Father-hunger and pastoral ministry...

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Yet most I thank thee, not for any deed,
But for the sense thy living self did breed
That Fatherhood is at the world’s great core.

-George MacDonald (1)

(Tim) Some years back when I first entered the pastorate, I sat in a small-town café listening to the son of a prominent church member summarize his relationship with his father: “Nothing I did ever pleased him.” In his late twenties, the son was a neer-do-well; divorced and not able to hold down a job, his children were shunted back and forth, week-by-week, from one broken home to another.

He came to church only on Christmas and Easter so our breakfast appointment was about the only chance I had. His eyes revealed the last flicker of what once had been the bright flame of father-hunger—that hunger God places in the heart of every son. None of my seminary professors had mentioned this hunger to me and I was at a loss as to how to cure his soul. Not knowing how to respond to this great sadness, I was silent...

Six years later, another young man began to attend church. He was
married, had a houseful of children, and worked to support his family,
but he was a hard-drinking womanizer. After attending church for a few
weeks, he called mid-week and asked me to pray that he would quit
drinking. Admitting his sin, he explained his father had always told
him he would never amount to anything.

“I was going to show him wrong,” he said, “but he died on me.”

Songs written of the unrequited love of a man for a woman are a dime
a dozen, but when Harry Chapin sang “Cat’s in the Cradle,” the tears of
a fatherless child marked our nation’s conscience.

The church I currently serve is in a university community, so we
have a steady stream of students joining our congregation. Not a few of
the young men struggle with gender identity issues, including
homosexual desires. What is the common denominator among such men?


These illustrations are no denial of the formative influence of
mothers in the lives of their children, but the harm suffered by
children who have been raised in a home where the father is absent,
cruel, or silent is an open sore in the church.

As a pastor grows in
his awareness of this tragedy, he also will grow in his love for the
promise that brings the Old Testament to its close:

Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet
before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will
restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of
the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the
land with a curse (Mal. 4:5-6).

God cares about the bonding of fathers and children and his servants
ought to share this commitment. The recovery of fatherhood in the
church, home, and society should not simply be ceded to social
scientists or Dr. James Dobson; rather, it must be central to the
strategic agenda of the Church as she witnesses to the Father, Son, and
Holy Spirit.

What is fatherhood and why does it matter? The subject is
inexhaustible, but let’s focus on two aspects of fatherhood—the
fatherhood of God over all creation and that of pastors and elders in
the Church, the household of faith.

God the Father, from Whom All Fatherhood Gets Its Name:
get to the meaning and purpose of fatherhood, we must start with the
fatherhood of God. Our Lord taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in

When we address God as ‘Father, (2) we are confessing that he
is the archetypal father and has imprinted his fatherhood on all
creation. This is the significance of the Apostle Paul writing, “For
this reason I kneel before the Father (pater), from whom all fatherhood (patria) in heaven and on earth derives its name…” (Ephesians 3:14,15).

Note that God does not get the name ‘father’ from earth, but earth
gets the name ‘father’ from heaven. The late F. F. Bruce wrote, “God is
the archetypal Father; all other fatherhood is a more or less imperfect
copy of his perfect fatherhood.”

A decade ago, Carl F. H. Henry was asked what doctrine he thought
most merited the attention of young evangelical theologians. He
answered, “First, the doctrine of God. Evangelical theology tends to
treat the doctrine of God devotionally. That in itself is certainly not
to be disparaged—but it does so to the neglect of the intellectual
significance of the doctrine in the contemporary conflict of ideas.” (3)

Nowhere is this more evident than this doctrine of the fatherhood of
God. We pray, “Our heavenly Father,” we meditate on the privilege of
sonship shared by all those God has adopted, we preach on the sacrifice
of love made by the Father when he sent his only begotten Son to die
for sinful man, but our focus on God’s fatherhood rarely goes beyond
personal devotion. We would be hard-pressed to describe its meaning and
significance, let alone defend it, as the war over sexuality rages
around us.

