Advice for Parents

by Ron Nash

Dr. Ronald Nash is professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Earlier in his career, he spent 27 years as an administrator and professor at Western Kentucky University. Nash holds degrees from Brown University and Syracuse ( Ph.D.). He is the author or editor of close to 30 books. He has lectured at more than 60 colleges and universities In the U.S. He has also lectured to large audiences throughout the former Soviet Union. Dr. Nash served two terms as an advisor to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

This material is taken from his book The Totally Useable Summit Ministries Guide to Choosing a College.


Family Differences
The Meaning of the Word Christian
A Question of Values
The Level of Emotional Concern
The Level of Spiritual Concern
The Level of Theological Concern
The Level of Intellectual Concern
Helping Children Get an Early Start

Suppose you won the lottery. Suppose a millionaire found your name in the phone book and designated you as his sole heir. Suppose you could wallpaper your home with $100 bills, and still have money to burn. Would you be willing to take a $75,000 gamble?

More to the point, would you be willing to gamble $75,000 and your son or daughter's future?

Most parents don't have $75,000 to throw around, nor are they willing to risk their children's future on a bad bet. Until college. Then, for whatever reason, families will spend $75,000 (or more!) on an "education" that does their children more harm than good. Christian parents who wouldn't let their kids out of the house without a compass and a flare gun suddenly pay good money to see their kids indoctrinated by anti-Christian professors.

Let's face it: sending your kids to college is a big investment, both financially and spiritually. Before making any decisions, you should set some ground rules and prepare to help your children in any and every way. This chapter establishes the foundation for beginning the college selection process.

Family Differences

Every family using this book is different. Individuals within families vary in their religious commitment; a wife may take her Christianity more seriously than her husband. One or more members of the family may not be Christian.

Families also differ in the extent to which they understand important doctrines of the Christian faith. Some families know the Bible better, understand Christianity better, or have a better grasp of the various conflicts between their culture and the Christian faith. Some families read more widely than others. Some have a longer history of contact with higher education.

In some families, the parents are committed believers, while the child may be lukewarm toward the faith and lack interest in important religious, spiritual, and moral issues. In other families, it is the young person whose commitment to Christ stands out, and it is the parents who may be indifferent toward Christianity. Some parents and young people see college only in terms of how it will contribute to the student's worldly success. In other cases, there is more concern that the student leave college as a committed believer trained to take whatever place God has for him or her in the world.

All these variables pose a challenge for anyone writing a book on this subject. Ideally, we would like to assume that every parent and student begins the college selection process at the same point: as faithful, practicing Christians who know the Bible well, who are familiar with contemporary challenges to the Christian faith, and who understand the importance of higher education regardless of what kind of vocation is planned, recognizing that the purpose of a college degree is to help the Christian better discharge his or her responsibility to God in life.

If this book ends up in homes where members of the family are not Christians, don't know the Bible or the doctrines of Christianity as well as they should, don't pay attention to what's going on in the world, don't read serious books, ignore the development of their mind as well as their spirit, or care little about putting God and His kingdom first, we hope that some of the things said will encourage them to begin addressing these problems. But this particular book has other issues to discuss.

The Meaning of the Word Christian

This book is offered as a guide to Christian parents and students. Because the word Christian means so many different things to people, we ought to spend a little time explaining how the term is used in this book.

The word Christian is sometimes understood to mean any person born in the United States who is neither an atheist nor a member of some non-Christian sect or religion. Such a broad, indiscriminate use of the term is inconsistent with the New Testament and effectively deprives the word of any significance.

The Christian audience we have in mind is that group of theologically conservative people who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. These people view the Bible as God's inspired revelation and treat it as their basic rule of faith and practice. People like this are often-at least in the United States-called evangelicals.[1] In short, we are writing this book for people who live within the rather large religious family known as American evangelicalism. If estimates can be believed, there are around sixty million such evangelicals in America.

