the Reformers believed so much in a Christ-centered education. He does much to uphold and advance the Reformed position online, but historically what he is saying (and doing) by sending his own children to public school is not in line with that historical view. I’m not trying to judge him here, but just agreeing with your point that it seems rather inconsistent.

    I didn’t find his concluding example very compelling either.

    Good food for thought! 🙂

  • Reply Mystie July 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Great post, Brandy. I haven’t read Challies’ series, but I’ll put it on my to-read list. I did read his series a couple years ago on why they switched from homeschooling to public schooling. It was fascinating and stretching. I disagreed with some of his points, and some of his points had to do with their particular situation and what they felt was their families’ calling (reaching out to the neighborhood and becoming a part of the community). Now, I think the “salt and light” argument is totally bunk, but Challies framed it in such a way that — in their circumstance — I could see what he meant. And at that time, I did turn to “let each man be convinced in his own mind.” I saw it was possible for a man to know all and agree with all the education premises of the homeschool community, and yet decide that it is possible to give their children a Christian education while having them in the public school.

    I *do* think that’s possible, too. But I have tended to assume that people who go that route just haven’t really thought about it or encountered good teaching yet — and they won’t be held responsible for not following what they don’t know (I can find the various references in the Bible for that, if necessary). Challies was the first I encountered who *did* know, did not reject, but yet chose conscientiously to send his kids to public school. At least then he was not saying that one did not need to provide children with a Christian education, or that education is the responsibility of the parents, but that it was possible to do so — harder, but maybe more completely, even — while the kids went to public school. I think it was more the “greenhouse” argument he was rejecting.

    Oh, I have to go now for a bit. I’ll be back later. 🙂

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