The book of Proverbs – which sets out God’s wisdom for daily living – tells fathers to love their children, teach them, and discipline them (e.g. Prov.1:8; 13:24; 29:17). This can be done badly – for example, fathers might provoke their children by being uncaring or unreasonable (Eph.6:4). But where fathers do well, there is blessing in the household.

In the fourth century the Cappadocian fathers, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, were part of a family of believers over a number of generations. Their sister, Macrina, was much involved in good works, including collecting baby girls who had been left exposed to die on rubbish heaps. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the Venn family produced a kind of evangelical dynasty with Henry, his son John, and his son Henry – three generations of faithful Anglican clergymen, involved in opposing the slave trade and in missions.

Such blessing is by no means an automatic or a mechanical thing. Godly men can fall short as fathers, as we see in the lives of Eli (1 Sam.2:12, 22-25), Samuel (1 Sam.8:1-3) and David 1 Kings 1:5-6). We do not have to be as brutal as the misnamed Herod the Great in order to fail in this area. Herod, who sought to kill the Christ child (Matt.2) had already executed two of his sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, in 7 B.C., and another son Antipater in 4 B.C., not long before his own death. In fact, the emperor Augustus is supposed to have commented: ‘I would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son’.

A common sin for fathers is abdication. Raising children is left to the mother. One of Bing Crosby’s sons tragically shot himself. Before he died, he said: ‘I never expected affection from my father so it didn’t bother me.’ Yet clearly it did; we cannot deny ourselves. Being ignored can be far worse than being punished, even punished unfairly. So-called quality time comes unexpectedly, as it does in other relationships, when we have invested quantity time with our children.

There is, however, a more subtle form of abdication. Some modern fathers play with their children as friends. There is nothing wrong with this as such, but there is often an attempt to establish the relationship as not so much that of parent-child but friend-to-friend. There is a fear that the child might reject them so nothing unpleasant ever takes place. The child is never taught, let alone crossed and presented with a demand to desist from any misdemeanours.

A picture of a far healthier relationship is given by A. A. Hodge, who was Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary until his death in 1886. His father, Charles Hodge, had held the same position. A. A. Hodge remembered how his father interacted with his children: ‘If they were sick he nursed them; if they were well he played with them; if he were busy they played about him.’ And he taught them the gospel of Christ!

            God sets the solitary in families (Ps.68:6). He can overrule for good, and we ought to be thankful every time we see that. In the New Testament, Timothy’s father was a Gentile who would not allow his son to receive circumcision as the sign of God’s covenant with Israel, but he could not prevent God from using the Old Testament Scriptures to bring Timothy to saving faith in Christ (Acts 16:1-3; 2 Tim.1:5; 3:15).

            But we ought to keep before us God’s biblical plan for families. Parents are not children and children are not parents. Wordsworth said: ‘The child is the father of the man’. In saying this, he was not wanting to lose the sense of wonder that a child has; children can teach us much. Yet the poet was not confusing the roles, as so often happens today. Similarly, fathers are not mothers, for God has set forth both in the ideal family unit. The duplication of the different roles, as in same-sex couples, is a violation of God’s created order. Something precious is missing.

In the end, as the book of Proverbs says, children need to be taught and to be disciplined within a loving framework. Fathers are part of God’s framework for building the next generation – in procreation, in counsel, in modelling a life-style, and in a thousand little ways that make up a vital work. This is more important than work or pleasure; this is building for eternity.

  • Peter Barnes