At the center of today’s battles over sexuality is the nature of
manhood and womanhood, but Christian leaders seem blind to the fact
that the fatherhood of God and man stand or fall together. Our Bible
translators are quick to reassure us that no changes have been made to
the fatherhood of God and the sonship of Jesus Christ in their latest
Bible, but some translations have cut out the male marking of hundreds
of texts, deleting the manifestation of God’s fatherhood in the life of

The language of fatherhood is not merely an expendable human habit.
This language is God’s decree, rooted in his very nature and,
therefore, universally binding on his creation. David Lyle Jeffrey

In theological terms…‘God the Father’ is
not really a metaphor at all—at least not in the minds of the writers
of Scripture or early interpreters in Christian tradition…As Jaroslav
Pelikan puts it: “Using the name Father for God was not…a
figure of speech. It was only because God was the Father of the
Logos-Son that the term father could also be applied to human parents,
and when it was used of them it was a figure of speech. (Emphases in the original.). (4)

Similarly, John Calvin writes: “It is customary…for God’s names to
be transferred to creatures insofar as he exerts his power in them.
Thus he himself is alone Lord and Father, but they are also called
fathers and lords whom he dignifies with this honor.” (5)  And
Hendrikus Berkhof: “When certain concepts are ascribed to God, they are
thus not used figuratively but in their first and most original sense.
God is not ‘as it were’ a father; he is the Father from whom all
fatherhood on earth is derived.” (6)

What glory, that we have been granted the privilege of approaching the living God in prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven!”

We forget what a terrible gulf has been bridged for us by our Lord
who gives to all those who believe in him the power to become the sons
of God. But that gulf comes into focus when we stop to consider, for
instance, the world of Islam. Were we to connive at Islam’s idolatry
and claim that Allah is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, an
exchange at an ecumenical gathering of over 100,000 held in Berlin,
West Germany, back in 1989, would be a rude awakening.

One of the Protestant leaders, Professor Antony Wessels of
Amsterdam, called for a spirit of unity between all religions: “I hope
we are all Moslems and live in submission to the one God. And I hope we
are all Christians and follow Jesus.”

There was no such blurring of the nature of the Islamic and
Christian God, though, on the part of the invited Islamic participant,
theologian Nigar Yadim, who announced that she opposes mixing
religions: “I cannot pray Christianity’s Lord’s Prayer, because Islam
does not think of God as Father.” (7)

The fatherhood of God is a peculiarly Christian understanding,
revealed from Heaven and given as comfort to those who believe in the
Father’s only begotten Son. How precious a truth this is to all
believers, particularly those who have never known any benevolent
manifestation of fatherhood in their own human families. Christians
ought to rejoice in our freedom to know God as Father; we ought to
fight for the protection of this divine trait and all its
manifestations in the language of Scripture, worship, and life. Many
forces are aligned against its beauty; we must study those forces and
oppose them in the power of the Holy Spirit, realizing that this battle
is just one more area where the feminist heresy lays siege to God’s

We must also, though, work to present to the world living fatherhood
that points to God himself. There are many places where such fatherhood
may be demonstrated, but for sons and daughters robbed of it in their
own childhood, it is most important that it be restored within “the
household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Fatherhood within the Household of Faith:
years back I began a sermon series on the Ten Commandments and, coming
to the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and mother…,” as was my
habit, I turned to Thomas Watson’s exposition and read, “the king…is a
political father. (And) these fathers are to be honored.” (8)

Sitting there at my desk, worlds exploded as I thought of the
implications of this simple truth: kings, presidents, governors,
judges, law enforcement officers, mayors, principals, teachers, and
professors bear the image of God’s Fatherhood. Elders and pastors are
fathers after their heavenly Father and are to demonstrate his
character as they shepherd his flock. Thus Question 124 of the Westminster Larger Catechism reads:

Question: Who are meant by ‘father’ and ‘mother’ in the fifth commandment?

Answer: By ‘father’ and ‘mother,’ in the fifth commandment,
are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and
gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place
of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.

It is this understanding of the paternal nature of the eldership
upon which the Apostle Paul bases his intimate family appeal to the
church in Thessalonica:

…You know how we were exhorting and encouraging and
imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that
you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his own
kingdom and glory (1 Thess. 2:11-12).

