Who is responsible for discipling our children? The way we answer this question will set the rhythm to which we orchestrate not only our homes and our Sunday morning routines, but our dinner tables and bedtime routines and baseball practice. It will literally shape everything we do with our children.
How are we to disciple our children? While it may be easy to say we are responsible for discipling our children, it’s not quite as easy to understand what our responsibility demands. We may be without direction when it comes to how we are to disciple our children. But before we really understand how to disciple our children, we must first reckon with why we are to disciple our children. This is crucial because if we approach the how of shepherding your family with the wrong motivation we will ultimately do them harm. For example, we can instruct our children to pray and read their Bibles simply because their doing so reflects in some meritorious way on us. But this motivation will ultimately fail your children. We have been called to be exemplars and models for our children—and that is true not simply of our actions and words but our motivations as well. They know what we love, what delights us. And their “catching” that is far more valuable than them catching the habits of empty ritual.
THE CREATION MANDATE & THE FAMILY
Genesis is far too quickly overlooked and assumed in our discipleship. There is so much richness and robustness here that is foundational to just about everything. In fact, it has been said that all the themes in the Bible are found in the first few chapters of Genesis, and the family is no different.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living things that moves on the earth. Genesis 1.26-28
What do these verses tell us about God? Among a whole host of things, that He is a community of unity and that He is the Creator, the Architect of all things. These two things converge to make clear God, being the Triune One, created image bearers (plural!) to share in and enjoy and reflect His eternal community.
What do these verses tell us about God’s design for the family? Chiefly, that the family is the origin and foundation of human society as it is the first reflection of the community of the Godhead. When God commands Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth in Genesis 1, God is making known that His design and purpose for the whole of His world is the family. God appoints the family, founded by a man and woman united together in the covenant of marriage, to be the fundamental building block of His world. And God appoints the family to be the instrument He uses to complete His purpose for creation—filling it with image bearers who love Him and love one another. In this way, God intends what is true of families to be true of His world.
Jim Hamilton notes, “Adam’s job was to rule and subdue the earth. This seems to mean his task was to expand the borders of Eden until the whole earth was like Eden, a place where God was known, served, worshiped, and uniquely present.” In other words, the house of Eden God had built for and gifted to Adam and Eve was to be the model which Adam and Eve and their family were to replicate in the whole of the earth.
THE FALL & THE DESTRUCTION OF THE FAMILY
But it did not take long for things to go wrong. In fact, the way the creation narrative reads, Adam and Eve do not have children until the world is wrecked by their sin. The chapters following the creation narratives in Genesis articulate the acute destruction of sin, especially in the context of the family.
What is the recap of Genesis 3-9? What are signs that sin is destroying the world? The family? In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve’s disobedience wins them exile out of the Garden and into the wilderness. They are forced to leave the house God built for them behind and build “houses” (families) for themselves outside the shalom of God so present in Eden. These “houses” are doomed to fail. Genesis 4 tells of the murder of Abel by Cain. The family that was meant to turn outward in love and bless the world now has turned inward and in hate to destroy one another. Genesis 5 is the deafening, repetitive refrain, “And he died.” Death has won mastery over man and his offspring. Genesis 6 through 9 tells the story of sin’s grievous offense against God, man’s deserving utter destruction and God’s showing grace to Noah to whom the creation mandate is given anew.
Then God said to Noah, “Go out front he ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they might be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark… And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Genesis 8.15-19, 9.1
Sound familiar? What do you notice about these verses, with a particular eye to the family? It is a type of re-creation, and at the beginning of this type of re-creation, there stands an affirmation of the creation mandate. Though the whole earth was destroyed by the flood, both God’s purpose for the world—to fill it with image bearers—and the means by which He desires to accomplish that purpose—the family—remain. The order and place of the family still retain a prominent place in God’s world.
THE PROMISED SEED & THE RESTORATION OF FAMILY
It is clear that God’s purpose will not be thwarted. Even in Genesis 3, into the darkness of sin, God projected what, in Eden, was but a distant, flickering flame—a promise that sin would not completely overcome what God had created and blessed.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. Genesis 3.15.
