Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: 3 “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”
4 And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.
— Eph 6:1-4 (NKJV)
Sunshine Thiry was skeptical of my statement in a recent post that tearing down fathers is a modern Christian Father’s Day tradition. Specifically, she was skeptical of my statement:
For Christian leaders [Father’s Day] brings out contempt for husbands and fathers, including the now traditional (if not obligatory) sermon tearing down men in front of their families.
She hadn’t noticed such a tradition, so when she went to church on Father’s Day she wanted to see how her pastor would handle it. Her pastor confirmed the tradition, taking time to explain to the congregation why he was deviating from it. Thiry quoted her pastor’s explanation in her post Do pastors tear down men on Father’s Day?
I have to tell you, it’s our goal on this Father’s Day weekend to lift you up and encourage you. And I have to tell you from history I’ve learned that often Father’s Day is one of the worst days that dads can ever choose to go to church. Because often it’s the only time churches feel like they’re going to have the ears of dads and so what they do is they plan to beat them up royally for all they’re not doing right. Ever been to one of those Father’s Day services? Oh man, I have. In fact, here in the early days of my ministry here, you know what we’d do? Oh man, we planned. We planned for you guys. And then what we did is we’d sing “Cats in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon”. And we’d talk about how you have so royally blown it, the world has gone to hell in a hand basket, and then we’d try and help you recover. And we wondered why dads didn’t like Fathers Day at our church. We don’t do that anymore. What we want this to be is an encouragement to you, we want this to lift you up, and I can’t think of a better story than Abraham’s because he’s like us – far from perfect. And yet he was used significantly from God.”
This tradition shouldn’t be surprising. Father’s Day is a day set aside to honor fathers. This doesn’t translate into modern Christian culture because honoring fathers is a truly alien idea. What would that even look like? Note that Thiry’s pastor doesn’t say that he will honor fathers, he says he will try to encourage them.
Keep in mind that this isn’t about one sermon, or just sermons on Father’s Day, or even about pastors. This is about modern Christians feeling profound discomfort with the idea of honoring fathers. This isn’t a biblical tradition, because the Bible is clear on the importance of honoring fathers. This is about modern Christian culture. Even when modern Christians set out to honor fathers, what they end up doing is tearing fathers down in front of their wives and children. Even worse, this is so deeply ingrained that no one notices. It doesn’t seem out of place because tearing down fathers in front of their families is what we always do. In the post Thiry is responding to I mentioned the movie Courageous. Note how well her pastor’s description of his previous Father’s Day sermons summarizes the plot of the movie:
We planned for you guys. And then what we did is we’d sing “Cats in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon”. And we’d talk about how you have so royally blown it, the world has gone to hell in a hand basket, and then we’d try and help you recover.
If you haven’t seen the movie, or if it has been a while, take a moment to watch the trailer for Courageous to see what I mean*. Despite the uncanny resemblance, Thiry’s pastor wasn’t ripping off the Kendrick brothers in his Father’s Day sermons, and they weren’t ripping him off either. This is the formula for approaching the topic of Christian fathers; tear the fathers down in front of their wives and children, and then try to inspire them to do better. As I noted above, this is the pattern even when modern Christians set out to buck the trend of tearing fathers down. This may be hard to believe, but the Kendrick brothers intended for Courageous to be the antidote to the secular denigration of fathers. They explained this during the production of the film in an interview with Past The Popcorn:
Interviewer: As Stephen [Kendrick] was saying this morning, you can start holding up Courageous as the antidote to the popular culture, which now denigrates the role of the male—which rarely prevents viable, positive role models. As a critic, I can point to that as a very unique and special thing that comes out of your work. Do you feel that’s something that’s naturally come out of your work as something God-given, or is that something you’ve really focused on—honed and developed?
Alex Kendrick: I would say that we’re driven to do that. That’s the heartbeat behind what we’re doing, other than the general desire to please the Lord. When I turn on the TV—and we don’t watch TV much any more at all—every other character, every other commercial, demeans and devalues the role of the man. It’s terrible. Just take note of the commercials that you see when you’re watching TV. How many of them make the woman look like, “Well, I’m the smart one. The man can’t figure this out, but I can.” And while there’s plenty of demeaning behavior spread around to both sexes, it does seem heavily biased to be anti-father, anti-man. And in movies, when parents are having problems with their children, things get resolved by the parents saying to the children, “Oh, I’m sorry. I was wrong all along. You were right.” I mean, even look at Finding Nemo. I love the movie! It’s very well done. But at the end, the father says, “I’m sorry, Nemo. You were right—I was too hard on you.” That seems to be a running theme.