God has provided for every one of his children’s needs, including
their need of flesh-and-blood fathers who will make visible to them
some small portion of the perfections of their heavenly Father. Such
fathering is a critical part of the ministry of the Word and Sacrament,
but also the eldership.

Since the earliest days of the wilderness wanderings of the sons of
Israel, when Moses, following the counsel of his father-in-law, Jethro,
appointed elders over every group of ten (Exod. 18:13-27), to the
apostolic age when the apostles appointed elders over the church in
each city (Titus 1:5), those who belong to God are settled in the
household of faith where their heavenly Father has provided them
spiritual fathers, and those fathers have the wonderful privilege of
ministering to their spiritual children.

The Apostle Paul ministered in this way to the members of the
Corinthian church, referring to them as his “children,” and to himself
as their “father”:

I do not write these things to shame you, but to
admonish you as my beloved children. For if you were to have countless
tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ
Jesus I became your father through the gospel. (1 Cor. 4:14,15).

Fatherless Timothy (likely the son of an unbelieving father) (9)
also received such ministry; adopted by God, he was placed in the
household of faith under the care of the Apostle Paul who corrected,
rebuked, encouraged, and loved him as a father his son, tenderly
referring to Timothy as his “beloved and faithful child in the Lord.” (10)

Still today, every believer is given the gift of membership in this
same household where he or she is granted the privilege of receiving
fatherly care from pastors and elders, and it is the calling of those
ordained to these offices (11) to study this aspect of our work.

While reading Charles Eastman’s autobiographical account of his
American Indian childhood, recently, it struck me that across culture
and time children copy parents and sons copy fathers and elders:

What boy would not be an Indian for a while when he
thinks of the freest life in the world? This life was mine. Every day
there was a real hunt. There was real game. Occasionally there was a
medicine dance away off in the woods where no one could disturb us, in
which the boys impersonated their elders, Brave Bull, Standing Elk,
High Hawk, Medicine Bear, and the rest. They painted themselves and
imitated their fathers and grandfathers to the minutest detail, and
accurately too, because they had seen the real thing all their lives.

We were not only good mimics, but we were close students of nature.
We studied the habits of animals just as you study your books. We
watched the men of our people and represented them in our play, then
learned to emulate them in our lives. (12)

Our sports were molded by the life and the customs of our people;
indeed, we practiced    only what we expected to do when grown. Our
games were feats with the bow and the arrow, foot and pony races,
wrestling, swimming, and imitation of the customs and habits of our
fathers. (13)

According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, the fifth commandment requires of the child “imitation of (his parents’) virtues and graces." (14)
The New Testament records similar imitation. For instance, the Apostle
Paul writes, “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you,” and
“I urge you to imitate me” (Acts 20:18; 1 Cor. 4:16). And the Hebrews
are commanded, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the Word of God to
you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”
(Hebrews 13:7).

Combine these statements with Eastman’s account of his childhood and
we begin to have a picture of the work of pastors and elders rarely
considered or taught—that whether or not we are aware or plan for it,
we will be an assembly line for character, filling in for absentee
fathers and producing sons of our own who someday will themselves be
fathers. And although to our untrained ears it seems impious to talk
about imitating anyone other than Christ, those of us called to be
pastors, elders, (and older women (15) ), must be conscientious in this work.

Recognizing that any choice is somewhat arbitrary, let’s focus on
two aspects of fatherhood that are of critical importance: discipline
and tender affection.

If we return to the men mentioned at
the beginning of the chapter and probe more deeply into their
heart-sickness, we will find that their fathers failed to provide their
sons proper discipline. This is not to say their fathers never spanked,
punched, yelled at, mocked, or belittled them, but that any punishment
their sons received was a product of their father’s irritation and
anger, rather than an effort to form the son’s character. It might even
be that the father was completely passive, neither raising his voice
nor bullying his son, but allowing the young man perfect freedom to
develop willy-nilly, as he chose.

What can be said about such a son? By the authority of the Word of
God we must acknowledge that this son is not loved by his father:

In your struggle against sin you have not yet
resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten
the exhortation which addresses you as sons? —“My son, do not regard
lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are
punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and
chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you
as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If
you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then
you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had
earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not
much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they
disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines
us for our good, that we may share his holiness (Hebrews 12:4-10).

