Adult Children as Fruit of a Man’s Leadership

*I apologize for the paragraphing. I can’t fix it for whatever reason.
In this post I postulated that the adult children of Christian leaders, particularly fundamentalists, should be considered as part of the fruit of their ministry. In this post I will opine on the fact of children as fruit generally, regardless of denomination or evangelical/fundamentalist lineage.
When everybody is an exception to the general rule, the general rule is no longer a general rule. It’s an exception.
A proverb by definition is a general rule. It is granted that there are exceptions, but it is general truth that is so recognized it’s, well,  proverbial. Proverbs 22:6 is such a general rule. It is not, however, a promise. Many people have either consciously or unconsciously twisted the general rule that if you train your child in the way he should go when he is old he will not depart from it into a promise and therefore eviscerate the proverb of any force by responding in one of several ways depending upon the outcome of their children’s lives.
1. If their children turned out as models of Christian discipleship, they write a book and market their opinion on everything related to parenting from feeding times to choice of colleges. The promise of God proved true, they conclude, and having found the key of good training they offer it to anyone who will listen. And for $11.99 per CD. They are as one dear friend keeps saying, “results-based.”
This, of course, misses the point of the general rule. It may be an uninspired general rule that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but it does not follow that if the doctor has been kept away it is necessarily because of the daily apple. A general rule admits exceptions. It is true only generally, not absolutely. Thus, exceptions also admit the possibility that the rule is not necessarily the cause of the desired effect. The daily apple has been consumed, the doctor has been kept away, and while it certainly reinforces the general rule about the value of daily apples it does not preclude the possibility that the daily fresh spinach and goblet of red wine were a more effective cause for the desired effect than the daily Red Delicious.
Parents who are blessed with grown children who love and serve Jesus Christ often illustrate this fact. Younger parents want to know what the key to their success was and often they are disappointed when they say, as my own parents have often said to younger families, “It is the grace of God.” My own parents who have five adult children that are all disciples of Jesus and love His Church do not disprove the general rule, but neither do they see themselves as proof of it. They humbly realize that just as there are exceptions to the general rule there are also exceptions to the general rule as it is expressed in the negative: if you do not train your children up in the way they should go, when they are older they will depart from it. As humble people, they readily admit the possibility, indeed the reality,  that they are exceptions of that rule. By grace. For the best parents can always identify what they did wrong more quickly than what they did right and they marvel at the benignity of God toward them.
2. If their children reject the faith and live in flagrant immorality they claim to be the exception to the general rule of Proverbs 22:6. In order to buttress their claim as an exception to the general rule they begin to list all the people they can think of who are “good Christian people” and have been disappointed by the outcome of their adult children. In other words, in a weird kind of irony, in order to prove that they are the exception to the general rule, they amass as much information as possible of all kinds of other exceptions. However, if everyone is the exception to the general rule then the general rule is no longer a general rule.
One friend has written me, concerned that the way I am articulating this will “force an inevitable outcome of either pride over ‘successful parenting’ or guilt over ‘parental failure,’ and both fall short of the message of the Gospel that I know is so vital to your heart and thinking.  I also believe your rhetoric unintentionally sets the table for sinful judgment in the hearts and minds of others that parents of rebellious children somehow love God less and somehow put less effort into discipleship than those who don’t.
I am very afraid of that outcome and respect my friend’s critique. We agree so much on this. However, I see two potential pitfalls that grace-loving, Gospel-oriented people may slip into in their zeal for the guilt-ridding promotion of the Gospel.
Pitfall #1: Guilt is bad. Conviction, grief, sorrow, shame, and self-abhorrence are right. More parents need to face Spirit-imposed conviction before trying to dismiss it as bad guilt.
Pitfall #2: Outcome based judgment is sinful. Outcome based analysis, however,  is not only biblical, but commanded. And wise. To pronounce a sentence on a parent as having been bad because of the outcome of a bad child is wrong. It should be avoided like the plague. To analyze said parent on the basis of the outcome is wise and it is the logical result of reading verses that say, “He must manage his household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive.” How do you actually apply this without actually analyzing the children? This is not judgmentalism.
So, let me put this in all bold font: I do not judge or want to give anyone the idea that he can judge the spiritual love and character of a parent because of the outcome of his children. I am arguing, however, that the outcome of the children must be a legitimate point of analysis, particularly with leaders. And to ignore the fact of so many children rebelling against their parents’ faith is to make everyone the exception and to ignore the general rule. I speak generally and not of particulars.

