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The Parent Trap ::

CARMILINA READ looks at what principles from the Bible we should apply to raising our children.
Source: Perspective Vo9 No3 © Perspective 2001

What principles from the Bible should we apply in raising our children and which are just made up? CARMILINA READ tells us more ...

Christian book stores are filled with books on parenting. Many claim to be Biblical on such issues as breast feeding, settling techniques and very particular discipline methods which are not specifically addressed in Scripture. Not only are such claims bold, they are also divisive. Many proponents of parenting models, implicitly and explicitly claim that other methods are not Biblical. These kinds of assertions can foster judgmental behaviour and unjustifiable divisions amongst Christian parents. In deciding how a Christian should parent, two distinctions must be kept in mind. Firstly, what does the Bible explicitly teach? This will include anything which the Bible tells us to do or not to do. These are matters of righteousness. Secondly, there are matters of personal judgment. That is, matters which the Bible does not command or prohibit. The Bible may give us the general principle but it does not tell us exactly which of the available options we should choose. In matters of personal judgment, a person should consider what the Bible teaches and then use experience, observation and sound judgment to make decisions.

Matters of Righteousness
In order to be a Christian parent, a person must accept God’s gracious call, become a Christian and keep trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s gracious salvation has implications for our lives. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and instead, to live upright and godly lives (Tit 2:11-14; 3:8). This outworking of the Gospel ought to affect every area of our lives. Our relationships with our children are no exception. The first step in being a Christian parent, is to be Christian in the way that we relate to our children. This foundational step is often absent or only implied in Christian parenting books. Their focus is on the specifics of parenting rather than first looking at the broader issue of what it means to be a Christian parent. It may be that it is assumed. However, it can lead to the Christian context for parenting being lost. Moreover, thinking and behaviour that the Bible explicitly mentions can be ignored when considering what it means to be a parent. The following three examples will illustrate the point:

(a) God as Our Sovereign Father We who are united with Christ have a loving Father who is in control of all things (e.g. Rom 8:28-29). Therefore, we should not fret and worry over our children in the same way that pagan parents do. Instead the Bible calls us to trust God and to pray (Phil 4:6-7). Children are a gift from God (Ps 127:3-5) and ultimately, God is the father of every family (Eph 3:14-15). God is the Creator of our children. Their existence and significance ultimately depend on Him, not on us. This means that we should openly admit our mistakes and keep walking along the path to greater maturity. The key to our children’s well-being is not our child raising methods, but our sovereign, gracious God. This doesn’t remove our responsibility as stewards entrusted by God with our children. However, it sets the context for the parental relationship.

(b) The Priority of Jesus The Bible teaches us to be disciples of Jesus first and then parents. Jesus says: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-33). This means that Christians should not ‘live for their kids’. Christian parents live with Jesus as their absolute first priority. Being a disciple of Jesus must come before everything else. This does not mean that we neglect our children, but it may mean that their short term comfort or happiness does not come first. How this works itself out practically will vary from family to family. It may mean living in a poorer area to proclaim the Gospel to a particular people group. It could mean forsaking holidays in order to give money to a newly established Bible college overseas. It will also mean that sport and birthday parties do not generally have priority over meeting with God’s people. This point also has significance for the authority we claim over our children. We should encourage our children to put Jesus first. Accordingly, a time may come when our children, exercising their own judgment, will decide to disobey us in order to give Jesus priority.

(c) Living in the Power of the Holy Spirit The Bible is full of specific teaching about who we are to be in light of the fact that we have been united with Christ and filled with His Spirit. This material has profound significance for parenting, but is often ignored in parenting books because it isn’t explicitly addressed to parents. For example, many books address Colossians 3:20-21 and yet ignore the first 19 verses of the chapter. However it is surely true that anger, malice, slander, abusive speech, lies, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with people, forgiving, teaching and admonishing with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and our roles as husbands and wives are matters of righteousness which apply to our parenting. One specific implication of being filled with the Spirit is being subject to one another in the fear of Christ (5:21). In household relationships, this means that fathers should not “... provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 ). Colossians presents a similar command to fathers also set in the context of grace (Col 3:21). The parental relationship is part of “doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17 cf 3:1-3). In light of our new status before God through Jesus, fathers are to ensure that they do not provoke their children to anger. They are not to abuse their authority, but to show restraint. Positively, in Ephesians, fathers are commanded to bring children up in the training and instruction of the Lord. “Training”“ here includes teaching and discipline.