Were I to speak to pastors and elders about nothing else, I would be
content with impressing upon them the crucial witness of loving and
firm discipline within the Body of Christ, carried out by men who
themselves have known, and welcomed, the loving discipline of their
heavenly Father.

There is a book in this, but let me simply hit the basic themes. In
Acts 20, we read the Apostle Paul’s farewell charge to the Ephesian
elders. There Paul characterizes his own work among the flock at
Ephesus as follows: he “served the Lord…with tears and with trials;” he
“did not shrink from declaring to (them) anything that was profitable,
and teaching (them) publicly and from house to house;” he spoke of
“repentance toward God;” and “night and day for a period of three years
(he) did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” Then summing up
his work, he makes this stunning claim: “I testify to you this day that
I am innocent of the blood of all men” (Acts 20:17-31).

Honestly, who among us could think of making such a claim—that we
have no bloodguilt because we have been faithful shepherds warning our
sheep house to house, day and night, with tears? Yes, the Apostle Paul
is quite popular among Bible-believing Christians today; he is our alma
mater, feeding us the great doctrines of the Church. But while our
shelves groan with the weight of theological treatises examining almost
every aspect of his work, one aspect of that work is neglected—fatherly

Why this neglect? Is it because we are trying to demonstrate the
doctrines of grace in our pastoral relationships; is it because we are
seeking to lead our flock to the one who is meek and gentle of heart,
in whom we shall find rest for our souls?

No. Rather, I fear that too often our talk of grace and parallel
neglect of discipline are the products of our aversion to conflict, our
fear of a drop in attendance and giving, and our dread of dismissal.
Richard Baxter understood pastors when, back in 1656, he first
published his classic work, The Reformed Pastor. Concerning pastors’
neglect of discipline, he wrote:

It is a sad case, that good men should settle themselves
so long in the constant neglect of so great a duty. The com¬mon cry is,
“Our people are not ready for it; they will not bear it.” But is not
the fact rather, that you will not bear the trouble and hatred which it
will occasion? (16)

Pity the home and church where fathers, finding in their hearts no
love for their sons, cast them off without benefit of discipline. And
pity the sons who grow up yearning for this proof of their sonship.

Fifteen years ago, now, God taught me a lesson about the connection
between discipline and father-hunger, and that lesson has since been a
cornerstone of my work. At the time, I was the pastor of a yoked parish
serving two congregations eight miles apart, one small town and one out
in the country, sandwiched between dairy farms just off the
right-of-way of the state highway. The country church had for years
been keeping on its membership rolls families that never attended
church, except maybe an occasional Easter morning or Christmas Eve.

Sensing our Biblical responsibility to go out house-to-house,
warning these souls, the elders undertook their duty with fear and
trembling and sickness unto death. Splitting up the names and families,
we started to visit each home. With diligence we worked through the
list, speaking to each person about his soul and inquiring whether
something or someone within our congregational life had offended him,
causing him to stop attending. Before leaving, we read a fitting
portion of Scripture and prayed for the family, but also left it clear
that we expected to see them in church in the weeks to come.

Certainly none of us involved in this work would claim that we did
our visits perfectly. Our word choice wasn’t always the best, and we
failed to demonstrate the depth of love Christ showed to his own
disciples. As we did our work, we were jars of clay, but jars of clay
seeking to be faithful in all our responsibilities—not just the easy
ones. And so we set out to discipline our flock, including those who
felt that having their names on the roll of a Christian church and
returning to that church each time they had babies to be baptized, sons
and daughters to be married, and grandmothers and grandfathers to be
buried, was the normal Christian life and guaranteed their soul’s
eternal protection.

The results were predictable. Immediately, some souls returned to
the sheepfold where they were greeted with joy. Others needed another
push, six months to a year later, before they returned. Some returned
at first, but then became sporadic in their attendance and were visited
again and again; the spirit was willing but the body was weak. Some
cursed us and began gossiping in the community, lying about what had
been said and how it had been said.

