It was my sophomore year in college. I sat frustrated in the office of our campus minister, Chad. I don’t exactly remember what I was frustrated about, just that I needed to vent and I knew Chad would listen.
We had only recently been introduced, but he was intentional about meeting with me. Initially, I wasn’t interested. It appeared we had nothing in common. Chad is white. I’m not. He is short. I’m not. He listens to bluegrass music. I didn’t, still don’t, and likely never will. However, since he showed great interest in me I decided to accept his invitation to hang out, which we ended up doing about twice a week, meeting on campus to talk about life and Jesus, and my issues with authority, girls, and people in general.
Those were my issues in those days, and though I don’t remember the precise problem I was ranting about in his office, it most likely had something to do with that. Take your pick. I went on and on as Chad listened patiently. Once I finished, he looked at me intently and said something that hit me like a ton of bricks: “Phillip, you have daddy issues.”
Who Is the Orphan?
Scripture has plenty to say about the orphan and our responsibility to them. We’re instructed that our neglect of the orphan reflects the purity of our faith before the Father (James 1:27). We’re warned that mistreatment of the orphan is punished by the wrath of God (Exodus 22:22–24). We are also exhorted to seek justice for the orphan (Psalm 10:8, 82:3). Since Scripture is our guide for living faithfully in this fallen world, we cannot afford to ignore the orphan if we desire to follow Christ.
During Old Testament times, the word “orphan” most often referred to children that were fatherless and not only isolated to those who had lost both parents. However, when our culture thinks about orphans, hardly anyone thinks about the boy or girl growing up in a single-mother home. I think this is a result of two assumptions in our culture. First, women are able to work and provide for families, therefore, we assume that if a child is financially secure, this eliminates the necessity of the father. Second, distinctions in gender roles have been bleached, thus eliminating the idea that men and women make unique contributions to the home.
But contrary to society’s claims, fathers play a crucial role in the mental, emotional, and spiritual development of a child.
Beware the Costly Assumption
Voddie Baucham has noted some startling statistics on fatherlessness. Nearly 75 percent of fatherless American children will experience poverty before the age of eleven, compared to 20 percent of those raised by two parents. In fact, fatherlessness is the number one cause of poverty in America. Although it happens on occasion, very few children are living in poverty with a father in the home.
Children living in homes where fathers are absent are far more likely to be expelled from school. They are also more likely to drop out of school, develop emotional or behavioral problems, commit suicide, and fall victim to child abuse or neglect. Fatherless males are far more likely to become violent criminals (fatherless males represent 70 percent of the prison population serving long-term sentences) (Baucham, What He Must Be, 22).
The assumption that the father is of little use in the home and lives of children is costly. This mindset is especially unfortunate because the church has adopted it, at the very least, in practice, even in Reformed circles. We reveal this when we show little care for those without fathers. If we can agree that the fatherless should be considered orphans, and even the children with absentee dads, does the church have a responsibility?
To find the fatherless, one doesn’t necessarily need an agency. We’re everywhere. We’re your next-door neighbors. We’re in your school systems. We’re in your local congregations. According to the US Department of Census, 43% of children in the United States live without their father (and these statistics can’t account for fathers who are physically present yet absent in every other way).
If the church wants to bring up young male and female leaders in their congregations and effectively evangelize their city, they must address the issue of fatherlessness. This is not an option. But how does this look?
How We Can Learn from Paul
Paul is a great model for what it meant to be a spiritual father. He exhorts the church at Corinth to “be imitators” of his fatherly example (1 Corinthians 4:15–17). In this passage, Paul points out that the Corinthian Christians have many “guides” but few fathers. The difference between teachers and fathers is intimacy. Paul perhaps recognized that mere words are insufficient — opening our mouths isn’t enough if we never open our hearts to train. Paul sends Timothy, his beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind the church of his “ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.”
Paul had modeled fatherhood well in Timothy’s life. He affectionately refers to Timothy here and in other letters as his “true child” in the faith (1 Timothy 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:1). We know that Timothy was discipled by his mother and grandmother, Eunice and Lois. His father is not mentioned at all, which leaves us assuming that he was either absent or not a Christian. Paul sending Timothy provides the church at Corinth a model of fatherhood through the gospel — as well as the fruit of it. We can still learn from this example today.
It takes men and families building relationships with kids and young adults intentionally looking for spiritual sons and daughters to adopt “unofficially.” To our surprise, I think we’d find most kids and young adults with absent fathers would be open to older godly men acting as a spiritual father in their lives. These relationships need to be developed patiently, with the local church encouraging and supporting this initiative in the context of discipleship.
There are many children and young adults who need to hear the words Chad said to me that day in his office. And there are many men in our local congregations who God may be calling to say them — and fill the gap.