Now, I am fully aware of the fact that there are many efforts to interpret Proverbs 22:6 in a way that guts it of its obvious implication, but (and though I am not a scholar, I am a good reader) I have not read any argument that effectively undoes the common sense understanding of cause and effect that is implied in the proverb. It is still a general truth that is substantiated in all of the Scriptures that if a child is trained up in the way he should go, he will not depart from it. And it follows that it is logical to surmise that the host of parents with wayward children are proofs of this general rule rather than exceptions to it.
As already stated, I think there is devastating danger of interpreting proverbs as commands or promises (although both commands and promises may be reasonably derived from a proverb). Nonetheless, the proverb stands. General rules are generally true and even more so when they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, I think it is reasonable that the spiritual condition of grown children be considered as the fruit of a man’s ministry.
Random Reasons.
1. The Bible refers to children as fruit. “Be fruitful and multiply” and “children are an inheritance from the Lord” are just a sampling of statements that reveal a theme throughout the whole Bible. Perhaps an extreme hyper-dispensationalist would argue that the Old Testament verses only applied to the covenanted people of God under the Old Covenant, but would they go so far as to say that consequently in the “dispensation of grace” children are not an inheritance from the Lord? Sometimes it takes a non-genius to point out the obvious and I readily apply for all non-genius jobs, so here’s the obvious: the Scripture views children as fruit from the Lord and the general assumption is that His people will be good stewards of that inheritance and see to it by their dedication in rearing children that the pearls are not thrown to the swine.
2. In other areas of life we rightfully assign responsibility even though we are conscious of the fact that there are many variables outside of the person’s control that could potentially exonerate the person from blame. If a farmer repeatedly fails to harvest good fruit we all rightfully assume that he is not doing something right even though we know that few occupations depend on the elements more than farming.
3. God does not give commands that are not also accompanied with a reasonable expectation of success. He does not say, “Make disciples, but remember that you will utterly fail.” A mark of a true disciple is that he is a disciple-maker and if he is unable to make any disciples we assume that he probably is not a disciple. Sometimes the fruit is not forthcoming. Sometimes it is not immediate. But there is always fruit. Always.
4. The most logical place one might expect a man’s influence to be strongest is in his home. It is natural for children to follow the steps of their parents. The cobbler’s son becomes a cobbler. The teacher’s daughter becomes a teacher. Etc. This is because children are followers, but what most people forget is that children follow affections more than they follow instructions. They can see what Dad loves even though he preaches a good game from the pulpit. They can tell what Mom is passionate about even though she laces all her speech with Christian truisms. Thus, Moses reminded parents, first, to love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind, “and these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” Then he told them to instruct the children.
A child can tell when his Preacher-Dad is in love with the applause of men even though he preaches discipleship from the pulpit. He can see how his Dad gets depressed if he is maligned, how he refuses to speak his mind if he may lose friends in high places, how he dodges the responsibility to confront sin. He also sees how passionate his Dad gets about sports and what he watches on TV. He absorbs what his Dad really loves and, being a weak human, will always follow affections before he follows instructions.  This is why Jesus had to tell the people, “practice and observe what they tell you, but do not do what they do” (Matthew 23:3). Sometimes I have to tell the children of pastors, “You must do what they tell you, but you cannot be distracted by what the really love.”
It is very obvious, of course, that children may have a perfect set of parents and rebel. Therefore, we cannot assume that any particular parent is unholy in his affections just because a child rebels, but we are wrong to presume that the parent has no responsibility when the general tone of the whole Bible is that parents are expected to reproduce not just physically, but spiritually.
If we cannot reasonably assume that our influence will bear positive fruit then we should despair. And if we can reasonably assume thusly, it follows that we can also reasonably assume that when a great number of leaders are failing to influence their children in the ways of God that there is a problem. Humility would demand parents of rebellious children to at least admit this very real possibility.
But what do we mean by influence? I find it fascinating that Moses’ command, though hyperbolic, to teach our children in the morning, evening, going out, going in, inside, outside, etc. follows the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Who actually can do that? Only the Gospel can help a parent love God and even that is never as it should be. The parent who is constantly changed by the Gospel is the parent who will have the most effective Gospel influence on his followers. “Let your progress be seen by all.”