When some who had heard this gossip called the elders, they
explained that none of us wanted to see these persons leave the church;
in fact, just the opposite—we were trying to restore them to our
fellowship. We commended our consciences to every man as we had
occasion, reminding the congregation of their membership vows and their
duty  to keep those vows. We went back to the offended parties,
delicately trying again to explain our concern over their souls and our
desire that they return to the fold. But with a number of those
offended, it was to no avail.

After several years of pursuing this work, the time came to remove
the names of ten or fifteen people from the list of active members. The
authority for this lay within the board of elders, but one family
decided to come to the annual meeting that year and publicly oppose the
elders’ action.

The day arrived and, following our potluck meal, I called the
meeting to order and we proceeded through our agenda. Eventually, it
was time for our clerk of session to report on our membership and the
battle was joined. Using every tactic at hand, the offended family
stood and fought, accusing the elders of being unchristian, unloving,
hypocritical, judgmental, and even un-American. With meekness and
humility, though, the clerk of session (speaking for all the elders)
held his ground.

Two things came of this, one predictable and the other astounding.
Predictably, a number of people left the church. We knew this was a
probable consequence of our work but we still found it painful. As our
overall attendance declined, though, one sub-group began to grow until
its presence within the church was the most noticeable thing about our
fellowship. Each Sunday morning, halfway back on the left side of the
church, young men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five began to
fill up a row and a half of pews.

It was stunning, really, since a number of these men had not been
raised in the church. We noticed their presence and began to talk about
it, trying to figure out why they were there? Yes, we had a vital youth
ministry that extended beyond our own congregation to the youth of a
number of community churches, but that had been going on for several
years and couldn’t be the whole story. And yes, we had a family in our
fellowship that lived in a nearby town and ministered to the young
people of that town, having them into their home and around their
table, but again, that had been going on for some time and couldn’t be
more than a small part of the explanation.

Then it hit us: these young men started coming after the infamous
congregational meeting. They had heard about the fathers of the church
disciplining their congregation and the father-hunger in them led them
to a congregation where there were real men showing faithfulness in
discipline, even at significant personal cost.

Watch Hoosiers, my state’s favorite movie, and you will see
this same theme: as the coach restores discipline to his basketball
team, the townspeople gnash their teeth but the players fall in love
with their coach and begin to win. So when a vote is taken to fire the
coach, the players defend him and he stays on. As we watched the movie,
my daughter observed that the coach as father is at the center of the
sports movie genre.

The purpose of the story of the membership rolls is not to argue
that elders across the country ought to go and do likewise. There are
many different forms of polity within our congregations and
disciplinary action appropriate in one church may well be inappropriate
in another. Rather, I tell this story as a testimony to the power of
God to use sinful men who are willing to be obedient to their duty to
discipline God’s flock. Ezekiel records the warning God gave him as a
prophet, and that same warning has direct application to the work of
pastors and elders today:

Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the
house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, warn them from
me. When I say to the wicked, “You will surely die,” and you do not
warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he
may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I
will require at your hand. Yet if you have warned the wicked and he
does not turn from his wickedness or from his wicked way, he shall die
in his iniquity; but you have delivered yourself (Ezek. 3:17-19).

Is it not God himself who has taught us the disciplinary nature of
true fatherly love, and has not his discipline proven to us that we are
his adopted sons? And what about Paul; did he not exhort the Ephesian
elders to be faithful in discipline:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock,
among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the
church of God which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after
my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the
flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse
things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the
alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did
not cease to admonish each one with tears (Acts 20:28-31).

Why then is there such an oppressive silence in our seminaries,
bookstores, pulpits, and church board rooms on this subject of
discipline? Can it be that Christians have evolved to the point that we
no longer need this proof of our heavenly Father’s love?

If we ourselves have had the privilege of knowing the disciplinary
love of God, let us reclaim that same ministry of discipline for our
flocks, giving ourselves wholeheartedly to this duty. And let us trust
that God’s servants doing God’s work using God’s tools will never lack
God’s blessing and protection.

Tender Affection:
As the men mentioned at the
beginning of the chapter lacked their fathers’ discipline, so also
their fathers failed to nurture them with tender affection.

