Parenthood Lessons for Church
The idea of God being our
Father is one of the most basic Christian concepts. It is more
than a metaphor, but the metaphorical aspect of this teaches us
much about our relationship to God.
A parent's love for a child teaches us unconditional love, the
delight parents have in their children, the gentleness of
guiding children though the ups and downs of life, a "big
picture" perspective, helping them to find and fulfill that
which they were created for, just to name a few. These all have
significant parallels to our spiritual lives. Hopefully it has
enriched your spiritual life to know that God is a loving
Similarly, our spiritual lives
are enriched by the concept that fellow Christians are brothers
and sisters in Christ. Since we share the same Father, we can
enjoy a special closeness with other Christians. I've been
blessed to have many relationships with other Christians that
were this way.
But there is one aspect of the brother and sister relationships
that Christians share doesn't get much discussion, and this is
the area of conflict.
As a parent, for years I have observed the similarities between
squabbling siblings and squabbling Christians. I am amazed at
the profound similarities, and hope to discuss a few of these in
If you're a parent, you know the
joy of seeing your children get along and support each other.
Such things bring joy to your heart.
You also know the irritation and even anguish of seeing them
squabble and fight, often over ridiculous things. You see how
your children sometimes seem to be unable to resist the
temptation to demonstrate their own superiority, take a sibling
down a notch or two, or to see them battle for attention,
approval, or some special privilege. You see how children
sometimes want to make sure that their parents see a certain
behavior or trait of a sibling, feeling the parents are
You see how old hurts and habitual patterns of behavior create
unhealthy dynamics where just a single, seemingly minor event
can trigger a major conflict. In the heat of the moment,
comments like these may be directed to parents:
She always gets her way
- She's your favorite
- He never gets in trouble
- You should have seen what he did!
- She always does that and I'm sick of it!
- You just don't understand
- Why am I getting in trouble? What he did was just as bad
- If you only knew what she was like when you're not there
- You need to teach her this!
So why do siblings fight? I'm
not a psychologist, family therapist or researcher, but I am a
parent of three teenagers. To me there are three main reasons
why siblings fight:
2- Who's the favorite?
3- Wanting to be an independent, mature adult (as opposed to an
Let's explore these
concepts a little bit.
The oldest child in a family starts out in the superior
position, and younger siblings follow in order. This need not be
a source of conflict, but... it is, especially if the children
are relatively close in age. Superiority has its perks; these
are obvious enough that I won't go into them here. But as the
children get older, the position of superiority is always
seemingly "up for grabs." The younger ones are after for what
the oldest one has, and the oldest one makes efforts to keep
what he has. So as soon as the ten year old gets to be the same
age as his eleven year old brother (and "catches up"), alas, the
eleven year old is now a twelve year old.
If a child, especially a younger
child, can't win at the "superiority" game, there is another
game to play: being the favorite. The objective here would be to
compete for slightly better treatment from their parents than
what the other siblings get- especially what an older one gets.
Kids may forget to pick up their rooms or take their lunch to
school, but I think they have a little built-in database that
remembers nearly every privilege and slight in the history of
the family. They are keen to pick up on any hint of inequity.
They don't mind if they are favored, but they will howl "unfair"
(or store the issue in the database for future recall) if one of
the siblings (especially a younger one) is favored.
Because all the children have different ages, personalities,
interests and the like, there will be numerous opportunities for
favoritism. Good luck to all parents keeping that straight!
of a good parent cries out, "all of my kids are my favorites!"
But for each child to know and feel this is not so easy. Good
parents spend a lot of effort trying to make things fair, and to
persuade the children that things really are fair.
But the kids are rarely content with what goes on between them
and their parents, they are always comparing their treatment
with that of their siblings. All kids want their parents'
approval, and it's pretty natural for kids to want just a little
more approval than their siblings.
