Biblical Basis for Parental Responsibility: A Dissertation Excerpt

         What follows is an excerpt from my unpublished Doctor of Ministry dissertation entitled, “Praxis of Nurture in Small Churches,” completed in April of  2009 at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I share here a section of my literature review which I have designated, “Biblical Basis for Parental Responsibility.” Since that time, I have gained new insights, and other very fine scholars and practitioners have quickly added to the body of knowledge available in print and various media. Notably, Reggie Joiner published “Think Orange” and Brian Haynes published “Shift” in the months just after my dissertation went to print. I am in the process of reading their books and I can say both are certainly worth adding to your library.

My new insights will be shared in future posts and in relationship to this post.

Technical notes:

  • The original document contains Hebrew language text. I was not able to figure out how to make the Hebrew visible here in a font which fits seamlessly into the text, so I have substituted gifs from as a solution.
  • The footnoting links do not work properly, but you may still scroll down from the text to the bottom of the post to see the cited works and notations.


Although the Bible does not offer an exhaustive and systematic library of parenting theory, it does offer basic instruction and narrative examples concerning how parents should rear their children. This includes high profile illustrations of examples to avoid, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. For the purpose of this study we focus our look at the biblical basis for parental responsibility by considering the oft-quoted Shema passage in Deuteronomy. I will offer my commentary and also interact with the interpretations of other family ministry practitioners who have commented on the passage in their writings. Then I will move on to discuss briefly some key insights from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels as it relates to Shema.

Deuteronomy 6:1-9  A Brief Commentary

Based on the literature I have reviewed, the most common starting point used to discuss the biblical basis for parental responsibility in the spiritual nurturing of children is Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Therefore, some attention will be given here to this passage, as well as the few preceding verses in Deuteronomy 6:1-3, in order to highlight the compelling points of its message.[1]  The author of Deuteronomy writes

6:1) These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 6:2) so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 6:3) Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you. 6:4) Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 6:5) Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6:6) These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 6:7) Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 6:8) Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 6:9) Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.[2]

Moses prepares the children of Israel to cross the Jordan, highlighting the requirements that God had set before them. First, in verse one he makes it clear that it is the Lord God who is giving them the commands. These are not suggestions. They are clear directives which God expects them to obey. There are benefits to obedience and consequences for disobedience. Verse 2 gives the purpose and benefit to the commands. By observing the commands, the Israelites will fear the Lord God as long as they live, as will their progeny.  The corollary is telling. The text declares that they also will enjoy long life. Verse 3 provides a parallel argument, stating that they should take care to obey God’s decrees so that it will go well for them, and so that they may increase greatly in the land according to God’s promise. So, the promise is attached to expectations of obedience according to God’s commands. Although left unstated in this passage, the writer of Deuteronomy later clearly explains the consequences of disobedience in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. The prior fourteen verses of Deuteronomy precede the warning of cursing for disobedience by explaining again the blessings of obedience. Thus, blessings are conferred for obeying God’s commands, and curses are levied for disobeying God’s commands.

This is the immediate context of the beautiful Shema (sh’ma) text in the Torah. The writer appeals to Israel saying in the Hebrew, Hebrew , which reads, “Hear and obey Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4)!” [3] It is not simply a call to hear. It is a call to hear with full intention of obedience. In this instance and in the preceding verse, it refers specifically to obedience to the decrees and commands of the Lord God. Eugene H. Merrill writes, “‘To hear,’ in Hebrew lexicography, is tantamount to ‘obey,’ especially in covenant contexts such as this. That is, to hear God without putting into effect the command is not to hear him at all.”[4]

The Israelites are then commanded to love the Lord God with all their heart, soul and strength. Put simply, the entirety of who they are is to be devoted to God. Immediately following this command, the charge is given:


The text translates, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts” (Deut. 6:6). This is the means by which they will be able to love the Lord God in the manner expressed in verse five. Furthermore, in order to ensure that the generations to come also love God wholeheartedly, the Israelites are given clear and simple instructions concerning how to pass on this heritage to their children. Deuteronomy 6:7-9 provides a basic outline of their method. The process indicates the all-inclusive scope of their parental responsibility.

Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

The NIV translates   Hebrew
 as “impress them on your children,” while other notable translations such as NASB, KJV, and NKJV translate it “teach them diligently to your children.” Both renderings convey the urgency and importance of the task at hand. The writer then gives a recitation of the typical situational details involved with this approach. Parents are to teach their children throughout the day, whether at home or on the road; whether rising in the morning, lying down to sleep at night, or sitting at home during the day. Memory aids are to be used in the form of symbols for their hands and foreheads, and as writings on the house gates and doorframes. The idea here is simple. They are to make instruction concerning the commandments of the Lord a comprehensive, memorable, intentional, and integral part of their daily family routines. There is no distinction between the secular as opposed to occasional moments for the sacred. They did not struggle to find a moment for family devotions. For the Israelites, according to the instructions above, all of life was sacred as lived according to God’s commands. All of life was devotion to God. To be sure, there later would develop many seasonal remembrances which would remind them of their duty to God. They also would struggle to overcome myriad distractions of sinful temptations from surrounding cultures. The point here is that the text called them to a daily routine of loving God with all their heart, soul and strength, and instructing their children to do the same, both through intentional training and through their example.


Other Views on Deuteronomy 6:4-7

As I stated earlier, this passage is important because it demonstrates God’s view of child training at an early point in the biblical record. It is also a passage to which writers on both children’s ministry and family ministry frequently appeal in their articles and books. In other to gain an appreciation of how frequently this text is cited in the literature, it is worth noting several examples of what others have written from a family ministry practitioner’s perspective. Mark Holmen appears to use Deuteronomy 6 as the model of an ideal family. At a funeral for a seven year-old boy he told the parents, “You’re truly a Deuteronomy 6 family−you love the Lord with all your heart, soul and strength. And you passed this love for the Lord on to your children.”[5] Indeed, this is the essence of the passage. From an academic perspective Charles M. Sell wrote:

But developing some formalized Christian instruction in the home makes sense biblically as well as educationally. Teaching the Scriptures to children at home is well grounded in Scripture (Deut. 6:7). Two important considerations make clear God’s reason for instructing us to do this. First, the accumulation of vocabulary is important while the child is interpreting experience and framing it into a total worldview. While it is true that the child is confronted with words beyond his experience, he learns words that explain it. If the child is living with the biblical realities of hope, trust, forgiveness, etc., the teaching confirms and explains the nature of and reasons for those realities. The teaching also provides some basis for discussing these things with others. While this teaching can possibly be done within the regular conversations of the home, it is too important to be left to that alone.

Second, important questions about God and the Christian faith need to be raised. Contemporary life does not always prompt the kinds of questions the Bible addresses.[6]

I interpret Sell’s comments to mean that it is unwise to leave the spiritual nurture of children to chance. We cannot assume that they will gain a Christian biblical worldview simply on account of living with Christian parents, especially if those parents are not intentional in instructing their children in Bible and the ways of the Lord. Chris J. Boyatzis largely concurs with Sell’s perspective, placing his view in a sociological framework, although he does not state it quite as dogmatically. He writes,

Parent-child conversations are rich contexts for religious socialization. These events often occur within regular family interactions and rituals and become “embedded routines” important to a family’s religious experience. Whether the conversations occur during structured events or spontaneously, they can enhance growth of spiritual meaning in families. Early in Scripture parent-child conversations about religion are deemed critically important.[7]

Catherine Stonehouse, however, offers an often overlooked point-of-view. With respect to Deuteronomy 6:4-9 she makes an important observation regarding the role of the passage in family life. She writes:

Only after adults had affirmed their faith in God, entered into a love relationship with God, and internalized God’s laws were they really prepared to teach their children. The order of Moses’ instruction suggests the importance of the teacher’s faith in the effectiveness of instruction. Faith is the goal of instruction. Yes, there are stories and commands to be learned, but they are a means to an end. The goal is an awe-inspiring faith in God passed from generation to generation (Deut. 6:2); only persons of faith can pass on the faith. A concern for teaching the faith to our children must, therefore, involve nurturing the faith of the adults in the faith community.[8]

Stonehouse then proceeds to explain that according to Deuteronomy 6:7-9, “the commands of God are taught best in the normal flow of life.”[9] I agree with her comments regarding adults as far as they go, but I think it is important to state clearly that we specifically need to nurture the faith of parents, as well as all adults.