This is not to say their fathers never tucked them in at night or
gave them a playful jab on the shoulder; but rather, that as the son
grew he never had the privilege of burrowing into the fertile black
soil of clear outward demonstrations of affection—the kind of thing
that every son is mortified to see other fathers doing, but wishes his
own father would give him.

Back in the mid-eighties, my father was speaking at a chapel service
at Wheaton College. In passing, he mentioned his conviction that
college students wanted their fathers to hug and kiss them. To his
surprise, the comment provoked a standing ovation.

Happily, my father practiced what he preached. He was a frequent
traveler and how distinctly I remember meeting him in the middle of the
concourse at O’Hare, throwing our arms around each other and kissing in
front of hundreds of starched shirts and suits. And , standing there in
my father’s loving embrace, I confess sometimes I thought, “Eat your
hearts out, men; I love my Dad and my Dad loves me.”

American men are so stingy with their affection, robbing their sons
of the warmth of human fatherly contact so necessary to their sons’
emotional well-being. But this is not the way of Scripture.

Look into the Bible and see how its pages are filled with
emotion—with tears, affection, and love. See Joseph as he falls on
Jacob’s shoulders crying tears of joy upon his reunion with his father
(Gen. 46:29, 30); see Jesus as he weeps at the grave of his dear
friend, Lazarus (John 11:35); see him again as he receives (and
defends) the tearful and unseemly ministrations of the sinful woman at
the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50); see him as he pleads
with the three beloved disciples to stay awake, to watch and pray with
him as his hour draws near (Matt. 26:36-46); see Paul as he bids the
Ephesian elders a final farewell there on the beach at Miletus. We read
that after giving them their charge, Paul “knelt down and prayed with
them all. And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and
repeatedly kissed him, grieving especially over the word which he had
spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they were
accompanying him to the ship” (Acts 20:36-38).

On this scene, John Calvin comments:

When the Spirit…commends their tears…he is condemning
the thoughtlessness of those who demand from believers an iron and
inhuman firmness. For they falsely suppose that the feelings, which God
has implanted in us as natural, proceed only from a defect. Accordingly
the perfecting of believers does not depend on their casting off all
feelings, but on their yielding to them and controlling them, only for
proper reasons.

What signs of tender affection do our congregations see passing
between their pastor and elders? Would there ever be an occasion when
they might see a scene in our own church foyers or parking lots similar
to the scene of Paul’s departure from the Ephesian elders?

Somehow the Church has been misled into denying the legitimacy of
feelings and emotions. What then are we to do with the record left for
us in the New Testament, of the tender affection that permeated the
apostolic church? Speaking to Timothy, his son in the faith, Paul
writes: “I thank God…as I constantly remember you in my prayers night
and day, longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may
be filled with joy” (2 Tim. 1:3,4).

Fatherhood proves itself through discipline and tender affection,
and sons of the Church who have grown up in a harsh and loveless home
that lacks discipline will respond to spiritual fathers who correct,
rebuke, and encourage them with tenderness and love.

In celebration of Father’s Day 2002, The New Yorker carried an autobiographical essay by the actor, Steve Martin, which began:

In his death, my father, Glenn Vernon Martin, did something he could not do in life. He brought our family together.

After he died, at the age of eighty-three, many of his friends told
me how much they loved him—how generous he was, how outgoing, how
funny, how caring. I was surprised at these descriptions. I remember
him as angry. There was little said to me, that I recall, that was not
criticism. During my teen-age years, we hardly spoke except in one-way
arguments—from him to me. I am sure that the number of words that
passed between us could be counted. At some point in my preteens, I
decided to officially “hate” him. When he came into a room, I would
wait five minutes, then leave.…

Generally…my father was critical of my show-business
accomplishments. Even after I won an Emmy at twenty-three as a writer
for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” he advised me to finish
college so that I’d have something to fall back on. Years later, my
friends and I took him to the premiere of my first movie, “The Jerk,”
and afterward we went to dinner. For a long time, he said nothing. My
friends noted his silence and were horrified. Finally, one friend said,
“What did you think of Steve in the movie?” And my father said, “Well,
he’s no Charlie Chaplin.” (18)

Picture Martin (or millions of young men like him) walking through
the doors of the Church and finding in her fellowship the fatherhood of
God in all its beauty, lived out by older men ready to give the
encouragement and affection Martin’s father lacked the strength to

In our own congregation located in the shadow of a research
university, we’ve decided that one of our mission priorities will be to
invest ourselves in raising up, training, and sending out church
leaders, both men and women. The repercussions are large in terms of
time and money, and the work is often daunting, but we’ve never
regretted this commitment.

