Amidst the unsolicited advice and passionate opinions from friends, relatives, and strangers on the street, one of the greatest challenges that prospective parents face is the task of sifting through the endless sea of information about parenting. Hopeful parents must contend with a wealth of parenting philosophies, mommy blogs, safety information and product reviews. It is further complicated for couples navigating the intersection of their Christian faith and the role that each parent will take on as mother or father of their potential children.
The way Americans parent is dynamic. The stereotype of the nuclear family with a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother is no longer the norm. Biblical interpretation and Christian teachings on the responsibilities of men and women in regards to childrearing have a profound impact on parenting. What are these interpretations and teachings?
It helps to begin with an understanding of the history and the current state of the American family. According to Josh Sanburn’s “A Brief History: The American Family” for Time Magazine, the pre-industrial American family of the 1700’s was primarily agrarian, where both parents were responsible for ensuring the success of a home based economy, and children were needed to both provide labor and actively participate in the family enterprise. In the Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s, industry moved to urban areas, work became more separated from the home, and the idea of the husband as the breadwinner took off. According to Sanburn, this idea was further developed during the post-WWII prosperity of the 1950’s, when the white suburban family with a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked 9-5 became the stereotype for the American family. This dynamic fostered the expectation that the father worked outside the home to financially provide for his family, and the mother was to care for the children in the home.
This baby-boom era stereotype is still firmly planted in the minds of many Americans as how families should be. However the reality of the present day American family is a far cry from this stereotype. According to the Pew Research Center, 60% of American households have a dual income, meaning that fathers are no longer filling the role of primary breadwinners. For many Americans, the roles of mothers and fathers are merging – women are taking on paid work outside the home, and men are taking on more direct child care tasks, and both mothers and fathers are conflicted about their work-life balance. In a survey, approximately 50% of fathers interviewed expressed a desire to be at home and spend more time with their children, while the other half expressed a desire to work outside the home, despite the time away from their families. The response from mothers was nearly identical. Both parents desire to spend more time with their children, but also have a drive to provide for them by working outside the home. How do we reconcile this juxtaposition? What should the priorities of parenting be?
With this tension between the history of family structure in America and its current status, Christians must determine what it means to parent, and that can include which partner in a marriage is responsible for which aspects of parenting. Christian parents can look for directives for childrearing in Scripture, specifically the book of Proverbs (a book of wisdom in all aspects of life). Apart from the obvious requirement of providing for the physical needs of children (1 Timothy 5:8), perhaps the most well-known verse pertaining to parents is Proverbs 22:6. It reads, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). This is not the only scripture that directs parents to be teachers of their children.
Deuteronomy 6:5-8 reads: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise..”
From these passages, it is clear that parents are responsible for the spiritual education of their children. Deuteronomy 4:9-10 and 11:18-19 echo similar commands.
Scripture also directs parents to discipline their children. Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 23:13, 29:15, and 29:17, direct parents to “use the rod of discipline” with their children. The intent of disciplining children is to keep them from folly and to further guide them in the ways of wisdom. In ancient Aramaic culture, according to The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, discipline, including corporal punishment, was considered essential to a child’s welfare. While the belief and instruction for parents to be disciplinarians still holds true, the methods of discipline that parents use are diverse. There are some theologians and denominations that take the directive to use corporal punishment literally; other Christians believe that corporal punishment in the Bible was culturally specific, and that it does not mean that they are required to physically discipline their children. Christians who choose not to spank their children implement other forms of discipline, such as time-outs, removal of toys, loss of privileges, or choosing other consequences.
Interestingly, Colossians 3:21 and Ephesians 6:4 also tells parents to “not provoke your children.” The apostle Paul instructed Christians in the early churches to avoid over-disciplining children. Parents can perhaps reach a place of balance in the way that they approach childrearing by understanding the need for discipline as expressed in Proverbs, but to also enact discipline appropriately and in moderation per these passages. It is unclear if or how the responsibilities of discipline are to be divvied up.
Christian parents may find it frustrating to learn that this is the extent of the Bible’s specific instructions regarding parenting and it doesn’t even mention certain roles for a mother or father. The Bible tells parents to educate their children in the ways of the Lord, to discipline them, to meet their physical needs, and to refrain from provoking them. Within these directives, there is little expounded upon in regards to method, strategy, or parenting technique. This, according to John Kimbell’s article “Biblical Commands & Wisdom in Parenting” for The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, “releases some of the pressure that we may put on ourselves regarding all that we ‘should’ be doing for our children.” This approach understands Scripture’s relative dearth of parenting directives as a positive, granting freedom in childrearing choices.
Despite the lack of clear instructions given to parents on the respective tasks of motherhood and fatherhood, there are still a variety of teachings and opinions within the Christian community as to what roles parents should take on.
The lack of specifics in Scripture allow for a wide variety of parenting practices, and may explain the overwhelming number of books and teachings on how Christians ought to parent. Christian teachers or parenting advocates present their method of carrying out Scripture’s instructions to parents as the correct means of doing so. Kimbell addresses this as well, stating, “It is crucial that we distinguish a biblical command that comes to us as parents from the application of that command which requires wisdom in particular circumstances and which may be applied in different ways in different families.” There is no-one-size-fits-all way to parenting biblically, but parents can rely on Scripture and prayer to guide them in childrearing.