            Larry Fowler also weighs in on this passage, devoting an entire chapter of his book Rock-Solid Kids to the topic. He approaches it from his perspective, both as a parent and as the Executive Director of Program and Training for AWANA Clubs International.

He distills Deuteronomy 6:4 into four primary bullet points:

  1. There is a God.
  2. There is only One.
  3. Our God is that One.
  4. He deserves our best devotion. [10]

Fowler then notes four basic characteristics of a family which makes the teaching of God’s Word a priority:

  • Focused parents
  • Spiritual objectives
  • Directed schedules
  • Prioritized time[11]

As I read his list, I cannot help but note that if the first characteristic is truly functioning in a home in the form of focused parents, then the others will naturally follow, as long as the parental focus is in keeping with God’s agenda which is laid out in the biblical text. Fowler continues on to cite a couple of key benefits of following this pattern in a family. First, parents who do this “greatly diminish the possibility of your children’s involvement in sinful, destructive behavior in the future.”[12] Second, they increase the likelihood that their grandchildren also will know Christ and experience salvation.[13] This flows out of the understanding that if parents nurture the kind of family life which honors God throughout the daily formal and informal patterns of living, that in turn will encourage their children to carry on the heritage of faith, passing it on to the grandchildren.[14] I will conclude our look at Fowler’s contribution to the discussion by highlighting four traits he feels must characterize child training:

  1. Training must be formal and informal.
  2. Training must be a lifestyle.
  3. Training must include constant exposure to God’s Word.
  4. Training must include Scripture memory.[15]

During a 2006 trip to Israel, Brian Haynes, author and Associate Pastor of Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, asked an Orthodox Jew this question: “How does a contemporary Jew live out Deuteronomy 6 in his own home?”[16] The man was intrigued by the question. And after learning of the relative lack of faith training in American Christian homes, he became perplexed. According to Haynes,

He said that everything for followers of the Torah (Jews) is about building the faith in the next generation. He spoke of leading children to obey and honor God with their lives. Every meal, every journey, every celebration, every Sabbath pointed to this. Talk about a culture conducive to faith training![17]

 I turn again to the words of Mary E. Hughes, who reminds us that “spiritual life is not reserved for church. We are spiritual beings all the time, not just on Sundays. We spend more time, have our most long-lasting and intimate relationships, and are shaped and nurtured most in our homes and families.”[18] This is true whether or not we are intentional about their faith development. It therefore behooves us in the American context to revisit the level of intentionality we apply to nurturing our children spiritually, which is precisely my intent in the Qualitative Study section of this chapter.


Jesus’ Interpretation of Shema

Although three passages in the synoptic gospels convey Jesus’ interpretation of the Shema (Matt. 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-33, and Luke 10:25-27), we will focus our attention on Mark’s Gospel.  It underscores the continuing relationship between love for God and obedience to God, with implications for parental nurture of children. Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17). Furthermore, he understood the resounding impact of Shema upon his Hebrew listeners. According to Ben Witherington III, Shema was “as close as one can get to a Jewish confession of faith. It was the morning prayer for every good Jew from at least the second century B.C.”[19] It demonstrated an ethic of entire devotion to the Lord God. Likewise, Leviticus 19:18 was a close second because it commanded of the people that they love one’s neighbor as oneself. Witherington III adds that the combination of the two “also had precedent in early Jewish circles.”[20] In the Markan account, this was a point of common ground upon which Jesus and the scribe could agree, the only such occurrence recorded in the Gospels of a scribe concurring with Jesus (Mark 12:32-33).[21]

Therefore, the scribe asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28)  Jesus replied with the Love God/Love neighbor construct of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. He said,

12:29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 12:31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

The scribe responded,

12:32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 12:33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 1:32-33).

