(This is the first of a two-part series; here are the links to part 2.)
In an earlier post, I spoke about the temptation to play Holy Spirit, and help your spouse to “improve”. One unique concern that I often read in different blogs and frequently hear discussed on podcasts is both Christian-specific, and husband-specific. This is not a concern in non-Christian marriage. The problem? “My husband isn’t acting as the spiritual leader of our family.”
In conservative Christian churches, it is commonly taught that the husband is to be the spiritual leader in the home. This is a teaching that I think is correct, but, as we have done with so many teachings, we have over-spiritualized our interpretations and ideals to the point where we are in danger of emulating the Pharisees, whom Jesus accused of binding burdens on the backs of men, but refusing to help carry them.
Spiritual Leadership In The Bible
Do I believe it is the task of fathers to be spiritual leaders? Absolutely, along with mothers. God commanded that the home be the place of learning about God and His ways. The Shema, the great Jewish confession (equivalent to our Apostle’s Creed), includes the duty to pass on the faith to the children:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6: 4-7)
As well, Paul tasked fathers with need to teach their children:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)
So, yes, dads must be involved in the religious training of the children. But so must mothers, as well. After all, in Proverbs, we are twice told of both working to inculcate spiritual values in their children:
Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching, (Prov. 1:8)
My son, keep your father’s commandment,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching. (Prov. 6:20)
Imperative Input of Fathers
As if Biblical dictates were not enough to impel fathers to lead in spiritual activities, two studies demonstrate the vital importance of fathers in the spiritual development of their children.
A multi-generational study was conducted by the Swiss government and published in 2000 that, among other things, showed the impact of fathers on the faith of the next generation. In an article for Touchstone magazine, a British vicar, Robbie Lowe, looked at the analysis of the researchers, as they determined that there is one critical factor that determines future church-going: the spiritual participation of fathers. Here is a good summation of the data:
In short, if a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). If a father goes but irregularly to church, regardless of his wife’s devotion, between a half and two-thirds of their offspring will find themselves coming to church regularly or occasionally.
Wife found the highlighted portion disturbing, and I must say that I am surprised, as well. A second study, done in America, was published by the Baptist Press News in the same year as the Touchstone article. The news article cited a Focus On The Family study, and began with these three sentences:
Did you know that if a child is the first person in a household to become a Christian, there is a 3.5 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow?
If the mother is the first to become a Christian, there is a 17 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow.
But if the father is first, there is a 93 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow.*
So, yes, the concern for husbands and fathers to be spiritual leaders in the home is valid. These stories demonstrate that it is crucial that dads be part of the spiritual lives of their children.
Mutiny in the Ranks?
Fresh out of bootcamp, I was stationed aboard the USS Kennebec, in 1968. I quickly learned about the command structure of the ship. The captain, of course, was the leader of the ship, but his next-in-line was the Executive Officer. The captain dealt with the entire Navy structure: DoD, CinCPac, Base commanders, etc. As well, the captain gave course directions, speeds, etc. The XO dealt with the day-to-day running of the ship. The captain determined ship policies, and it was the XO’s task to have them carried out. If the captain felt that we should go to a three rotation watch, the XO created the different rotations. If the captain, upon inspection felt that extra training was required, the XO made sure that the key personnel received training.
It’s been my view, however benighted you might think me, that something similar applies to husband and wife. The husband deals with most of the world-at-large concerns for the family, while the wife deals with most of the within-these-walls matters. And, yes, I am of the persuasion that the husband is head, just as Christ is head of the Church. I don’t think I am alone in this, as the clamor for husbands to be spiritual leaders demonstrates. But there is a problem that is underlying these well-intentioned desires.
I enjoy listening to old pulpitmasters strut their stuff, and one great preacher/teacher of the past was Donald Grey Barnhouse, a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia. In one sermon, he told how his ministry started getting checks from a woman for $100 (back in the 40’s, $100 was big money.) After several months, he was conducting a series of meetings in another city, and a woman came up and introduced herself as the one. She asked Barnhouse if there was any problem with her giving to his ministry, not knowing if he would approve of her occupation – it seemed she was a ballet teacher. (Mind you, many Christian had problems with all forms of theater and entertainment, then.)
Barnhouse assured her that her occupation was fine, and that her giving to his ministry or any other ministry was praiseworthy and noble. And then Barnhouse, addressing those listening to him said, “And I know what many of you are thinking! You’re thinking, ‘Dr. Barnhouse, we’ve got to have standards.’ What you mean is we’ve got to have YOUR standards!” And he proceeded to lay into them for playing God.
I think you can see what I’m getting at, can’t you? If not, let me clarify; many times, the problem isn’t so much that the husband isn’t being a spiritual leader, but that he isn’t being the spiritual leader that his wife envisions. Just as Barnhouse’s critics wanted their standards, it seems that many wives want their version of a spiritual leader. And the Church isn’t helping. With teachings about how to be a Good Christian Family™, the role of the husband and father as spiritual leader swells and expands with duties and tasks, until the only one who could possibly fulfill expectations is a man who is a cross between Ward Cleaver and Billy Graham.
The Curmudgeon’s Recommendations
Here’s what I say: Relax, back up and unknot your knickers.
Wives, be willing to accept your husband as something less than Billy Graham. After all, you’re no Ruth Graham, yourself, right? Yes, you desire your husband to be your family’s spiritual leader, so pray for him to grow into that role. But when he does, be humble enough to accept his leadership, however it manifests itself. Oh, you may believe yourself to be the second coming of Beth Moore, but you are the one who wants him to grow into this role, so be willing to pray and accept.
One last story to illustrate my point: One day, a woman called her pastor on the phone with a question about biblical interpretation. This pastor, a renowned Bible teacher, got calls like this all the time, and was always willing to help people understand the Bible better. This time, however, before blurting out his answer, he found himself saying, “Have you asked your husband about what it means?”
“Oh, no, pastor,” she replied, “you know that he’s not really a student of Scripture.”
“Well, your husband is supposed to be your spiritual leader, so ask him, see what he says,” the pastor said, and then said his good-byes.
That evening, the wife went to her husband with her question, saying that she believed him to be the person she should go to for spiritual leadership, and asked her question. Some weeks later, the man made an appointment with the pastor and told him that when his wife said that, he realized that he needed to study the Scriptures to be able to answer his wife. He also said that he was engaging in prayer and study more than he had before, because he had come to see that he would be accountable for his wife.
(I apologize for the length, but there is more. In my follow-up post, I want to discuss some of the ways in which men lead that doesn’t require them to be Billy Graham.)