Fatherhood – a societal crisis
At least from where I sit (whatever that means in English), one of the greatest needs of our day is a father!! His person. Presence. Authority. Tenderness. Vision. Grace. Etc. The cry for a father is everywhere. I have heard it on the streets. In the pulpit. Counselling room. Over coffee. And indeed in many other places. My gospel ministry is largely in and around what can be called the Nairobi-Kiambu-Mt. Kenya region of Kenya. And I can say with all confidence I haven’t heard a louder cry from the young and the old than the cry for a father! In fact the cry has also been picked and expressed variously by the media. About two years ago Gardy Chacha wrote an article that very well describes the local situation:
The value of fatherhood in Kenya has continued to depreciate. So much that fathers have been reduced to sperm donors, cash dispensers and mere figureheads in homes. The situation is so bad that some women prefer parenting by themselves. Some women claim they no longer need husbands for reasons of co-parenting … If projection of the 2010 Kenya Population and Housing Census on rise and rise of female-headed households is anything to go by, then, the country could be now facing a serious fatherhood crisis. The number of female-headed and maintained families was said to be on a sharp rise then. And if current indications are anything to go by, then clearly fatherhood is under siege. There are pointers to this crisis all over.
Such sediments are rampant. Irungu Houghton also expresses it this way:
A crisis is unfolding in our homes and we may not even know it. The sharpest edge of the crisis lies in the intense difficulties facing fatherhood. Absentee fathers and women-headed households are on the rise. One in three women who give birth today are unmarried. Three in five women will remain unmarried until the age of 45. One in five men on the other hand, will have had children with more than one mother. Nearly half of all Kenyan children have direct experience of violence or intimidation. Teenage alcoholism and suicide is spiking, yet fathers seem helpless.
Ultimately, the cry for a father goes beyond regions, single societies, and civilizations. It is not a specifically Kenya, African, Western or Asian cry. It is a human cry that is deeply embedded in us by the mere fact of our humanity. And at the moment we seem to be facing a blink situation. Fathers are either absent, and so their presence is not felt, or their place and authority has replaced by another. There is also a prevailing scheme over the institution of fatherhood – of course, because of the abuse that is currently associated (whether rightly or by association) with the institution. Yet, we cannot solve the problem by negating or even scrapping an institution whose mandate comes from the source of all Fatherhood Himself. That place and function cannot be replaced by a mother or even government. The need for a father and its solution is beyond any human social construct.
In our African continent traditional fatherhood is virtually dead! It’s gone. Period! That is the reality we have been facing at least since the colonial day. And calling our communities to return to old and traditional methods like we have seen in the media lately can only be characterized as nonsensical, at best. The truth be told, globalization, new technologies, and western-educational influence have had great and significant positive impact not only on the role of a father, but also the purpose of a father. But in many ways the impact has also been very catastrophic. These have opened up doors for both positive and negative alternatives that were never in the equation in the old and traditional methods and definitions of fathering. Yet, we must deal with the outcome(s) without lying to ourselves that we will go back to the old days. We ain’t going back!
Family and community structures have changed for worse. Fatherhood has been defined, un-defined, and re-defined. Pro-patriachists, anti-patriachists, feminists, complimentalists, and egalitarianists have debated it for ages now. Both the church and the society have discussed these at length. The debate is still raging. The stakes are high. Yet, despite all the noise and academic rhetoric the existential, or do I call it the essential cry for a father continues to haunt us, even those who are highly involved in the debate. Worse still, the abdication of the purpose of paternal responsibility is rampant and on the increase.
We are no longer in the day of traditional fatherhood no matter how we romanticise it. Those of us who are fathers and would be fathers – whatever that means – must begin a serious conversation and engagement about the whys and whats of fatherhood, and how to navigate it from here on.
Here is my two-cent proposal: we must re-discover “The Father”for us to discover “the father”.
Let me explain this:
Re-discover “The Father” in order to discover “the father!”
This time round it was Dr. Robert Doyle, an Australian theologian, presenting a paper on the Fatherhood of God. The title or subtitle of the paper was something like “What happened to the Father?” I was in my third year. An undergraduate Bible and Theology student in Cape Town. I can’t recall much of the content of the paper, but I remember Dr. Doyle speaking about the popularity of the the Son and the Holy Spirit. He said that these are the most commonly referred to both in the church and academy. He argued that the church is now largely Pentecostal and Charismatic. And with their emphasis on the Son and the Spirit, somehow talk about The Father has largely been eclipsed. This is indeed what necessitated his question – what happened to the father? I also remember him talking about how everything must culminate in and with the father. Quoting 1 Cor. 15:24 he insisted, “Then comes the end, when he (the Son) delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.”
Coming from both a Pentecostal and Charismatic background, my first reaction to the paper was something like huh…. whorever! But coming to thinking about it, years later, it might have been a bad reaction – maybe to be expected from a theological novice. Yet, even as I walked from that seminar room I could still identify with that question: what happened to the father?
Now, first things first – why must we call God, Father? He is not a biological male! That would be heretic. He is in fact not a biological being. He has no sex. Yet it matters how we address him. It matters what we call him. Addressing God as Father doesn’t imply that he is male in any way. Yet, it implies that God is ultimately masculine. The Bible teaches us what or how to address God. It matters that God is Father. And this must have some serious implications to anything else called father under that. At least it must mean in some way or another that his masculinity passes down onto human fathers somehow. And consequently, human fathers on the earth are partakers of the Fatherhood of God. Indeed, the apostle Paul boldly talks of The Father, from whom all fatherhood (“ever family” in the ESV) in heaven and on earth is named (Eph. 3:14-15 NKJV). What this means is that every family is named in accordance with “The Father,”which also implies that fatherhood is essential to every family.
