Every Elder’s No. 1 Discipleship Group

One of the most important ministries for an elder has to do with his own children. This is seen in three ways:

First, as a father, an elder has been assigned the prior responsibility of training up his children (Deut 6:4-7 NASB).  From the mouth of God who is our Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), elders are to shepherd the flock of God—and that includes their own families, first and foremost!

Second, the spiritual tenor of an elder’s household is identified as a critical qualification for being an elder in God’s household of faith (1 Tim 4:3, Titus 1:6).

Third (and this arises from the second), an elder’s shepherding of his family is a kind of proving ground for his ability to shepherd the family of God in the local church. This would be similar to a deacon being first tested before serving as a deacon (1 Tim 3:10). If a man fails the test of shepherding his own family toward godly living, what makes us think he will be able to provide genuine influence toward godliness for others in the  church? If he does not do well with his own family, one can almost hear the echo, “Physician, heal thy own household.” Children don’t automatically become spiritual because they are born into an elder’s family. And they don’t become holy through osmosis!

When our children were small, my wife and I began a life-long project of interviewing others who had gone before us, seeking their wise counsel about raising children. After quizzing each set of parents, we compared three things: their perspective on Scriptural teaching relative to child raising, the practical advice they gave, and the spiritual condition of their children (who were older than ours). Admittedly, this isn’t a perfect method—evaluating the spiritual condition of others’ children can be problematic—but the maxim “You shall know them by their fruits” seemed to make sense. Even now, with our own children being adults, we still seek insight from those who have already been through this stage of life.

Here are some things we have learned so far:

1. Spend time with your family.

Frequently, we received counsel similar to Deut 6:7, “You shall teach them diligently to your sons 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 up.”

Don’t miss the most obvious in this passage: obeying God here means spending time with our children—and lots of it! We heard some men intimate they wish they had spent more time with their children. Conversely, we lost count of the number of parents reflecting on their own childhood who have said their fathers spent more time at church meetings than with them. We often heard a sad refrain such as, “My father was constantly on the road preaching but never came to my ball games.” A note of exasperation or “loss of heart” (Col 3:21) was evident.

To be sure, some use their parents’ mistakes as an excuse for their own behavior, but that does not excuse absentee fatherhood! The world calls that “dead-beat” fatherhood. Men, we must spend time with our families—lots of it! Doing good in one area does not justify neglect in another.

2. Be involved in teaching your children.

Notice the passage doesn’t say, “You should make sure your wife has daily devotions with the children while you are doing more important things.” Blessed is the man whose wife builds spiritual values into the children, but fathers are to be involved. Deuteronomy 6 was written to all Israel, including and—probably specifically—fathers.

Notice further that this training involves “teaching diligently,” implying a plan and a purpose—not just random Bible stories here and there. This can be particularly challenging with teenagers. If I could change one thing, I would have spent more time in systematic study with my children.

Training also involves “talking” about spiritual things during the normal activities of life—that includes conversations on the way to school plays or recitals as well as on the way home for Sunday meetings. Children need to see in their fathers that the things of the Lord permeate all of life in a natural way, not just the formal sit-down times of family devotions or at Sunday services when people are “supposed to talk spiritual.”

For example, when your child sees you return the extra change a store clerk erroneously gave you, this speaks volumes about integrity. When you soothe your daughter’s disappointment over meager playing time in the soccer game, you are modeling the tender compassion of her Heavenly Father. When you have wronged your child and you ask his forgiveness, he learns volumes about humility. Some of my closest times with my children have come when I have had to apologize for something.

When my son’s school was scheduled to have a government mandated sex-education in health class (the subject was how to use a condom!), I made a lunch appointment with my 15-year-old son for that class period, during which we had our own discussion on that subject from God’s point of view—one of many we have had over the years. The other kids told him the class was dumb and they wished they could have gone for pizza with their dads! These things draw together the hearts of fathers and children. But they take time!

3. Be aware of misconceptions.

Some men erroneously believe that if they sacrifice huge amounts of time away from family for the sake of the Lord’s work, God will look after the children. This is based on an inadequate understanding of passages like Mark 10:29 (leaving our families to follow Christ) and Matthew 10:37 (loving Christ more than our families). If they refuse to follow Christ, we still must. In Luke 14:26 Jesus ramps it up by speaking of hating our family in comparison with our devotion for Him. Clearly, the Lord presents the truth in the most absolute, black and white terms—hyperbole if you will—to emphasize His point, namely, our relationship with our loved ones comes a distant second to our relationship with Christ. Jesus also proclaimed the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves—and who is the closest of all our neighbors but our own family?

To be sure, by God’s grace some children neglected by their “spiritually committed fathers” will “turn out” OK, but I suspect that may be despite their fathers rather than because of their fathers. It has nothing to do with responsible fathering.

The question is not, “Which is more important, family or ministry?” The issue is whether I as an elder really believe my children are my first order of ministry, my discipleship group with the highest priority!

4. Live a life of grace.

Mature Christian living, which we want our children to eventually embrace, includes learning to live by grace. This includes walking increasingly in God’s grace and being a conduit of His grace toward others. When our children are young, however, they need to first learn the law and the consequences of breaking it. In other words, they need to grow in their ability to distinguish right from wrong, in their hearts as well as in practice. All would agree. This is the maturing process of which Hebrews 5:13-14 speaks. I had to learn these things as an adult, being converted at the age of 21, but children raised in Christian homes have the great opportunity of learning maturity from a young age with godly parents.

