Parents Playing God

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Not surprisingly, there are objections to this position I have been urging about the minister’s qualification in his family. One of the more potent arguments is that this position presupposes that the father somehow has salvific powers, which runs counter to what we know the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of grace. Only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7).

This is why a minister who sees such questions being raised about his household might feel that his adversaries are just trying to pick a fight with him. When the king of Israel received a letter requesting that he heal Naaman’s leprosy, his reasonable conclusion was that somebody was trying to pick a fight (2 Kings 5:7). When people start demanding that you do something that only God can do, it seems clear that they just want conflict.

Now it is quite true that this truth — and any other biblical truth — can be used in this way. There are accusers — devils — in most congregations who can turn words of grace into spears and javelins. But the use is not nullified by the abuse, whether here or anywhere else.

First, the claim is not one that is consistent with itself, even on the surface. We could grant that the salvation of individual children is not the responsibility of the parents at all, and yet still have to deal with the requirement of the text. We could simply argue that the standard is not that all the children must be saved, but rather that if they are not, this is simply reason to conclude that their father should step down.

The same goes for those who hold that the requirement does not have to do with the children being “saved,” but rather with them not being “out of control.” But this just moves the whole problem out one step. Are the parents God, that they can “control” the free choices of other human beings?

And we could draw the same conclusion when the line is drawn here — that we don’t have to say anything about ultimate responsibility. We just need to do what the text requires of us. In the Old Testament, a man could not serve as a priest if he were lame (Lev. 21:18-20). That doesn’t mean we had to blame him for being lame — but it did mean he couldn’t serve as a priest. The only necessary blame would be assigned if he took it upon himself to serve anyway, despite the requirement.

But there is a better way. We all know that the secret decrees are not in the hands of parents, however godly (Dt. 29:29). I would rather be a parishioner in a church with elders who were disqualified in their children than in a church where the elders thought they had access to the prerogatives of God. The chaos of disobedient children would be a trifle compared to the deadliness of spiritual pride.

So what is that better way? It is possible for us to acknowledge that there is a connection between how children are brought up and how they live — as the book of Proverbs teaches throughout, as this requirement from the pastorals assumes, and as our own experience reveals — and at the same time insist that God is the only cause of our children’s election and salvation.

We do this by distinguishing between the ultimate cause and the instrumental cause. This should not be hard because we do it routinely in other cases. We even do it in other cases dealing with evangelism and salvation.

What is the cause of a pagan’s salvation? The question can be answered on different levels, and in different ways. The ultimate cause was the decree of God the Father (Eph. 1:11-12). But the instrumental cause was the fact that a particular man had been trained, examined, ordained, and sent out to preach (Rom. 10:14-15). We don’t have to ask “which cause was it, really?” because we know that God knows how to weave these things together.

We know how to recognize the hand of God in earthly events. After a series of instrumental causes had done a number on Job’s household, he acknowledged that it was the Lord who had given, and the Lord who had taken away (Job 1:21).

Sometimes the Lord gives us no promises or assurances about how fruitful our instrumental endeavors will be. A missionary is sent out, assuming that if God wants us to preach the gospel to every creature, there will no doubt be fruit somehow. Other times, God gives an assurance beforehand (Acts 18:9-10, ESV). Some evangelistic endeavors have no particular promise, and other evangelistic endeavors do have such a promise.

We will look at those promises in child-rearing later, but for now the only point is that a man can receive such promises, act on them in faith, bring up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and be as far away from “playing God” as it is possible to be. In short, a man can know his causal role, but know it accurately. He knows that he is an instrumental cause only, and that he can plant and water all he wants — if God does not give the increase, there can be no increase (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Moreover, he knows that even the planting and watering was from God (Eph. 2:10).

Pride goes before the fall generally, and this is no less true in child-rearing. The qualification here does not require us to seek out bombastic fathers who pronounce haughtily on how it is supposed to be done before his kids hit their teen years, and who are remarkably silent thereafter.

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Clark Dickson
Clark Dickson
10 years ago

Wow, thank you for posting this. This help me to put together a lot of thoughts that were spinning around in my head. hmmm… We are truly clay lumps on the wheel of His creation. I am sure glad it is His hands that are doing His work through me and no the other way around.