Friday 18 September 2009

Fathers matter!

1. Secular research tells us that fathers matter

I wrote in an article on families in Case 12 (here), that research suggests that families matter, and that within families fathers have a special role. I’ve also written a number of previous posts about families, including how time spent with children matters (here), the negative impact of the reduction of time spent sharing meals (here), and the role of fathers more generally (here). As well, I've written posts on the shared responsibility we have with communities for other people's children (here) and in the church (here). The latter is critical for families where no father is present. Finally, I've written a number of more practical posts about fathers on my other blog 'Literacy, families and learning' (here).

To recap some of my previous arguments; research on families and demographic trends have demonstrated a number of significant changes in families and parental practices in recent decades. I summarised the trends last time under four headings:
  • Family structures are changing – e.g. there are less children in families, women are having children later in life, there are more sole parent households, there are more blended families, children stay at home longer (and many more return as adults) etc.
  • Employment structures are changing - and they have an impact on families, with more parents working in multiple jobs, more women back in the workforce, many workers working longer hours, more people working from home etc.
  • Fathers and mothers have changed roles and levels of engagement as parents - and while there is a trend towards some fathers spending more time caring for children, for others longer working hours have affected family life. As well, the increase in women doing paid work outside the home has led to more children in the critical first five years of life being placed in childcare with mixed impacts.
  • Research has highlighted the critical role that fathers have - for example, fathers have a significant impact on their children’s learning and behaviour. The influence on children’s education alone (the quality of which is also correlated with many other behavioural factors) is significant, as a UK centre on fatherhood has outlined.
Other research has suggested that the influence of fathers and family structures flows well beyond children’s learning (see for example Qu and Soriano, 2004). I concluded in my Case article that:
Research suggests, that fathers who show affection, give support and yet offer an authoritative parenting style, have a more significant impact on their children, when compared with fathers who adopt a more authoritarian and detached style. Other evidence indicates that who the father is, and what he does in life makes a difference.
In summary, what many research studies show is that fathers have a significant influence on child health and wellbeing, cognitive and emotional development and life outcomes.

2. The Bible tells us that fathers matters too

The importance of families is seen throughout the Bible. The concept of family is central to God’s plan for his creation and its restoration. The Bible teaches that relationships, like creation itself, were affected, disrupted and dislocated by sin in the Garden (the book of Genesis describes what happened). But God sustained his people in families and sought to restore them to their rightful place and adopt them into his own family (see for example Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 1:4-5). God continues to use families in spite of the curse that has been placed on family relationships as a result of sin, and the struggle that ensues between men and women (Gen 3). God’s plan to rescue his people ultimately involves family – his family!

As well, the critical role of fathers is clear within Scripture. The nation of Israel was one family, descended from Abraham. Within the nation that would rise up as a result of God’s promise to Abraham, there would be tribes defined on family lines and ultimately families within the family, all linked through fathers. Fathers are central to families in the Bible. Marriage in turn is seen as necessary to create a nuclear family – a man and woman, committed to each other in a covenant relationship - which seeks to have and raise godly children (Mal 2:14-15).

How the father fulfils his role as a father in families, is less clear and more open to varied styles of parenting. This of course is within the boundaries of God's expectations of godliness and faithfulness to him and the primary responsibility to make the gospel of Christ the centre of our parenting (see my post on 'Shepherding a Child's Heart' here). But there is no doubt that the godly father who exercises authority over his family is a central part of God's work of redemption within families. I've always found that one of the most practical places to look for guidance on how fathers lead their families is the advice God gave to Moses to pass on to the Israelites in the desert before they entered the Promised Land. Having exhorted them to fear God and obey his commandments, and to take care of how they lived (Deut 6:1-3), God gives instructions on how this is to be done within their families.

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 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. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house
and on your gates.” (Deut 6:4-9)

God expected the men of Israel to obey his commandments and to love him with all of their being – heart, soul and strength. He also expected them to teach God’s commands and expectations to their children in the ‘everydayness’ of life. To talk about God when they sat together at home, when they walked from place to place, when they were preparing for bed and rest, and when they rose in the morning. They were to speak of God’s ways, to wear the words of God’s law on their foreheads (no I’m not about to suggest we introduce this practice that is still followed by some Orthodox Jews), and write them on the doorposts and entrances to their houses, so that they would not forget them and so that they could teach them even more effectively to their children.
Here is a picture of a father with a right view of God, who trusts, obeys and serves his God and who seeks to teach his children to understand the wisdom of God and to follow him. This is also a picture of an involved father. If we were to translate this biblical picture into contemporary terms, we would see a father who seeks to obey and honour God, who sets a good example for his family, who models what it is to be a child of God. Such a father spends time with his children (indeed will 'waste' time with them), listens to them and shares godly wisdom at meal times, while resting, while together at home, while travelling. This is an engaged father, one who makes time for his family!
3. Practical implications

As Christian fathers there are some fairly obvious implications for us. As a framework for self-assessment, fathers might consider the following:

Godly Leadership
- Is my life demonstrating to my wife and my children that it is centred on Christ?
Engagement – Does my life give priority to interactions with my children and do we share joint activities? Is biblical teaching a part of this?
Accessibility – Am I available to talk with, listen to and simply be seen by my children?
Responsibility – Do I share family responsibility for childcare? [I'm not suggesting a specific model for shared parenting here but the evidence suggests that being involved with kids means time spent with them, and some of the above flows from this].

Other resources and links

Apologetics in Family Life (here)
Fatherhood Institute
Family Action Centre (Newcastle University)
'Literacy, families and learning' (here)


Timaahy said...


I've always been interested to hear how Christian apologists interpret Gensis 22:1-19, where Abraham shows his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.

