Is there a biblical vision of fatherhood?

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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16 thoughts on “Is there a biblical vision of fatherhood?”

  1. This is many of our favourite cause I expect.

    Since 20.5.08 UK law has said that a child does not ned a father. That is wrong in at least 4 ways.

    (1) It is the reverse of reality. They have a father, and that fundamental biology precendes (and does not anyway contradict) any issue of need.

    (2) The stats are very stark in showing that having or not having a father is perhaps the biggest factor in determining how their lives are likely to turn out. So, far from not needing a father, a father is the very thing they most need (together with a mum of course).

    (3) It’s a lazy father’s charter.

    (4) The proponents say that they are equality campaigners.

    What are the stats in question? F Turek, Correct Not Politically Correct: How SSM Hurts Everyone (MorningStar 2008) gives these USA stats:
    60% of rapists
    63% of youth suicides
    70% of longterm prison inmates
    70% of reform-school attendees
    70% of teen pregnancies
    70% of highschool dropouts
    72% of adolescent murderers
    85% of youth prisoners
    85% of youth with behavioural disorders
    90% of youth runaways
    -all these are from fatherless homes.

    Products of such homes are:
    7 times more likely than average to be poor
    6 times more likely to commit suicide
    2+ times more likely to commit crime
    2+ times more likely to be pregnant out of wedlock.

    S Baskerville ‘Divorce as Revolution’ (Salisbury Review 2003) found that ‘fatherlessness far surpasses both poverty and race as a predictor of social deviance’. Good author.

    • Hi Christopher,

      All good points. The substitution in HFEA 2008 of the ‘need for a father’ with ‘the need for supportive parenting’ was motivated by a political decision aimed at ensuring that the child’s needs did not prevent lesbian couples from accessing fertility treatment.

      While Iain Duncan Smith led the opposition to the government’s proposals in the House of Commons, citing evidence of the detrimental effect of absent fathers on children: ‘There has been a huge amount of research on the effect of absent fathers, demonstrating an increasing understanding of the importance of the role that fathers play in the home.’

      In contrast, Desmond Turner dismissed such evidence by claiming: ‘This is an equalities issue, whether or not anyone tries to deny that, because the provision bites only on lesbian couples. This House has established over recent years a very good and honourable record of ending discrimination on
      the grounds of sexuality or anything else. If the amendments are to be voted through, the House would be taking a step backwards.’

      This was echoed by the then Minister of Health, Dawn Primarolo: ‘We have heard of same
      sex couples who have been refused treatment on the grounds of their sexuality. If the Committee were to reaffirm that today, we could realistically expect that position to continue and, most likely, worsen if it became the current endorsed view of Parliament … It is one thing for the HFEA and clinics to interpret a provision that was passed almost 20 years ago in a way that allows same sex couples and single women to access treatment, but it is quite another thing for such an interpretation to continue if the position is reaffirmed by this House in 2008.’

      In the end, the majority sided with these specious attempts to frame the reproductive impossibility of same-sex unions as infertility.

      In his magnum opus, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Sir William Blackstone KC SL (arguably, the father of English common law) explained the public purpose of marriage which automatically confers joint parental responsibility:
      ‘The main goal and design of marriage therefore being to ascertain and fix upon some certain person, to whom the care, the protection, the maintenance, and the education of the children should belong.’

      1. Because of the very great uncertainty there will generally be, in the proof that the offspring were actually conceived through the same man; whereas, by confining the proof to the birth, and not to the conception, our law has made it completely certain, which child is legally recognised, and who is to take care of the child.’

      However, he went on to explain further the basis of parental responsibility in natural law:
      ‘The duty of parents to provide for the maintenance of their children is a principle of natural law; an obligation, says Pufendorf, laid on them not only by nature herself, but by their own proper act, in bringing them into the world: for they would be in the highest manner injurious to their issue, if they only gave the children life, that they might afterwards see them perish. By begetting them therefore they have entered into a voluntary obligation, to endeavor, as far as in them lies, that the life which they have bestowed shall be supported and preserved. And thus the children will have a perfect right of receiving maintenance from their parents.’

