Raising children spiritually in a single-parent context

A few days ago, I posted an article on the number one reason young people leave the church. The point of the article was two-fold. The first, and main, point was to highlight that youth fundamentally leave the church because they are not really saved. That is, children who have grown up within the church, hearing Christian teaching and understanding the gospel do not drift away because of programmatic failure but because they have either failed to grasp the gospel or actively reject it. This main point was no comment on how well our children had been taught, it was a simple observation to focus our minds on the heart of the problem, if and when we try to solve it. The point was that young people leave the church because they aren’t believers (those that stay typically are saved) thus any solution to a drift away from the church must focus upon putting young people in such a position that they are helped to receive the gospel.

The second, but subsidiary, point was that the responsibility for teaching and training children about the things of Christ lay – not primarily with the church but – with the family. The specific point I was making was not about which member of the family ought to do the bulk of Christian teaching in the home. I was merely pointing out that the responsibility for raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord is given to the family, not the church. Nonetheless, there is a unique responsibility that lies with fathers at home. That is not to say (and, please note, I did not say) that mothers aren’t, or shouldn’t be, involved in teaching and training children. However, the Biblical language states that fathers are uniquely accountable for the spiritual welfare of their families.

It seems that my use of the Biblical language, and its emphasis on fatherly accountability, led to something of a backlash. The particular question raised was ‘what about single-parent families?’ In fact, the question wasn’t nearly so inclusive and concerned only single-mothers (I will charitably presume it’s because the Biblical language of fatherly accountability could include single-fathers). It is still unclear to me whether the thought behind the question was ‘am I uniquely accountable as a single-mother because my children’s father is no longer present?’ or, ‘are you saying my set-up is deficient because there is no father present?’, or, perhaps, ‘are you suggesting my children cannot become believers because there is no father to teach them at home?’. Let’s also not discount the distinct possibility I may still be entirely missing the point and misunderstand the question altogether.

Before I go on to offer some points on the above, it is important to make clear that none of these questions were within the scope of the original article. Whatever the answer to them, these are not pertinent to the point of the original article. I should also point out (and have sought permission to do so), I am not unacquainted with issues of Christian single-mothers raising children. My sister’s husband – who first left the Lord and subsequently left her – is on her own giving her son Christian input. I am neither so ignorant, nor pastorally insensitive, to have suggested my nephew now has zero chance of becoming a believer and her task is all but impossible in raising him. Aside from being untrue, it is simply not a point I would ever want to make. As she (rightly) noted during the unfolding Facebook furore, any potential of causing offence, ‘doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t talk about the way God intended things to be’. Rather, she offers a better way: look ‘at why it was said and the truth behind the comment’. This means engaging authorial intent rather than subjective inference.

Let me, therefore, make the following points:

First, in a world marred by sin, things will not always be as they ought. God never originally intended broken-families to exist. His plan was always for stable family units of both mother and father. This means, however we cut it, single-parent families were never part of God’s original design and are always the product of sin. Now, to be clear, that does not mean single parents have necessarily sinned themselves and are thus in their situation because of their own wrongdoing. Rather, just as death is an effect of sin’s existence in the world, broken families are a product of sin’s pernicious effect as well. Whether that is the sin of a spouse leaving for unbiblical and selfish reasons or a death in the family, lone parents are a sad consequence of the wide-reaching effect of sin in the world.

Second, we cannot ignore the Biblical language of fatherly accountability. We may not like it, it may offend us, but God does hold fathers particularly accountable for the spiritual welfare of their children. Although mothers clearly have a role to play in teaching and training, God has determined that ultimate responsibility for the spiritual state of entire families lies with the father. This means – regardless of the role mothers rightly play in teaching and training their children – fathers will be uniquely held to account for the spiritual state of their family.

Third, a question naturally follows: does God hold fathers accountable for the spiritual welfare of a family he has left? There is no Biblical evidence to suggest God relinquishes fatherly accountability if a man abandons his family and neglects his God-given responsibilities. What this means is that God will judge ever so severely those abandoning their responsibilities this way. The father continues to be accountable for the spiritual welfare of his family and he uniquely will be judged for it. If he has abandoned his family, scripture is quite clear about the severity of this behaviour (cf. Matthew 18:6; 1 Timothy 5:8).

