A Biblical Reflection on Parenting
Dr. John Alex
This article is for all parents who search the Bible for lessons on parenting. The primary objective of this writing is not a scholarly search but a reflective practical learning from the Bible on good parenting. However, the first part of the article gives a clue for research on biblical characters and modern parenting. The second part is a biblical reflection on parenting and is focusing more on a meditative reading of the infancy narrative in the gospel of Luke.
I. The Question of Ideal Parenting:
Two questions pose as challenges when we think of biblical models on parenting.
The first challenge is: Is there ideal parenting? If so, what is its criteria?
Second question is: can we draw biblical material to define ideal parenting? How can the Bible be the book to define ideal parenting?
The issues of parenting in the contemporary and biblical worlds are poles apart. Is it proper justification to say that biblical models are the ideal? Yet another task is: there are diverse patterns among the Bible characters in bringing up the child. Which among the lot it is to be taken as ideal? This does not mean there is no guideline from the Bible for Christian parenting. There are instructions and we can draw out values for parenting from the Bible. Before we proceed further on biblical reflection on parenting let us look at the classification of different models of parenting.
Models of Parenting
Parenting is basically understood as the process of raising a child into adulthood by ensuring health, preparing the child to creative adulthood and transmitting cultural values.
The origin of a separate literature on parenting appeared by the end of seventeenth century when John Locke wrote on education from the perspective of a puritan in 1693 and later on Jean-Jacques Rousseau the Genevean philosopher who wrote on education from the perspective of more interacting with the nature. His approach was 'slow parenting'. Since then there were diverse models of parenting style that has developed.
Diana Baumrind a well known clinical and developmental psychologist has broadly divided the parenting styles into three:
(A) Authoritative parenting - This style expects high level of maturity from the child and in this approach the child has the freedom to make independent decisions.
(B) Authoritarian parenting - This type of parenting restricts the child. They make the children over dependent upon them. (Helicopter parenting is a variety of authoritarian parenting but the term has become popular now a days where parents are more and more involved in the daily schedule of children, controlling every move and decisions of the child.)
(C) Permissive parenting - This parenting approach is more as a friend. The demands are very low and yet provide essential guideline for the children.
II. Parenting: Reflections from the Bible
Children, according to Old Testament, (OT) are a gift and a reward from God. There are certain clear instructions given in Old and New Testaments in bringing up children. One of the major instructions in the Old Testament is to teach the next generation the law of the Lord. 'Parenting' in biblical understanding is more than health, education and transmitting cultural values. True parenting in the Bible means raising the child in godly character. It is the duty of the parents to bring up the child in the ways of God. In Deuteronomy we see the commandment, “to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!” (Deut 5:29; cf. Ps 112: 1-2)
The task here is more than instruction. Do we have a biblical role model on parenting?
Each child is unique and different. Multifaceted phenomenons are there to define ideal parenting at a particular context. The beauty of parenting lies in its challenge. There are characters in the Bible closely related with the various types of models explained above, some of them provide us a clue for Christian parenting. However, each parent will have to to identify specific ways to raise his / her the child in holistic development.
Added to it, the biblical characters are shaped by their particular plot and setting which made them as heroes/heroines or villain. They provide direction for contemporary parenting. Each biblical character have their own strength and weaknesses which is also reflected in parenting. For instance, Samuel was an ideal prophet for all of Israel but he failed to bring up his children in a godly way (I Sam 8:1-3) David is a man of God’s own heart but failed to bring up the child in discipline (I Kings 1:6). On the other side, we can see people like Job who always cared for children. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was faithful in bringing up the child in a godly way. The Bible faithfully records both creative and negative narratives on parenting.
It's relevant to take a look at one such narrative from the gospel of Luke.
Lukan Infancy Narrative:
The first and second chapters of the Gospel of Luke carry two infancy narratives - one of John the Baptist and the other of Jesus. There are many things which are common to both John the Baptist and Jesus. Both of their births was announced by the angel. Elizabeth was a barren woman whereas Mary was a virgin. Both children grew and became strong in the spirit (Luke 1:80; 2:40; 2:52).
