The Role of Fathers
Rev. Ian Hamilton
This is an edited transcript of a sermon by Ian Hamilton, preached at Cambridge Presbyterian Church, January 9, 2000 as part of a series on Christian family relationships.
"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)
It is very striking that Paul should give so much attention to Christian family relationships. He is in part doing so to impress upon us the familial shape of biblical religion - that God has been pleased to be gracious to families, and within those families to be at work graciously integrating them into loving units of grace and obedience. These units in turn will become part of that greater unit and more enduring reality which is the bride of Christ, the church of the Living God. Paul is not in any sense painting for us here some kind of unrealizable, unattainable ideal. This may well be the impression we receive as we read these verses through the prism of the world we live in; we see so little of this manifested, not only in the world around us, but sadly, and perhaps even tragically, in the church of Christ itself. Rather, Paul is contouring for us what we might call "normal Christian family life." That is not to say that we will all realize what God expects of us. We are sinners; we fail and we fall. And the best of husbands, wives, mothers and fathers will every day repent before God of their failures. Nonetheless, what we have here is not some unrealizable ideal but rather what God would look to see pattern normal family life.
When we find these verses challenging us and searching us, we need to remind ourselves that we have not been left alone to live out what God calls us to in the gospel. He has sent the Holy Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who is described in Romans 8:26 as the Helper. The Spirit will help us in our weaknesses. He is the one who comes alongside us, who bears the heavy end of the burden (literally). These are not unrealizable ideals. These are what God looks to see mark the normal day-to-day relationships of his people. We must not allow ourselves to be conditioned by the expectations of a twisted fallen world. How easy it is for us, almost unconsciously, to imbibe the low expectations of the world! On the contrary, we are called to take to heart the glorious expectations of the God of grace, which he looks to see mark our lives as we seek with the Spiritís help to live out our lives in obedience to His Word.
Who is in Charge?
The first thing we notice is that the spiritual care and nurture of children within the covenant family is pre-eminently the responsibility of parents and especially of fathers. Now I have little doubt that when Paul says "Fathers, do not exasperate your children", he was not in any sense excluding mothers. He was simply speaking here of fathers as the covenant head, the God-ordained heads of their wives and of their families. There is little doubt that included in the word "fathers" there is also the reality of mothers. But it is significant, nonetheless, that the apostle should draw particular attention to the responsibility of the covenant head in the relationship of parents to their children. Perhaps, knowing men as he did and knowing the man that he was, he knew the propensity of fathers, probably more than mothers, to exasperate their children. Instead he says, "bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord".
Now the very simple initial point that the apostle is establishing here is that parents, and in particular fathers, and not the church, and not the Sunday School, and not Bible Class, or any other agency, have the primary responsibility before God for the spiritual care and nurture of children. We need to recover the immense responsibility that God has given to parents to engage in the spiritual care and nurture of their little ones. One of the great tragedies of evangelical Christianity of the past century has been the demise of family worship. We have tended to delegate such matters to the church, to the Sunday School and other agencies. "No", says the Apostle. "Fathers and mothers together, you have this great responsibility before God to bring up your children in the training and instruction of the Lord." Now, we live in a world where this is no easy thing; many men still have the main responsibility in their families for being the breadwinners. It is very easy for us to be doctrinaire. Men come home tired and weary and it would be very easy to delegate that responsibility, perhaps to your wife or perhaps even to the church. But how we need to reflect on the responsibility we have been given! As fathers, the greatest good you and I will ever do for our children is to make time for the culture and welfare of their souls before God. That will be the greatest legacy you will ever leave your children in this world, for three reasons.
Firstly, because their eternal salvation depends upon it. Of course, God is sovereign. He saves whomsoever he will. And yet parents have this great responsibility of nurturing their children in the saving righteousness of Jesus Christ. We read of young Timothy that from infancy he had known the sacred scriptures, which were able to make him wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Scripture is Godís principal means to make us wise for salvation. John Calvin comments on these verses, "Timothy sucked in Godliness with his motherís milk."
Secondly, because their usefulness to God in life depends upon it. We have in the book of Samuel the tragic illustration of Eli and his two sons Hophni and Phineas. What spiritual derelicts these boys became! And why was that? Because Eli had neglected the culture of their souls. He had left off the responsibility of reproving them and rebuking them and training them in righteousness.
Thirdly, our childrenís happiness in life depends upon it. Remember the words of the opening Psalm, "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, or sits in the way of sinners, or stands in the seat of scoffers." Blessed, richly, profoundly happy is he. Now where do our children learn what blessedness is? Good parents give themselves to their childrenís physical well-being, their mental well-being, their social well-being. But what about their spiritual well-being? Fathers and mothers, do you see this as the greatest of all responsibilities and the greatest of privileges, of being given by God these little lives and under God being their spiritual tutors in the way of Jesus Christ? Do you think of it daily as a privilege that awes and inspires you and humbles you, so that not a day goes by but that you did not grieve and repent before God your failure to be the best kind of spiritual tutor?
A young man who was on trial for a very serious trial in New York was asked by the judge if he had any last words to speak before he pronounced sentence. The young man spoke these words, "My parents taught me to believe in God, and to live as if he didnít matter". Would that not be an indictment above all indictments if our children were to say that about us at the bar of God? "My parents did not give themselves as seriously, as wholeheartedly, as gently, and as generously to spiritual things as they should have done."