If they are properly informed, all members of the larger evangelical family share a number of core beliefs. For example, they believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. As the Apostles' Creed states, "I believe in God the Father Almighty . . . and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord . . . [and] in the Holy Spirit." As one consequence of this, they believe in the deity of Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was not simply a human being. Nor is it correct to say simply that Jesus was like God. All orthodox Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is God. Evangelical Christians use the word incarnation to express their belief that the birth of Jesus Christ marked the entrance of the eternal and divine Son of God into the human race. Orthodox Christians also believe that Jesus entered this world expressly to die. The purpose of His death was to make things right between the Holy God and sinful humans who, because of sin, are separated from God. Jesus' death was neither an accident nor an act of martyrdom. He died as a sacrifice for human sins. It is important, evangelicals insist, that human beings realize that Christ died for us. He took the punishment that we deserve. He died in our place.

Evangelical Christians also believe in the physical resurrection of Christ, the central event of the New Testament. Such people recognize the human need for forgiveness and redemption and stress that the blessings of salvation are possible only because of Jesus' death and resurrection. Evangelicals note the importance that Jesus Himself placed upon conversion when He said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change [are converted] and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). Christ's redemptive work is the ground, or basis, of human salvation; in order to be saved, human beings must repent of their sins and believe. Accepting Christ as one's Lord and Savior brings about a new birth, a new heart, a new relation to God, and a new power to live (see John 3:3-21; Hebrews 8:10-12; 1 John 3:1-2; and Galatians 2:20). Orthodox Christians also believe the Apostles' Creed when it states that Christ shall come from heaven "to judge the quick [living] and the dead." These are just some of the central, or core, beliefs shared by all knowledgeable evangelical Christians.

This core of evangelical belief is challenged today from many directions-most significantly, in colleges and universities. Professors deny the existence of God and glorify man; they preach selfishness as a virtue and mock belief in moral absolutes; they claim this world is all that exists and that mind, thought, will, and conscience are just illusions; they embrace any myth as truth and deride Christian truth as myth.

Unfortunately, many Christians have such a weak understanding of their own religion that they are unable to articulate what they believe, let alone explain why they believe it. These Christians are especially susceptible to challenges to their faith by anti-Christian professors and peers.

A Question of Values

You have a choice. Your son or daughter can learn that Dr. Jack Kevorkian is a dangerous man, or they can learn that he is a merciful saint worthy of our imitation. Which do you choose?

In the real world, of course, the choices aren't always that clear-cut. But this scenario illustrates something Christian parents should never forget: families have every right to choose a college that they believe will support values important to them. To knowingly select a college that regularly attacks or undermines such values would be foolish and irresponsible.

Whenever we choose thoughtfully, we rank things according to their importance to us and choose those options that offer us more of the things that matter most to us. Readers not part of the wider Christian family may not share some of the values that should be part of the decision-making process for evangelical parents and students. But such non-Christians ought to appreciate the fact that Christian families have a right to make choices consistent with and supportive of their values. Within a free society, that is their privilege. Within the Christian family, that is their duty. Hence, it is perfectly proper for Christian families to appraise educational institutions in terms of these values.

Some of these values are obviously going to be religious in nature. How could it be otherwise for Christian families? Christian parents understandably take their belief system seriously and want their children to share those beliefs.

We have just identified a number of beliefs that should be important to all Christians. But some Christians also get excited about less central-or more debatable-issues. That is, they take certain beliefs and practices as important, when others within the larger family of evangelicalism disagree.

Some of these differences are the sorts of things that divide us denominationally. We mention them here because the kinds of things that make some of us Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, or Presbyterians are also legitimate factors to consider when choosing a college. If certain denominational distinctives are important to your family, then they are something you'll want to consider in the college selection process.

If it is important to your family that your child attend a college related to your denomination, or one which supports beliefs and practices associated with your denomination, it is our contention that this is both your privilege and your right. Again, Christians would be remiss if they ignored their belief system when selecting teachers for their children.

Christians disagree over many things: some of us are Calvinists, while others are Arminians. Some are Pentecostal or charismatic; others are not. Some are dispensationalists; others are not. When families feel strongly about these matters, they might decide to avoid a college where such a belief is treated unsympathetically. This is not a practice we necessarily recommend; we simply see nothing wrong with it. When a Methodist or Calvinistic or charismatic family finds themselves leaning toward a college that they know will treat their convictions sympathetically, their action is both understandable and proper. Likewise, other families with the same convictions may recognize that these issues are less central than the core of Christian beliefs, and may feel comfortable choosing a college that takes a different stance on such issues. Neither of these attitudes is necessarily wrong.