Wanting to be
an independent, mature adult is a good thing. God created us
with an innate desire for this. He commanded man to "be fruitful
and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28)." It
is the first Great Commission, a message of enormous vision and
empowerment, not constraint or subjection. Each individual is
created with the capacity (and responsibility) to one day leave
behind the constraints of childhood and be the steward of his
life as an adult. Reaching this position of maturity is a
process that unfolds day by day, year by year.
Good parents want their children
to someday be successful, independent, productive, functional
adults. They prepare their children for this very early on-
providing nurture and direction, allowing them to make choices,
giving them opportunities to succeed and fail, and helping them
learn from success and failure. Gradually children are given
more and bigger choices and responsibility/consequences to go
with them, to prepare them for the independence of adulthood.
Sometimes children think they
are ready for more than they are really ready for. Among other
things, they have to be reminded they are part of a family and
they don't have the capacity to make adult-like judgements just
yet. This is particularly true in cases where one child attempts
to take the role of a parent in the life of a sibling, most
often correcting something. Children may be mature enough to
know this or that, but they may not be mature enough to train a
younger sibling in this or that.
Preempt Conflict, But Cannot Prevent It
Each of these three elements
(superiority, favoritism, maturity) leads to conflict among
siblings, though there are probably others as well. Parents
spend a lot of effort and energy resolving and trying to prevent
conflict. They try to treat each child in age-appropriate ways
as individuals, in ways that each child thinks is right for her.
They try to make this clear to all children. They try to show
equal attention to all, but in the ebb and flow of life this can
be difficult. Hopefully it averages out over time. They also
have to reassess roles and boundaries for children on a constant
basis. This helps keep the fighting down, but it doesn't
One of the most frustrating
things about being a parent is, even after having done all of
these things, the children still squabble and fight. At the end
of the rope, the parent thinks (and maybe says) three things:
Can't you just be content? Why can't you just love your sibling
the way I do? And, if you're gonna fight-- I don't want to hear
At this point, I think about God
and squabbling Christians. How does God feel about the conflict
among Christians? Well, more about that later.
Regarding contentment-- happiness and peace without regard to
the treatment or benefits of others-- has been a problem for
mankind since the Garden. The scriptures are full of stories
where lack of contentment gets people in trouble, and where God
simply calls us to be content. Lack of contentment is a source
of much strife.
Expecting them to love as you do (as a parent)-- is asking for
something "way out there." How realistic is it, really? Kids
can't understand parental love; if you are a parent think about
how much you learned about parental love after becoming a
parent. Maybe the best parents can hope for is that the kids
will understand that "mom and dad really love my siblings," and
treat it as a mystery of the universe they cannot comprehend
Of course, sometimes kids
just like to fight, maybe it's just a ritual of monitoring who
is superior. Sometimes kids are just plain selfish and sinful;
they do hurtful and hateful things to their siblings. A good
correction, rebuke or well-chosen discipline may help. But
sometimes the kids feel deeply wronged or a deep sense of
injustice and that is a big part of why they are fighting. They
are fighting for Truth and Justice, and their sibling just
happens to be in the way.
I'm sure there are more reasons and more issues, but the
conclusion is the same-- no matter what parents do, siblings
quarrel. And the questions that are at the end of sibling
quarrels certainly have an application for quarreling
So, why do Christians fight? The
reasons are not that different from why siblings fight.
to be superior.
2- Desire to be a favorite.
3- Wanting to be a spiritual adult vs. a spiritual child.
One might observe these are
rather childish considerations. Paul made this observation to
the Corinthians who were caught up in conflicts along these
Brothers, stop thinking like
children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking
be adults. (1 Cor 14:20)
This validates the
comparison being made in this article, but it does not stop adult
Christians from engaging in these behaviors.
to be superior to their brothers and sisters. Who knows the most?
Who is the "most spiritual?" Who is the "better Christian?" Who
has a position of authority or stature that reflects their
superior spirituality? Who has the most loyal followers or the
best "movement?" Who does "God use the most?" This striving for
superiority may be presented as striving for excellence and might
lead to increased achievement in this or that area for a time, but
it breeds many different forms of conflict and is generally
unhealthy for the church.