      And the president Montesquieu has a very just observation upon this head: that the establishment of marriage in all civilized states is built on this natural obligation of the father to provide for his children’.

      Through HFEA 2008, Parliament undermined the natural rights and obligations of fathers by intentionally facilitating fatherlessness. They have also legitimised the dispensability of fatherhood to children’s welfare.

      Instead of turning a blind eye to this, the Church should proclaim God’s message through Isaiah: ‘Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow

    • Christopher,

      The figures look very convincing, and if, as I suspect, they relate to single parent families, they are not unexpected. However, your suggestion of a link to SSM seems, far fetched in that I do not see that there is any evidence on which to base such a suggestion.

      • Hi Nick

        I have never suggested a link to SSM! Of course, most such things are linked in a web – if not at one remove then at 2 or 3. However, the suggestion was contained not in anything I said but in Turek’s book title. He is a reliable author but I have not read this book so I do not know if he makes his case for a link. It is odds-on that he does. Everything in life is linked and some things more closely than others.

        • Christopher,

          I see now that it was indeed Turek who appears to be making the link. Given how recent SSM is, I would be very surprised if there was enough data to either prove or disprove any link.

          • The link that there is is not a direct link at one remove. But sometimes those at 2 or 3 removes can be far more massive in their reality and effects than those at 1 remove.

            The piecemeal approach – that fatherlessness and divorce and abortion and drugs and STIs and promiscuity and the MAP and extramarital intercourse and ‘relationships’ and births are all individual issues to be tackled separately – is I think certainly incorrect, because there is a clear common parent of so much of this. This can be seen in many different ways:
            conceptual overlap
            similar date of commencement as an epidemic
            overlap in who does and doesn’t support them.

            Anything that is a fruit and/or ideology of the sexual revolution is connected to anything else that is.

      • Hi Nick,

        So, we’d agree that there is now ample evidence that fatherlessness is a significant ‘predictor of social deviance’.

        However, I would argue (and you might disagree) that a father is as indispensable to a child’s rightful identity and its well-being as its mother.

        Hansard reveals that, to reach the amended HFEA 2008 wording, the ‘need for supportive parenting, the House of Lords relied heavily on the research of Drs. Susan Golombok and Clare Murray of the Centre for Family Research.

        So, in the debate, the Minister of Health claimed‘Social research from Murray, Golombok and Brewaeys shows that children of same-sex couples develop emotionally and psychologically in a similar way to children born of heterosexual donor-inseminated couples. What counts is the quality of parenting.

        Yet, Dr. Walter Schumm’s closer inspection of her 1995 longitudinal study (with Tasker) of lesbians’ children indicated that being raised in a lesbian family increases the odds of a child later adopting a homosexual lifestyle even in the absence of homosexual attractions.

        Subject/Participation Bias:

        Also, in citing the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study: Psychological Adjustment of 17-Year-Old Adolescents., Golombok made no mention of subject bias (the tendency of participants to consciously or subconsciously act in a way that they think the experimenter/researcher wants them to act), or volunteer bias.

        Yet, the study itself explains:
        ‘Between 1986 and 1992, 154 prospective lesbian mothers volunteered for a study that was designed to follow planned lesbian families from the index children’s conception until they reached adulthood. Data for the current report were gathered through interviews and questionnaires that were completed by 78 index offspring when they were 10 and 17 years old and through interviews and Child Behavior Checklists [CBCL] that were completed by their mothers at corresponding times.’

        Now, what’s the statistical likelihood of such mothers revealing that planned lesbian households incur significantly higher social problems, rule-breaking and aggressive tendencies for the young who are raised in them? I’d say, slim to none.

