Of Felt Boards and Fathers

I had some great Sunday school experiences and teachers. One of my earliest memories of church is of being dropped off in a Sunday school class–there was a felt board and, if my memory is correct, a craft related to Noah’s ark…or was it macaroni? In fifth grade, we would occasionally play “Bible Trivia Baseball” and won baseball cards as prizes. In seventh grade, we read a little booklet “My Heart, Christ’s Home” which hit me hard. Danny and Terry taught my high school years and are both men who greatly impacted my life. 

I want to be clear, I am in no way discounting the incredible work of so many faithful Christian men and women in Sunday school classes all over the world. My desire is not to disparage this work. It is often good work and I know that God has used it in my own life. Rather, I want to point out what should be obvious from Scripture, creation, and sound reason: Fathers have inherent advantages for discipling their children. In what ways?

Fathers have a unique authority and responsibility from God to their families. 

This is a truth that we see throughout Scripture. While children are commanded to honor their father and mother, it is fathers, particularly, who are commanded to bring up their children (Eph 6:1-4). A man cannot lead in the church unless he manages his household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5, 12) and you cannot manage your household well if someone else has taken that responsibility.  

The Mosaic covenant called on the greatest commandment to be passed from son to son. Not that they wouldn’t teach their daughters, but that as a son grows to be a father there is particular emphasis on that father passing it on to the next would-be father (Deut. 6:2, 20). God commands Abraham, not Sarah to be responsible for teaching God’s commands to his children and household (Gen. 18:19). There is a difference between if you are commanded to do something and if you are commanded to be ultimately responsible for it.

Even before this explicit command to Abraham, however, it was already understood to be the father’s responsibility. Job took responsibility for his family (Job 1:1-5), Noah as well (Gen. 8:20-9:17), and God even holds Adam responsible for listening to Eve rather than instructing her, Adam had received the command before she was even created (Gen 3:17). God didn’t just happen to command fathers. It wasn’t merely a cultural phenomenon- it is woven into the fabric of creation. Fathers are designed to take responsibility for their families.

Fathers have a unique interest in and care for their families. 

I was blessed with many Sunday school teachers who loved and cared about me and took an interest in my life. I’m thankful to God for them. Every Christian needs people from the Body of Christ who love and care about them.  But if members of the Body of Christ love more or take greater interest in a child than his father, that would not be an argument for the advantages of other Christians- it would be an indictment of the father. Although the Israelites rejected the promise of the gospel, it does not mean they experienced no true advantages or that God was unfaithful. And just because fathers fail in what God commands, it does not mean that fatherhood has no advantage nor that God is unfaithful to us in giving that advantage to them.

Good fathers love and care for their families (Matt. 7:11). Husbands are commanded to sacrificially love their wives, a love that ought to spill over to the whole household in certain ways. The man of the house has a particular command to provide for his household (1 Tim. 5:8). If this is true materially, then how much more is it true spiritually? But this provides not just motivation for the father to lovingly provide for his household spiritually, it should also be a means through which the family comes more willingly to the father's direction. Here the adage holds, “they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. 

Thus, due to the natural relationship between father and child, the father ought to have greater motivation to see the spiritual development of his children than an outsider would. If he knowingly refuses to act like it, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. If the children knowingly refuse, then it will not go well with them (Eph. 6:3).

Fathers have a unique proximity to their families. 

There is the obvious reality of the physical proximity of living in the same house. This physical proximity affords fathers with opportunity and flexibility that no Sunday school teacher could have. But this proximity goes much further. There ought to be greater relational proximity-that is, closer affections-that produce a greater community and togetherness as a father instructs a child or as a family gathers to worship together. This doesn’t replace the communion of the household of God as they gather for worship on Sunday, although the nature of one relates to the other. They are not in competition, they divinely ordered each to play a role.

This relational and physical proximity gives fathers three additional advantages. First, if there is a misunderstanding or confusion in teaching, proximity allows for questions to arise and be answered more naturally, personally, and immediately. Second, if there are relational issues or conflicts, a father should have more familiarity with all parties and thus have an advantage in navigating that conflict accordingly. Finally, proximity gives fathers an enormous advantage in the application of God’s Word in everyday life. If someone does not apply God’s Word, it is most likely to be revealed in the home first. This is why the disobedience of fathers is a double transgression. It transgresses in the sin itself AND it transgresses in the failure to take responsibility for the family’s spiritual well-being. 

Final Thoughts and Objections Answered

I’m sure that someone will ask, “What about moms?” Moms ought to play a role in the discipleship of their children as well (Prov. 1:8). however, mothers and fathers are not interchangeable parts. By the grace of our Heavenly Father, He graciously fills the gap when fathers are either unwilling or unable to fill that role (2 Tim. 1:5; Acts 16:1). Nevertheless, we should not presume on God’s kindness by disregarding what His Word clearly states about the role of a father. God honors our efforts toward faithful, albeit flawed, obedience. He will not honor unbelief and rebellion.

Another may object, “My father was worthless. If this depends on the father then I’d never have grown in Christ.” To this person I’d first like to say, I genuinely hate that for you. That is not how God designed it to be. I love my father but there was far more spiritual lessons missed than advantages taken. In years to come, my kids will be able to identify where I fell short as well. But just as the problem wasn’t with God’s Law, but with the Israelites' failure, so too, the problem is not with God’s design, but with your father’s failure. Don’t throw out good principles because someone abuses them. 

Perhaps even more importantly, let us remember that while our earthly fathers have this responsibility, it ultimately depends on our Heavenly Father. John the Baptist said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” God has raised up spiritual fathers from unexpected places for His children. John wasn’t saying, “It doesn’t matter if you become true children of Abraham.” It was meant to warn them to trust in the promise of God and live with that faith as the foundation of their lives. 

Fathers, do you trust in God’s plan? Do you recognize that it depends on Him and live accordingly? You have an advantage. Take it.