The old saying that that religion and politics should never be brought up in polite society needs expanding. Don’t mention education either! In a recent article in The New Yorker (April 3rd, 2023), Emma Green showed just how much is at stake here, particularly with contemporary partisan politics in mind. She names names, stating in her subtitle that “Conservatives like Ron DeSantis see Hillsdale College as a model for education nationwide”.[1] Green carefully nuances her terms, giving voice to different groups. But in the end a term that she somewhat lands on when speaking of the whole controversy is “classical education.” As a quick aside, readers seeking an ‘on-ramp’ to this subject should read Stanley Fish’s New York Times piece of 2010, which begins with the amusing story of him wearing his high school ring until it wore out. He writes of how it “became black and misshapen,” only for Fish to replaced it with a new one. Why? “[B]ecause although I have degrees from two Ivy league schools and have taught at U.C. Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Duke, Classical High School (in Providence, RI) is the best and most demanding educational institution I have ever been associated with.”[2] Fish commends his rigorous classical high school education, which for him required “four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics, in addition to extra-curricular activities, and clubs — French Club, Latin Club, German Club, Science Club, among many others.”

The phenomenon Green labels as “classical education,” therefore, is not easily type-cast. If one looks at Gerd Theissen’s wonderfully succinct analysis of European education in the 20th century, highlighting the rise of social studies and its influence, one gets a picture that this discussion is complicated and should be treated as such.[3]

The question I want to ask in this article, given that classical education, even classical Christian education has come under scrutiny, is this one: what exactly does it mean to educate someone (particularly a child) in a way that is appropriate, especially with the Jesus of Christian families in mind? What are the principles for different people at different ages? Should Christians, for example, still be using the Trivium as recommended by Dorothy Sayers in her now-famous article of 1947?[4] Should Christians follow Sayer’s lead (drawn from her own personal growth) that in early grades children’s minds are ripe for memorizing, meaning we start with grammar? Should this then be followed by logic, after which we should teach rhetoric?

This is a huge topic to tackle in a short article, and thus I make no claims to completeness. Nevertheless, I wish to attempt to contemplate all this in light of what the Bible has to say. One serious concern is the danger in emphasizing “classical (Christian) education” on exactly these terms, i.e., putting the “Christian” in brackets, i.e., making it secondary. What God wants (some would seem to say) is a classical Christian education, with the emphasis unknowingly falling heavy on the classical part rather than the Christian part. We must be aware that the first Christians were battling worldliness in their own day. And in some cases, this worldliness WAS the “classical” way of thinking—e.g. the striving for personal honor, and the thought that physical beauty was a sign of divine favor. We must be careful not to romanticize things “classical,” without biblical thoughtfulness and scrutiny.

In this article I will argue that Paul would likely not have been directly against certain educational models of his time, even a “classical education.” But I will argue that Paul always was aware of sin in the human heart and yet retained optimism too, a belief in what the Spirit could achieve in a Christian. So perhaps even while we are thinking about education in terms of grammar and logic and rhetoric, we should be conscious too of the X-factors, i.e., the power of sin (not to underestimate it) and the power of the Holy Spirit (not to underestimate this either). More than anything, therefore, I will suggest from this that Paul promoted what we might call a Classical Spiritual Christian Education.

Philemon will be our text of choice for this article, a choice that might at first seem strange. If readers know anything of Paul’s little letter Philemon, they will know that it has always attracted attention regarding the subject of slavery. Here is the story: a man called Onesimus had apparently run away from his master, Philemon. Onesimus was thereby a runaway slave. Somehow, he had come in contact with the apostle Paul and had become a Christian. Hooray! But this created a tension. Runaway slaves were subject to the most severe punishment under Roman law, meaning that if Onesimus went back to Philemon, horrible things could happen to him. But, given Romans 13, we know that Paul has a deep willingness to work within even unjust governmental frameworks. He would have been legally liable if he harbored an escaped slave, yet Philemon was a brother in Christ. How does he navigate this? For this reason, Paul sent Onesimus back with the letter we now have, a letter whose main point is to appeal to Philemon to take Onesimus back without retribution, even with hints that perhaps he should emancipate him.

The letter is therefore a powerful text for considering the issues of slavery. But the way Paul speaks to Philemon, even the way he instructs him—or not—is instructive for thinking about the general area of teaching and training, even the training of children. As we will see presently, Paul started by assuming that Philemon is mature in the Lord, and based on that he chooses simply to persuade him, not to command him. This is very relevant to our discussion, as we will soon see. But then, even though Paul assumed Philemon would act maturely in line with godliness, Paul also (just in case) instructed him as if he were not mature and might make the wrong decision.