        And, in a Guardian article (2012), Golombok went even further to deploy the converse accident fallacy in support of three-parent (or more) families: ‘People always assume with new family structures that it’s bad for children; that the more families deviate from the “gold standard” of the nuclear family, the more problematic for children it’s going to be. Actually, the more we study these families and have solid data on what happens, we find it’s not the case. The conclusion I would draw from all of this is that family structure is much less important for children’s wellbeing than the quality of family relationships. And sometimes, the more unusual the family structure, we’re finding, actually the better the relationships are, because these are parents who really want to have children and that’s very important.

        ‘Solid data on what happens’? Not when pseudo-science is trotted out in service of ideology.

        • “However, I would argue (and you might disagree) that a father is as indispensable to a child’s rightful identity and its well-being as its mother.”

          I neither agree nor disagree.

          What I am saying is that the evidence about fatherlessness relates to single parent families. There is ample data on this over many years so conclusions can be drawn from that data.

          With regard to SSM this is a relatively new phenomena so I cannot see where the data is to do the analysis. Any conclusions drawn from the single parent data would, be pure speculation. If you know such data that is is available then please quote its source.

          • Yes, SSM is a relatively new phenomena. Nevertheless, there are inferences which can be drawn from an objective review of the cited evidence of the relative psychological adjustment of children raised without a father by lesbian couples in long-term relationships.

            If the context of SSM is so new that the implications of the studies which I cited are inapplicable to the same-sex married, then we should set at nought all such implications for the same-sex married from such data,…including the statement that ‘children of same-sex couples develop emotionally and psychologically in a similar way to children born of heterosexual donor-inseminated couples. What counts is the quality of parenting.

            If that statement is also valid for children raised by the same-sex married, and not pure speculation, then there are other inferences which can be made from the cited studies about the effects of fatherlessness in relation to the same-sex married.

            The alternative is that SSM is so new relative to the broader context of committed same-sex relating as to require new evidence to test the new notion that ‘children of same-sex married couples develop emotionally and psychologically in a similar way to children born of heterosexual donor-inseminated couples..

          • What are people like when they discuss whether a child is allowed to have a dad or a mum in such a cold way? That is out of order

            (1) It is obviously quite horrible to deprive the child of either.

            (2) Nor is it any person’s business to do so.

            (3) Considering that as an option is saying that it is fine for someone to abandon their own children. It is not even remotely fine, of course.

  2. Typos: ‘need’,

    Thanks, David – that’s interesting from a legal point of view. Regrettable infertility is being treated as the same thing as complete and obvious incapacity to reproduce.

    This brings us back to the fact that fatherlessness is not an isolated question. It is the result of lawmakers abandoning the truth, and of the sexual revolution (than which nothing could be so quickly and extremely statistically damaging) being embraced.

    Fatherlessness is just one of the many inevitable interconnected results of that. There is no way fatherlessness will ever be tackled unless the root cause, the wrong embrace of the sexual revolution, is tackled. Yet intellectually it is a cinch, not even requiring debate, since the stats are so stark.

  3. For anyone interested in the latest scientific research on children brought up by same-sex couples, a useful (and freely available) summary can be found in Bailey et al (2016) Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science. See in particular pages 84-86.

    • Thanks for this, Johnathan,

      For those wanting to read the study, here’s the link:

      ‘It is important to realize the very strong possibility of selection effects’

      For various reasons we will elucidate, studies of the effects of rearing by homosexual parents do not yet allow strong conclusions.’

      These are valid provisos and a far cry from Golombok and Murray’s strong conclusions which were cited as evidence which influenced the HoL to replace ‘need for a father’ with the ‘need for supportive parenting’ during the debate on the then HFEA 2008 bill.

      The study also undermines the strong conclusions that Golombok asserted in her book, Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms

    • The majority of people in an opposite-sex couple will rear children. But only a smallish minority of single-sex couples will do so. Among the latter group, those that do so will be self-selected for willingness and suitability to do so. Any study of outcomes must bear that in mind. The meta-analysis of Stacey and Biblarz, American Sociological Review 2001 found that there is at the least a 400 percent increase in lesbian self-identification among those brought up by lesbians. Born This Way (a wishful-thinking slogan of the uninformed) has not a leg to stand on.


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