How Does Scripture Apply to Stepfamilies?
Ron L. Deal
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Throughout this book we’ve applied a number of Scripture passages, the source of God’s standards for the family, to stepfamily life. Perhaps we should ask, how do passages about the “ideal family” apply to stepfamilies? Let’s look at some examples.
Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
These passages obviously apply to biological parents and children, but do they apply to stepchildren and stepfathers? If children have two men trying to take responsibility for their moral development, does the child get confused? What if they are teaching similar but different things? What if a biological father is not fulfilling his obligation; does that mean the stepfather should take his place?
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—”that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth”
This text for children lays the foundation for hierarchy in the home. Fathers and mothers are to guide children and be respected as leaders by children. But are stepchildren under the same obligation to stepparents? In what ways might stepchildren show honor to a stepparent?
There are many Biblical stories of men with children by multiple wives, what I have referred to as “expanded families,” whose family dynamics mirror those of the modern day stepfamily (and in some cases are even more complex given the unclear marital system). However, we don’t find God giving specific relational directives to stepparents or stepchildren.
Despite this, I would suggest that in principle, all Scripture applies to the individuals in stepfamilies and the relationships in stepfamily homes, just as it does to people of every culture, race, and family structure. We may need wisdom, however, in applying the scriptural principle to stepfamily life. Let’s consider two examples.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord
This passage charges fathers not to exasperate their children. To be exasperated means to have one’s spirit broken or to be discouraged or disheartened. We know that discouraged children are more likely to misbehave, be uncooperative, withdrawn, and oppositional. Without a solid relationship, it is very easy to discourage children; they take criticism more personally and receive training with more resistance. Stepfathers need to understand that early in their stepfamily’s development, it is much easier for them to exasperate their stepchildren due to a lack of relationship. If anything, stepfathers should be cautious not to increase resistance in their stepchildren or to discourage them because this makes spiritual training all the more difficult. A stepfather who claims authority just because he is the “man of the house” is likely to lose respect from his stepchildren and reduce his spiritual influence.
The biblical role for husbands as the “head of the wife” (Ephesians 5:23) provides the relational context within which fathers are to parent their children; headship is not license to claim anything for personal gain, but to lead their families in such a way that is reflective of God’s love. Men are challenged by Paul to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). That sounds like sacrifice to me. When did Christ insist that others care for him? When did he use his authority and power for personal gain? He didn’t. Christ served others for their benefit. He selflessly sought to bring them into relationship with God.
Bryan Chapell, in his book Each for the Other: Marriage As It’s Meant to Be, says that “authority is not the right to order others around for personal benefit; it is the responsibility to arrange for a family’s well-being. Biblical authority seeks the good of others and, therefore, serves their best interests. In this sense, the head of a home sacrifices himself for the good of his family and surrenders his desires to the needs of others in the home.” Stepfathers who try to insist on a position of authority they have not yet earned are confused into thinking they can’t lead without direct authority. But seeking the good of his wife and her children likely means a stepfather will lead through his wife, especially early in the marriage. This honors the biological bonds that already exist and the established mother-child authority. He will support her role, negotiate decisions behind closed doors, and help to set a spiritual focus in the home, all while building a relationship with his stepchildren. Consider this: his posture toward the child is similar to how Christ postures himself to an unbeliever. He never pushes himself on another, but lovingly beckons them with patience, grace, compassion, continual presence, and a persistent love.
A mother’s role in supporting her husband as he becomes a mentor to her children is invaluable. Set him up for success, for example, by speaking to him in front of the children with a respectful tone. When you show him admiration and appreciation you powerfully invite your children to do the same.