Sadly, however, since most parents are legalistic in their mindsets they truly believe that they have done everything right by their rebellious children. And they assume that the “man of God” certainly did everything right. They can check everything off the list. Good school? Check.  Church three times weekly? Check. Family devotions? Check. Spankings? Check. And the list goes on and on. And they happily absolve themselves of any responsibility and piously mourn their children’s rebellion. Be mournful over bad children. Check.
Perhaps they should ask deeper questions. Were we making an idol out of the Christian school and expecting it to do what only God can do in the heart of our child? Did my professional ministry gratify my flesh more than the ministry of shepherding my child daily in the ways of God? Was I unable to see this because the fact that it was church work masked the fact that my ambition and pride drove me? Did the long periods of boredom with the things of God and apathy about my coldness in matters of the heart go unchallenged because I was performing as a good pastor? Did I choose a church because of its amenities (i.e. school) and not for what a church is supposed to be? Did my ignorance about the Gospel influence the way I spanked my children? Did I enforce a behaviorism that ultimately trained my child to hide the realities of his heart?
Instead, great effort is made to come to the defense of the good Christian parents. Rare are the Christian people who humbly say, “We were so ignorant. We miserably failed. If only we had known such-and-such about the Gospel. If only we had not been so legalist. Etc.”  However, I have had the joy of seeing such parents and it has been a thrilling thing to see, in some cases, God give their children back to them in their adult years. One family I know lost all their children though they were good fundamental Baptist church-goers. Through prayer, humility, and tears God has gloriously saved their adult children except for one. And we’re still praying for him. The point is, however, that they refused to assume that they were the exception to the general rule and, instead, humbly realized they proved the rule.
Friends, it is not kind to grieving parents to tell them they did everything right when their adult children are arrogantly rebelling against God. This is to fail to be a good brother in Christ.
A. You can only say they did everything right as a parent if you know that for a fact. And you don’t. Period. Impossible.
B. You can only say they did everything right if you are a legalist and have an approved checklist. And, though you may be a legalist, you don’t have the right checklist. No one does.
C. You can only say they did everything right if you know what they passionately loved all the time. And you don’t. You do not know those parents as well as those children do. How come this is not more obvious to most people?
If a parent is truly grieving, not under guilt for not having checked various boxes, but realizing they failed to be disciples while they had their best opportunity to make disciples of their children, then the kind thing to do is to take them back to the Gospel. Remind them that the Gospel can save people at any time in life. Help them realize that though they take responsibility they do not need to feel guilty anymore. Have them confess it to the Lord. Let them believe that He will hear their prayers. Incite them to believe that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation and encourage them to redeem the time that they lost while the kids were in the home by praying with fervor to Almighty God for the souls of their children. And then tell them, though it is not certain, it is at least reasonable to hope that God will give them their children as fruit. Even if it is years after they are already in heaven.
5. Biblically, it can be reasonably argued that if a man does not have believing children (as adults) he may be disqualified from the ministry. I personally don’t think the “qualifications” of the ministry in Titus and Timothy are really qualifications in the truest sense of the term, but that is another topic for another day. However, what is clear is that these “qualifications” are external marks that God has ratified as legitimate points of analysis when we are considering the quality of a man. However you read Titus 1:6 you cannot ignore the fact that it was at the very least a reasonable expectation that the children of a leader be believers. It is not a stretch to read that he is specifically saying that older children must be believers (younger children could not be given to dissipation). Therefore, since the world “believe” is used and since “dissipation” is an big-kid matter, it is reasonable to hold as John MacArthur does, that this means adult children who are saved. If they believed (and that is a saving sense) then they are still believing when they are out of the home. At the very least, it is no leap of logic to assume that if the Bible mentions a man’s children’s conduct that we have to look at the children’s conduct.
One does not have to agree that an unbelieving child disqualifies a man from ministry, but one does have to admit that it is reasonable to expect that God’s people would bear good fruit in and through their children.
It is a remarkable tragedy that many leaders are failing with their children. I am not speaking about the one black sheep that proves he’s the exception because the rest of the children love God and serve His Church. I am particularly grieved that many leaders do not have any fruit in their homes. I interned with a pastor when I was a young man who had more than five children. None of them served God. All of them were profligate. As MacArthur says, “Successful spiritual leadership of their own families is their proving ground, as it were, for spiritual leadership in the church, because they are to be models of Christian living.”
Now for the caveats:

