From the Archives: The Simplicity of Biblical Parenting


Christian parenting experts often seem unable to see the forest for the trees. Whether it’s “grace based,” “gospel centered,” “heart focused,” or some other phrase du jour, many seem to begin with a lofty concept about what the Bible ought to teach about parenting then go to Scripture and—surprise!—find it there.

As a result, we have constantly clashing emphases—to the everlasting frustration of parents, who just want to know what God expects of them and how to perform those tasks more effectively.

My aim here is (1) to argue that all parents really need is a biblical theology of parenting, (2) to describe how we should go about building such a theology and (3) to identify several principles that must be foundational to it.

The sufficient Word

Does the whole idea of having a “theology of parenting” sound novel? It shouldn’t. Those who firmly believe that the Scriptures are sufficient for faith and practice should also believe that a matter as important as Christian parenting is sufficiently addressed in the Bible. The essentials are all there. Though human wisdom—Christian and secular—may offer some useful advice on the nuts-and-bolts level, all the major principles and purposes are in the Book. And, in the area of principles and purposes, those who do not embrace a biblical view of God and human nature can have nothing of value to say.

We need a sound theology, and a sound theology is pretty much all we need.

So how should we go about building a biblical theology of parenting?

The right texts

A biblically sound theology of parenting must derive its key ideas from Scripture passages that are actually about parenting and the family structure. But there are more foundational passages it must incorporate first: those that reveal the central human problem (which is also the central kid problem) and those that reveal what’s special about the nature of children.

First, let’s understand the central human problem. A good place to start is the beginning.

Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. (NKJV, Gen. 3:1–6)

It appears that the original humans chose to pursue the ability to judge good and evil for themselves rather than accept God’s judgment. They chose rebellion against God’s authority.

The NT describes the event more simply. Sin entered the world through “disobedience” (Rom.5:19). Though Scripture does not use the word “rebellion” in reference to the original sin, “disobedience” is a word that presumes a legitimate authority who has issued a command. Consequently, whatever else may be included in the concept of “sinner,” its basic idea is “a person who disobeys,” a person who rejects God’s authority (1 Pet. 2:7, Rom.11:30-32).

What ailed the children of Israel?

The testimony of Scripture regarding Israel’s central problem also strongly emphasizes the phenomenon of rebellion.

At Kadesh-Barnea, Joshua and Caleb warned the people that they should not rebel against God’s instruction to take the land of Canaan (Num.14:9). But rebel they did. Moses characterized their choice as “rebellion” more than once (Deut.1:26, 43). Later he suggested that Israel’s rebellious nature was at the heart of all their bad choices.

Also at Taberah and Massah and Kibroth Hattaavah you provoked the Lord to wrath. Likewise, when the Lord sent you from Kadesh Barnea, saying, “Go up and possess the land which I have given you,” then you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God, and you did not believe Him nor obey His voice. You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you. (Deut. 9:22–24)

God agreed with Moses’ assessment (Exod. 32:9). The pattern of rebellion continued through the nation’s history, with the result that God Himself frequently specified rebellion as the central malignancy of their hearts (Isa.1:2, 20; Ezek.2:3-4, Jer. 6:27-28; Hos. 4:16).

The depravity of sinners takes many forms, including twisted beliefs and affections. Pride, delusional independence, and many other ills live on, even within those who are being sanctified. Though other sin-related problems may be equally important, none surpass the problem of rebellion as a key to understanding the human condition.

So what’s wrong with kids?

As we move toward texts that focus more on the challenges of parenting, we find that rebellion also figures prominently. For example, the few texts that are directed specifically to children, share the same focus. Consider these examples:

Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. (Col. 3:20)

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (Eph. 6:1)

My son, keep your father’s command, And do not forsake the law of your mother. (Prov. 6:20)

Other passages single out disobedience in lists of especially egregious sins.

backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents (Rom. 1:30)

For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy (2 Tim. 3:2)

As rebellion is at the core of what’s wrong with humans in general, it’s also at the core of what’s wrong with kids. A biblical theology of parenting must address the prominence of this problem in the hearts of children.

Wickedness and weakness

Scripture affirms that we’re all born wicked (Rom. 5:12, Psa. 51:5), but it also attributes special weaknesses to children.

Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of correction will drive it far from him. (Prov. 22:15)

Do not withhold correction from a child, For if you beat [nakah, strike] him with a rod, he will not die. (Prov. 23:13)

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Cor. 13:11)

In Scripture, the nature of children is pretty simple: they are immature versions of everything adults are. Since they haven’t had time to learn much, they’re foolish. Since they have not formed many good habits yet, they need correction. They speak, understand and think childishly. In a word—and a politically incorrect one at that—kids are inferior. They lack adult strength, adult intelligence, adult judgment. Accordingly, they are not entitled to adult privileges or tasked with adult responsibilities.