“Instruction” is a reference both to teaching and correction (as all good teaching is). This training and teaching must teach them to live as God wants them to live in the context of the Christian faith. One of the out workings of being Christian, is that fathers are to make sure that they actively train and mould their children to live as Christians, without taking advantage of their authority. Clearly, this training and instruction will incorporate encouraging our children to trust in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, praying with them and encouraging them to confess their sins to the Father and ensuring we practice what we preach. The training called for by Ephesians is illustrated in the case of an elder who as a model Christian, is required to manage his own household well, keeping his children under control (1 Tim 3:4) and raising his children to be believers (Tit 1:6). It will also involve teaching children to honour and obey their parents for this is pleasing to the Lord (Eph 6:1-2, Col 3:20 cf. Ex 20:12, Deut. 5:16, Prov 6:20; 23:22). This too is part of being filled with the Spirit as children learn to be subject to their parents in the fear of Christ (Eph 5:18, 21). Once again, it is worth remembering that the commands directed to parents are a specific application of the Gospel of grace to the parenting relationship. We must always keep this context in mind. As sinners, we are all inclined towards rule making. Rules can be helpful and are necessary in order to teach children godly behaviour, but they must always be set in the context of grace. We need to teach children that the reason we want them to behave a certain way is because God has poured out His love on us by grace, not because acting in a particular way will earn God’s acceptance (e.g. Tit 3:1-8), nor Mummy’s or Daddy’s. It is true that discipline is needed to teach children the difference between right and wrong. However, Jesus is the ultimate solution to sin and guilt, not rules or discipline (Heb 9:14). This fundamental truth is too easily lost in some parenting books.

Matters of Personal Judgment

(a) Wisdom The book of Proverbs is a rich source of godly wisdom. It contains many sayings that relate to parenting. However, the sayings should be read for what they are. They are not fool-proof formulae to be obeyed. They are not rules. In their original context, they are godly principles for life as God’s saved people in the promised land. Proverbs makes observations about the way the world works, but it acknowledges that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, not our observations (Prov 1:7, 9:10). Christ is God’s ultimate expression of wisdom (Col 2:3; 1 Cor 1:18ff). It is through Jesus that we see what God is like and how He wants us to live. Therefore, we must be careful not to turn Proverbs into a timeless manual of rules, but rather interpret it in the light of the Gospel as wisdom literature.

(b) Where the Bible is Silent Many parental practices, including such matters as control feeding, demand feeding, control crying, and high-chair discipline tactics are neither condemned nor commanded by the Bible. How then should we handle such matters? When making choices on issues the Bible does not address, a parent should decide if a Biblical principle will have any bearing on the issue, use sound judgment, weigh up psychological and developmental information, take into account any relevant cultural considerations, the temperament and age of the child and then make a decision. Much parental angst could be alleviated if we allowed freedom in areas where the Bible gives it. The Bible teaches us to carefully guard Christian freedom and not become subject to human rules and traditions (e.g. Gal 5, Col 2). We should avoid categorising as issues of godliness, matters that the Bible does not explicitly refer to, provides little detail about or which are a specific application of a Biblical principle (cf. Rom 14).

How should a Christian parent? Fundamentally, Christian parents should be Christian. In response to God’s grace, parents must endeavour to be godly in all their relationships, including their relationships with their children. In this sense, parenting is no different to any other relationships we have. There is no secret formula, it is about living out the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, knowing God is at work in us and our children both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2: 12-13). However, it is clear that the parental relationship is a unique one. Therefore, we ought to carefully consider how to apply the Bible’s teaching to this relationship. As you read parenting books and make decisions about how to parent your children, think carefully about what is mandated by the Bible and what are matters of personal preference or judgment. Keep this distinction in mind as you make parenting decisions. Be Christian in the way that you relate to your children, both in word and example. But remember to also be Christian in relating to other parents and children. Don’t gossip and slander. We should repent of our tendency to look down on parents who have made different decisions to us on matters of personal judgment. In raising the gifts that the Lord has given to us, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who has promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds … encouraging one another, and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.” (Heb 10:23-25).

Carmelina Read and her husband, Jeff, minister at the Chatswood Presbyterian Church, Sydney.

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