Friday, June 07, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: The Church and Fatherhood

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Last week I came across a U.S. federal government site designed to be a resource for fathers and families. While of course we applaud any such effort in a period when the family is relentlessly under attack from all sides, it seems obvious secular governments are not well-equipped to teach the more spiritual aspects of fatherhood.

Fathers do not exist simply to pay the bills and do the heavy lifting around the house. The last time we talked, we compiled a list of fatherly responsibilities from scripture, and it was not a short one. God did not intend fathers to be dispensable, whatever our society may think.

Good Things About Fatherlessness

Immanuel Can: Now I’m going to ask a difficult question: are there any circumstances under which a fatherless household is actually the right option?

Tom: Well, sure. Where a father is violent, has substance management issues, is an out-of-control gambler threatening the financial welfare of his household, is provably involved with another woman, or is engaged in breaking the law and is endangering his family in the process. For me, the issue is not that such a man is failing to model God’s fatherhood perfectly — we all do that from time to time — but that he poses a material danger to his children or wife.

IC: Yes. It’s not that one needs to make no mistakes in order to be a good father. Perfect parenting is neither possible nor needed. One can make many types of mistakes without harming a child.

Tom: Right. Now, in Christian circles serious paternal misbehavior needs to be proven, not just alleged. That’s a tough one for a church’s elders, if they’re confronted with it.

IC: Elders are not marriage counselors though, and it’s not evident that they have any stake in intervening in a marriage unless it becomes dysfunctional as regards the church itself. So it’s not a bad thing if they keep their involvement down to the size of their real knowledge and mandate.

Tom: Very much so. There is definitely an increase in the number of women advocating for wives to deal with discontent in their marriages by pulling their elders or pastor into the loop to keep their “erring” husbands in line. This is where it becomes important that every word be established in the mouths of two or three witnesses.

IC: And in most cases, nobody really knows what goes on in a marriage except the two people who are actually living it — though, of course, some marriages become so bad that it becomes obvious.

Absent Fathers

Tom: Absolutely. Let’s talk about some solutions, or at least helps, that churches might offer families experiencing fatherhood crises.

First, what about the absent father? I read lots of pastors recommending their young, single men step up and marry the single mothers in their congregations. Does that seem a prudent solution to you?

IC: In most cases, I would say that is disastrous advice.

Tom: I agree. It’s one thing for pastors or elders to be asked to weigh in on a potential stepparenting situation that has developed naturally, and about which both parties are enthusiastic and committed. I would add that those relationships are rarely without complications, even when the circumstances are squeaky clean, like widowhood. But it is quite another thing for church leaders to take the public position that single-mother remarriage is some kind of automatic “good”. That definitely remains to be demonstrated.

But tell me: earlier you said everything possible should be done to ensure that single motherhood does not happen in avoidable cases. Why would you make an exception here?

Reacting to Fatherlessness

IC: In such cases it hasn’t been “avoided”, it has been created. Either through circumstances beyond the woman’s control (such as death of a husband) or through a situation to which she has contributed (such as vow-breaking, premarital sex, or just choosing a bad partner in the first place) the woman is on her own with a child. So we’re not preventing fatherlessness there; we’re considering the best way to react to it, after it has happened. And it’s not at all clear that introducing a second partner and putting him into a situation in which the first partner’s child is bound to be present, is a good solution. Maybe it eliminates the appearance of single motherhood; but does not address the reality. If it’s at all in the interests of the single mother to have this happen, which is not clear, it is not evident how it’s in the interest of the child to have a non-parental parent, or how it’s in the interest of the new man to forgo his own chances at a healthy relationship and sacrifice himself in an attempt to salvage someone else’s disaster.

Such a situation would have to be looked at very carefully, and on a case-by-case basis. I certainly would not encourage elders to tell young men that the general solution is to “step up” and marry into the situation.

Tom: Okay then, if they are not going to function as some sort of real-world Christian Tinder, what can our churches do for fatherless children in the congregation?

IC: Well, churches cannot fix fatherlessness. Let’s get that clear. But what they can sometimes do is to abate some of the worst effects of fatherlessness, by helping a committed single mother to emphasize moral standards to her children, by providing an effective peer group to the child, and by mentoring young people who lack fathers. The church will never substitute for a real father; and in any case, that’s not God’s plan. But it can be witnesses to the fatherhood of God, and can help to convey an embodied sense of that fatherhood to children who lack it.

