Church leaders – Stop hurting and start helping single parents!
Within the past few months, I’ve been told about how churches are handling single parents (namely mothers) and their “rebellious” child. The approach is similar to what my wife and I experienced when we were challenged by the behaviors of our adopted child who has Reactive Attachment Disorder. We did not understand why she would think and act the way she did, nor did we know what to do. The elders in one church had their "tough love" approach, which was abysmal. In fact, quite harmful. You can read part of our story here.
What have I been hearing regarding these mothers? One pastor commanded a mom to control her active little son who is restless during Sunday school. Spank him until he behaves. If she did not spank him then the pastor would until the kid straightened up. A similar report came from a married parent. Another church is threatening to discipline a mom for not keeping her child under control. Still, other churches are putting policies in place to “deal with” rebellious children. (These policies are not to be confused with those that safeguard children against sexual abuse).
What these actions indicate is that the elders are hell-bent on applying traditional, authoritarian methods of force. The key idea is control – as near total control as possible. The actions also suggest that these leaders are ill-equipped to counsel or shepherd the mothers and their children. What’s worse, they are approaching these family dynamics from a judicial position instead of a pastoral one. What I mean by this, is that they believe the best way to tackle the behaviors of “problem” children is through laws, regulations, and punishments. In the name of discipline, they approach the family like finger-waiving judges who will punish the sinners rather than approach them as compassionate shepherds who come by their side to bear their burden and offer legitimate counsel and support.
These type of church leaders need to stop hurting the families and start helping them. And please do not give me the old “discipline is to restore the sinner” argument when you enact punitive measures before you have exhausted every reasonable means for discipling the family with mercy, grace, truth, and love.
How dare I say this?
First, leadership is supposed to build up, not tear down
A church’s leadership authority is given to pastors, elders, and deacons for the purpose of building others up and not for tearing down (2 Cor. 13:10). Tearing down a mother or her child is abusive. It is what leaders do when they lord it over others. Go here to read what the Bible says about abusive church authorities.
Legalists and modern day Pharisees focus on rules and regulations as the means to fix others and mold them into their box labeled holiness. Such Pharisees overemphasize obedience and conformity. They use tactics to pressure or manipulate the parents and children to comply with their man-made standards. Instead of being tender, they are rough. Rather than showing kindness, they are mean. They are supposed to be very patient yet they are intolerant. This is how they hurt single parents. This is how they tear down these families.
Second, the Bible is very clear how church leaders lead
The Bible is clear and defines for us the manner in which church leadership exercises God’s delegated authority. Here are five ways:
1. Church leaders are to lead from a motivation of love (John 21:16) through love (John 10; 13:31-35). Colossians 3 spells out how this love is manifested – by being tender, kind, humble, and longsuffering! Should there be any question about the way church leaders are supposed to love these parents and children, they should examine their hearts and actions against 1 Corinthians 13.
a. They must lead through love by making appeals to repentance and faith. These appeals are from love for Christ’s sake (Philemon 8-9). Before making any accusations against the parent or child, what the leadership must make clear is how the person is sinning according to explicit commands in the Bible. These commands are not leadership preferences, pastoral expectations, or even church policies. And most certainly not the demands from Mr. Grumpy Dumpaton or Mrs. Pesty Nasalsnot.
Even if the mother or child is obviously sinning according to God’s Word, God calls upon the leadership to lovingly confront, counsel, and encourage them toward repentance (Matt. 18:15-16; Gal. 6:1-2; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24-25). This takes place long before they come down with disciplinary measures.
b. The leaders must also lead with compassion for distressed sheep (Matt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34; Jas. 5:14). It is quite distressing to be a single parent. Further, when children are stressed, they act out or misbehave. It is compassionate to grant mercy and grace, to work with the mother or child with an enduring patience and demonstrable acts of kindness.
2. Next, church leaders must lead sacrificially. They are not to sacrifice the mother or child on the altar of arrogant leadership. Deacons, elders, and pastors must be willing to lay down their lives for the sheep (John 10:11,15). How? With a servant’s heart (Matt. 20:25; Lk 22:26).
To have a servant’s heart is to mimic Jesus Christ who humbly took upon himself the role of a slave for the sake of his people (Phil. 2). Church leaders are to serve more and more like Jesus Christ the perfect Servant (Matt. 20:25-28; 23:11-12; Mark 10:43, 44; Luke 22:26-27; John 13:1-20; 2 Cor. 3:10; 1 Tim. 4:14-15; 6:11; Tit. 2:12; 2 Pet. 1:4). To avoid confusion on what it means for a pastor and other leaders to be God's slave, examine this study.
3. Church leaders are called to lead with a watchful care for the mother and child who are members of God’s flock (1 Tim. 3:5; Heb. 13:17). They oversee helpful, tangible ministries to the family. This includes finding ways to provide for basic needs (1 Cor. 12:25; Gal. 6:2), finding wise and godly counsel for any area of their lives, while pairing a Titus 2 type woman with the mother and daughter or a godly man or a team of men to mentor the son.
4. Then, church leaders lead while guarding themselves and the church (Acts 20:28) against abuse, neglect, and other wickedness. This requires defending these mothers and their children’s reputations, protecting them against abusive ex-spouses, or guarding them against their enemies.
5. Finally, deacons, elders, and pastors are to be examples of our benevolent Great Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:3 cp. John 10). After all, church leaders are called to model Jesus in every conceivable way (2 Cor. 12:18; 1 Thess. 2:10-12; 1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:3).
Often, in churches where the leadership is law-centered, manipulative, controlling, or abusive, it is not the single parent or the child who needs to repent and by faith change to become more like Jesus. It is the leadership. In the nearly fifty years with churches, my observation and experience say such men do not change. This is not to deny that God can change them. I just have never seen it.
So what do I advise these single parents and children do? If church leaders do not stop hurting single parents and their children, the parents should escape that toxic place and flee to a God-honoring, Christ-filled, gracious and nurturing church with leaders who are intentional about helping them for their good and for God’s glory.
In another article, we will address how church leaders and the local church can help single parents and their children.
If you are a single parent involved in a church that you believe is hurting you and your family more than helping, then seek out someone outside of the church. This person ought to be someone you trust, who is Christ-like and wise. If you are unable to find such a person, then feel free to contact us. We will see what we can do to help.