I only have the first 18 minutes (out of 30) recorded, due to a user error on the part of the preacher, but enough people have requested the part I have that I have decided to share those 18 minutes. However, because half a sermon misses the punch line and the application, I have also provided a condensed manuscript of the sermon text below.
(This sermon was preached at the Dewey Church of Christ on June 18, 2017.)
We are in the midst of a fatherhood crisis. At some point before or after reading this, check out these websites:
• 24.7 Million children (33%) live in homes without their biological father
• Narrowing that down to children in grades 1 through 12, the percentage increases to 39%
• 85% of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes
• 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes
• 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes
• 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes
• 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes
• 80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes
• 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes
• 85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in a fatherless home
(Side note: These numbers specifically apply to the biological father, but the majority of second marriages and live-in arrangements do not result in the male forming a parental bond with the child.)
The data is clear, and only becoming more so as we gather more information: increasing fatherlessness is a social, civic, and moral disaster! The long term impact on children in this generation and the ones to follow can’t be understated. The point of this sermon is not to address why this has become such a problem, though that question is of profound importance. The point of this lesson is to highlight the profound importance of the problem and suggest that the Biblical model of fatherhood is a possible source of valuable insight.
The Bible continually links the role of the father to one primary, fundamental job:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
– Ephesians 6:1-4
Both grammatically and philosophically, discipline and instruction are closely linked. There are many ways to instruct, but discipline is the first and most visceral. You can’t reason with a toddler, as much as you may want to: discipline (and also positive reward) is the language they understand. As the final authority in the family, the father presides over the administration and measure of discipline, even if he himself is not always the one meting it out in the moment.
The Hebrew author discusses this intrinsic link between fathers and discipline when he discusses our Heavenly father…
Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
– Hebrews 12:9-11
There are a couple of things to note about this passage. First and foremost, we all understand that our earthly fathers aren’t perfect. The primary comparison the writer is making is between God, who disciplines perfectly (in both amount and intensity) and our physical fathers, who don’t. Indeed, there is a broad spectrum of fatherly discipline, from the unnecessary to the lax and everything in between. Paul taught about going too far in discipline:
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
– Colossians 3:18-21
It’s like the fairy tale: not too much, not too little, but juuuust right. We want to discipline our children, but not discourage them.
But notice the importance of the discipline in the Hebrew letter: “but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Trained by what? The discipline!
This is the central point: if you want to raise disciplined children, you have to discipline them! This is what God’s discipline does for us, and what we who are fathers should be doing. In this axiom we see the root of all the numbers we started this lesson with: undisciplined children have a much higher chance of running into trouble (or causing trouble) later in life!
Paul applied this to himself as a father, even though he never had children of his own:
I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
– 1 Corinthians 4:14-17
Even though Paul was not their physical father, he viewed his spiritual role toward them in a similar way, and this is yet another place where the authors of God’s word linked fatherhood to discipline (after all, admonishment is simply a verbal form of discipline).
We started with a bunch of very saddening statistics, and it would be easy to despair. Why is this happening, and what can we do about it? But God’s word is clear: the discipline of the father is the separating factor! Fathers, if you are not disciplining your children (or if you are leaving it entirely to your wives) you are harming your children! Parents, do you want to raise warped children? The easiest, most efficient way is to just let them do whatever they want without consequence.
But there are also several warnings to children in the things we have read. Paul warned the children in both Ephesus and Colossae to “obey your parents,” bringing to mind the Old Testament command. God wants children to honor their parents, and it isn’t indicated that this would ever end once the child reaches a certain age.
There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers. There are those who are clean in their own eyes but are not washed of their filth.
– Proverbs 30:11-14
In the language of poetry, the author equates the first statement with the second: To curse your father is to be covered in filth!
Behold, the princes of Israel in you, every one according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood. Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you.
– Ezekiel 22:6-7
In a long list of things Israel was doing that were worthy of God’s condemnation, their treatment of fathers was important enough to be included, put on the same level as shedding blood, and extortion. The role of father should not be diminished, it should be honored! Children, you need to understand: parental discipline is good for you! It is a sign that your parents care! Are they going to do it perfectly? Of course not. But the alternative is a much more damaging prospect. And even though you may not like it, that doesn’t give you license to disrespect or dishonor them.
As we noted when we discussed mothers on mother’s day, the role of fathers has been downplayed in our culture, to the great detriment of all of us. This lessening of fatherly impact is in part (but not entirely) the result of a move away from discipline.
Is There Any Hope?
We started with some despair-inducing statistics about the “fatherless generation.” But there is hope in scripture, even for those who grow up without the benefit of their biological fathers. There is perhaps no greater example of this hope than the person of Mordecai, in the book of Esther, who stands as the paragon of those who would raise kids who aren’t “theirs”.
Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away. He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.
– Esther 2:5-7
Why did Esther turn out so well and succeed in her endeavors, despite all of the things in her life that should have kept her down? As you read the book, it becomes apparent that Mordecai was a large part of her success. Mordecai saw the need in a child’s life, and took on a responsibility that wasn’t necessarily his. He became her father through a loving choice. Time and again in the book of Esther, when she has questions or concerns, who does she turn to? Where does she go for guidance? From where does she draw her strength? Mordecai, her father! And yes, I use the word father intentionally, even though she wasn’t “his”. He became her father through choice and dedication.
Mordecai serves as an example to all of the power of second fathers. To all of you who have decided to raise children who didn’t come from you: thank you! You have taken up a responsibility that is unmatched in the kingdom of God, a work the effects of which will be felt for generations. You are heroes in every sense of the word! I know there are several in this congregation that have taken up this mantle: you are amongst the most admirable people I know. Without the willingness of men like you to step in and fill this profound need, the church would be far lesser. And we all can learn from you…
Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.
– 1 Tim. 5:1-2
In many ways the church is to provide this sort of function on a corporate level. We can in some ways view all the older men in this group as our fathers, in a similar (but not entirely the same) way as Paul, talking about the Corinthians. Though he wasn’t their father, and though he didn’t live with them, he took upon himself responsibility for their spiritual wellbeing. We must do a better job of forming mentoring bonds between the generations in this church family. God’s model for the church is designed in part to fill the gaps in our lives, including the gap of the “fatherless generation.” Men, look around you: there are young people who could benefit from your guidance and instruction. Younger members of this body, look around you: there are men here from whom you could learn much! But we have to be humble enough to step outside ourselves and take on more than we maybe want to handle.
Ultimately, God wants to fill this role for each of us, even those of us who still have our earthly fathers. Our fathers will fail and they will let us down, but God is a father who will never let us down and never disappoint us. He wants to be the Father who will supply our every need:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
– Romans 8:15-17
God does not view us as the red-headed stepchildren, but as true sons and daughters, children He longs to include in His inheritance. Does that mean there will sometimes be some uncomfortable discipline? I sure hope so, for that is how we grow and learn! But along with that discipline will come the truest, most complete sense of belonging and peace that we will ever experience on this earth.