Christians desire to be a favorite.
They want to be praised and recognized, particularly if they are not in
a position of superiority. Unwittingly, much of church life is
oriented around being in the "in" group, being considered
"spiritual" or special by the leaders or others who have somehow
become the "official favorite recognizers." Or wanting to have
"insider," close relationships with the leaders. All of these mean
having something of value that other Christians do not have: being
a favorite. Of course, this breeds resentment and hurt because
showing favoritism is sinful and condemned in Scripture (e.g. 1
Healthy Christians want to be
considered mature, adult believers. They will justly bristle
desire to control, judge or even possess them (a warping of the
biblical concept of discipleship). Certainly, new Christians
learn basics of the faith from older Christians. But at some point
that process really does end. This doesn't mean they don't have things to
learn from others, but it does mean that those relationships
change from older/younger to peer relationships (for example,
reference the "one another" passages in the New Testament).
Introducing anything that robs reasonably mature Christians of
their spiritual individuality and peer relationship to others is
bound to cause conflict. God made us to be spiritual adults;
trying to rob people of that is fighting against what God intends.
So How Does God Feel About It?
The reality is, nobody knows exactly how God feels about ongoing
conflicts among Christians. But if we pay attention to the idea of
God being our Father, maybe we will learn something about
Each side in a conflict would like to convince you God is on their
side. But given that we're dealing with fallen (albeit redeemed)
human beings, it's pretty unlikely in any conflict one side is
entirely right and the other side is entirely wrong. So God is
probably on the side of right in various aspects of the matter.
That sounds good, until you realize that we rack our brains trying
to figure out what is really right in some of these conflicts. If
it was that easy, we would not have the conflicts in the first
But ... what if God was like a human parent? What if he had a
certain amount of tolerance for conflict among his children, but
at a certain point just got maxed out by it all? What if he said,
"Just be content?" What if he said, "Love your brother/sister as
much as I do, or at least make a really good effort at it." Or,
"If you're gonna fight, I don't want to hear it." Or perhaps even
more crassly, "Just zip it, ok? Your conflict is ridiculous." Or
maybe, "If you can't love your spiritual sibling the way I do, I
don't want to hear about your conflict." We might be offended, and
there may be some theological concerns with this position and
God's omniscience and infinite power. But I'm beginning to think
there are a lot of good reasons this might just be God's attitude.
To start with, it mimics the response of human parents. If we are
to learn about God from the metaphor of the human parent/child
relationship, why wouldn't this be one of the things to learn
Contentment is a spiritual virtue. The lesson is particularly
Christian, being taught to Peter (John 21:22), leaders (1 Timothy
6:8-10) and entire churches (Phil 4:11-12, Hebrews 13:5).
Some of these passages apply to material contentment, but others
apply to spiritual contentment as well. Christians need to
learn to be content in their circumstances without comparison to
others. Comparing ourselves to others is a recipe for misery and
Further, all of
our righteousness is by grace. Our righteous acts are done by
grace. God has shown grace to teach us what is right and to direct
us to what is right. So if we should happen to do that which is
right, on what basis does anyone boast about it? On what basis
might one Christian consider one superior or inferior to another
due to it?
interesting that Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another
as he had loved them (John 13:34). Frequently, sermons or
teachings addressing this point draw the cross as the standard of
love for other Christians. But Jesus had not yet died on the cross
at this time, and no Christian actually needs to die on a cross to
redeem another Christian. Maybe Jesus had something different in
mind about how he "had loved them."