As our children become teenagers and older, we fathers need to help them transition to living by grace. This is the analogy of the Law training people until Christ comes (Gal 3:24-25), and moving from walking by law to walking in and by grace. However, all too commonly children raised in Christian homes do not make this transition. When the happens, they either 1) reject their parents’ convictions as repressive and lacking grace or 2) superficially embrace their parents’ convictions but do so legalistically. This may involve the very things the parents hold with firm biblical convictions or even the core truth of the gospel itself.

Children learn what grace looks like from (us) parents or they learn from us how to live without grace. They hear how we speak about the sins of others in the church, particularly when they involve ethical, so-called “gray issues” or personality clashes. They listen as we speak of other Christians who hold to different convictions from Scripture. They pick up on our derogatory innuendo. They sense what one person called “the pride of doctrine” (i.e. being arrogant about our “correct” position on some point of doctrine or practice). Our children pick up on subtle, judgmental attitudes when we speak in a demeaning way of churches that practice their ecclesiology differently from ours. They sense a disingenuous mind when we denounce denominationalism and sectarianism but then use the phrase “the assemblies” in a sectarian or denominational way.

When raised in such an atmosphere, the deck is stacked against our children freely arriving at our wonderful convictions for themselves. Sort of like pounding the drums so loudly we eventually drive them away.

In other words, do our children fear “stepping into the line of fire” if they even consider the open inquiry of other viewpoints? We need to allow them, as they get older, the opportunity “to fail” so that they can discover the convictions for themselves and not in order to comply with their parental doctrinal line.

A test of our grace and wisdom comes when our children do not embrace or at least practice one or more of the important things we embrace. I have seen parents alienate their children because they have not given the same emphasis to certain biblical principles. Certain topics of discussion become taboo between parents and grown children because they have the potential for developing into an argument.

This does not mean we should treat our convictions and principles as casual or unimportant. What speaks volumes to an adult child is knowing he or she has the freedom to follow God’s leading with integrity and good conscience, even if it means disagreeing with Dad (even if we think they are wrong).

Do we honestly believe we are correct in every aspect of our theology and practice, which is what we are saying if we insist their complete agreement in every area of theology and practice? Wise is the man who discerns the truly important from the less important. Many children are won over or lost at precisely this juncture—I can’t stress this point enough. We need to turn them over to the Lord and trust that the integrity and grace with which we raised our children will stand them in good stead as they become adults and make their own decisions.

5. Major in the majors.

I have heard this admonition since I became a believer 38 years ago! Yet we need to constantly remind ourselves of its pertinence—for ourselves not just for others! This point follows from the previous one. Paul reflected this principle in Philippians 1:12-18 when he rejoiced that the gospel was being preached even when done with sub-spiritual motivation. He kept the main thing clear and kept it “the main thing.” The church down the road is preaching the gospel and people are being saved. We can praise the Lord rather than spending time measuring the decibels or depth of their music.

Children pick up on the shallowness of our imbalances. Once I was asked by some elders what they could do to prevent their young people from leaving and going to another, larger church of a different traditional background. I posed the question, “Which would you rather see, those young people going off to the world, or going to that other church and growing spiritually?” Granted, we would all like to see our children embrace every detail of our convictions and theological persuasions, but the reality is that we may not be providing something that is essential for Christian life —and they are finding it elsewhere. We might be wise to ask how are we failing our children? What are we missing? Maybe we need to listen with understanding to what they are telling us.

Research shows that a large number of children depart from the faith altogether when they leave home, so it is important to keep our priorities in line. We may win some doctrinal points but lose our children. Enter grace and humility.

6. Consider your reputation (or not).

There is pressure on our children because we as elders are looked up to as spiritually mature (whether we accept that assessment from others or not). People notice (and probably talk) when an elder’s child misbehaves. I was shocked when my grown son admitted one day that he had struggled at times when he was younger with being an “elder’s son.” He knows we tried to counter that inherent pressure from others, but it was there nonetheless. It left me wondering if I had inadvertently added to that stress because of my pride.

Men, we need to work on communicating to our children a high standard that has nothing to do with our personal status in the church, but everything to do with the high calling of their Lord Jesus Christ. Sentiments like, “Son, we have a high standard for you because I am an elder” should be struck from any conversation—it will surely provoke a child to anger (Col 3:22, Eph 6:4). Rather, we should encourage our children with thoughts like this: “Son, we have a high standard for you, and it is the same standard we are trying live up to, because that is what the Lord Jesus Christ has called all Christians to.”

These are just a few things I have picked up from others over the years and have adapted to our family life. Both my children are walking with the Lord by grace through faith despite my imperfect parenting. They don’t give as much weight to one or two of my convictions as I do—but they have developed convictions for some areas of the Christian life that I give less emphasis to. We have discussed these things at various levels – now as adults and in grace. I rejoice that they stand before the Lord in their convictions, which they fully embrace as their own before the Lord. And I rejoice in the Lord!