Believe it or not, your children’s first and foremost identity is not to be your children. Your children were created for a far greater identity—an identity that will last into eternity. Inasmuch as they embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, your children were created to be your brothers and sisters. And so, every child in your household should be seen first and foremost not as your son or your daughter but as a potential or actual brother or sister in Christ.
So what happens when parents perceive their children as potential or actual brothers and sisters in Christ?
The writings of Paul provide some hints. The same apostle who called Timothy to encourage younger believers as Christian brothers and sisters also commanded fathers to nurture their offspring “in the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord” (Eph. 6:4; see also Col. 3:21).
In other letters, Paul applied these same two terms—discipline and instruction—to patterns that characterized the disciple-making relationships of brothers and sisters in Christ. Discipline described one of the key results of training in the words of God (2 Tim. 3:16). Instruction implied guidance to avoid unwise behaviors and ungodly teachings (1 Cor. 10:11; Titus 3:10). Such texts strongly suggest that Paul was calling parents—and particularly fathers—to do far more than manage their children’s behaviors and provide for their needs. Paul expected parents to engage personally in teaching their children God’s words and ways. Summarizing these words from Paul, a fourth-century pastor known as John Chrysostom said to fathers in his congregation, “Never regard it as a small matter that your child should be a diligent learner of the Scriptures.”
These expectations were not unique to Paul. When Paul penned these words, he was drawing from a Scripture-saturated legacy that had shaped the Hebrew people for centuries. This ancient heritage of songs, statutes, and ceremonies foreshadowed the coming of Jesus and explicitly recognized the primacy of parents in the formation of their children’s faith.
When Moses received the law of God, he passed on precise instructions regarding how the people should preserve these precepts: “You will teach them diligently to your children” (Deut. 6:6–7; see also Ex. 12:25–28; Deut. 11:1–12). Moses assumed that children would ask their parents about the family’s spiritual practices, and he commanded fathers to be prepared to instruct their children about the Lord’s mighty deeds (Ex. 12:26–27; Deut. 6:20–25; cf. Josh. 4:5–7). Part of the purpose of the yearly Passover celebration was to remember as a family the story of Israel’s redemption (Ex. 13:14–22).
In the prologue to his proverbs, one of Israel’s ancient sages reminded youth to learn divine wisdom in the context of their homes: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction; never forsake your mother’s teaching” (Prov. 1:8).Even in the songs of Israel, parents were called to impress on their children the stories of God’s works. A songwriter named Asaph put it this way: “I will utter the sayings . . . that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from our children. . . . They will rise and tell them to their children, so that they will place their hope in God” (Ps. 78:1–7). Perhaps most important of all, a primary evidence of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom—predicted by the prophet Malachi, proclaimed by John the Baptist, and consummated in the presence of Jesus Christ—was that, in believing households, the hearts of children and fathers would be turned toward one another (Mal. 4:6; Luke 1:17).
This is not to suggest that the community of faith has no role in the discipleship of children. After all, the fulfillment of Malachi’s predictions in the ministry of Jesus included the recognition that the unity of the Christian community runs deeper than any physical kinship (Matt. 12:46–50; Luke 14:26). Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the Spirit is weightier than either one—and God intends this spiritual bond to grow among his people until the entire earth is clothed in glory divine (Hab. 2:14; Rev. 5:9-14).
That’s why every believer is called to pursue this deeper bond with every other human being, calling the faithless to faith in Christ and discipling less mature believers (Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 5:42; 8:25; 14:21)—which brings us back to our children’s primary identity.
Where should these processes of evangelism and discipleship begin? With those that are nearest to us. When it comes to discipleship, personal proximity is more important than any particular ministry program.
And who are the nearest unbelievers or young believers to Christian parents?
Typically, they are our own children.
And so, parents are called to engage actively in their children’s spiritual formation not in spite of but precisely because of the deeper kinship that is available through the Holy Spirit. The possibility of this deeper kinship calls parents to see their children not only as their children but also as potential or actual brothers and sisters in Christ.
God’s creation and humanity’s fall have positioned parents as providers and disciplinarians. Through redemption and consummation, all Christians, including parents, are called to become disciple-makers as well. Because God has chosen to place particular children in close proximity to us, these disciple-making processes should begin with our own children.
God’s calling does not end with the rehearsal of the gospel in our own households, though: The proclamation of the gospel that begins in our households should spill out beyond the confines of our homes, into our communities, and then to the uttermost parts of the earth (see Acts 1:8; 2:39, 46; 26:20)—and it all begins when parents begin to see who their children really are.
For more on this topic, see my book Family Ministry Field Guide.