Grace for Dysfunctional Families

Grace for Dysfunctional Families

Written by Reuben M. Bredenhof |
Saturday, October 1, 2022

Proverbs 22:6 speaks of a general principle; namely, that the parents’ direction of their children is usually formative for the rest of their lives. It does not mean that every child raised in a covenant home or sent to a Christian school and summer camps will become a true believer. The pain and regret over unbelieving children are all too real for many parents. Nevertheless, this text underlines the importance of parents striving to fulfill this God-given calling in his strength and by his Spirit, despite our many weaknesses.

For instance, how does it apply when either the children are living in rebellion against the authority of the parents, and/or when the parents are failing to carry out their task according to direction of Scripture? By ‘dysfunctional family,’ we mean a family whose structures and relational roles do not accord with the norms of Scripture in serious and sustained ways.

In such difficult situations, we are grateful to rely on the steadfast love of God and the sure wisdom of his Word. Here I suggest five principles drawn from Scripture.

1) Maintain the obligation of children to give honour to their parents.

When confronted with the complexities of applying God’s law, it is natural to prefer simple—and sometimes simplistic—answers. In a situation of domestic rebellion, our visceral response might be black-and-white: children must obey dad and mum, full stop. This simplistic approach can be unhelpful if it doesn’t take into account the context of the situation.

Nevertheless, we have to grapple with the weight of the commandment. God entrusts to parents a role that is imbued with authority. The failure of a parent to relate to a child in a way that is consistent with the Lord’s commands doesn’t take away the child’s obligation to think through this commandment carefully and to strive to obey it diligently. Says Ursinus on this commandment, “The office must be distinguished from the persons who are invested with it; so that whilst we detest the wickedness of the men, we should nevertheless honour their office, on account of its divine appointment.”[i]

In its explanation of the fifth commandment, Lord’s Day 39 includes a realistic and most helpful phrase with a key bearing on our question. In speaking about the honour that I should pay to “my father and mother and…all those in authority over me,” the Catechism also instructs me,

to have patience with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.

Parents will fail, yet children should still maintain honour, love, and faithfulness. Christ himself modelled this submissive behaviour toward harsh authority during his ministry (1 Pet 2:18-24). Even so, this commandment is not to be considered absolute, as we’ll see shortly.

2) Maintain the obligation of parents to fulfill their baptismal vows.

According to Scripture, believing parents have the weighty obligation to bring up their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:2). This obligation is echoed in the baptismal vow in Reformed churches, when parents promise to “instruct your child in this doctrine … and to have him/her instructed therein to the utmost of your power.”

Once again, we shouldn’t take a simplistic view of the expected outcomes of fulfilling this obligation. Russell Moore points out that we sometimes have a “transactional view” of childrearing, that it is roughly equivalent to raising cattle or programming code into a computer.[ii] That is, if we teach and model this creed and conduct, we will be assured of this good result. Christians might regard Proverbs 22:6 as an absolute promise that God will save their child: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

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