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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

when dad doesn’t disciple the kids

Three kinds of “single moms” exist in the church: the literal single mom who is raising children on her own, the mom whose husband is an unbeliever, and the mom whose husband professes belief but does not partner in the spiritual nurture of the family. For the true single mom and the mom married to an unbeliever, the task is clear: train your children in the Lord because no one else will. For the wife of the believing father guilty of spiritual absenteeism, the lines are blurry. She lives in the tension between wanting to honor her spouse and wanting to spiritually equip her children. All three “single moms” desperately need the support of the church, but in this post I want to focus specifically on the third mom, a woman trapped in a dilemma.

To Wait or to Act?

This mom walks in a great deal of anxiety, particularly in more conservative environments where emphasis is placed on fathers leading spiritually in the home. She sees her children going to bed each night with no family time spent in the scriptures or in prayer, with no conversations broached on the critical subjects that help kids transition to adulthood with the wisdom they need.  She has gently raised the suggestion that dad initiate these teaching moments, to be met with apathy or with short-lived token attempts. And because she has been taught that God wants men to be the ones to lead such conversations in the home, she begins to believe that the only course of action open to her is to sit silently, not wanting to usurp authority, confused about what her role should be as mother and wife, praying that the Lord would change her husband’s heart.

Not that prayer is a give-up position. It is a far better use of mom’s words than berating or begging dad to be more involved. Prayer for dad’s heart and for the hearts of the children should always be the first action mom pursues, both in homes where dad is spiritually present and in homes where he is not. But in homes where dad is spiritually absent, I believe mom is called both to pray and to act.

Step into the Street

When my children were in early elementary school I would walk them to the corner where the crossing guard would help them across a busy intersection to the school. She wore an orange vest and carried a stop sign. She had a whistle. She knew the traffic patterns. It was her job to make sure the cars stopped and the children crossed safely. As a parent, I did not have authority to tell my kids to cross the street when the intersection looked clear to me. That was the crossing guard’s job.

But let’s say for a minute that the crossing guard doesn’t do her job one morning. Let’s say she sees me coming with my little ones but decides to stay in her lawn chair scrolling through Instagram.  Let’s say that I ask her to help them across the intersection, but she ignores my valid request. What should I do? I don’t have an orange vest or a stop sign. I don’t know the traffic patterns like she does. Should I turn to my children and say, “Well, good luck – I’ll pray you make it safely to the other side!” 

Of course not. I should do what she has chosen not to do. I should watch for an opening in the traffic and walk my children safely across the street. I should submit to a higher authority than the crossing guard in the interest of doing what is safe and right.

Moms dealing with spiritually absent dads rightly feel anxiety for their children. In the busy intersection of life, it is neither safe nor right to leave children untrained in spiritual matters. In fact, it would be reprehensible to do so. But don’t worry - it’s possible to honor your sacred responsibility to your children and their Heavenly Father while still showing honor to their earthly father.

Make Disciples

The Great Commission calls followers of Christ to make disciples, teaching them to obey all He has commanded. Parents are charged with this very call within the home. A mom who can’t count on her husband to partner in fulfilling it will need courage and humility to move ahead in obedience to Christ. As His disciple, she can and must spend her efforts to make disciples of her children, teaching them to obey His commands. Moms, not only do you have permission to take this on, you have a mandate.

In the absence of dad’s help, move forward to fill the gap. Without vilifying dad, simply begin having the conversations necessary to guide your children safely to adulthood. Continue to pray for dad. Continue to invite him periodically to join the conversation. Continue to honor him by committing to speak well of him to your children. As you ask the Lord to help you in your efforts and to soften your husband’s heart, keep confessing any resentment or self-righteousness you might harbor. Lean on your Christian community for support. But don’t let fear of usurping an authority dad does not exercise keep you from equipping your kids with the fear of the Lord. The Lord delights in those who do His will. Train those kids. Remind yourself that God is their perfect Heavenly Father, and trust Him to care for them and shape them to be like His Son.


  1. This is excellent advice and shows great insight into the dilemma of absentee fathers in our culture (literally or spiritually). Thank you for encouraging us and validating our role as the spiritual leader when our man has abdicated that position. I am a former single mother, now remarried. my husband is willing and faithful to lead in this way, but the dynamics of blended family and divided loyalties limit his position. I'm grateful for your encouragement.

  2. Jen, thanks for this. Your post was very timely as this exact question came up this past week with my bible study group. I have several moms in my group who are in this position and it's such a hard place to be. Thanks for the reminder and encouragement to moms to be faithful in discipleship!

  3. While I appreciate this article I think the case of the spiritually absent father looks different in each family. And with the rise of the Internet, homeschooling, Christian women's blogs, etc., Christian women are inundated with articles and blogs about what family discipleship is "supposed" to look like. I put that in quotes because I have tread the fine line Jen talks about in this post. My husband is a faithful God fearing man who prays with and for his kids on a regular basis, but I have always wanted him to do more. I have prayed for years and years for this and have talked to him at different times. But what God has taught me over almost 20 years is that I can make this whole thing into an idol and be tempted to have bitterness in my heart towards my husband because he's not doing the family discipleship thing exactly like the blogs and articles say he should be doing it. All conscientious parents fail and question whether they're doing enough. I have tried to be faithful to do my part while at the same time encouraging and affirming my husband in what he's doing and trusting God to fill in the gaps where we both missed the mark.

    1. Meredith, I love this comment so much. In fact, there's probably an entire follow-up post that could be written about the cookie-cutter expectations we place on one another within Christian subculture. Plenty of us are carrying around frustration toward family members who didn't fit our narrowly-defined ideal. Thanks for adding this great insight, and for your honesty.

  4. Great metaphor! I'm one of the lucky ones that has a husband that does this well, but I was super convicted by the metaphor. The way my heart responded to the idea of protecting my children physically was way different than the way I regularly feel/react to protecting their souls. Thanks for this.

  5. Wonderful article! I would add that in my case, my believing husband was happy for me to do this; he wanted the children spiritually trained & we must remember that even though their personality may find it challenging to lead in this way we mustn't assume it's unimportant to them, and by lovingly assuming the best of them (I Cor. 13:7) we can humbly have devotions with the kids at a time when Dad's at work, so his absence from the devotions will be natural & not seen by the kids as a "lack". It can help if you respectfully look to your husband for counsel, maybe showing him 2 choices of kids' devotionals, or asking what character topic he'd like you to be addressing next with the kids. Once I gave up my self-righteous judgmental expectations & accepted God's working in my husband's life, praying not for him to change as much as for God to use me to bless him & honor him, I could be his helpmeet in this area where he was weaker, and honor him in my attitude & speech with the children at the same time.

  6. Jen, oh Jen! I have been searching anf searching and praying about this. I feel like a single mother a good portion of the time, but I'm technically not. His sweet father believes in God but doesn't understand at all the aspect of having a relationship with Him. He doesn't necessarily look down upon my efforts to teach our son about the Lord, but he doesn't join in either. I grew up a very strong Christian and fell away partially while I met his father, but several months ago I started my journey back to the Lord and have been doing everything I know to imprint this on my son. But it is so lonely. I have had to turn to the Lord for my strength (how it should be) and perseverance. I tend to feel resentful to him, for not helpjng me carry this load or see it as something of utmost importance but then I remember, how can I expect him to? He hasn't experienced it himself, so I can't expect him to want it for our son. I can only pray fervently for his heart and my son's, hoping that my son sees the joy that cones from choosing the Lord. Thank you so much for writing this. When I stopped searching for answers God placed it infront of me when I wasn't looking and freed my heart. Thank you!