The Pastor as Son of an Earthly Father

Desiring God 2008 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor as Father & Son

(The following is a summary from notes taken during the message.)

Our heavenly father is utterly perfect. But even those of us with excellent earthly fathers would not call them perfect. The parallels must be drawn carefully. God has incommunicable attributes that cannot be shared by earthly fathers. He is omnipotent and omniscient, attributes which men cannot possess.

There is a large variety in our experience of earthly fathers. Some have been kind and warm, some others gruff and abusive. Some have been spiritual leaders, others have surrendered that role to the mother. Some have known their fathers all their lives. Others have never known their fathers.

What can we learn about how we should view our earthly fathers? There are three stances that the Bible emphasizes:

1) Honor your father and your mother (Exodus 20:12).

This is the fifth commandment, and the first one with a promise. Honor your father and mother, "so that you may live long in the land that I am giving you" (Ephesians 6:2-3).

Obedience to this commandment begins with the recognition that our existence is dependent upon our parents. They conceived us, bore us, nurtured us, and cared for us for all of those years that we no longer remember. And if we grew up with Christian parents, they nurtured our souls as well as our bodies. They modeled to us sincere devotion.

This commandment is for the ordering of society. Without good parenting and the obedience of children there is no intergenerational stability in society. If you want to live long in the land then you have to have this kind of stability.

This commandment does not limit its applicability to good fathers. The text does not say, "Honor your father, so long as he is righteous." Compare this to Paul's statement to "honor the king." God wants us to respect the structures that God has given, because all who are in a position of leadership or power have been given it by God. We may, at times, have to defy that authority in order to obey God; but insofar as it is possible for us, we should honor them.

You must honor your father and mother. This ought to be enforced in the home and modeled by the father. The children should not be permitted to dishonor their mother. The father should teach and demonstrate this.

To honor you father and mother does not presuppose that at every stage you should obey them. Genesis 2:24 speaks of there being a new home that is set up. We leave our mothers and fathers and cleave to our spouses.

The practical implications of leaving father and mother means that we stay in touch, pray for them, care for their needs, and know their counsel.

Where this commandment is breaking down, not only is God being dishonored, but the stability of the culture is breaking down too.

2) Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right (Ephesians 6:1).

This is a subset of the command to honor father and mother.

Proverbs is full of counsel and illustration on this matter (i.e. 13:24; 19:18; 22:17; 29:17). But be careful to not treat these Proverbs as though they are binding promises (especially 22:17). They cultivate a spirit of wisdom on how to live.

This biblical stance presupposes that the parents are actively engaged with their children. They are thinking through situations and giving instruction to them.

3) Hate your father and mother (Luke 14:26-27).

Jesus was a strong as anyone on endorsing the command to honor your father and mother, so this is a surprising text. But Jesus had, before reading the fifth commandment, read the first.

There is a real threat for us to idolize our families. The point of the gospel is not just to make nice families. It's true that good families are a byproduct, but it is not the end. The gospel does have good sociological benefits, but ultimately it is about the glory of immeasureless love of God.

What is most commonly mentioned in Scripture that makes God angry is not rape, murder, or broken families. It is idolatry. So if, instead of listening to the gospel and bowing to Christ as Lord and Redeemer, we put it second place to the well-being of our families, we make a dangerous mistake.

"What shall it profit a man if he gain a happy family and lose his own soul?"

There are many fathers who are pushing their children to succeed academically and financially but aren't pushing them to pray. Jesus makes it painfully clear in this verse that first things must be first.

And remember what he says in Matthew 19:29:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

Our nuclear families do not go into eternity, but the church does. In Christ we gain spiritual fathers, siblings and children. "Who are my mother and my brothers?...Whoever does the will of God" (Mark 3:33-35).

is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is a founding member of The Gospel Coalition, and the author of How Long, O Lord?