How do you reconcile this story with God's loving nature, and the duties of a Christian father as described in your post? Do you think the two fathers in the story (God and Abraham) are fulfilling their duties as parents?

Please don't think I'm being facetious, I genuinely want to know.



Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Tim,

Nice to hear from you again. Thanks for the question. In making sense of these verses you need to keep in mind (in tension) two important things. First, that it was through Isaac that God had promised that he would build his nation (Gen 15). Hence, Isaac was being asked to give up everything for God - everything that God had in fact promised. Second, this event mirrors what God would ultimately do for humanity to reconcile sinful and rebellious people to himself - he would sacrifice his own son for us to pay the price for sin and to reconcile us to himself.

So Abraham was being tested by God to see if he was prepared in faith to give up his son. Abraham had committed himself through his covenant with God to be obedient and he had consecrated (set apart) his son Isaac through the mark of circumcision to the service of God. Note, that as if to emphasise just how much God was asking him to do, he underlines this when he says "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love...". Abraham is tested by God to see how deep his faith is. Abraham would not need to sacrifice his son because God himself would "provide the lamb" (22:8). Abraham had faith that God would provide the sacrifice. This is also a foreshadowing that God one day would provide the perfect sacrifice for a fallen humanity - his own son, the Lamb of God (John 1:29).

Bringing this back to my post. No, I don't see any inconsistency between this ancient story (that is about God expecting us to have total faith in him and to be obedient to him) and the Bible's clear teaching about the responsibilities of being a father.

Hope this helps,


Timaahy said...


If God is omniscient, why was there a need to test Abraham at all? Wouldn't God have already known what Abraham would do?

Even if for some reason God did need to know whether Abraham was faithful, surely there would have been a less cruel way to find out...? Think of Isaac's terror as he realised that his father had lied to him and he, Isaac, was the one to be sacrificed. Surely an all powerful being could come up with a way to test Abraham without inflicting irreparable mental damage on his son.

Blind devotion to a leader's orders is NOT a virtue! I have no doubt that you don't accept the Nuremburg defence for Nazi war criminals, yet this is what Christians do when defending Abraham - "he was just following orders". Why didn't Abraham ask, "Why, God?". He doesn't say a word! Not a single word in protest. He doesn't grapple with it for months before reaching a decision - he leaves the next morning! Surely you would expect more from a modern Christian father.

You say that "Abraham would not need to sacrifice his son because God himself would provide the lamb. Abraham had faith that God would provide the sacrifice".

I can't see how you can interpret the story like this. Abraham truly believed he had to sacrifice his son, and telling Isaac that God would provide the lamb was surely just a lie get Isaac to come along. Which makes the story that much more insidious.

Before stating there is no inconsistency between this story and Christian parenting principles, ask yourself this - what would you do, today, if God asked you to kill your son? Or what would you say about someone who killed their child, but claimed that God told them to?


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks for your response. My quick response before I head off for a conference.

1. The testing of Abraham was for Abraham's sake not God's.

2. Like you I shudder at the thought of how Isaac might have felt. But there is nothing in the account that gives us any sense of whether the teenager (well many believe at least an older boy given timing of other events and Isaacs's birth) was filled with the terror you describe.

3. While I know you might not accept this, the Bible is talking about no mere adherence to a leader, it is talking about Abraham following the advice of the God of the universe who made all things for his purposes.

4. I accept that this part of the story is more difficult to interpret but I don't accept your reading of it, I don't think he was simply lying to Isaac.

5. First, Abraham didn't kill his son, nor can we ever know whether he would have. Second, I suspect that my more limited faith than Abraham's would have led me to bail out on this well before it got to the stage of building the fire. Third, of course God doesn't condone the killing of one's children.

I accept that this is a difficult story for Christians, let alone those who are not Christians, to understand. But I think it teaches a lot about faith and obedience to God. It in no way could (or should) be used to build a view of parenting.

Might I just take the opportunity to say that your response to this post on fatherhood (!) has not much to do with the original post. It would be akin to me saying to you (in light of your response) what are your views on fatherhood and from where would you derive your values that drive such a view? Peter Singer's view on what is 'human' would lead the atheist to support the killing of children if it was seen as preferable (e.g. the child has a handicap and would be a burden) at any stage in the womb and up to the age of 12 months. His key criteria for judging humanity is whether the child has a conscience (judged by many to form at about 12 months). Do you look to atheists like Singer for your guidance rather than the Bible? Now, I'm getting off the track.

Thanks for your comments,


Timaahy said...


Thanks for replying... I did realise that my first comment was not directly related to your post, it's just something that I have always been curious about. It's just interesting that, growing up as a Christian, I was in awe of Abraham's faith, and you find yourself hoping that you would have the same level of faith if you found yourself in the same situation. And it's only once you view it from the outside that you see that it's a rather odd thing to wish that you would have enough faith to kill your own child!

Thanks for taking the time to explain the story... enjoy the conference!


Tim said...

I just came across your blog, and great article.
As for Abraham, I once hear someone say that Abraham did not know that God would not require child sacrifice, as it was a practice among pagan religions, and the command to sacrifice his son Issac was taken by Abraham as a God ordained means to worship God, and of course in faith, he did what God commanded him - and of course knowing that he waited 100 years to have his own promised child, it is really a remarkable story of faith and trust in God Almighty.
So the comment about what would you do today, well is moot because God HAS made himself know, and to know God is to follow Christ, and know/abide in Him. (John 15, et. al.) So the question is really what do we do with what/how God has revealed Himself to us today... it becomes a simple parallel the hypothetical of what would we do if we only had the knowledge of God provided to Abraham.. would we be faithful? and follow? or seek our own way.
thanks for the comment box.

(another) Tim