So how should stepfathers handle “training” or “instruction” in righteousness? Is that their job too? Absolutely, yes! Stepfathers can be wonderful role models and spiritual teachers (so can stepmothers!) to their stepchildren and, I believe, are called by God to fulfill such a role. Regrettably, however, not all stepfathers are willing to accept this responsibility. I’ll never forget a phone call from a mother whose second husband refused to be a spiritual influence on her two daughters. For many men shirking this responsibility is done out of ignorance, but in her case it was not. Her husband was an elder in their church, taught marriage enrichment courses, and had been a wonderful, godly father to his own children (now grown with families of their own). After his wife died of cancer, he remarried but didn’t feel the need to give time, energy, or influence to his stepdaughters. Since he had raised his family, he didn’t think it was his responsibility to be an active spiritual leader. Instead, he played golf, kept to himself in the house, and attended to his personal interests. What a waste of positive spiritual influence!
Stepfathers need to understand that spiritual leadership is not a convenient volunteer endeavor—it is a calling from God. When you give your life in marriage to another woman, you are also committing yourself to the care, discipline, and spiritual training of her children. You cannot pick your roles. Accept the full assignment (or don’t sign on at all).
The good news is, most stepfathers want to be a positive spiritual influence on their stepchildren—I hope you are one of them. Yet you must exercise wisdom as you grow into this role. In other words, the responsibility for the spiritual training of your stepchildren is yours, but the process of application will be different than the one used by biological fathers.
Initially, for example, stepfathers will want to focus on connecting with their stepchildren (as discussed in chapter 7). With older children it may take months before you’ve earned the right to verbally teach God’s truths. Until then, train by modeling a Christ-like lifestyle. Show yourself to be a man of God in your words, deeds, and especially in how you respond to your stepchild’s biological father. All of this helps build a respectable bond with your stepchildren (and wife) and strengthens your spiritual influence.
Wise stepfathers also show Christ to their stepchildren by influencing their mother (his wife). By working with her behind the scenes to establish an expectation of godly behavior in the home, rules that support honoring God, and involvement with a local body of believers, a stepfather can have dramatic impact. Leading the family in prayer, orchestrating family spiritual times (having devotions, singing worship songs, sharing stories of God’s activity in his life), and reading a Scripture passage at breakfast are just some ways a stepfather can gently lead his family while relationships are growing.
Smart Stepdad Best Practices
With his stepsons one stepdad built trust early on by sharing his skills with the boys. He involved them in his woodworking hobbies and hunting. These activities created “adventures” in which the boys viewed him as a teacher they respected. Later, this allowed him to speak more directly into their life regarding moral issues and values.
Finally, let me remind stepfathers that the reason Christians obey God is because we trust him to have our ultimate good at heart. For example, God doesn’t declare sex outside of marriage a sin because he is trying to steal our fun. He does so because sex within a covenantal marriage relationship provides for our pleasure and protects us from harm. Likewise, your first task as a stepfather is to gain trust from your stepchildren so that they never question your intentions. They need to be confident at all times that you have their best interests at heart. Otherwise, your influence will be mediocre at best. But once trust is developed, you will have tremendous spiritual influence.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise—’that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’
This passage establishes that respect is due parents and that children should honor them with obedience. Viewing their stepparent as someone to be respected and obeyed is not a problem for many stepchildren. Yet others will have a hard time due to loyalty conflicts or the feeling that their biological parent is being removed from their rightful place of authority.
Putting the right frame on the expectation of honor toward a stepparent is helpful. A father might suggest to his children, “Honor your stepmother as you would a teacher or an older woman at church. She is not your mom, but she is due the same honor as your principal at school.” In addition, you might teach your children that God expects children to show respect for all adults. “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32). “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31). God expects people to have a basic respect for older adults. I believe you can teach your children to honor their stepparents just as they would any older adult. This affirms the place of their other biological parent and helps to create an expectation of obedience in your home.
Scripture is full of wisdom for stepfamilies; knowing how to best apply it in your home sometimes takes patience and guidance from others. Nevertheless, many passages on love, showing kindness, communication, and the roles of husbands and wives are just waiting to bless your life. Let God’s Word guide you to be a stronger family. Be open to the depth of God’s wisdom and provision for your life. Be in the Word. Share it as a couple. Share it as a family. Make it your road map for life.