The scribe’s reply impressed Jesus; a telling point given that Jesus normally silenced the experts of the law with his responses, rather than complimenting their interaction. Thus, “When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (Mark 12:34). The missing element which continued to elude the scribe was faith. In trying to keep the law, he was accountable for all of it, according to the Deuteronomic code. The writer of James later explained the problem in his epistle:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (Jas. 1:8-10).

Jesus, however, perceived that the scribe had an understanding of the Shema/Leviticus texts which allowed him to recognize their preeminence over even the sacrificial system. Why is this important? Only Jesus Christ was able to live out these commands without breaking the law; only Jesus Christ was sinless.[22] Every other human, on the other hand, is incapable of sinlessness due to the mark of Adam’s sin.[23] Therein resides the problem. Original sin exists in every human at conception through Adam, and thus the sacrifices were necessary to atone for sin and as a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and the Lamb of God.[24] However, both then under the Old Covenant, and now under the New Covenant, faith remains the means by which God justifies persons.[25]

            All of this leads us back to why this is important as we consider parental responsibility for child spiritual nurture in the home. Faith in Jesus Christ is serious business. It cannot be left to chance. Learning facts is good. Memorizing Scripture is excellent. Developing a Christ-honoring biblical worldview is critical. But ultimately it boils down to faith. The scribe had much of the above, but at the time of his interaction with Jesus he lacked what was most important: faith in Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus concluded their conversation by saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). Faith was the needed bridge which could connect the scribe to the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, in considering the biblical model of Shema, it is fitting for us to recognize that applying the Shema model throughout the routines of our lives, both with formal intentionality and through spontaneous moments, might certainly help to formulate a biblical worldview, but it is the passionate life of faith which is modeled through a changed life and taught with integrity that has the best chance of reaping the reward of children who grow close to Jesus throughout their lives. Content and form must be accompanied by loving relationship with God and others.

[1] Deuteronomy is the retelling of the law, beginning with the Ten Commandments and continuing on with further highly detailed explanations.

[2] The New International Version is used here and throughout this dissertation, except where noted.

[3] This translation is based on the NIV. I have added “and obey” in order to indicate the contextual nuance of the Hebrew word which is transliterated as sh’ma.

[4] Eugene H. Merrill, “Volume 4. Deuteronomy,” in The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 163.

[5] Holmen, Faith Begins at Home: The Family Makeover with Christ at the Center, 25.

[6] Charles Sell, Family Ministry, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishers, 1995), 292.

[7] Chris J. Boyatzis, “The Co-Construction of Spiritual Meaning in Parent-Child Communication,” in Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives, Research, and Applications (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2004), 182.

[8] Catherine Stonehouse, Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey: Nurturing a Life of Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 25.

[9] Ibid, 25.

[10] Larry Fowler, Rock-Solid Kids: Giving Children a Biblical Foundation for Life (Ventura: Gospel Light, 2004), 58.

[11] Ibid, 59.

[12] Ibid, 59.

[13] Ibid, 59.

[14] Ibid, 59-60.

[15] Ibid, 60. It should come as no surprise that the Executive Director of Programs and Training for AWANA Clubs International strongly emphasizes Scripture memory. However, it is also important to note that this practice has its roots in the earliest Hebrew tradition of child training, including the Deuteronomy 6:4-9 passage.

[16] Brian Haynes, Walk the Path: A Guide for Training Our Children Spiritually (Katy, Texas: Kingsland Baptist Church, 2006), 17.

[17] Ibid, 17.

[18] Mary E. Hughes, “Family Ministry,” in The Ministry of Children’s Education: Foundations, Contexts, and Practices (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 2004), 116.

[19] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 330.

[20] Ibid, 330. See Witherington III’s footnote 126 on pages 330 and 331 for further discussion.

[21] Ibid, 331.

[22] See Heb. 4:15.

[23] See 1 Jn. 1:8, Rom. 3:23.

[24] See Ps. 51:5, Ex. 29:36-37, Ex. 30:10, Lev. 4:26, Lev. Passim, Rom. 8:3-4.

[25] See Rom. 3:21-22, 27-28; see also Romans 5.

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