Biblical parenting is much more than a bag of tips and techniques. Techniques are helpful if you are learning to paint-by-numbers, but that is not the kind of thing we are doing when we are bringing up little children. Godly parenting is a function of becoming more like Jesus in the presence of little ones, who are also in the process of becoming more like Jesus.
“For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church” (1 Cor. 4:15-17).
“Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Summary of the Text
The word translated as follower in both texts is mimetes—imitator. In this passage, we learn that real Christian discipleship is driven by a paradigm that is much more familial than it is like a lecture hall. One father is worth ten thousand instructors (v. 15). For that reason, Paul pleads (because he knows the example is good) for the Corinthians to be his imitators (v. 16). This is why he sent Timothy to be with them—he was a beloved son, which meant that they could imitate the grandfather, Paul, through the son. The son would help bring them into remembrance (v. 17). In our second text, we learn that we are imitating an imitator (1 Cor. 11:1). The pattern was not set by Paul, but rather by the Lord Jesus. He imitated Christ, and we are to imitate him. One of the central things we must imitate is the pattern of imitation itself.
Two Kinds of Imitation
Last week I said that true progress in godliness is something that occurs through imitation. But because human beings are necessarily imitators, the same thing is true of ungodliness. We make progress in that by imitation also. We learn by imitation, but we envy that way too. We have to learn how to copy without ego-comparing. If the whole process is occurring “in Christ,” then we are safe. Outside Him, everything is deadly.
Another tell is this. When we are imitating biblically, the more we do it, the more we become like ourselves— naturally, easily, and as a heavenly grace. The more we ego-copy, the more tangled up we get, the more envious we become, and the more like to lash out we are. The first are last, and the last are first (Mark 9:35).
The Authority of Imitation
We are all familiar with the jibe embedded in the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But we sometimes think that hypocrisy in an authority simply provides the one under authority with an argument to use when he is caught doing something. “Well, you do it too.” It does provide this argument, but something much deeper is going on. The example is the true catechism; the example is what has the true shaping authority.
This means that when parents are confronted with a challenge, their first reaction should not be to “put a stop to this,” but rather to prayerfully ask if the Lord is revealing something to them about their behavior and pattern of life. Is it possible that God is using this occasion to hold up a mirror so that parents would begin their correction with repentance?
Suppose a child is guilty of bad manners at the dinner table, and his father snaps at him. The child has bad manners, sure enough, and his father said not to have them. But . . . it is plainly authorized to have bad manners at the table here—snapping at children is far worse than playing with your potatoes with your knife.
Suppose a child ignores a mother’s pleading, even though she has repeatedly asked, “How do you think this makes me feel?” The child is not learning to give to his mother. Rather, the child is imitating his mother, and it making all his calculations based on how things make him feel.
Take a positive example. Suppose instead of a father saying, “Go help your mother clear the table,” he says instead, “Come, let’s help your mother clear the table.”
Parents have a tendency to mislabel the lesson. Say that a toddler is standing at the coffee table, and repeatedly wants to mess with the vase. Too often parents think the lesson is entitled “How Not to Mess with Vases,” when the actual lesson is called “How Not to Get Exasperated with Other People.”
There are many occasions when imitation is right on the surface. It is harder to keep your kids from smoking if you smoke. It is harder to keep them from anger if you are constantly angry yourself. But there is another way of opening the way to ungodly imitation, even if your kids never see you doing whatever it is. God is present, remember, and God sees what doors you are opening in your household, what locks you are leaving unlocked. For example, a father with a secret porn habit can’t be shocked to discover that his son develops the same problem—even if his son didn’t know of the father’s sin. This is because the father is granting “covenantal permission”—he is saying, before God, that this kind of behavior in his household is all right with him. In other words, secret sin can be imitated also.
All You Need is Love
This truism is quite true, but not really the way the Beatles meant it. Love is at the center of the way God is, and God is Lord over all things, and so His way of loving is connected, wonderfully, and authoritatively, to absolutely everything. God is love (1 John 4:8). This is why, if we detach love from whatever it is we are doing, the result is spiritual bankruptcy. If I have mastered all the parenting techniques, if I lead a bunch of seminars, if I keep my kids from squirming in church, but have not love, I am nothing.
Godly teaching, godly character formation, godly discipleship is simply this: loving God and loving the thing you are currently, in the presence of another, whom you also love. Imagine a father and a son in the presence of an unsplit cord of wood. What is the father’s duty here? It is to take two axes, hand one to his son, and to love God, and to love a morning of splitting wood, and to do so alongside his son, whom he also loves. That is it. Love God, love what you are doing, and love the people God gave you to do it with.