What (or who) is this promising? This is a promise of redemption, not in theory but in a person—in an offspring born of woman—Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man.
Why is this important? What does this promise have to do with the family? As sin entered the family and bled into the entire creation so too redemption will enter the family and extend its blessing into the entire creation.
How does the promised Seed bring blessing to the whole earth?
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28.18-20.
Jesus reframes the creation mandate—make disciples. Where Adam stands as the head of a broken family enslaved to sin, Jesus now stands as the head of a new family redeemed by God for the sake of fulfilling the task Adam forfeited—filling the earth with image bearers of God. Where God had built Adam a house (Eden) which Adam was to extend to the whole earth, God is now building a house, the church, which we are called, in the power of His Spirit, to extend to the ends of the earth.
THE ENDURING PRIMACY OF THE FAMILY
What does this have to do with family? Isn’t it all about the church now? It would be a mistake to assume the role of the family is absorbed by the church. Such thinking would produce the problem of “out-sourcing” the discipleship of our families to the church—to Sunday School classes and children’s church. This is a gross misunderstanding of the church. The church is not a list of programs but a community of people—of fathers and mothers and children. Consider Paul’s instructions to families in Ephesians.
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 of the Lord. Ephesians 6.1-4
Who does the apostle charge with discipling the next generation? It is to fathers that the charge to disciple the next generation is given. As Voddie Baucham notes, “The Bible leaves no room for fatherhood that doesn’t take seriously the responsibility of raising children in the disciple and instruction of the Lord.” The home is ground zero for the Christian life and Christian discipleship. This is not a new pattern but an old one.
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.” Deuteronomy 6.6-7
THE CENTRALITY OF THE GOSPEL
In the midst of a world now plagued and ravaged by sin, God has called your family, your “house” to offer a foretaste of the shalom of God to the world. The work to which God has called His people, He designs to fuel and accomplish in families—around the dinner table and at soccer practice and at the bedside.
To neglect this work is not an option if we take seriously the gospel. Charles Hodge once asserted, “A man’s responsibility to his children, as well as to God, binds him to make his house a Bethel; if not a Bethel, it will be a dwelling place for evil spirits.” Further, as John Piper says, there is no such thing as not cultivating a garden. To not cultivate a garden is to cultivate a weedy garden. Our neglect is not passive. It is active. Our neglect is not neutral. It is destructive. There is no such thing as shepherding a neutral family, of cultivating a neutral home. We will always be shepherding our family into the gospel of Jesus or we will be shepherding them into idolatry. We will either be humble under-shepherds leading our families to the Shepherd and Overseer of their souls or we will be defiant dictators who manipulate them for our own gain.
The gospel alone will gladly produce the former and spurn the latter. Only when our hearts are gripped and controlled and constrained by the love of God for us, undeserving sinners though we are, in the gospel of Jesus will the Spirit produce in us fruit that nurtures and shepherds our family in a way that makes much of Jesus. Only in our joyful obedience to the gospel will we pattern and rhythm our family life to the tune of the gospel’s song that our family might know it and love it well and invite others to share in its life-giving dance.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY
Yet all of this is in fact a community project. We are not husbands and fathers on an island. We belong to Jesus and his church. Therefore, shepherding our families happens in the context of the community of the church, the community we have with one another. As has already been stated, the discipleship of our families is not something to “outsource”to the church if we wrongly understand the church as a place, or calendar of events, or system of programs; however, when we rightly understand that the church as a people who have been purchased by God and given to one another, the discipleship of our families does indeed happen in the church. As husbands and fathers, we are to called to come alongside one another in this endeavor—to encourage one another and rebuke one another and pray for one another for the sake of the gospel taking root in our families and in the church. In this way, our households, the church, will be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth so that in our households and in the whole earth it will be said “God is known, served, worshiped, and uniquely present.”