Christians also disagree on issues that seem less directly related to doctrinal matters, such as social and political beliefs. For example, some churches are pacifist, while others believe the Bible recognizes the possibility of "just" wars. A family that has a low opinion of political conservatism would probably decide against sending their child to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University or to the graduate school at Pat Robertson's CBN University, both of which, incidentally, are fine institutions. On the other hand, a politically conservative Christian family might think twice about sending their child to one of the growing number of evangelical colleges exhibiting a bias toward political liberalism (provided the family knows about this bias). While the conservative bent of Liberty University is common knowledge, the liberal bias at many highly regarded evangelical colleges is seldom mentioned in public. We're not sure why this is so, unless the administrators at these colleges fear it might hurt their student recruitment.

It is perfectly proper, then, for Christian families to take values and beliefs into account when choosing a college. Parents should expect a college to represent their most fundamental values well to their children. Parents must, however, prioritize these values. In college as in life, the ideal situation rarely exists; we must often sacrifice the perfect on the altar of the good. There are some values which we will not compromise at any cost (hopefully, our core Christian beliefs, integrity, etc.), but there are other less important concerns we might willingly sacrifice to see our basic values promoted. An extreme example: suppose you found an affordable college that represents your Christian beliefs perfectly, including your nonessential doctrine, and is an academic powerhouse-but you don't like the school colors. You value the color green, and are disgusted by the colors purple and orange. Must you abandon this college choice? Obviously not.

A more realistic example: you have narrowed your list of possible colleges down to two schools-one affordable Christian college that is true to the Christian core beliefs but doesn't represent certain nonessential doctrinal issues the way you would like, and one expensive Christian college that does both things well. You value providing your student with an education like the one available at the second college, but you also value being a good steward of your money. The decision is not easy. The only way you can make a thoughtful decision is to prioritize your values. As we have said, all of your values matter-when choosing a college, you must decide which values matter most.

Throughout this discussion of foundational issues that parents must consider, one assumption has remained constant: we assume you care about your children. Not a very radical assumption, is it? But parental concern functions on several different levels. Where parents stand on this ladder of concern will affect the quality of their influence on the college selection process.

The Level of Emotional Concern

The first and most basic level of parental concern is emotional. This is where all of us who are parents begin; we regard any parent lacking this level of concern as abnormal. We love our children; we care what happens to them; we want the best for them.

There is nothing wrong with this level of parental concern for one's children. The problem arises when parents' concern for their children fails to go beyond this level. You should love your children. You should also recognize that your concern for them must function on other levels as well.

The Level of Spiritual Concern

When a parent's concern is limited merely to the emotional, that parent's vision of what is most important for the child will be defective in important ways. Many parents seem incapable of seeing beyond the goal of temporal happiness and success for their children. This happiness is usually linked to "a good job" that includes a salary that will permit them to comfortably satisfy most of their material wants and needs. For such parents, a college education is seen simply as a means to such an end.

The wise Christian parent recognizes that there is more to life than this. God calls His children to live their lives for Him and for others. Parents who reach the level of spiritual concern want more than earthly success and material prosperity for their children. They want their children to be faithful believers who love the Lord and His Word, and who sincerely want to do His will. Some of the major issues at the level of spiritual concern are conversion, Christian living, and Christian service.

This does not mean, of course, that every Christian parent hopes their son or daughter will be a missionary. We should thank God for talented young people who decide to prepare for a career in some form of ministry, but we should also thank God for talented and faithful young people who decide to fulfill their Christian vocation as farmers, teachers, businesspeople, and auto mechanics.

The Level of Theological Concern

You will never meet a genuine Christian who disparages the importance of conversion, faith, commitment, sacrifice, Bible study, holy living, and the like. But you can find lots of Christians who have not yet seen the importance of sound doctrine. It is important that we believe (spiritual concern), but it is also important what we believe (theological concern).