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Though Scripture is vague in regards to the respective tasks of motherhood and fatherhood, there are still a variety of teachings and opinions within the Christian community as to what roles parents should take on. The complementarian view of male-female relationships results in specific ideas about motherhood and fatherhood. In short, the complementation view supports male headship in a family, with the wife submitting to the leadership of her husband and the children submitting to both parents. Complementarians hold that men and women are created with distinctive roles and responsibilities in relationships. This perspective on gender roles and relationships teaches that wives are subject to the rightful authority and leadership of their husbands, in the same way that the Church is subject to Christ. Husbands are called to submit to the authority of Christ and to love their wives. Philippians 2:3 provides a good overview of understanding submission in this context, as it states “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Due to these views regarding male-female roles in marriage, many complementarians follow set roles for the mother and the father in a family. In an interview dated October 3, 2008, John Piper expressed his view on the different roles that mothers and fathers should take on. He asserts: “Fathers are given a unique responsibility in the marriage to lead, protect and provide for a wife, those three things. And the children are watching this, and they know that a special role is given to dad.” Piper sums up quite well the overall view that many complementarians have toward the role of fathers – that fathers are to be the leaders of a family, and that one of the greatest tasks that a father can take on is that of provider for a family. Because of this view, many complementarians subscribe to what Americans consider a “traditional” family model, with a father who is the primary breadwinner, and a mother who resides at home and takes on the majority of childrearing responsibilities.
While the Bible clearly instructs parents about their responsibility for the spiritual education and discipline of their offspring, these often fall to the wayside as mothers and fathers try to divide the childcare tasks.
In regards to the complementation view of what women are responsible for in a parenting relationship, many complementarians believe that marriage and motherhood are the primary calling for a woman. This is not to say that those who identify as complementarians do not support single women, or single mothers, or couples who cannot have children. Rather, there is a strong emphasis and reverence on motherhood as a biblical calling for women. In his May 8, 2005 sermon John Piper elaborates on this, encouraging women to the “biblical calling of marriage, the joyful support of a husband and his calling … and motherhood, the transmission of a God-centered, Christ-treasuring vision of life to your children.” The complementation view holds that one of the primary ways that women can submit to and honor their husbands is by supporting their husbands in work and ministry, and following their husband’s vision for marriage. According to the complementation view, gender roles with regards to childrearing are more clearly recognized. A wife is seen as primary caregiver and a husband as primary provider, usually monetarily.
Not all Christians see parenting as clearly divided by gender as complementarians do. Another viewpoint (called egalitarian) holds that both men and women are created equally, and that the hierarchy that forms in male-female relationships is the result of the introduction of sin into the world. Egalitarians believe that men and women should submit to each other within the context of marriage and do not believe that gender pre-determines roles in childrearing.
In a blog entry entitled “Egalitarian Marriage: What it Looks Like,” Jonalyn Fincher emphasizes that, with an egalitarian view, there is room for more flexible roles. She writes, “Roles for the husband and wife follow from their gifts and abilities, not from their gender.” In an egalitarian marriage, the wife may be gifted with business savvy, and a husband may naturally have a caring demeanor and be nurturing. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see egalitarian relationships embrace the option of women playing the role of breadwinner, and men as stay at home parents. This does not mean, however, that egalitarian parents ignore differences between men and women. Fincher acknowledges, “sometimes our gender reveals our gifts: for a woman this may mean childbearing… But the role of a parent is open to both father and mother.”
Meredith Anne Miller echoes Fincher’s ideas in her article entitled “I’m an Egalitarian and a Stay At Home Mom” for The Junia Project blog. She writes, “The point is to use our giftedness to serve Christ and his Kingdom – in our families, our churches, and our communities.” Miller emphasizes that both men and women, fathers and mothers, are to first and foremost identify as followers of Christ. In the context of marriage and family, this means utilizing the unique gifts that each partner has been given for the spiritual instruction and rearing of their children. Miller summarizes this idea: “I became a stay-at-home mom precisely because I am an egalitarian. Egalitarianism reminded me that there is no set path I have to take because of my gender. I just need to steward the life and gifts God has given me.” Egalitarians see a freedom in marriage and in parenting based on individual gifts and strengths rather than one in which duties are predetermined on the basis of gender.
Despite the differences within Christianity regarding parental roles, both complementarians and egalitarians agree that the biblical directives are the primary guides to parenting, and that, regardless of what role they play, both parents bear the responsibility to live those directives out. In his October 3, 2008 interview, John Piper states: “Both mom and dad are responsible to give commandments and give teachings. The book of Proverbs talks about the teaching of a mother as well as of a father, so a parental team confronts this child with the will of God and with godliness.”
In an article for Sojourners (a faith-based, social justice magazine) entitled “The Struggles of Christian Parenting,” Stephen Mattson elaborates on Piper’s point and also touches on the challenge and burden that comes with this responsibility. While the Bible clearly instructs parents about their responsibility for the spiritual education and discipline of their offspring, these often fall to the wayside as mothers and fathers try to divide the childcare tasks. Mattson writes, “This is probably the hardest thing about Christian parenting: wanting our kids to actually live like Christ… Christ-like parenting requires us to eagerly raise our children with the expectation that they might be viewed as subpar, unsuccessful, and complete failures according to worldly standards.” This idea seems completely out of line with everything that American culture throws at parents. When faced with the task of raising children to emulate Christ, the question of navigating gender roles and parenting seems to pale in comparison. This is the heart of the matter: in the midst of questions about gender roles, the most important responsibility that a Christian mother or father bears is to emulate Christ and spiritually educate their children.