Understanding what biblical success looks like for parents
By Aaron Wilson
Being a parent has never been as hard as it is right now. At least, that’s what social media would lead you to believe.
Judgment on parents—coming from other parents—abounds online. Passionate moms and dads regularly weigh in on subjects ranging from immunizations to screen time.
Indeed, just a few minutes on social media is enough to overwhelm moms and dads with suffocating guilt that they’re not “doing parenting right.”
To escape this form of legalism, Christians turn to the Bible to learn what really makes for successful parenting when all the trends and cultural preferences are stripped away.
But this can create even more guilt for some Christians who bring misinformed views to parenting passages such as 1 Timothy 3:4-5 which reads:
“He [a church overseer] must manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?)”
The context of these verses is the biblical qualifications for church overseers. It’s a passage of Scripture that’s created a great deal of stress for church leaders who have a wayward son or daughter or who have a child who appears out of control.
Is God really saying a misbehaving child is a strike against a current or would-be church leader?
And just as importantly, is God saying by extension that any Christian parent is a failure if their kids are unruly or if they ultimately rebel against Him?
These are good questions to ask of the text. And as we’ll discover, the answers are actually quite freeing.
Two types of managing
What does Scripture mean when it speaks of managing one’s household competently? Let’s examine two different scenarios.
The first is a college football coach who’s judged purely on results—that is, his win/loss record.
No matter how well-liked the coach is, how much he sweats and bleeds for his team, or how well he represents the school and local community, a coach who consistently tallies a losing record will quickly be let go.
Contrast this to a role I once had working for a chain of retail stores. As a store manager, there were a number of metrics I was held accountable for—none bigger than my monthly sales goal. There were many months, however—and even a few years—when my store failed to hit its goal.
Was I judged solely on my store’s top-line sales during these down years and let go? No, in an interesting turn, I was actually promoted and given more responsibility.
The reason for my boss’ approval during seasons of disappointing results was because he recognized I was faithfully managing what was within my realm of control.
As long as I was doing what my boss asked me to do and staying faithful under his leadership, he declared me a good manager—regardless of the ultimate results.
Judged by faithfulness
This latter example is the type of management God is looking to commend in parents. In the case of parenting, He judges on faithfulness—not results.
God doesn’t hold church overseers—or any parents—responsible for the salvation of their children. He holds parents accountable for shepherding children to the best of their ability to follow Him.
The same principle applies to having one’s children under control.
Kids can appear out of control at times while still being under the control of faithful parents who are doing their best to faithfully teach, discipline, and steer their children toward a love for Jesus.
When the Bible speaks of having children “under control with all dignity,” it doesn’t infer parents can raise kids who are perfectly calm and mature at all times.
Instead, the Bible’s call to discipline one’s kids actually expects—and even guarantees—children will be unruly as rebellious sinners.
The following truth is thus essential to understanding 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and other biblical passages about parenting: God doesn’t judge parents on the actions of their kids. He judges parents on their actions toward their kids.
The latter is what makes for faithful management of one’s household.
God’s story: The Prodigal Son
But how do we know this to be true? By looking at a parable Jesus taught that shows the heart of God the Father.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), the father in the story represents God. One of his sons, the parable’s titular character, abandons his father to “squander his estate in foolish living.”
Now, if it were true that God deems men unqualified for the position of church overseer on the behavior of their children, God would also be disqualified to lead the church since ALL of His children are prodigals and have gone wayward (Romans 3:23).
The sinfulness of the prodigal son, however, is not a poor reflection of the father. Rather, the son’s rebellion actually becomes a backdrop for the father’s mercy and grace.
It also provides an opportunity for the father to bring correction to his other son who speaks out of a prideful and jealous heart.
Once again, parents are not judged on the actions of their kids. They’re judged on their actions toward their kids.
Correcting our outlook on parenting
The above principle should not only transform the way parents think about themselves, but also the way Christians interact with others.
Here are three ways a right expectation of parenting should inform our day-to-day living.
1. Don’t craft a sense of identity around the performance of your kids.
Deriving a sense of worth from the performance of one’s kids indicates a form of idolatry.
A Christian’s identity is tied to the flawless character of Christ—not the actions of children who are flawed by their very nature.
Likewise, an identity formed around the idea of having “perfect” children fails to consider the difficult challenges of parents and caregivers who pour into foster or adoptive children or who raise children with special needs.
Each of these scenarios comes with its own challenges which don’t disqualify people for ministry, but rather act as one of the most intimate forms of Christian ministry.
2. Don’t elevate everyday parenting choices to a level of gospel importance.
Legalism can easily seep into parenting choices and express itself through passive aggressive comments, haughty looks, and social media squalls.
We must remember that when it comes to parenting choices, the only hill worth dying on is Calvary—that is, whether or not we’re pointing our children to Jesus.
Raise children with as much knowledge and wisdom as you can muster, but don’t become a modern-day Pharisee judging others on parenting decisions that have no scriptural basis.
3. Plan on problems—and meet them within a community of grace.
Only Mary and Joseph can claim to have raised the perfect child—and even they raised children after Jesus who were fallen in nature.
Parenting is a means by which big sinners raise little sinners. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised when parenting becomes difficult.
We should plan on problems as we raise children to know the Lord.
The local church is not a pedestal on which to display perfect families with perfect children. It’s a refuge where grace is freely extended as the body of Christ rallies together to pour into the next generation.
What successful parenting looks like
So, am I unfit for ministry if my child doesn’t love Jesus? Am I a failure as a parent if my kids appear out of control? The biblical answer is clearly “no.”
As long as you’re faithfully loving and disciplining your children and doing all you can to point them toward Jesus, God approves of your parenting—regardless of the outcome.
He sees you as managing your household to His glory.
Parents aren’t judged on the actions of their kids, but on their actions toward their kids.
In this knowledge, may we continually extend God’s grace to ourselves and to others as we steward young souls to know the Savior.
Aaron is associate editor of LifewayResearch.com.
Russell Moore & Phillip Bethancourt
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