Several years ago I got invited to speak at ACBC, the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, about rebellious teenagers. Little did I know I was about to embark on a season in life when both my oldest and youngest sons went through seasons of rebellion. My oldest shared that he no longer believed what we had taught him, which in some ways sparked rebellion in his younger brother. We had a lot of problems, and suddenly what I had been speaking about in theoretical terms became very personal.
Below, I share some of the insights I gleaned and how pastors can best minister to these families.
Ensure parents have a correct understanding of what God says about child rearing
Oftentimes, parents confuse biblical wisdom with biblical promises. For instance, Proverbs 22:6 tells us that we are to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). Many parents take that statement as a promise: if they teach their children right, they will become followers of the Lord. But what people in the church tend to miss is the fact that the book of Proverbs is a book of wisdom. The statements in Proverbs are true as statements of wisdom, but they are not absolute and unconditional promises for all times and all places.
Proverbs 22:6 informs us that training children is generally going to produce good results, and God is very gracious and kind in that respect. And while there are many examples in our churches where God uses the teachings of parents to draw children to Himself, this outcome isn’t guaranteed. Pastors must help parents understand this reality.
Encourage parents to be faithful in godly discipline, because their influence is great
Proverbs 19:18 says, “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death” (ESV). Proper discipline is done because there is hope for the future, but the discipline should be for his good. Proverbs 13:24 points parents to the idea of not sparing the rod (not withholding discipline), because discipline comes out of love. It isn’t hard to make the connection to other passages in Scripture like Hebrews 12:6, in which we read that God disciplines those He loves.
Parents have significant influence over their children when it comes to discipline.
We also find in the Bible instances where a lack of discipline had disastrous consequences. For example, in 1 Samuel we see the story of Eli; while regarded as a righteous man, Eli failed to discipline his sons and correct them, and the judgment of the Lord came upon Israel as a result. We could also think of several of the sons of David who strayed. One in particular was Amnon, who raped his sister Tamar and was not punished by his father. As a result, Amnon was killed by his brother Absalom two years later.
As we can see from these examples, parents have significant influence over their children when it comes to discipline. So we must communicate to parents that they are responsible to raise their children well. Unfortunately, parents could be an influence for bad if they don’t follow the Scriptures.
Clarify what parents are responsible for—and what they’re not
You should instruct parents that while their influence is significant, it is not determinative, because the Bible also explicitly teaches that children are responsible for the choices they make. Proverbs 20:11 says, “Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright” (ESV). It is the child making himself known by his own acts, not the actions of the parent.
In fact, the whole book of Proverbs is actually about a son being told by his father, “I’m laying out for you two paths in life. You can choose wisdom, or you can choose folly. You can choose the harlot, or you can choose the soul’s true bride.” The father is pleading with the son to reject the strange woman, to reject all the manifestations of foolishness, and to commit himself to dine at the table of lady wisdom. But the whole point of Proverbs is that the son is making his own choice as he comes into adulthood, a pivotal point that we must communicate as well.
The Bible explicitly teaches that children are responsible for the choices they make.
A child may choose to embrace the righteous way of his parents or to reject it, and the parents must be ready to instruct in either case. The Lord himself is a Father to Israel, and He was a perfect Father to Israel. Yet he can say in Isaiah 1:2, “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me” (ESV). So God even as a perfect parent has rebellious children. God was not a bad parent; rather, it was Israel’s fault for rejecting His good parenting. Children are responsible for the choices they make.
Ultimately, parents are dependent upon God’s grace to save their kids. Their children are born sinners, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2. Whether they’re in a Christian family or not in a Christian family, they’re still sinners by nature. Their minds and their hearts are hard. God’s sovereign grace is required to regenerate them, and to turn them to the Lord so they will hear the wisdom of their parents. We, as pastors and parents, should plead to God, because parenting is not good enough to save children. We all fall short, pastors and parents alike. So we plead with God to open their hearts to Him.
We, as pastors and parents, should plead to God, because parenting is not good enough to save children.
Help parents cope with their emotions when children rebel
Regardless of the reason for a child’s rebellion, we should have compassion on the parents. Even if the problems stem from a parent’s shortcomings, it doesn’t change the fact that it hurts very deeply.
When our sons rebelled, we had friends who cared for us, loved us, and wept with us. I knew that we were not being judged or rejected, so I was able to receive their counsel and care. Just like others who are suffering, the parents of rebellious children need compassion, love, and care.
Even if the problems stem from a parent’s shortcomings, it doesn’t change the fact that it hurts very deeply.
Provide counsel, at the right time
While many may be quick to offer counsel, it should be given only when invited. Remember the friends of Job who came to share in his suffering? I’ve heard it said that they were doing fine until they started talking. They sat with Job and wept with him, which demonstrated care. But their (unwise) counsel teaches us that we must wait until parents of rebellious children are ready to receive counsel. There are certainly exceptions, for instance, when someone is in danger, but generally we should not be hasty in providing instruction. Once they are open, however, we should be ready to speak.
Know what types of counsel might be needed
Counsel specific to the parents’ fears for the child’s future: It is easy for a parent to envision worst-case scenarios, and sometimes those worries are quite realistic. Remember the example of Eli above: he had to go through the deaths of his sons as judgment for their rebellion. There may be severe consequences.
However, there is a sense in which parents have to entrust their children to God, and they have to entrust themselves to God. The parents may plead with God to show mercy on their children and to show mercy on them, but their only hope is in God Himself. Their hope cannot be in their capacity to say or do the right thing to turn their kids around. They must place their fears before the Lord and trust, as Psalm 23 reminds us, that God is with them even in the valley of the shadow of death. Their responsibility, then, is to cry out to the Lord (Phil. 4:6) and to entrust the future to Him, even though it’s an unknown future.
Counsel regarding the parents’ anger: When a child rebels, there’s a temptation to anger; this anger may come from sacrifices that the parents made and the child’s rejection of those sacrifices, or the dishonor that comes on their family because of the child’s actions. There is also a temptation to respond in anger toward the spouse, as if the rebellion were the other spouse’s fault. Lastly, there may be a temptation to be angry at the Lord for allowing the child’s choices.
In all of these forms of anger, parents must realize both the sovereignty of God and the suffering that results from sin. They must continue to trust in the justice and foreknowledge of God. And they must realize that they, along with their spouse, are suffering as a result of wrong choices. The parents need to stand and help each other and show grace to each other, forgiving where the other has failed, and pointing one another toward truth.
Ministering to my own wayward children today
Today my sons are adults, they are no longer under our authority, and they are making their way in life without the same beliefs that I have. But just as God loved us when we were estranged from Him and we were His enemies, I want to love my sons in the same way. I want to love them as Christ has loved me. And I’m praying that Christ will draw each of them to Himself.
Pastors, you can encourage parents of rebellious children to continue to love their children, pray diligently for them, but entrust them to the sovereign God who loves them more than they ever could.
For more information on this topic, we encourage you to read Helping Parents of Rebellious Teens and “Pastor, How Do I Love My Rebellious Teen?” by Sam Hodges; Call the Cops? Kick Out a Rebellious Teen? Options When Drastic Steps Are Needed by Kathy Leonard; and How to Help Church Members Who Take In a Rebellious Teen Relative by Linda Jacobs.