More than eighty years ago, a great Scottish theologian named James Orr puzzled over Christians who treat the doctrinal element of Christianity as unimportant. "If there is a religion in the world which exalts the office of teaching," he wrote, "it is safe to say that it is the religion of Jesus Christ."[2] While doctrine is unimportant in most pagan religions, Orr continued, "this is precisely where Christianity distinguishes itself from other religions-it does contain doctrine. It comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge, through a knowledge which is only attainable under moral conditions."[3] Orr was amazed that any discerning Christian could be uncertain about the importance of doctrine for Christianity. "A religion based on mere feeling is the vaguest, most unreliable, most unstable of all things. A strong, stable, religious life can be built upon no other ground than that of intelligent conviction . . . . Christianity, therefore, addresses itself to the intelligence as well as to the heart."[4]

Some Christian churches appear to stress only doctrine or creeds; they seem to say that the only important thing is believing the correct propositions. In extreme cases, some of these denominations fail to tell people that there is a personal side to the Christian faith. This is a grave error. We must believe the right truths; but we must also believe in the right person, Jesus Christ! What we know objectively must be combined with a genuine subjective commitment.

Likewise, there are Christian churches that emphasize only the subjective or inner side of Christian faith, neglecting the objective, theological side. This, too, is a grave error. Whenever this happens, Christians are operating with something less than the full gospel.

Unfortunately, examples of churches that have abandoned sound doctrine abound. One specific denomination comes to mind. Most of its members claim to have had the religious experience called conversion; they have been properly concerned about holy living, prayer, and Christian experience. But for decades, many of the clergy and laypeople in this denomination ignored the importance of sound doctrine. During those years, some unfortunate things took place in the colleges and seminaries of the denomination. In many of these schools, professors and administrators began to move away from essential Christian beliefs; they took positions that undermined the authority of the Bible. Various types of liberalism became entrenched on many of these campuses.

Still, thousands of faithful parents continued to send their children to schools in this denomination. While at these schools, the beliefs of many of these young people were changed dramatically. Many left their denomination's schools with their faith in the Bible and in New Testament Christianity badly weakened. Because the denomination tended to downplay or ignore doctrine, no one, it seemed, paid any attention, while the theological situation in the colleges and seminaries grew even worse. Today, earnest and pious members of that denomination continue to financially support schools that often tear down the very doctrines these Christians would defend with their lives-if only they could rise to the level of theological concern. A similar pattern is being followed in a number of American denominations where the people in the churches are more conservative than those who are running the academic institution. While the faithful church members, who pay the bills, concentrate on their own religious experience, the professors in their denominational colleges and seminaries are tinkering with the theological foundations of the Christian faith.

If your children are to be properly prepared for the years ahead, they should know the objective dimension of their faith; they should understand what they as Christians are supposed to believe. Moreover, they should be introduced to the good and sound reasons why Christians believe these truths. The children of most Christian parents enter college with absolutely no preparation for the challenges to their faith that they'll encounter. They have no idea why they believe that God exists or why Jesus is the Son of God or why the miracle of Christ's resurrection occurred. Suddenly, without any warning, they are confronted by a professor who tells them about the problem of evil. Without any guidance or help, some of them naturally begin to think that perhaps there is no reason for the evil that exists in the world; maybe God isn't all-powerful after all; or perhaps God doesn't really exist. Even worse, when and if they ask their parents about these problems, they discover that their parents don't have any answers either. Christian parents who have failed to rise to the level of theological concern cannot possibly be ready to provide help for their children in these situations.

To reach this level of concern, parents must first understand their belief system. Then they must consciously take steps to explain doctrine to their children. This task is every bit as important as finding the money to pay for your children's education. But it remains a job that most Christian parents never even begin.

For parents who want to become theologically concerned, this book can serve as the first step. When you finish reading this you will have a plan for the ongoing preparation of your student for college.