In his book Father Hunger, Douglas Wilson rightly argues:
Fatherhood has a point that extends far beyond the moment of begetting. That point extends into everything, and if we are baffled by what the point might be, wisdom might dictate that we should read the manual—the Scriptures God gave to us. But modernists want to keep that intricate device we call fathers and, when stumped, consult a different manual entirely. This is akin to troubleshooting problems with your Apple laptop by consulting the Chilton manual for a ’72 Ford pickup truck. And we wonder why our families are not getting on better.
Father is the name of the first person of the Trinity. The eternal Father of the eternal Son, who became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ of Nazareth (John 1:14). Now, it is through this Christ, God’s only begotten and firstborn Son, that the Father becomes also The Father of those who have accepted and believed in Christ (John 1:12-13). So, God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as well as the Father of his people here on the earth – whether they be Adam (Luke 3:38), Israel (Exodus 4:22-23; Deuteronomy 32:6; Malachi. 1:6) or the body of Christ, the church (Mathew 5:43-48; John 1:12-13; Gal. 4:4-7; Rom. 8:14-17; 1 Peter 1:13-21). As The Father of his people he is not only their source (in fact, the word father has the connotation of source), but he also cares, guides, corrects, disciplines and restores his people.
Now, for true human fathering to be discovered, or for us to discover once again the place and role of the father in our families and communities, we must first of all rediscover The Father – as the one true father of his Son and at the same time the Father of those who are in the Son. Consequently, human fathers become those who follow the pattern of The Father. We must infer from God’s Fatherhood of his Son and his people a pattern or template that becomes an exemplar for human fathers. Bruce Ware puts it more aptly:
We can infer from God’s Fatherhood of his children something of the pattern that should be evident in the parenting manner and substance of human fathers. Both respect and tenderness, both authority and loving affection, both exacting obedience and lavish kindness should mark those who father their children in a manner in which God fathers us. The balance is critical, and one must only consider for a moment the manner of God’s own fathering of us to see this is so. Although human fathers may err through imbalance of excessive heavy-handedness or indulgent permissiveness, God’s own pattern and manner stands as our corrective. As human fathers take their cue from God’s fathering, we learn the importance both of exercising authority over our children and exhibiting warmth and loving affection with our children. That both are required, and both are critical to be good fathers, is one of the most important implications of noticing just how God acts as Father to his children.
it can’t be said any better. Bruce‘s sediments must be taken serious if we are to recover what we have lost.
The institution of human fatherhood must be discovered again. But this can only happen if we engage rightly with the biblical voice. Drawing from the Israelite community, within the Jewish family, the patriarch had almost an unlimited power and authority, something that modern day society has tried to read into and even try to redefine if not to totally do away with. The father was the king-master of his household. His children were taught to honor, respect and fear him (Mal. 1:6). He was in control of all the affairs of his family. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he became a despot. Instead, he became the center from which strength, goodness and virtue emanated from. He was the reference point in many ways for both the family and community at large. and above all he provided, cared, guided, corrected, disciplined and restored his people. This is the context in which we should understand texts like “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13). “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverb 3:12). “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Psalm 68:5).
In the New Testament, one of the fundamental qualifications for church leadership is a man who is a father. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Tim. 3:4–5). This is not a scripture to disqualify women leadership as many have viewed it. But it places fathers right at the centre of the church and community leadership. Wilson Douglas again says:
Within this church, spiritual leaders are “fathers” to their congregations. One of the central qualifications for a father in a congregation is that he be able to demonstrate for the people what a godly, effective father can do in the home. Instead of this, we have decided to substitute three years of graduate study. The results we have gotten should not have been a surprise to us … we do have fathers in the faith. Paul speaks this way very plainly. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Cor. 4:15–16). The reason we need fathers in the church is because there are lessons that cannot be learned unless we learn them by imitation. Children imitate, and when we learn by imitation, the lessons go deeper than when we learn them in any other way. Christians are to imitate God, as dearly loved children (Eph. 5:1). In the Corinthian passage, in the next verse, Paul told them that this is why he had sent Timothy to them—he was a dearly loved child, and he could remind them of Paul’s way of life (v. 17). We can learn from our spiritual fathers at a distance—from other children of theirs, or from accounts of their lives. Churches need fathers to govern them, but unfortunately, today’s church appears to show all the signs of being managed by the ecclesiastical equivalent of single moms. Paul requires that the church be governed by road-tested fathers. Do their children mind them? Do they conduct well the household management tasks that fathers are called to undertake? If they don’t know how to be a father in a home, then what on earth makes us think that they could perform the necessary task of being a father in the church? This plainly illustrates what Paul is after—he is seeking fathers for the church.
We have to recapture this if we will correct the current mess. To be a father is a very high calling. It is indeed to image the heavenly Father, who provides, loves and cares for his children better than any earthly father can do or even hope to do. Those of us who are fathers, biological, adoptive, spiritual or otherwise, should feel and embrace the magnitude of this calling. And when we fail to father as our heavenly Father does we seek for forgiveness, but at the same time repent from our evil ways while aligning ourselves rightly. But at the same time, the society must not think that by destroying the place of fatherhood or even castigating this God-authored institution will solve the dilemmas we have found ourselves in. We must recapture the institution of fatherhood, restore its place and authority, and challenge it to be guided and informed by the Scripture.