Over the years, scores of women and men have left this fellowship
ready to be spiritual mothers and fathers, themselves. And though it’s
painful when they leave, immediately a new crop of young souls springs
up hungry for the Fatherhood of God. So we return to our simple
commitments: early morning and late evening discipleship groups,
students around our dining room tables and flopped on our living room
floors, young men preaching in our evening services… Only God knows the
full extent of the harvest this work has produced.

But those willing to give themselves to
this work must not be naive. There are some in our congregations who,
due to the destructive influence of their own father, stepfather,
professor, pastor, or priest, have been hardened in their hatred of
fatherhood. Still, fatherhood has never been for the timid. It’s been
said, “There’s only one adventurer in the world…the father of a family.
Even the most desperate adventurers are nothing compared with him.” (19)
Under the guise of pastoral sensitivity, pastoral leaders will be
tempted to make concessions to the spirit of our age but our courage
must not fail.

The center of our culture’s sexual anarchy is a rebellion against
the fatherhood of God, but those who would come to God and worship him
as he is, rather than as they wish he might be, must meet and embrace
his Fatherhood liturgically, confessionally, and ecclesiastically. To
refuse to worship him as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is idolatry. (20)

Thus the faithful shepherd will lead the sheep in his flock to
confess, with all Christians everywhere, “I believe in God the Father
Almighty.” And having led this confession, he will work hard to
discipline and love his sheep to the end that they will come to grow in
their love for the Father from whom all fatherhood gets its name.
Father-hunger presents Christians with a wonderful opportunity to
testify that fatherhood is, indeed, at the “world’s great core.” May we
confess this, our faith, with sensitivity and courage, refusing to turn
away in shame.

* * *


(1) From the dedication to his father of MacDonald’s first book, in 1857.

(2) “Ephesians 3:14 probably means that God is ‘the Father [pater] from whom every fatherhood [patria] in heaven and on earth is named’…every patria is so named after the pater.” Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), s.v. ‘Name,’ by Frederick Fyvie Bruce 2:655.

(3) “Interview of Carl F. H. Henry,” Theological Student's Fellowship Bulletin, March-April 1987,  pp. 16-19.

(4) David Lyle Jeffrey, “Inclusivity and Our Language of Worship,” Reformed Journal, August 1987.

(5) Commentary on Colossians 1:16.

(6) As quoted in Donald G. Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate over Inclusive God-Language (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1985) p. 25.

(7) Harold O.J. Brown, The Religion and Society Report, August 1989, Vol. 6, No. 8, p. 3.

(8) Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, reprinted 1981) p. 122.

(9) “For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first
dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure
that it is in you as well” (1Timothy 1:5).

(10) 1Corinthians 4:17.

(11) Baptists and congregationalists might have a similar understanding of the office of deacon.

(12) Charles Alexander Eastman, From the Deep Woods to Civilization Including Excerpts from Indian Boyhood (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley and Sons [Lakeside Press], 2001), p. 7.

(13) Ibid, p. 43.

(14) Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 127; (with thanks to Phil Henry).

(15) Titus 2:3-5 indicates the responsibility of older women to teach younger women in the Church.

(16) Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974) p. 47.

(17) Commentary on Acts 20:37.

(18) Steve Martin, “The Death of My Father,” The New Yorker, 17 & 24 June 2002, 84.

(19) Charles Peguy, as quoted by James Bemis, The Wanderer, June 6, 2002.

(20) For a helpful discussion of the confessional nature of speaking of God as Father, see Donald G. Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate over Inclusive God-Language (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1985).