This seems quite helpful, because as we think about different levels of maturity and how to approach them, both mature and immature people are suddenly in view. How do we approach maturity and immaturity, even when it may occur within a single person in a short space of time? This is very relevant in raising kids, particularly teens. What I hope to show is that Paul leads with an optimistic agenda, and only afterwards is he more pessimistic. But even in his willingness, this willingness to be optimistic first, Paul was still bold about his responsibilities, a theme also vital for parents to constantly have in mind.

The letter to Philemon, after a few opening niceties, moves to a thanksgiving where Paul is all about thanking God for Philemon. When was the last time you did this regarding someone else and let them know? We are often quite slow to praise, and sometimes we even see a kind of weird competition at work between people and God! Everyone (including myself), we often decide, is awful to the core, most if not all the time, always tainted by error, having nothing good to be proud of; and so, the only person in the universe we can say anything nice about is God! Paul would disagree. He is quite willing to encourage Philemon, by saying lots of nice things about his maturity:

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, in order that your common faith with others may become even more energized by understanding from all the saints, i.e., every single person among you who is for Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the deep emotions of the saints have been revived through you. (Philemon 4-7)

Verse 6 is notoriously difficult. Translations have regularly rendered it differently. I will indulge to give my translation, one that I think best fits with a context of commending maturity. Basically, Paul starts by saying that you (Philemon) have been mature in your help to others: you are mature because you have given out faith and love to the Lord Jesus and to other Christians. Interesting… Maturity is about giving to the Lord. But maturity is also about connection with others, to love them (yes), but also to be willing to share faith with them. Now to verse 6. You have been mature and humble enough to learn from others too.

What an important lesson! It is one thing to be loving enough to give. It is quite another to be humble enough to receive. Paul then goes on to say, verse 7, that he had benefited from Philemon’s love personally, because of the deep emotional encouragement he had given to all the saints. Paul himself, note again, was humble enough to receive and learn from Philemon! Wow! But not that their relationship was just intellectual and moral. Paul writes about both his own joy and also the emotional wellbeing of the saints. There is much here to ponder.

All this is indeed quite an extraordinary description of Christian maturity! First, Paul tells of how Philemon has given out not just love but faith. This suggests that his living trust relationship with the Lord was inspiring others. And as we noted already Philemon was also willing to grow from the faith lives of others. Then, Paul says, even he was helped through Philemon, he and others, helped wholistically, not just in head but in heart.

Where do things go from here? The next section begins, importantly, with the word “Accordingly,” suggesting a direct flow from what had just been said. In accordance with the facts of maturity just discussed, what should I (Paul) now do? He states, in essence, “I will assume the best, feeling the Lord will help you do the right thing, without me needing to harp on it or force your hand:”

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 8-16)

Notice a key point: because of Philemon’s godliness, Paul decides that he is not going to instruct him what to do. Notice in addition the word “compulsion” in verse 14. This reminds us of 2 Cor. 9:7, where Paul tells of God loving a cheerful giver, so that we should ideally not have to compel someone to give, but instead we can trust the Lord to move people. This, we learn from 2 Cor. 9:7 is what God loves!

Now the rubber has started to meet the road. When we train children in a classical (or any other education format), is our belief that our kids will necessarily need to be instructed to minutia, expecting they will always do wrong, or should we start to anticipate that the Spirit of God will work in them, bringing them to maturity, a maturity which will result in good things? There is a fine balance here, as we will see in a moment. Because in just a moment we will notice that while Paul assumes the best, he still plans for the worst! But it is a question of where we lead from, isn’t it, what we expect. Do we box our children into an anticipated assumption of them always sinning? If so, we will always lead with instruction, tending towards control, as we assume that without our constant control they will always go wrong. Or do we look for ways to anticipate the Spirit’s work, praying for such, giving a chance to do what is right, only coming in after with correction if/when things go wrong? Consider Proverbs 22:15: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him”. Is this a statement about what to do when a child goes wrong, showing how tough it is to deal with sin when it rears its head? Or is this a universal outlook we are meant to have? It seems to me that the former is more in line with the whole picture of Scripture, wherein hopes of expressed maturity are always our disposition, leaving room for godliness to shine, and only afterwards correction.

But now it is time to turn back to Philemon one last time and consider: what if maturity doesn’t come forth in a certain situation? Paul, interestingly enough, is not afraid to force matters, just as he has stated in verse 8. He now goes on to speak in commercial and transactional and obligation and obedience language:

17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. (Philemon 17-22)

Notice how in verse 21 Paul now speaks in terms of obedience. The tone has changed. The mood here is different. And it is likely all because Paul only has one shot at Philemon getting it right—and remember that this is a life and death situation. Because of this Paul feels a need to treat Philemon secondarily like an immature person, reminding him that he owes Paul his life; presumably meaning that Paul also led Philemon to the Lord. Paul here is still gentle. But he is also most certainly firm, speaking directly of commanding him. There is a strong tone here, a tone of following up, that if “hopefully” didn’t work out, there is also clarification about obedience.

