There is a crisis of fatherhood in modern Britain, with widespread absence of fathers in the lives of many children. But there is also a revolution in fatherhood, with those in some sectors of society choosing to be more active in fathering than before. What does Christian faith have to offer to this scenario, and what in practice can Christians and local churches do in response?
This is the focus of the recent Grove booklet P 150 God, Dads and the Church: encouraging a biblical vision of fatherhood, by Peter Munce. It begins with an anecdotal reflection on the current pressures on fathers, before looking at some of the realities of fatherhood today, both negative and positive:
In twenty-first century Britain the reality is that we live in an increasingly fatherless society. This is evidenced by the increasing number of children growing up in lone-parent families and in the growing trend of absent fathers. According to estimates by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) there were just over three million lone-parent families in the United Kingdom in 2015. Of these three million lone-parent families, over 2.5 million are lone-mother families. According to the same ONS data, almost four million children in Britain live without their father at home. Significantly, research by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), has highlighted the extent of fatherlessness in Britain. In their report ‘Fractured Families’ they estimate that around one million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers. Supporting this assertion, the think tank, the Fatherhood Institute, estimates that ‘somewhere between one and two million children in the UK at any one time, are not in meaningful contact with their father.’ As the CSJ points out, ‘The proportion of families with dependent children headed by lone parents has increased from 8 per cent in 1971 to 22 per cent in 2014. The CSJ have further suggested, through their research, that in Britain:
It is therefore highly concerning that over a million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers and by the end of their childhood a young person is considerably more likely to have a smartphone than a resident father: only 57 per cent of 15 year olds are still living with their fathers while 62 per cent own a smartphone.
These startling statistics highlight the extent of fatherlessness in Britain today. However, fatherlessness is just one face of contemporary fatherhood in Britain. Alongside the story of fatherless Britain is another story—this time of fathers who long for a more involved relationship with their children. At its core, it captures the idea that men see their role as fathers as representing something more than simply nancial provision. Furthermore, many millennial fathers, affected by the way they were fathered, changes in gender roles and the greater number of women in the labour market, have embraced greater involvement with their children as a key part of their fatherly responsibilities.
The ‘New Fatherhood’
Today, social media is awash with celebrity fathers sharing pictures of themselves and their children. Indeed, when the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that he was taking two months’ paternity leave he was lauded as having ‘changed the face of fatherhood.’ When Prince William appeared on TV screens after the birth of his first child, carrying the newborn Prince George out of hospital and placing him into his car seat, he was praised for his fresh approach to fathering. What these cultural reference points neatly encapsulate is the idea of the ‘new fatherhood.’
What is meant, then, by ‘new fatherhood’? As a cultural ideal, new fatherhood emerged in the 1980s to describe a new kind of dad who was more likely to be actively involved in the life of their children and more demonstrably caring and nurturing as a father. Two of the UK’s leading sociologists of fatherhood, Esther Dermott and Tina Miller, argue that ‘…the language of “involved” or “intimate” fatherhood has become more commonplace, normative, even’ in the cultural characterization of fatherhood in twenty-first century Britain.
Peter Munce then explores this ‘new fatherhood’ under four headings: exceptions of financial provision; the changes in the labour market; father involvement as an intentional choice; and the rise of stay-at-home fathers.
The middle section of the book then explores the biblical language of the fatherhood of God, and steers a deft path through this potentially complex area. Munce offers a particular focus on the significance of the parable of the prodigal son as offering an insight into the meaning of the fatherhood of God:
Jesus, relying upon the example of a human father, gives us the image of God’s fatherhood as gracious, loving, compassionate and kind. The father who runs endures shame and embarrassment, yet shows nothing but costly, compassionate love—this is the divine critique of all earthly fatherhood. This is the Father who moves first. In the parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus reveals something of the character of God, which is both a powerful critique of and also a standard against which all earthly fathers (and mothers) can be measured. According to Bailey, in this parable, ‘The image of God as a compassionate father is given its nest de nition in all of Scripture.’