Tom: Amen to that.

The Old Back-and-Forth

Well now, what about the situation where a child in your church has a father who doesn’t live with his mother, and is seeing both. One or both parents have married someone else ... or maybe not. Either way, the stresses on children in a back-and-forth custody situation are tremendous. The kids are often misfits, and difficult to get along with. I’ve seen Christian parents impose such children on their own broods to ill effect, and I’ve also see Christian kids reject the “loser” children of such relationships. Can there be a happy ending for a young child or teen in those situations? Can someone like you or me do anything at all for them?

IC: It’s case-by-case. Sometimes it’s possible for a child to discover a surrogate father who becomes all that is necessary to him/her. But that’s very rare. By the time a child reaches the teen years, or even middle childhood, the will of the child is an independent factor in the equation too: you can only help a child if he/she is not consumed by bitterness, emotionally closed off, or hostile to being helped. We have to be honest and modest about the prospects of helping unwilling children, and about anything being able to offset the wounds inflicted on them by a broken marriage. This is not an easy fix.

Homemaking Dad / High-Achieving Mom

Tom: All right, then. How about something that doesn’t involve the hearts and wills of children. Another common fatherhood problem in our day and age is the homemaking dad paired with the high-achieving mother. I don’t want to get into all the reasons stay-at-home dads are increasingly a thing, but your prospects as a man in that sort of arrangement are very poor. The divorce rate for couples where the woman in the main breadwinner is much higher than in any other domestic situation. Can churches help, or are we all better to keep our mouths shut when we see young couples embarking on a strategy that is both unbiblical and highly unlikely to end happily for either partner?

IC: No, I think we can say something about that. After all, that’s not some kind of internal subtlety of the relationship; it’s an obvious contravention of the divine provision for child rearing and for headship. We can warn people about how that’s likely to work out.

Tom: You can imagine the confusion for the kids who result from such a relationship. You’ve probably seen it. Sure, it’s nice to have a closer bond with dad than your friends at school, but compared to their fathers, you can’t help but notice yours seems just a little ... soft ... even if he makes a mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And having a mom who wears the pants is no good for either boys or girls in terms of gender role-modeling. I think you’re right: Christians who care need to point the parents toward a more scriptural way of relating, even if that “intrusion” into their personal space is not immediately appreciated.

IC: We really need to develop a strong, clear theology of male and female right now — the church and its families are under assault from the world’s lies lately. And the worst thing we can do is concede anything to the present day sexually-confused ethos. Fortunately, the resources for that are in the word of God.

Stepping Up

Tom: What about the other really common fatherhood problem these days: children obliged to live with a step-dad they can’t stand? Their unhappiness may stem from more than unrealistically wishing things could just go back to being the way they always were. Sexual abuse by stepfathers is vastly more common than sexual abuse from blood relations. Did you ever run into this sort of thing as a teacher?

IC: Absolutely. Only in Hollywood romances do the kids all line up to get mom a new partner. In real life, such men are usually intruders.

Tom: It works the other way around too, even with the best of intentions. I remember a young woman who married early because she resented the presence of her stepmother in the family home. It changed her life profoundly, and the results for her were long-term and not good in any way. The next generation in that family had to live with the consequences of her hurried exit from her home. Can our churches speak to these real-life situations in any meaningful way, IC?

IC: They can speak, but nowadays they have little power. When a local church takes a stand unpopular with a particular person, what he or she usually does is go to another local church that won’t take that stand. However, that does not suggest the stand should not be taken.

A Higher Standard

Tom: Agreed. If we come back to fatherhood for a moment, I think it should be obvious from our discussion that anything the U.S. federal government says about responsible fatherhood falls far short of what scripture commands. There is a higher standard of parenting in view in the word of God that is rarely attained or even attempted today. In many cases, parents are not even aware of the bar set before them. When you speak of a local church “taking a stand” today, it’s bound to be the rare exception. And yet ... this matters. Kids matter. There are real, human lives at stake for which Christ died.

IC: I wonder what God the Father thinks of our present-day conviction that fatherhood is optional.

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