So our theology of parenting must account for the fact that children are both wicked and weak. Since they are sinners, they need to be evangelized or discipled. Since they’re weak and small, they need the additional protection we owe to the vulnerable.

What should parents do?

Though children are simply immature humans we should protect, evangelize and disciple, Scripture reveals that parents have a unique relationship with their own children. With that special relationship, they also have unique opportunities and responsibilities.

How does a biblical theology of parenting identify these responsibilities? It begins with the understanding that the essence of what God expects of them is fully revealed in Scripture. From there, it looks for passages that speak directly on the subject of what parents exist to do in the lives of their children.

Here are several notable examples, in outline form.

1. Parents should teach the faith to their children (teaching includes modeling).

And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deut. 6:6–7)

My son, hear the instruction of your father, And do not forsake the law of your mother; For they will be a graceful ornament on your head, And chains about your neck. (Prov. 1:8–9)

And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)

2. Parents should love and bless their children.

that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children (Titus 2:4. See also Matt. 7:11.)

3. Parents should exercise authority over (make binding decisions for) their children.

one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (1 Timothy 3:4. See also 1 Tim.3:12, Eph. 6:1.)

4. Parents should restrain their children by means of discipline that hurts. The “rod” in Proverbs is both literal and representative of a larger category. It’s literal in the sense that people of the day would have would not have been squeamish about using some kind of actual stick at times. But proverbs are compact expressions of patterns and principles. The main idea is that parental discipline requires pain—sometimes physical, sometimes more emotional, as when we remove privileges, etc.

Do not withhold correction from a child, For if you beat [nakah, strike] him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, And deliver his soul from hell [sheol, the grave or death]. (Prov. 23:13–14)

He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly. (Prov. 13:24)

5. Parents should require respect from their children.

Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:3. See also Eph. 6:2.)

6. Parents should serve their children in all the ways believers are to serve one another.

Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing. (1 Thess. 5:11)

For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Gal. 5:13)

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2)

forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. (Col. 3:13)

(See also Heb. 10:24, James 5:16.)

Simple, but hard

Christian parenting is parenting according the Word of Christ, a Word which is sufficient for understanding what our Lord expects from us and, generally, how to be effective in it. So parenting in a biblical way involves building our understanding of the task from Scripture—from the ground up. When we do this, we discover that parenting is hard to do—but not hard to understand.


Thanks, Aaron, for a clear, simple, and Biblical portrait of parenting.

G. N. Barkman

Thanks for this article. It’s always good to refocus on our goals as parents.

My children are now men and as I look back I often think about the basics that we instilled in them when they were young.

-We taught them to listen, whether it was in church, school, or in one-on-one situations. (“I want your eyes to talk to may eyes.”)

-We didn’t talk too much. Keep it simple. Long speeches wind up sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

-Expect voice obedience.

-Love them but don’t worship them.

-Let them fail and and use the situation as a teaching moment.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Maybe it’s because we’re so results oriented as a society, but much of the parenting rhetoric focuses on how to achieve certain results rather than on how to fulfill responsibilities. Results matter, but it’s really about doing what we are called to do.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

I wholly believe in behavior modification. I expect my children to obey and respect authority - all of it, even the authority that many times is wrong. If they do not, they are violating scripture, and my responsibilities in that regard are clear. Whether or not they become Christians is irrelevant; societies that rear children to be respectful (and responsible) adults benefit regardless their spiritual condition.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

I look at it as habit formation. Humans are going to have habits. In the absence of parental effort to develop good habits in children, bad habits will develop instead.

Some argue that parenting has to work like the gospel: you offer truth, you respond to wrongdoing with mercy, etc. The problems with that thinking are manifold, but the biggest is simply that Scripture speaks very directly to what the tasks and aims of parenting are, and leaves no room for a “parenting as gospel re-enactment” approach. The second biggest is probably the fact that these philosophies — while showing an admirable love for the gospel — are reading that gospel selectively.

The gospel tell us not only that we are accepted graciously through faith alone but that God accepts us with the intention of transforming us. It reveals that we are all fallen and in need of transformation. So it’s entirely valid to say that “gospel-focused” parenting or “gospel-modeled” etc., is an approach that teaches the young to understand that God has a standard of righteousness, that we all fall short of it, and that we are all in need of repentance and transformation.

You have to get all that before you can understand what grace is.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.