The Level of Intellectual Concern

Now we approach the hardest rung of the ladder to get most Christian parents to climb. With some coaxing, Christian parents can recognize the need to become concerned regarding theology. At least in theology you're dealing with issues that have a clear relevance to Christian faith. But intellectual concern? Most parents' idea of intellectual concern begins and ends with ensuring that their children don't become "nerds."

What makes this last level-the level of intellectual concern-so much tougher to achieve is its apparent irrelevance to typical religious concerns. This level focuses on knowledge for its own sake: the study of history or mathematics or economics or philosophy or art or music, even when no direct relationship to Christianity is apparent.

One of the biggest obstacles in all this is getting Christian parents (and students) to appreciate the importance of their minds. Too often, Christians condense the first and greatest commandment; we are willing to love God with heart, soul, and strength-just as long as we can get our minds off the hook (see Matthew 22:37). But this practice of compartmentalizing knowledge into "sacred" and "secular" boxes is unbiblical and leads to the dangerous notion that secular knowledge is somehow unfit for the spiritual Christian. Such an attitude creates the intellectual equivalent of ostriches: Christians with their heads buried, unable to apply their faith to disciplines like economics, law, or philosophy-disciplines that desperately need the true foundation, Jesus Christ.

Although the truth God has revealed in scripture is sufficient for faith and conduct, it is not exhaustive. The truth we can find outside the Bible is also important and worthy of our attention and careful study. We must reject the mistaken belief that faith somehow provides the Christian with a shortcut that eliminates any need for a grounding in so-called secular areas of learning.

During 1987 and 1988, the literary world was shocked to discover that a serious book by a University of Chicago philosopher had become a best-seller. That book, The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, is worthwhile reading for any Christian who aspires to reach the intellectual level of concern. While it is not a religious book, much that Bloom says about higher education will be appreciated by Christian readers. For example, Bloom writes that many modern families "have nothing to give their children in the way of a vision of the world, of high models of action or profound sense of connection with others . . . . The family requires a certain authority and wisdom about the ways of the heavens and of men. The parents must have knowledge of what has happened in the past, and prescriptions for what ought to be, in order to resist the philistinism or the wickedness of the present.[5] In other words, few parents can provide any real help for their children in college unless they also have acquired a foundation in certain important areas.

Bloom continues: "People sup together, play together, travel together, but they do not think together. Hardly any homes have any intellectual life whatsoever, let alone one that informs the vital interests of life."[6] Reflect a bit on all the things your family has done together. When was the last time your family spent time thinking together? Christians need to work at developing a Christian mind; and they should do this in partnership with every other member of their family. Seeking knowledge is an important part of becoming a fully developed Christian (2 Peter 1:5).

Put simply, if parental concern is functioning on all the proper levels, it will include a concern that children develop mentally as well as spiritually. In order for parents to have the same degree of input on the level of ideas as they might have, say, on the emotional and spiritual level, the parents themselves must keep in touch with the contemporary world of ideas.

Most parents are satisfied if they get their child admitted to an acceptable college and find, four years later, that things have worked out well. A smaller number of parents will want to be able to answer their children's questions about theological and intellectual matters, or at least be ready to recommend books that offer answers. A still smaller group of parents will want to be several steps ahead of their kids, anticipating their questions and providing a foundation for future challenges before the questions are even asked. This last group is the most likely to raise godly men and women. How do we know? Because God promises it: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6). The following section provides some suggestions for training godly leaders.

Helping Children Get an Early Start

How does a long-distance runner who wants to win prepare for the race? He trains, and then he sets goals for the race. To be close enough to challenge the leaders at the finish, he must meet certain criteria throughout the race-averaging five-minute miles, say, for the entire course. Likewise, the college student must meet certain goals in order to "finish" (complete his higher education) well. Unfortunately, many college freshmen have fallen way behind in important areas of intellectual development.

For example, many college students are not capable of organizing and writing an articulate essay. Much of the blame for this lies with the poor secondary education they received. But there is another problem: these students simply have not read enough. They cannot spell because they haven't seen most of these words in print; they cannot write because the little they learned about grammar hasn't been reinforced by sufficient reading experience; their paragraphs cannot rise above the mundane because their exposure to the vocabulary and writing style of good authors is so limited.