Speaking of Elizabeth and Zechariah - the plot starts with an announcement - the end of a tragedy in the life of Zachariah and Elizabeth. They are presented as “were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” (Luke 1:6). According to Jewish tradition, a Jew without a wife and a man with a wife having no children are cursed. The law of the Jewish tradition allows divorcing barren women. We see an ideal husband who is caring towards the wife beyond the traditional barriers (or options). The child John is an answer to the prayer of his parents. This couple teaches us lessons in Christian parenting.
1. Naming the child to fulfill the Godly vocation in his life.
The birth of the child created wonder to the neighbor and relatives of Zachariah and Elizabeth. A boy child is named on the eighth day and a girl child within 30 days of birth.
The birth of a boy child is a celebration in Israel. Usually, the name of a boy child is related to either the name of the father or of the tribe. To the surprise of everybody they named the child, John - a name that has no relationship with the family of Zachariah.
The parents choose the name which was given by God. Why was such a name chosen? The word John means “The Lord is gracious.” Zachariah realized that the Lord has been gracious not only to him but to the Israelites. The parents were able to identify the vocation or God’s will of their child even at his birth. They realized that their son was called not for a priestly ministry but for a prophetic ministry. The naming itself separated him from the scope of a priestly ministry.
The first century priests were usually very well-to-do and hailed from families with good standing. Children today have become a commercialized product. Even at birth, parents try to induce their dreams upon the child. The life of the parents of John the Baptist stand apart in this context.
2. Disciplining the Child in godly Ways
Zachariah and Elizabeth were good parents in disciplining the child in fulfilling the vocation of the child. Born to them after the age of 70, the parents will have immense natural affection for the baby. The baby was an answer to many years’ prayer of Zachariah and Elizabeth and parents naturally had the tendency to provide the best of facilities and food. No Bible verse tells us how John the Baptist was disciplined.
In Matthew’s gospel it is written that the food of John the Baptist was wild honey and locusts. (Matt. 3: 4). This food was not a common food for priestly families. One thing is sure, he was not a pampered spoiled child. John was equipped to live differently even as a child.
We have the examples like Eli the priest who did not discipline the child in matters of food. And God said to him, “for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.” (I Sam. 2:29) Yet another example is Issac. He was interested in food and favored the hunter, the elder son (Gen 27:4) and Rebekah pampered the younger son. They spoiled the children by showing partiality and selfishness. Both the children were not disciplined in godly ways. Favouritism in the family spoils relationships between siblings. Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray (Prov 22:6). The parents of John the Baptist are role models even for contemporary parenting and in raising disciplined children.
3. Allowing the child to train up himself to fulfill his vocation
Jerusalem is the ideal place for a priest to be trained. Moreover, the best education a Jew can have is at Jerusalem. A priest would have surely sent his child to be educated at Jerusalem. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth come from priestly families. John the Baptist was trained in the wilderness for ministry. We don't know what kind of training he received from wilderness. He may have been with the Essene community or Qumran community in the Judean desert (Luke 1:80). If so, he would have been through strict discipline which was very different from that of the training of a priest. He rejected the elite training in the Jerusalem temple. He was trained to be different.
Where to send children for the higher education is a major concern in contemporary Christian parenting. We live in a world where a doctor’s child become a doctor’, ‘an engineer’s child become an engineer’, and ' a teacher’s child become a teacher’. The parents of John the Baptist broke this traditional approach. In this narrative the son of a priest is not dedicated to become a priest. Instead is dedicated to become a prophet which is very unusual in Israel.
From the perspective of career development, a prophet’s career is not as prosperous as that of a priest. Moreover, for almost 400 years there were no prophets in Israel. Even the career path has to be developed. Even then Zachariah prophesied regarding his child “And you, child will be called the prophet of most high; for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way” (Luke 1:76). The task of the child was not his own career development but to prepare the way for the Lord.
Zachariah and Elizabeth were not heroic characters and they are mentioned only in the Lukan infancy narrative. They can be called ideal parenting characters from the perspective of the Bible since they introduced God as a living reality and prepared the child for his youth to fulfill his vocation in life.
There are different styles of parenting. Each model has its own pros and cons. The Bible also provides different models of parenting. The concept of parenting in the bible does not finish with preparing the child to adulthood but preparing the child for eternal life. The ideal parenting in the Bible means, introducing God as a living reality to children. Ideal parenting enables the child to understand godly ways to fulfill God’s vocation in his/her life. Thus, Zachariah and Elizabeth are examples for us of an ideal parenting in their context.