Honoring fathers who fail...

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(This is a guest post by Benjamin Carmack) Back in September, Pr. Tim Bayly posted on the twin dangers of fatherhood. Bro. David Gray, who often posts insightful comments and challenges, asked, “How are sons and daughters to honor a father who has not accepted his God given role?”

Pr. Bayly responded, “Good question. Maybe someone will write a Baylyblog post on it?” What follows is my attempt to answer David’s question.

The first, and least satisfying, answer is that no father has fully accepted his God given role. All fathers fail. No one is perfect, and so we rest in the Fatherhood from Whom all fatherhood gets its name. This answer is accurate but does not really respond to the spirit of David’s question. We all know there are degrees of good fathering, and some receive better fatherhood than others. What do we do when there has been real and damaging abdication and rebellion on the part of our earthly fathers?

We Reformed people love proper theology and doctrine...

It’s easy to talk about patriarchy and the doctrine of sexuality on the Internet, but ultimately theology must be pastoral, in the sense that it must be churchly and local. How are you going to apply the doctrine of Adam first, and then Eve?

If masculinity and femininity are two distinct callings, both part of God’s Creation Order, embodying His character, then it follows that there is a “way” to those two callings, an “essence.” This essence is not something we’re born with but something that needs to be taught and bestowed.  It follows that initiation and instruction are required to mature into manhood or womanhood.

It seems clear to me from my acquaintance and friendship with other (mostly Baptist) covenant children, including many homeschoolers, that many Christian fathers are not being active enough in initiating sons and daughters. By “initiation” I mean simply the preparation of young men and women to be mature and capable Christian men and women. There is a palpable lack of knowledge of what masculinity and femininity mean and a corresponding lack of confidence that one can fulfill the specific roles and do the specific skills suited to one’s sex. The roles and skills specific to one’s sex are self-evident in nature, but confusion sets in because so much of contemporary culture seeks to obliterate Creation Order distinctions—women in the combat, for example, or men as stay-at-home Dads.

Further, if a young man is not given the opportunity to test himself and prove himself in the company of men, fulfilling his masculine calling from the Creator, then his confidence is shaken because he is not sure what he should be doing or how he should do it even if he wishes to flee from the widespread cultural confusion. Thus, the confusion compounds itself. Evangelical Christians find themselves in a culture war without a culture to fight with.

Having laid out what I see to be the problem, the problem I think David Gray was trying to hint at, I’ll back up a bit and present one answer that has been popular in some evangelical circles.

I was first introduced to the doctrine of sexuality when I read John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart[1]. There are problems with this book, and it was panned by the likes of Tim Challies. I can’t recommend the book for just anybody, though I certainly think pastors, elders and teachers should read Wild at Heart because it was so popular in non-Reformed evangelical circles. They should know what their people are reading and being taught. Chuck Swindoll liked it, for the record.

Eldredge wrote much on the importance of fathers in initiating young men and young women. Every young man wants to know the answer to a Question, which is, “Do I have what it takes?” Young women want to know, “Am I beautiful/desirable/worth fighting for?” Fathers are the ones who provide the Answer to these questions at some point in the child’s life. Depending on how a father answers the Question, or fails to answer it, the child’s future trajectory will either be helped or harmed.

Our personal problems, such as our insecurity in our masculine identity or feminine identity, may ultimately be traced to what our fathers did or did not do when we were children. Since Eldredge is a Christian, he is careful to say that absent or neglectful or abusive fathers can be replaced by God the Father—in other words, there is hope out of this particular psychiatric pit. We can be fathered by God.

Eldredge stressed also the Wound, a teaching closely related to his teaching on initiation. Our fathers, because of their various imperfections and failures, deal us a “Wound” as children that we must work through as adults. We use our hurt from this Wound as a cover to hide from God and from others. The Wound targets our masculine or feminine essence, or “heart;” the Wound is tied in to the Answer to our masculine or feminine Question.

For John Eldredge, our hearts (either feminine or masculine) are the pure and good part of us, as Christians. Since Christians have hearts that are new, he waves away the warnings in Scripture about the deceitfulness of the heart, urging Christians instead to claim the heart, trust it and seek to recover it from the “Wound” received from their fathers.

Some of Wild at Heart is an attempt to Christianize various ideas found in Robert Bly’s Iron John[2] and other writings and teachings from the secular men’s movement[3]. Bly is a neo-pagan who developed his ideas about masculine identity, masculine initiation and father-son relationships from a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Christians should not reject something simply because a pagan believed it, for nature and common grace can teach pagans truth or “civil righteousness” that they may practice but not fully understand. Nonetheless, there is a danger, particularly for postmodern men, in embracing this notion of the Wound from our fathers, and the quest to reclaim our “true heart” or “our true self.”

That our fathers wound us I do not dispute, nor do I dispute that Christian men should seek to learn how to be better men. What concerns me is the em-pha-sis. If Christian men dwell too much on the Wound from their fathers, might they cultivate a root of bitterness against their fathers? I think the answer is Yes. Is this response to sin itself a serious sin? You bet. Dwelling on past sins is the direct antithesis of Christian faith.

The problems of father hunger, fatherly abdication, rudderless young men and rebellion are real problems, but something in the postmodern man wishes to blame his father and indulge himself with the quest to find “my true self.” Our true self is the last thing we need, however, since our hearts are corrupt, even after our conversion (Romans 7). What we need is the pure, unadulterated Word to penetrate our consciences and lead us to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

The Gospel affects and shapes all of our lives, and certainly this includes the raising of sons and daughters, the initiation of young men and women and the practice of fatherhood and motherhood. All of that brings us back to David Gray’s question: “How are sons and daughters to honor a father who has not accepted his God given role?”

We are to honor our father and mother (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:1-3) and we are to consider others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). These commands should inform how we deal with our fathers and their failings.

Fatherhood is always personal (John 8:42-45). Whatever our fathers taught us or didn’t teach us is personal. Personal relationships are two way streets. Abdication from fathers breeds rebellion in sons, which tends to feed more abdication, so there are two sinners committing two sins here. Rebellious sons are not innocent by virtue of a Wound inflicted by the father (Prov. 30:17). Rebellious sons must answer for their own sins.

Father-son relationships are broken in our land, but we serve a God who wishes to see them put back together (Malachi 4:6). The first step is repentance on the part of sons. Has your father abdicated in some ways? Do not nurse bitterness against him, but confess your sin as a rebellious and ungrateful son. Seek reconciliation. All the rebellious, smart-aleck, wisecracking covenant sons out there, whose fathers sacrificed to homeschool them or to put them in Christian school or to be part of a healthy church where the Gospel was faithfully preached, doing so without having received those benefits themselves—those sons need to repent of their rebellion, repent of being a bad son and repent of their ungratefulness. Then the real work can begin.

If father-son reconciliation is what we want, if a renewal of Scripture’s doctrine of sexuality is what we want, the job starts at home, with ourselves and our own sins as sons. If you repent of your sins as a son, you may find that this will open Christian fathers’ hearts in a way no lecture or harangue will do.

The short answer for David Gray is: repentance. With that begun, the sons of today can lay a foundation to be better fathers for their future sons, so we can raise up a mighty seed in Israel. It can’t come through pyschobabble. It can’t come from holding grudges against our fathers. It can only come from repentance and reconciliation.

[1] John Eldredge, Wild at Heart. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.

[2] Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990.

[3] Another book representative of this movement is Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!