That verb "as I have loved" is a Greek aorist tense, suggesting a
particular act of love. The most obvious instance of love I can
see from this context is Jesus calling them to be apostles. Maybe
he overlooked a lot of faults because he knew the "big picture"
and a particular purpose for them. Maybe the journey rather than
the destination was the objective. As one scholar comments:
knew that the spirit of rivalry would disrupt their fellowship
before they could accomplish his commission to them. The
attitude of love would be the bond that would keep them united
and would be the convincing demonstration that they had partaken
of his own spirit and purpose. He had loved them without
reservation and without limit (ref Jn 13:1-5) and expected them
to do the same. (Merrill C. Tenney, Expositor's Bible
Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 9:142)
To be sure, we
have a hard time getting our brains around Jesus' love for the
disciples. This means we'll have an equally hard time getting our
brains around loving one another as Jesus did. But Jesus knew that
was at least part of the answer. Does it make sense for him to
tell the apostles to do something that was too far "out there?"
Maybe if we understood his instruction in this regard more
consistent with the context (that is, regarding acceptance instead
of "dying on the cross" for others), it would make more sense to
us, and perhaps we'd be more likely to obey what he said.
In regards to the
"I don't want to hear it" answer-- do we damage God's family by
engaging in squabbles and fights with other Christians? Consider
just a few passages:
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer,
without anger or disputing. (1 Timothy 1:8)
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar
and there remember that your brother has something against you,
leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be
reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
So whatever you believe about
these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man
who does not condemn himself by what he approves.
Maybe God has less tolerance for our conflicts, particularly when
we are gathered as a family, than we think.
How do our conflicts and issues stack up compared to the family of
God? Whose family is it?
Even in cases of mistreatment or abuse, it's not that one hasn't
been wronged or hurt. And it certainly doesn't mean that the one
guilty of mistreatment now gets off the hook (God is certainly big
enough to watch out for justice and doesn't like one of his kids
being mistreated). The point is this: the family is more important
than the conflict. The Father is more important than the conflict.
A Better Church
If the universal church is regarded as God's family, and God as
the Father of that family, maybe it will change our perspectives
on conflicts within it.
How different the
church could be if there was contentment instead of striving for
superiority or favoritism. If there was respect for all members as
spiritual adults? I am not saying don't strive for excellence, but
I am saying don't strive for excellence as a means or reason to
put your spiritual sibling down.
Jesus did not use
his status to put others down, but rather to elevate others. And
if we take the New Testament message seriously, early Christian
leaders considered themselves servants, the least of their
brothers. Not just in name, but in reality. Humility continues to
be a mark of a true leader, though humans tend to be distracted by
performance, knowledge, charisma, eloquence and flattery.
The church is full of
humans. A church with humans is going to have conflicts just as
families with children will have conflict. However, the church can
recognize that many of these conflicts come down to rather
childish and immature behaviors. Unfortunately, the chief
promulgators of these inclinations in the church tend to be
leaders-- those that the members tend to regard as the most mature
and who have the most influence in the church. In this case, those
who really are mature- both leaders and non-leaders, need to avoid
getting into these traps.
Lastly, maybe we
just need to shut up about our conflicts out of respect for the
Father and not let them overshadow the Father's family (the
church). Some Christians in the Bible even agreed to go separate
ways to avoid persistent conflict (e.g. Acts 15:36-41). They were
at least mature enough to know that the other guy was not sinning
just because of this disagreement and that God was the head of the
family. The Father can figure out who is righteous without the
children arguing their case. The Father appreciates it when children show
restraint and value the family more than their position with
respect to their siblings. The Father also knows that there is a time when
siblings sometimes need to move on from immature spiritual
relationships with their siblings and fulfill their purposes as
adults. If they can avoid damaging the family through immature
conflict, the family will ultimately be enriched. This maintains true unity
and expands the Kingdom far more than subjecting the siblings to
maturity-thwarting control and domination under the guise of
"unity" or "discipleship." The church can have unity without every issue
being settled with a winner and a loser.
How could we know
this about the Father? I just know when I go out to dinner with my
family, I want to enjoy my family in a conflict-free zone, at
least for a time. I know there are conflicts and issues, but they
aren't more important than my family. Maybe, just maybe, our
Heavenly Father is the same way.
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live
together in unity! Psalms 133:1