The actions of the father towards both sons in this parable are astonishing, especially when one considers how a traditional patriarch in the culture of the time would have been expected to act. It is worth reflecting on some ways in which the father in this parable confounds patriarchy in the culture at the time. First, in his response to the younger son’s initial request. The younger son approaches his father and asks for his share of the father’s estate. The son wants his share whilst the father is still alive. In effect what he is really saying is, ‘I want you dead.’ Both the request and the father’s response are equally astounding and so, from the outset of this parable, it is clear that Jesus is not talking about a traditional patriarch of the culture of the time.
Munce offers a similar analysis of Paul’s language of fatherhood. Located in its historical context, Paul offers a surprisingly non-authoritarian view of what being a father is all about.
In the New Testament, fathers are addressed directly in two passages (Eph 6.4 and Col 3.21). On first reading of these biblical texts, such instructions appear to be very specifically about the father’s role in bringing children up in the Christian faith and about not provoking or exasperating their children. However, when one uncovers something of the cultural context in which these texts were written their meaning becomes much more powerful and broader in scope than it might appear. The patria potestas—the absolute legal powers that the father had over children—are a well-known feature of Greco-Roman society in the early first century. In particular, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus reminds us, this patria potestas allowed the father significant power over his children, including the capacity to, ‘imprison him, to scourge him, to put him in chains, and keep him at work in the elds, or to put him to death.’ In short, the patria potestas meant fathers had absolute power and authority over children in their household.
Mindful of this cultural background to the text, the significance of what Paul has to say to fathers becomes much clearer. Rather than emphasize the authority, power and rule that a Greco-Roman father would have over their children, these texts invite the father, ‘to be gentle, patient educators of their children, whose chief weapon is Christian instruction, focused on loyalty to Christ as Lord.’ Whilst the authority that fathers had over their children is ‘assumed in the call to children to obey their parents’ it is still significant that neither instruction to the father makes explicit reference to their power. Further still, what these passages arguably envisage is a reciprocal relationship between a father and his children. On the one hand, children are called to obey their parents, with a reminder of the fifth commandment to honour your father and mother (Eph 6.1–3; Col 3.20) and on the other hand, fathers are called not to exasperate their children (Eph 6.4) or provoke them (Col 3.21). In this sense, in Eph 6.4 Paul ‘does not exhort fathers to exercise authority’; neither does he presuppose that children are merely the property of the father ‘over whom the father has legal rights.’ Instead, this passage (along with passages such as Mark 10.13–15) makes clear that children are ‘owed dignity as human beings in their own right.’
Munce also notes the emphasis in the New Testament on the role of fathers passing on faith, and this is then matched by research in the next chapter on the evidence of the practical importance of fathers in the discipling of children.
In the previous chapter we explored the fact that one of the key responsibilities of biblical fatherhood is the command to raise children in the Christian faith. Yet this role is, arguably, one of the most often overlooked. A central priority for any local church must be to help dads do this. Over the past ten years, academic research has demonstrated the crucial role that families, and speci cally fathers, have to play in the transmission of faith to their children. Indeed, despite the prevailing cultural narrative, which suggests the marginalization of parental in uence over children, especially teenagers, this research has emphasized the important role of parents in the transmission of faith.
The importance of the family in the transmission of faith has been recognized by the sociologist Professor Vern L Bengston. In Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations, Bengston and his co-authors engaged in a longitudinal study in Southern California over a 35-year period on the central question of how faith is transmitted between generations. Interestingly, what they discovered was that whether or not a child continued in the faith they were raised in was determined by the level of intimacy and the closeness of the bond the child had with their father. According to Bengston, ‘A father who is an exemplar, a pillar of the church, but doesn’t provide warmth and affirmation to his kid does not have kids who follow him in his faith.’ In other words, this research supports the biblical command, explored in the previous chapter, for fathers to raise their children in the Christian faith but also the need for fathers to be intimately involved in their children’s lives in a nurturing and close manner.
Munce goes on to suggest practical strategies for the local church in encouraging this kind of biblical fatherhood. But it is clear that this question is an urgent one for our culture—but also an urgent one for the church, not only as a question of pastoral practice, but as part of missional effectiveness.
You can buy copies of the booklet, post-free in the UK, for £3.95 from the Grove website. (It is also available as a PDF e-book, particularly if you live outside the UK and would like to avoid postage charges.) Why not buy several copies, and read it with a group of fathers in your church?
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