A. General rules allow for exceptions so we should graciously assume that others are the exception when their children rebel.
B. I am not judging, and do not judge, anyone who has rebellious children because I simply do not know.
C. I am merely saying that in that part of their life they do not have good fruit where good fruit is expect. And that is the point of the whole post.
D. Pray for me. It’s reasonable to expect good fruit from my home. It won’t happen unless God is gracious to me in a big way.
E. My hope is not in a technique, in a parental philosophy, in my good standards or wisdom. My hope is in the Gospel.
F. And, again, it is reasonable to expect the Gospel to bear fruit.
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7 Responses

  1. “Did I enforce a behaviorism that ultimately trained my child to hide the realities of his heart?”

    Can you define what your mean by “enforcing behaviorism”? Is this the same as teaching moralism?

    • Yes, I’m speaking about moralism. As parents it is our duty to enforce behavior. But behaviorISM is wrong.

      • I think I know what you mean when you distinguish “behaviour” from “behaviourism,” but perhaps you could post on that sometime as this is an area I’ve often pondered. I find it difficult to see exactly how a parent is to live out the gospel in the context of what seems to be an inherently law-based discipline.

  2. Bob,

    You’ve been very kind here. If you tip-toed any more, I’d mistake you for ballet. I agree with you. I hope that doesn’t diminish the support of this piece. ;-)

    I’m afraid your going to get your experts telling you that Proverbs 22:6 doesn’t say what you say it says, so you’ve wasted most of your time here.

    • Kent,

      I’m not partisan. If a man is right, he’s right. I don’t really care what his ideology is or how wrong he may be in other points! :-)

  3. Fascinating post Bob. Caused me to consider some things I have not before. Once again, I am rejoicing in your gifts of thought and expression. The church needs this. Not to say that I can agree with it all without further thought, but a very good and challenging read.

    I would point out one thing as a mere technicality that probably does not really impact your point. You said, “They humbly realize that just as there are exceptions to the general rule there are also exceptions to the general rule as it is expressed in the negative: if you do not train your children up in the way they should go, when they are older they will depart from it.” According to accepted rules of logic , the “general rule” cannot be expressed in the negative as you did here. If it were, it would be labeled a fallacy that denies the antecedent. In fact you had already stated the general rule in the negative through what is called a Modus Tollens in the sentences above (If P then Q, Not Q therefore Not P). It might be better to simply argue that to state the proverb in this negative form is logically invalid and the invalidity is easily demonstrated by its obvious exceptions. I believe, apart from the technical error, that these exceptions were correctly the point your were aiming at.

    Sorry. I taught logic for ten years and those sorts of things jump out at me.

  4. Jason,

    John Piper addresses your excellent question, here:

    For our part, my wife and I (try to) keep this thought before us:
    When we discipline, we are not mainly teaching good behavior: we are mainly accentuating bad behavior.
    Discipline-produced good behavior can mask the necessity of Gospel; discipline-exposed bad behavior can highlight the necessity of Gospel.

    Although the latter mentality winds up encouraging good behavior, too, it does not encourage Pharisaism.

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