Fourth, women left caring for children as single parents are faced with a huge task (as, indeed, are men in the same boat). The roles originally intended to be carried out by father and mother in functionally complementary ways now reside entirely with one parent. That this is not God’s original intention does not mean he is angry with the one left behind nor that he ceases to be gracious to them. That God expects fathers to be responsible for the spiritual welfare of children at home does not mean that single mothers are bound to raise godless children. It is only to say that their task is inevitably that much harder. It is a point so basic that it barely needs stating. Children from single parent families often struggle emotionally and have a tendency to suffer from a lack that would have been made up by the involvement of a second complementary parent. Just as this is true of social and emotional things, it is true of spiritual ones as well.

It is important to note at this point a couple of things. Just because this task becomes harder, does not mean it is impossible. Just as there are plenty of children raised in single parent homes who are emotionally balanced and socially well adjusted, so too children of believing single parents may well become believers. That the task of raising them and teaching them becomes harder, is not to say it is impossible. Just because there is a tendency to something, or a correlation in statistics, doesn’t mean it is an inevitability.

Fifth, God is both sovereign and gracious. Is not God primary in salvation? Didn’t Jesus say ‘none can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44)? Clearly scripture encourages families and churches to put people into the best possible position to respond to Christ. Paul is clear nobody is likely to come to faith unless somebody goes and preaches the gospel. Likewise, the better the spiritual environment at home the more likely one is to respond to Christ. But let us not fall into the trap of presuming such things are inevitable. Enough stories exist of people coming to faith in extraordinary ways and, inversely, stories abound of children raised in godly Christian homes who ultimately reject the faith. That such things happen doesn’t change the fact there are general patterns that can be established.

This is significant for the discussion at hand because it is more likely for children to come to faith from a godly Christian home with input from two godly Christian parents. There is a general pattern that will bear this out according to God’s original intention. That is not to be read, however, as inevitable. Two godly parents may raise children who reject Christ. Two parents who have no interest in Christ whatsoever may find their children later becoming Christians. That there is a pattern, and wisdom in seeking to emulate those that typically lead to desired outcomes, there is no inevitability about such things. God is gracious and He can – and does – overrule.

Scripture does give wider instructions, directed at both parents, to bring up their children in the Lord. Much could be said of Hagar and Leah. Both women were married, but both were very much the second wife and not truly loved. Both found themselves with children and were, to all intents and purposes, tasked with bringing them up on their own. We could look to the example of Eunice and Lois, both commended by Paul. Nobody should deny the effect of a godly mother on her children. But acknowledging that doesn’t change that which God determines as his best intention and nor does it change the ultimate responsibility that he lays at the door of fathers.

The world is marred by the effects of sin and it is not as God originally intended it to be. That means we will inevitably find ourselves in situations that are less than God’s intended best. But we can nonetheless rest in his sovereign and gracious goodness. Yes, the task of raising children is harder in single parent families. Yes, there are statistics that mean the odds are not in our favour. Yes, God still holds fathers accountable for the spiritual welfare of families, even those they have abandoned.

Nonetheless, we have a God who himself is primary in salvation. We have a God who calls each one of us to faith, repentance and obedience to his sovereign good will. We cannot always control the circumstances in which we find ourselves. What we can do is seek to honour God in the situations he places us and rest in the knowledge that he will honour those who seek to honour him. Whether we have a family situation that is ideal or not, two promises seem worth noting:

  1. all things work together for the good of those that love him (Rom 8:28). Whatever the situation you are in, God will work it for your ultimate good by making you more like Christ through your circumstances.
  2. ‘Those who honour me I will honour’ (1 Sam 2:30). If we seek to honour the Lord in our circumstances, he ultimately honour us.

For the single parent, this means trusting in God’s goodness to make you more like Christ in your circumstances, whilst seeking to honour him in them, so that he may yet honour you.