There is much here that can be applied to today, particularly with the training of children in mind. In the first place, there will be times when giving space for godliness simply doesn’t work. Consider very young children. They will want what they want, and sin will fully rear its ugly head. What do you do? Just as much as you will want to ultimately lead off with optimism, you will necessarily need to be ready to deal with sin. At such times we need to speak of obligation and obedience. And the first point to notice here then is that we must be ready and willing to step up. We must not be naïve. Sin is real and when we are first training our children, we should expect it to come out in lots of different ways.

But as children not only get older in age and development, but also as they grow in the Lord, in Christian maturity, we should expect that things will shift and that the transition from having to go to stage two will be less frequent. And yet, to turn this around one more time, what Paul teaches us here is that we must always be ready for both! This is part of the challenge, a challenge we must keep in mind so we do not get discouraged. We should not be surprised when we need to shift from the optimistic stage to the more controlling one. But we must be willing to make the move when necessary, and we must not get discouraged, because even with such a godly man as Philemon, Paul had to anticipate it!

A note here about teenagers. I have serious concerns that as parents, as we move from the metaphorical police (when kids are young), to coach (when a bit older), to mentors (when they come of age), we somehow often get to the teen years and expect big rebellion, also thinking that now we cannot do anything about it: “Just need them to find their own way from here; I’ve done all I can!” I don’t think Paul would agree. I say this with the greatest caution—and immediately with a reminder that we must lead off with dignity and hopefulness, not typecasting our teens as “evil” and incapable of good choices—but we should not imagine that there is now no longer any place for stipulations. Paul, an adult, saw it as quite appropriate to instruct Philemon (another adult), telling him what is right! If we go to the first few verses of Galatians 6, we see the same. Every Christian is responsible for every other Christian, and how much more then are parents responsible to still seek to sow love and truth into their children while ever there is time? Don’t grow weary!

But a reader might complain: have we actually covered the topic of a classical Christian education? Have all our questions been answered? I would suggest we have laid a groundwork for answering all we set out to answer. The authors of the Bible were not unaware of levels of physical growth and maturity. For example, in 1 John 2, we see a section where the author seems very aware of the different stages of growth and what might be expected:

12 I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. 13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.     I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. 14 I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2)

Note that even here John seems to have in mind a more spiritual growth and maturity.

What then can we say about Dorothy Sayers and the Trivium? about teaching our children different things at different ages? It seems to me that there is nothing in the Bible that would suggest that we shouldn’t take on board human wisdom and understanding here. So, to me this sounds good and wise to have this in mind, provided we do not neglect the sciences, having a truly “classical education” according to Fish’s experience. I would only add too that we never want to take sinful elements of a “classical education”—promoting a striving for honor, an arrogance or manipulation in pride through rhetoric. We would also never want a hint of elitism. This is evil. But what about teaching the “classics,” celebrated literature and foundational languages? Most certainly, in an era where we are liable to the forget the past—good and bad—there is something powerful about such learning.

More important than all this, however, something that must not be missed from Philemon, is that we must always be careful not to forget godliness and what it looks like—faith and love towards Christ and others, and humility to learn from others. We must also be careful not to box in children, assuming they cannot be spontaneous and expressive of faith and love when young, neither that they are not in need of guidance when they are older. Adults (like Philemon) just as much as children, were given instructions!

The last thing to say is that though it is hard, whatever education we are bringing to our kids, it is important… so important! Often it is exhausting, having to flip from optimism and the assumption of good to the need to step in. Sometimes it is just tiring, trying to navigate all the questions and challenges. But it is worth it, as we pray that all that we sow which is good will bear fruit sooner or later, that the Lord might be their love and life.



[3] G. Theissen, Social Reality and the Early Christians: Theology, Ethics, and the World of the New Testament, trans. M. Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 8–15.

[4] D. Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Hibbert Journal 46 (1947): 1–13.

Bruce spent the first portion of his vocational career studying and then working as an Environmental Chemist, having earned a doctorate in Inorganic Analytical Chemistry. Afterwards he was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister and following studies in Ancient History/New Testament he has worked the past 15 years at Reformed Theological Seminary - Atlanta, teaching New Testament, serving now as Dean of Students. Bruce enjoys long walks with his amazing wife of 30 years Rachel, discussing scripture and its implications. They are both convinced that God is the God life, offering us more instruction about this world than we give him credit for. Together they have five children, the oldest three of whom have special needs.

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