Parenting and the church

I’m still thinking about the current wars over parenting. (See previous post.) I’m thinking that another reason I’m relieved to be at the sidelines now is that I remember the pressure to be a good mother. I don’t mean good as in good enough, but good as in nearly perfect. There was no end of experts, advice-givers, and subtly critical other parents (to whom we subtly returned the favour) around us. We were in thrall of, or resisting, our own upbringings. There was also the stern voice of the inner critic, and the noisy voices of children who didn’t necessarily want to be raised our way. We were influenced by all these “best answers” coming at us from every direction; how could we not have been?

I suspect it’s still this way. But here’s the point I want to make, and perhaps it’s still true too: some of the biggest pressure on parents came from within the church.

When we were starting out, James Dobson was just coming into his ascendancy in the evangelical subculture of which our denomination was a part. I think I learned some helpful things from him, until his right wing agenda accelerated, that is, and I found myself less in tune with his approach. But whether Dobson or others, the church took on the mission of “saving the family.” In the process, it almost scared us into believing that a successful family was life’s great goal. It was easy then to get into a sentimental, self-absorbed circling about family matters.

And the place that might have freed us from pressure was just as likely to pile it on. (I’m not taking shots at our particular congregation, where we have many wonderful friends, but referring to the broader church culture which touched us all.) How irritating it was to hear, for example, “God couldn’t be everywhere at once, so he made mothers” trotted out as encouragement. There may be an element of truth in it, sure, some version of being “little Christs,” but mostly it’s nonsense. God is God, and I’m just a mom. — Oh, and a disciple.

Without denying the difficulties of broken or dysfunctional families, we need to keep parenting in its proper theological perspective. For countless people in our society, the ideal of family bliss is not a dream but a crushing weight of impossibility. (It’s a burden too heavy even for “good” families.) Furthermore, there are configurations of all kinds within which decent parenting can happen; the Bible doesn’t actually prescribe the kind of family conservatives have adopted as a plumbline. Last – but most importantly – we have, as Christians, a radically different “family” to call our home, whose potential for affirmation and belonging and blessing surpasses even that of biological families.

Back in the mid-80s, I recall  being stunned by a small interchange in Luke 11 which somehow I hadn’t paid attention to before.  There, in the middle of the Teacher’s brilliant discourse, came a cry from the audience. “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” It was a woman’s voice, and surely, I thought as I heard it, she had spoken well. What a privilege indeed, birthing and raising this remarkable man!

And how did the Teacher respond? Almost harshly, it seems. Completely ignoring the opportunity to put in a good word for moms and all their toil and sacrifice, etc. etc., he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

A hard saying this, but it braced and re-aligned me then, and continues to do so now.  There are further startling words: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21) and “If anyone comes to me; and does not hate his own father and mother and…children…he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

To be sure, Jesus never denigrated women or mothers, or second-placed children. Dozens of texts could be summoned to show how vast and generous his love, how kind his response to people who came to him with their parental sorrows and concerns. But by the gospel, we’re disciples first, and mothers or fathers or children or brothers or sisters or whatever else we are, second. By the gospel, the family of Jesus comprises disciples and is therefore completely unconventional. This is the truth about parenting we should keep “fighting” for in the church.

8 thoughts on “Parenting and the church

    • Hi David, and not to put any pressure back on🙂 I think — and here I’m picking up the theme of “relevance” you and Ryan recently raised — that you in pastoral positions can play a significant role in addressing the questions of parenting that swirl about us in hopeful and sound theological ways. Ways that are encouraging and true rather than idealized and sentimental. — I should also add, for of course one really only makes one point at a time, that lest it seem otherwise, I did enjoy the journey tremendously — what a privilege, as Leona commented in the previous post, to host these people in our homes while they grow up. So, much joy to you and yours too, in your parenting and pastoring!

  1. Dora, I appreciate this post SO much. As someone who’s in the thick of parenting (with 2 teens and a pre-teen) I struggle with these issues often. I have made several choices that might not make the Dobsons of this world think I’m a dedicated parent, and yet I feel at peace with them, and my children don’t seem to be suffering.

    • Thanks Heather. I’m with you here: kids don’t suffer when moms are grounded, growing, “at peace”! For me, and I suspect for you too, it’s love that keeps us all going. And that too is a discipleship thing.

  2. Warm winter greetings Dora;
    There’s only one parenting “frontier” that shows more microscopically the need for health than the Church. These are our marriages. I wish the parenting debates, which include the view that the child should always come first, could debate the perceived need for a perfect marriage. I understand and share your view on families coming in various shapes and sizes and that these too can be healthy, but where there is a marriage present, the Dobsonian sub-culture has done its best to say that if you don’t have the perfect marriage, you won’t have kids turn out like they should. I’m doubly screwed then I guess.🙂

    • This reminds me of a story I heard about L.E. Maxwell, who did a lot of travelling and speaking. In one of his sermons he said something to the effect that it would be only the grace of God if his kids “turned out”, because he was gone so much. Someone from the audience piped up, “It’s always grace!” I think that applies in all aspects of our lives…

  3. Hi Dora

    I used to listen to Dobson a lot years ago, and he has done a lot of good, but he was too successful. Now that we are home again we are amazed at how many sincere Christians spend all their free time with their family. Since we are working with international students we attempt to encourage families to invite students to their homes for a meal. A few take up the challenge, but the vast majority don’t even consider it because it supposedly takes time away from the family. Also, we are almost considered weird because we invite people outside of our family to a meal at our place.

    • Hi Bob, It’s encouraging to hear what you’re doing, and if I can encourage you back, keep inviting. I suspect the fact that you’ve lived “away” makes you especially sensitive also to the needs of the “stranger.” You’re so right; we l need to keep stretching our idea of family.

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