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Topic: Spiritual Formation

When Parents See Who Their Children Really Are

February 25, 2014

by Timothy Paul Jones

So what happens when parents do perceive their children as potential or actual brothers and sisters in Christ (see “Remember Who Your Children Really Are”)? The writings of Paul provide some hints. The same apostle who called Timothy to encourage younger believers as Christian brothers and sisters also commanded fathers to nurture their offspring “in the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord” (Eph. 6:4; see also Col. 3:21).

In other letters, Paul applied these same two terms—“discipline” and “instruction”—to patterns that characterized the disciple-making relationships of brothers and sisters in Christ. “Discipline” described one of the key results of training in the words of God (2 Tim. 3:16); “instruction” implied guidance to avoid unwise behaviors and ungodly teachings (1 Cor. 10:11; Titus 3:10). Such texts strongly suggest that Paul was calling parents—and particularly fathers—to do far more than manage their children’s behaviors and provide for their needs. Paul expected parents to engage personally in teaching their children God’s words and God’s ways. Summarizing these words from Paul, a fourth-century pastor known as John Chrysostom said to fathers in his congregation, “Never regard it as a small matter that your child should be a diligent learner of the Scriptures.”

These expectations were not unique to Paul. When Paul penned these words, he was drawing from a Scripture-saturated legacy that had shaped the Hebrew people for centuries. This ancient heritage of songs, statutes, and ceremonies foreshadowed the coming of Jesus and explicitly recognized the primacy of parents in the formation of children’s faith.

When Moses received the law of God, he passed on precise instructions regarding how the people should preserve these precepts: “You will teach them diligently to your children” (Deut. 6:6-7; see also Exod. 12:25-28; Deut. 11:1-12). Moses assumed that children would ask their parents about the family’s spiritual practices, and he commanded fathers to be prepared to instruct their children about the Lord’s mighty deeds (Exod. 12:26-27; Deut. 6:20-25; cf. Josh. 4:5-7). Part of the purpose of the yearly Passover celebration was to remember together as a family the story of Israel’s redemption (Exod. 13:14-22).

In the prologue to his proverbs, one of Israel’s ancient sages reminded youth to learn divine wisdom in the context of their homes: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction; never forsake your mother’s teaching” (Prov. 1:8). Even in the songs of Israel, parents were called to impress on their children the stories of God’s works. A songwriter named Asaph put it this way: “I will utter the sayings … that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from our children. … They will rise and tell them to their children, so that they will place their hope in God” (Psalm 78:1-7). Perhaps most important of all, a primary evidence of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom—predicted by the prophet Malachi, proclaimed by John the baptizer, and consummated in the presence of Jesus Christ—was that, in believing households, the hearts of children and fathers would be turned toward one another (Mal. 4:6; Luke 1:17).

This is not to suggest that the community of faith has no role in the discipleship of children! After all, the fulfillment of Malachi’s predictions in the ministry of Jesus included the recognition that the unity of the Christian community runs deeper than any physical kinship (Matt. 12:46-50; Luke 14:26). Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the Spirit is weightier than either one. Every believer is called to pursue this deeper spiritual bond with every other human being, evangelizing unbelievers and discipling less mature believers (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 5:42; 8:25; 14:21).

Processes of evangelism and discipleship should begin with those nearest to us. That’s what the church father Augustine of Hippo was hinting at when he suggested, “Since you cannot do good to all, pay special regard to those who, by the opportunities of location, time, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you”—knowing that God himself is at work in placing these persons near to us. When it comes to discipleship, personal proximity is more important than any particular ministry program.

For Christian parents, the nearest unbelievers or young believers are typically their own children. And so, parents are called to engage actively in their children’s spiritual formation not in spite of but precisely because of the deeper kinship that is available through the Holy Spirit. The possibility of this deeper kinship calls parents to see their children both as their children and as potential or actual brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s creation and humanity’s fall have positioned parents as providers and disciplinarians. Through redemption and consummation, parents are called to become primary disciple-makers as well. Because God has chosen to place particular children in the lives of these parents, these disciple-making processes should begin with our own children—but God’s calling does not end with the rehearsal of the Gospel in our own households. The proclamation of the Gospel that begins in our households should spill out, beyond the confines of our homes, into our communities and then into the uttermost parts of the earth (see Acts 1:8; 2:39, 46; 26:20).

This post originally appeared in The Family Ministry Field Guide. It is reprinted here with permission.

Timothy Paul Jones serves as professor of leadership and associate vice president for online learning at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Before coming to Southern Seminary, Dr. Jones led churches in Missouri and Oklahoma as a pastor and an associate pastor.

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