Bloom believes that students today "have lost the practice of and the taste for reading. They have not learned how to read, nor do they have the expectation of delight or improvement from reading."[7] The rich, wonderful world of great books is as foreign to most modern students as the American continent was to the pilgrims when they first set foot on this land. They knew something was out there but could only guess as to what it was. The failure to read good books, Bloom continues, "enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency-the belief that the here and now is all there is."[8]

Reading isn't just a drab exercise we endure to obtain knowledge. It's a discipline we can enjoy while growing in wisdom. It sounds corny, but it's true: reading is like taking smart pills. Good readers aren't just well-informed; they have a larger practical vocabulary, they are more culturally literate, and they have an ingrained sense of articulate communication.

The Christian parents' task, then, is obvious: encourage your children to read. As children reach appropriate levels in their development, they should read quality books suitable for young people with their ability. It is even better when at least one parent reads the book at the same time and is able to discuss it with the child.

In addition to the great classics, children should be motivated to do the kind of reading and thinking that will prepare them to develop theologically. C.S. Lewis is a marvelous resource for this kind of thing. Lewis's children's stories are an especially good way to get children to start thinking about theological subjects, as well as getting them interested in Lewis as a writer. Once they acquire a taste for Lewis, they may eventually be ready to pick up some of his non-fiction, including Mere Christianity, Miracles and The Problem of Pain.

Any good reading program must include the Bible. Make sure a good, readable, modern version of the Bible is available. Help your children to see how important a good background in the Bible is for understanding many literary classics, including Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities.

Reading, however, is not the end-all and cure-all. Parents should explore other avenues for preparing their students for college. Consider working an educational angle into your family travels. For families that can afford it, foreign travel frequently gets young people excited about new areas of study. A carefully planned trip to Great Britain, for example, can do wonders for a student's interest in history or politics. Other students may find themselves drawn to linguistics, or international communications. Parents might also send their students to programs like Summit Ministries Christian Leadership Seminars to help them better understand their worldview.

The point is, start training. Use your imagination. Perhaps you can use the stock market to cultivate a student's interest in math; maybe you can teach philosophy from your local newspaper's editorial page. Just do it! There's no law about how you teach your children-it just matters what you teach, and how well.

Your child's progress in high school should be carefully monitored. Watch his work in writing courses. Be certain he takes the college preparatory program and skips none of the important courses in English, math, and history. Sometime before your child's junior year in high school, suggest that he or she begin preparing for certain college entrance exams. Most good bookstores carry books that can help students get ready for the SAT and ACT tests. Once you understand these tests yourself, you can explain their importance to your child.

Some parents might object that we are confusing them with their children's teachers. Hear this loud and clear: parents are their children's most important teachers. God ordained it that way (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Ephesians 6:4). Many of the problems of modern civilization have been aggravated by parents' abdication of their rightful role. Christians must lead the restoration of parents to their proper position: teaching.

Besides, if you're not your children's teacher, what are you? A glorified piggy bank? It goes without saying, we assume, that parents can never begin saving too soon to provide financially for their children' s college education. But this, thank God. is not your most important role. By design, your biggest task is training your child the way he or she should go.

Don't feel up to it? Don't worry. The rest of this book will provide some of the groundwork and help you establish a plan. More importantly, God will lead you in your efforts to train; remember, He is abundantly gracious, forever willing to use Christian parents who will humble themselves enough to be used.

In other words, there's no need to be anxious. God can work mightily through the weakest vessels. This chapter was not intended to create high blood pressure or tension headaches-we simply needed to define some terms and provide some encouragement. Now that you're motivated, it's time we turned our attention to a really big question: should your student go to college?


1. For a more complete discussion of evangelicalism, see Ronald Nash, Evangelicalism in America (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987). To understand how evangelicals relate to America's liberal "mainline denominations," see Ronald Nash, ed., Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987).

2. James Orr, The Christian View of God and the World (New York, NY: Scribner, 1904), p. 20.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., pp. 20-21.

5. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 57.

6. Ibid., p. 58.

7. Ibid., p. 64.

8. Ibid.