All around the world, dads are special today. Father’s Day is the third Sunday of June in Nigeria, the United States and more than 80 nations. It is fitting that we not only annually honor moms on Mother’s Day, but our fathers as well.
God’s good design is for both moms and dads, and for their appreciation and honor, whether old covenant (Exodus 20:12) or new (Ephesians 6:2). It takes man and woman, father and mother, to image God to a child. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Having just one or the other isn’t God’s ideal, though we greatly revere those who give such valiant effort to leading single-parent homes, difficult as it is. And having two of the one and none of the other is even more trouble. Father and mother aren’t interchangeable. God’s created order doesn’t just call for a guardian or two, whatever the gender, but for a mother and for a father, together.
There is something distinct, some special imaging of God, that both father and mother display for a child. It’s a glory beyond precise description, but not above several good glimpses in the Scriptures.
In Paul’s letter to the young believers of Thessalonica, he gives a good deal of space to recounting his early days among them. He notes that not only did he share the gospel with them in word, but he also “shared his own self” in deed and depth of relationship. Here’s how he says it in 1 Thessalonians 2:7–12 — watch especially for the mentions of mother and father.
We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Much could be said here about how the images of mother and father work together to communicate depth and closeness of relationship. Paul says he has shared his own self with them, and not merely communicated to them a message. Both motherhood and fatherhood demand such, but on Father’s Day it’s worth trying to discern what’s distinct — what makes mom and dad each to be special in their own way.
On the one hand, Paul says that he and his apostolic team were “gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” The associations here are not only gentleness and intense care, but also intimacy. Depth of relationship is in the offing. He sums it up in the first part of verse 8 as “being affectionately desirous of you.” There is manifest affection and tenderness. This Paul corrals in the mothering picture.
Then Paul takes up the father image. And it’s not the same as mothering. There’s overlap, no doubt, but they’re not interchangeable. He says, “like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God.”
Don’t miss how personal this fatherly care is. He says he exhorted “each one of you,” not just the group at large. So he knows them personally. As Robert Coleman says, “The only way that a father can properly raise a family is to be with it.” And because he knows them, he doesn’t exhort like a slavemaster, or like a judge, or like a king, but he exhorts like a father — a father who knows his children and manifestly loves them and desires the best for them. There’s something about fatherhood that makes such warm but strong exhortation especially appropriate.
It’s not that mothers don’t exhort. It’s not that mothers shouldn’t exhort. It’s not that mothers should never step forward and, with manifest love and earnestness, charge a child to walk in manner worthy of God. But there is something about fatherhood that makes such exhortation and encouragement particularly fitting.
While the mothering image is more gentle and nurturing and tender, the fathering image is more tough and strong and challenging. It’s the father who leads the way in discipline and correction. In Ephesians 6:4, Paul charges not the parents in general, but the fathers in particular, “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Same story in Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
And the special place of a father in exhorting a child — disciplining a child — comes into focus in Hebrews 12:7–11:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
When we honor our father and our mother, we love mom for her nurture, and we respect dad for his exhortation. Many disclaimers abound. Dads also must nurture and show affection, and moms must discipline and exhort, but there are parental virtues which, while having their proper exercise in both mother and father, make their particular home in either mom or dad.
On this Father’s Day, whether your dad has been all that you ever hoped and dreamed, or you’ve now grown old enough to see his faults and failings (sadly the more common story), there are distinct virtues to respect in dad, even as we love the overlapping virtues in mom. Yes, it’s worth having not a Guardian’s Day or a Parent’s Day, but distinct Mother’s and Father’s Days in celebration of God’s good gifts of both moms and dads.
Let’s see if we can honor dad today not just by pointing out what made him a good parent, but a good father.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.