Watch the trailer again, and note that even the trailer has all of the elements the Kendrick brothers are complaining about in secular entertainment. It has all of the elements they wanted Courageous to be the “antidote” for when they were making it. The fathers are failures and the wives are alternating between telling them what they are doing wrong and telling them the right way to do what they decide to do. The main character needs to learn to follow his son’s lead instead of the other way around (running vs building a shed), and in the end he apologizes to his teenage son for not being a good father and pledges to do better.
Alex: Look at how media is portraying fathers today. You look at almost any commercial, and the father figure is the idiot, the goober, the guy who doesn’t get it. The wife or mother is the one who really knows what’s going on, the smarter one. And you can’t name one TV show right now that has a really good, honorable father. This generation is growing up with anti-heroes rather than heroes. Rather than Superman, truth, justice, and the American way, it’s now Bart Simpson and his dad, Homer.
Yet after Courageous, Alex went on to help a friend by appearing in the Christian movie Mom’s Night Out. If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it is so full of exactly these themes that it even shocked the feminists at Dame**:
And that’s the biggest problem with Moms’ Night Out: The moral of the story isn’t that the women are supposed to stay home and not have fun, but that the men are totally hapless morons without them around—and that this lesson is still being drilled into our heads in 2014. We’re supposed to feel better about this “men are total idiots, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” philosophy (and that latter piece of wisdom was actually uttered in the movie in case you missed the point). But this story of the helpless manchild is a disservice to men—and families—everywhere.
The feminists have it right in this case. Tearing down fathers is incredibly harmful to families. Why is it that even feminists can see what Christians cannot? Mom’s Night Out was a huge hit with Christian audiences, as was Courageous. These anti father themes didn’t stand out to Christians because Christian culture is even more anti father than secular culture is!
A Problem With Authority
At the root of the antipathy for fathers is a revulsion for husbands and fathers having authority. This is true for both secular and Christian culture. For modern Christians the reaction to biblical headship ranges from outright hostility to vocal ambivalence. This poses a serious challenge for those who want to tell Christian husbands and fathers to man up. How can they implore men to follow their God given obligation to lead their families without crossing this bright line and reminding everyone that men have authority which comes with this responsibility? In Fireproof the Kendrick brothers negotiated this by inverting the biblical roles of husband and wife, and teaching that a husband’s job is to win the heart of his wife. If a wife rebels against her husband or takes up with another man, this means her husband didn’t love her well enough. They followed this same non-threatening and non biblical pattern in Courageous with fathers and their children. They avoided the question of authority and instead focused on fathers winning the hearts of their children. Alex explains this in the CBN interview:
Alex: Here’s a principle that we say very clearly in the movie. If I have great conservative rules and regulations, and values in my home, but if I don’t have the heart of my children, they’re not going to listen to me. They will listen to the people that they think really care about them. And most of the time, if a dad is not engaged, it doesn’t matter what his views are. They’re going to listen to their friends. But if a dad captures the heart of his children, then he can speak into their lives, and they will listen, and value what he teaches them.
Harming the most vulnerable out of fear.
Thiry’s pastor mentioned that the tradition of tearing down men in front of their families caused fathers not to want to attend church. However, the discomfort of fathers is insignificant compared to the harm this is doing to the families of these fathers. We live in a culture where the family is under assault and wives and children are taught that rebellion is a virtue. The children most harmed by this are the ones having the most trouble honoring their fathers. This could be because the father has serious flaws, or it could be because the child is particularly rebellious. It could even be both. For good fathers with healthy families contempt for fathers from Christian culture merely introduces sand into the gears. Everything is harder than it needs to be, but they are able to power through despite the harm Christian culture causes. This isn’t the case for families who are struggling however. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, and large numbers of children aren’t even born to married parents to begin with. For families that are on the edge, for families who are suffering greatly, heaping contempt on the father only makes all of their existing problems worse.
Ironically the common defense of tearing fathers down in front of their wives and children is that it is an act of courage to fix struggling families. However, going with the flow and following the secular culture’s attack on fathers takes no courage, and injecting strife into fragile families doesn’t make them better.
*You can also see my review of the movie here.