1. A Test of Our Transformation
Family life is true test of how much we have been transformed by the gospel. Our family is often the place where we are free to be ourselves, where our character, values and priorities readily emerge. Our life at home often reflects what we consider to be important and what we’re living for.
I think it is fair to say that outside of the church, family life is often very dysfunctional. It was recently announced that 78,000 couples divorced in Malaysia since the pandemic began. In the west, abortion is seen as a legal right for women, and children a human right for same-sex couples. Around the world, birth rates are declining, even during the pandemic, as people choose careers and comfort over family. Because as all parents know, having children is costly, challenging, time-consuming, and freedom-inhibiting.
But if we have understood the gospel, our family life will be radically different from the world around us. We will see the home as “frontline” ministry. We will see our family as the greatest opportunity for discipleship and evangelism that God has given us. In a world of broken families, our families can be a glorious testimony to the gospel.
2. The Goal of Family Discipleship
It can be difficult for parents as they sift through all the parenting books that are out there. Each has their own stories, approaches, and science to back them up. One book says you should sleep train your child by letting them cry, whilst another says that doing so will cause permanent phycological damage. Wisdom is required to navigate them. Christian parenting books often add to the complexity, as they show how Christian virtues such as love, forgiveness, patience should work out in our parenting. Amidst the many voices and concerns, it’s easy to miss the single main point that the Bible highlights whenever it speaks on the topic of parenting.
In fact, the Bible says very little directly on the topic of parenting. The entire book of Ephesians allocates just one verse to the subject. It focuses us on the heart of Christian parenting: to bring up our children to know the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
Firstly, notice the goal: to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Our primary goal as fathers (and parents), is to bring up our children to know Christ, love Christ, follow Christ and grow to maturity in Christ. But it’s very easy to lose that goal, as competing goals are constantly thrust on us by the worldly around us. We worry about our children’s education, language-learning, sporting and musical development and hobbies. We aim to give our children the best life we can. So we work hard to give them a nice house, lots of clothes and fun toys. We mean well and those are all good things. But we’re distracted from the Bible’s primary concern and instead embrace the worldly concerns of our neighbors and friends. We need to be frequently reminded that what God is concerned with is not the standard of living we give to our children, but whether we bring them up to know Christ. What we must be sure to pass on is not money or education or a better life, but the gospel.
Secondly, notice who the command is addressed to: fathers. This is because the father is the head of the family (Ephesians 5:23). God’s design for the biological family reflects God’s own loving headship as our Heavenly Father (Ephesians 3:14-15). Fathers are the head of the household, because God the Father is the head of the great family. As the spiritual leaders of families, fathers must take that responsibility very seriously. It does not mean that mothers (and grandparents) are not involved. Paul commends Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois for their part in nurturing Timothy’s faith (2 Timothy 1:5). Proverbs also expects that both parents are involved (Proverbs 1:8-9; 3:1-2). But as the head, the responsibility lies ultimately upon the father, to bring up his children to know Christ.
3. The Method of Family Discipleship
How do we go about bringing up our children to know the Lord?
Foundationally, it must begin with teaching God’s word to our children. Some of us may feel very inadequate in this regard because we don’t know the Bible well ourselves. But discipling our children is not a responsibility we can outsource to others, such as Sunday School teachers. The single biggest influence on a child’s life is their parents. It is crucial that we see discipling our children as our first and primary ministry responsibility before any others, and ensure we’re equipped to do it.
How do we do this? It’s not just about having a devotion time each day, although that’s certainly a good place to start. If you are not already, set aside a time every day (or night) to read the Bible and pray with your children.
b. All of life
But we must remember that discipleship is all of life. It happens when we’re eating meals, and playing games, and driving in the car, if we’re intentional about it. This all-of-life approach to parents lay at the heart of discipleship in the Old Testament:
6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
This means that we need to be spending time with our children. Not just quality time, but quantity time. Parenting can’t be rushed. Quality conversations can’t be forced. It all requires time and intentionality and effort. You can’t disciple your children when you’re always at work. You can’t disciple your children if they often sleep before you get home. You can’t disciple your children when you’re watching TV or surfing social media instead of talking to them. Many children watch 3-4 hours of TV a day but spend less than 15 minutes in conversation with their fathers. We cannot disciple our children if we don’t spend time with them.
We should remember the importance of modelling. Parents must not only teach the gospel, but model for their child what it looks like to follow Christ. Paul highlights this when Paul urges fathers not to provoke their children to anger (Colossians 6:4) so that they won’t become discouraged or embittered (Colossians 3:21). Christian fathers are to be like their heavenly father: nurturing, loving, patient, servant-hearted, other-person centered. Some fathers (and mothers) are so forceful, intimidating, inflexible, harsh, distant, and angry, that it causes deep hurt to their children. As they grow up their children become alienated from them and from God.
Good parents will do more than simply commanding their children to do things without explanation or discussion. An authoritarian approach may gain conformity but will not win hearts. Children may comply while they have no choice, but then withdraw from you and from God when they grow up, because the way they have been parented is nothing like the Heavenly Father their parents professed to follow. Christian parents must ‘walk the talk’, as living examples to their children of what a gospel-shaped life looks like.
4. Three Final Reminders
Let us close with three final reminders from Ephesians that shed light on our parenting.
a. Give your children a good marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33)
I remain convinced that apart from the gospel itself, taught and lived, the best thing a parent can give their children is a godly marriage. Loving our spouse in the ways described in Ephesians 5:22-33 creates a safe and secure environment for children to know and love the Lord.
b. Bring up your Children in the church (Ephesians 4:11-16)
They say that “It takes a village to raise a child”. I remain convinced that “it takes a church to raise a Christian”. Ephesians 2:11-22 reminds us that graciously saves us, not only as individuals, but into the church. We should never diminish the responsibility of parents in discipling their children. But neither should parents ever do it in isolation. Children are to be brought up in the community of the church. For the body grows as we all speak the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:15). Grandparents, Pastors, Sunday School and Youth Teachers, and the wider church community all have a vital part to play. Allow them to have Christian friends, and to mix regularly with other Christians in the church.
c. Remember the sovereignty of God (Ephesians 1:3-6; 2:8-10)
As parents we are all too mindful of our failures. We feel inadequate most of the time. It’s vital to remember that the precious children God has entrusted to us ultimately belong to him. We cannot save them. It is God who predestines and elects them (Ephesians 1:4-5). It is God who saves them by his grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is God who changes them by his Spirit that they may live out the good works he has planned for them (Ephesians 2:10). Ultimately, our children’s future is in God’s hands. We prayerfully entrust them to him.