Do Not Exasperate
The second thing we learn is that the spiritual nurture of our children must be gentle and sensitive. "Fathers," writes the apostle, "do not exasperate your children. Instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.." These tender little plants are to be cared for. The verb used here, "bring them up" is striking. Calvin paraphrases it very beautifully as "cherish fondly" and says, "All our spiritual culture and welfare is to be surrounded by sensitive, gentle, fondness." Why does Paul give this warning? Because he knows how easy it is for even the best of men and women to be spiritually insensitive to their children, and to impose on their children standards and requirements beyond their years. Weíre told that even our Lord Jesus Christ learned obedience, that he grew in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and men. There was progressiveness; there was mental and emotional development.
How do we exasperate our children? There are many different ways. We exasperate them by imposing thoughtlessly our own convictions on them. We exasperate them by showing unthinking favouritism among them. Remember Jacob and Joseph. The problem with Jacobís brothers could be traced back to Josephís father. We exasperate them by not making time for them. If youíre too busy for them, then you are too busy. You need to re-orient your pattern of life. We exasperate them by not understanding how they tick. Our children are very different from us in terms of the world they are growing up in. They are perhaps far more sophisticated in their thinking processes than we were. How easy it is to forget that they are growing up in this decade, and not the 50s or 60s! We must take time to understand how they think, because their mental processes change as the years change.
We exasperate them, above all, by living an inconsistent life. Our children see the kind of lives we live. We must live out before them the principles we teach. Children can cope with our mistakes as long as they see the consistency of what we say and how we live. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes a very pertinent comment: "If parents gave as much thought to the rearing of their children, as they do to the rearing of animals and flowers, the situation would be very different." We could say the same of accumulating libraries, or of any other interest that we might have.
Paul reminds us that the atmosphere of spiritual culture is vital. Our children must know that we hold them high in our hearts. Consider our great God: "He tends his flock like a shepherd, he gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart. He gently leads those that have young" (Isaiah 40). That is the great paradigm for fathers and mothers.
Thirdly, the spiritual nurture and care of our children requires training. There is no single word to translate here what the Greek is saying, but perhaps the best and nearest word is discipline. The same word is taken up in Hebrews 12. "Bring them up (fondly cherish them), in the nurture (training) and discipline of the Lord". You will notice from these verses that Christian discipline or correction is not an end in itself; it has a positive goal. Look at verse 10: "Our fathers disciplined us for a while as they thought best." God disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness. Verse 11: "No discipline seems pleasant at the time but painful but later on it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."
The very notion of discipline runs counter to the sinful self-exalting thinking that prevails today. Discipline is thought to be cruel; but we need to turn the tables and say that the very reverse is the case. It is those who refuse to discipline, correct and rebuke their children who are cruel. Proverbs 19 "Discipline your son, for in that there is hope. Do not be a willing party to his death." If you leave your children undisciplined as Eli did, you become a party to their spiritual death. Failure to discipline gives the impression that sin is a light matter. Our children need to learn from their earliest days that sin will shut them out of heaven. They must learn before God to hate sin, and not to strike against discipline but to realize that their parents are doing this for their good, to remind them of their heavenly Fathersís concern for their soul. How are we to do this? How are we to fondly cherish our children and yet at the same time discipline them? We need to make sure of three things. Firstly, that our discipline is reasoned and reasonable. Secondly, that it is consistent and not arbitrary. Thirdly, that it is deserved and not undeserved.
It is very easy to go over the top, and to be sterner than we need have been. However, we may also be so compliant with our children that we barely rebuke or discipline them at all. This is why Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his excellent series on these verses, makes this comment, "When you are disciplining a child, you should first have controlled yourself. For what right have you to say to your child that he or she needs discipline when you obviously need it yourself?" Isnít that something that we all need to take to heart? How can we discipline our children if we have not first disciplined ourselves?
Christian discipline will take different forms. It may be physical: "Spare the rod, spoil the child." It may consist of withholding privileges, such as grounding them. Every family and every child is different. What works with one child will not work with another, and that is why we need to be thoughtful. We need to listen to one another and asking "How did you cope with that with your child?" You may not do what that person does, but it will help you perhaps form a way of how you are going to do it. We must also learn to apologize to our children when we get it wrong - as indeed we will. But what we must seek to ensure is that from their earliest days, our children learn that God takes sin seriously.
Good Fruit or Bitter Harvest?
All this is why we seek to instruct our children in the things of God. The results? Our children will thank God for us; if not now, then later. They will thank God that they had parents who loved them enough to discipline them for the good of their souls. However, if we fail in these matters, we will store up a bitter harvest for coming years. That is why in Hebrews 12, we see what the model father does. Notice in verse 5, we are told that this is a word of encouragement. "My son do not make light of the Lordís discipline. Do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves and punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons." What an immense responsibility we have, but what a great privilege - to be Godís servants to our children.
A Word to Children
Children, when your parents have to discipline you, donít ever think that they enjoy it. Many times we have had to cry to God for the grace to do it, and with sore hearts we take up the responsibility. Do not chafe at your parentsí discipline. If you think they are going over the top, there may be a time later to say "Dad, do you think we really deserved that?" But make it as easy as you can for your parents. Itís hard being a parent and getting it right. That is why we donít always get it right. It is not easy and one day you will be mums and dads and faced with the same difficulties. What is the right proportion, and how long should it last and what is the best way to do it? Make it as easy for us as you can because we are weak. We are sinners. We donít always get it right.
And parents, let our children see that what we do, we do because we love them and fondly cherish them. It is because we love them and because we have the welfare of their souls at heart before God that we sometimes have to take decisions that they donít like. Thus we may lead them in the paths of righteousness, that our children might rise up and call us blessed. Isnít that the desire of your heart; that your children would rise up on the Day of Christ and call you blessed, because you fondly cherished them in the discipline of Christ? May God help us to be such a people, to take up our privileges and responsibilities with the help of the Holy Spirit and to rise to the challenge. And may God use us in all our feebleness to be the spiritual instructors of our little ones. Amen.