by John Kimbell
One of the difficult things about tackling the topic of biblical parenting is that the Bible doesn’t provide many explicit commands or instructions about the parent-child relationship. We are told that parents should:
But you will be hard-pressed to find too much beyond this that the Scriptures lay down as a direct command or specific obligation. Of course the entire Bible is relevant to the task of parenting, and God’s design of the family intersects with some of the most comprehensive themes of Scripture (e.g. the nature of God, the relationship of God to His people, relationships within the church). In this regard there is a vast treasure of truth to be mined from the Scriptures that will shape and direct our parenting. But when it comes to explicit biblical requirements, the list is rather brief.
This is a helpful insight for us as parents, because it brings a freedom and a simplicity to the task we have been given. It releases some of the pressure that we may put on ourselves regarding all that we “should” be doing for our children. When it comes to sports, music, education, social opportunities, and a host of other things, we tend to labor under a great deal of false guilt (that’s the bad kind) for failing to do what our friends, our culture, our fellow church members, or our own personal expectations have laid upon us. Will little Johnny succeed in life if he isn’t in organized soccer by the time he hits three years old? Will little Sally steward her gifts well if she isn’t pursuing violin before kindergarten? Either one of these pursuits may be just fine, but let’s be clear: the Bible simply does’t require such things for faithful, biblical parenting. Rather, God’s Word asks us: Is Johnny learning to know who God is and how to relate to Him? Is Sally’s heart being addressed when she defies the authority of her dad or mom? Most central of all, are we shepherding our children to know and trust the grace of Christ in all of life?
Questions of wisdom
You might be thinking, “That sounds great. Nice and simple. But why does parenting still seem so complex?” Parenting is still complex because those few requirements listed above can be lived out and applied in countless different ways in countless different situations and circumstances. It may be quite clear that I need to instruct my child in the ways of the Lord, but I am still left with a host of specific decisions regarding how I am actually going to do that. Should I use formal times of instruction, or just speak about the Lord as opportunities arise in everyday life? If I use formal instruction, how often should it be? How long should it be? What resources should I use other than the Scriptures? How does all this change from a 2-year-old to an 8-year-old to a 15-year-old? And what if I have all three in my house at the same time?
These are questions of wisdom. And it is crucial that we distinguish a biblical command that comes to us as parents from the application of that command which requires wisdom in particular circumstances and which may be applied in different ways in different families. As a Christian parent, I must instruct my child in the ways of the Lord. The specific way that I seek to do that is much more open for discussion. Thinking rightly about this distinction will guard us from two errors, each harmful in their own way.
Avoiding two errors
First, let’s return to the issue of false guilt. Maintaining a distinction between biblical commands and the applications of those commands to particular situations through wisdom is crucial if we are going to avoid legalism and false guilt. By “legalism,” I mean considering a person (perhaps myself) to be in sin for failing to do something that the Scripture doesn’t actually require.
For example, if you as a Christian parent simply refuse to teach your child the gospel and the ways of the Lord, then you are in sin. For me to call you to repentance in this regard would not be legalism. It would be gracious and loving. But if you as a Christian parent are failing to have family devotions five times a week, I am not in the same position to call you to repentance. I may probe your life and your heart on the matter, but I can’t outright confront you with sin. If I do, I have taken the specific application of a biblical requirement, and I’ve given the application the same authority as the command itself. I have moved in a legalistic, unbiblical, and therefore unloving direction.
A different error would be to assume that since the applications of biblical commands do not bring the same moral obligations into our lives as the commands themselves, we are free to cast wisdom aside as though it holds little value for our parenting. To simply cast aside the value of wisdom or the merits of counsel regarding a particular situation is to take an unbiblical stance in relationship to wisdom and its value for our lives. The book of Proverbs is framed in the context of parents instructing their children in wisdom. Shunning or inappropriately devaluing wisdom robs us of fruitful discussions and insights that spur us on to live out these biblical commands in immensely profitable ways.
For example, in seeking to provide for the physical well-being of my infant, should I schedule his eating and sleeping, or should I allow my child to eat and sleep according to his expressed desires? The Bible does not make either one of these an explicit obligation. However, in such a situation wisdom considers whether one application might truly be “better” or more “helpful” in certain ways. It leads me to seek the counsel of godly people, evaluate my particular situation, and consider the merits of choosing one direction or another.
When it comes to parenting, we should experience the freedom of conscience that comes from distinguishing between a biblical command and its application in a particular context. However, in the process, let us not undermine the value of seeking wisdom from those around us as we seek to live out our role as Christian parents in the most effective and fruitful way possible.
John Kimbell serves as Pastor of Preaching & Discipleship at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. John and his wife, Sarah, have five children. He completed his Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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