What Christian father lacks the deep desire to see his sons become men who are wise, godly, strong, selfless, mature, and responsible?
I have prayed that my son would become a man consumed by a passion for the supremacy of Christ so that he pours himself out in sacrificial love for others. Ultimately the Lord does this, not us. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). God builds. Fathers labor, plant, and water, but God alone gives growth. Even still, God calls Spirit-filled fathers to faithfully bring up their children in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Loving fathers want to do everything in their power to help their sons become mature men.
But our world is confused on adulthood generally, and manhood in particular. The fog of confusion inevitably seeps into churches. The fog clouds our parenting. I tremble at the possibility of failing to give my son the opportunity to realize his potential as a mature and godly man. But the Lord is our Shepherd. By grace, I’m witnessing him build my boy into a man, in part through an approach I have learned from the Scriptures, the church, and other Bible teachers.
Acknowledging that my son (now 15) and I are still very much in the process of launching him well into manhood, and that we cannot be sure now whether his current trajectories will hold over decades, and that the specifics will undoubtedly be different for different families, here are a few principles guiding me in raising a man, under the three broad steps: aim, ready, fire.
Aim: Clarify the Goal
First, we take aim. We clarify the goal. What are we praying and working toward for our boys? For us, that has been mature Christian manhood. Even if God doesn’t save our son under our roof, we can pray that our efforts set him up for responsible manhood in common grace, with seeds planted to bear fruit if the Lord eventually converts him (Matthew 11:25–27).
Define what manhood is and when manhood happens. We have tried to clarify what manhood is so that our son can aim at it. What is manhood? Albert Mohler gives a clue reflecting on the question, “When does a boy become a man?” Mohler answers that a boy becomes a man when he reaches a level of maturity spiritually, personally, economically, physically, sexually, morally, ethically, relationally, socially, verbally, and in worldview, character, and biblical knowledge.
Much of what Mohler points to, however, is adulthood in general rather than manhood in particular. So, taking Mohler’s reflections with John Piper’s definition of manhood (What’s the Difference? 23–47), we might summarize when a boy becomes a man this way:
A boy becomes a man when he becomes mature enough to embrace and enjoy the sense of responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women and children in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships in order to fulfill humanity’s God-given commission.
As an (important) aside, the definition of womanhood completes this concept of manhood. To build again on Piper’s definition, I would describe mature womanhood this way:
The essence of mature femininity is the freeing disposition to support and strengthen worthy leadership from men (and reject or redirect unworthy leadership) in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships in order to fulfill humanity’s God-given commission.
The definition of manhood above has been my goal as a dad: help my son reach a level of maturity to embrace and enjoy this sense of masculine responsibility. How do I help him get there? Through preparation and commencement.
Ready: Prepare for Parting
To help prepare our boys for manhood, we can communicate the calling, instruct him for it, and lean on the help of others.
First, communicate the goal and a time frame. Communicating the goal has first meant making sure our son understands the definition of mature masculinity. In other words, have we clarified a goal for him?
As time progresses, we have reminded our son that God is growing him up to be a man and that he should aim to be a man when he comes of age. The Bible doesn’t provide a set age for this, and American culture is unclear on when a boy becomes a man. Is it at 21, when he can drink alcohol? At 18, when he can vote? At 16, when he can drive? Earlier does allow for some overlap in the home, in which we have affirmed his manhood but still have immediate influence on his development and decision-making.
Once my wife and I decided on a target age (for us, 13), we reminded him regularly, and especially each birthday, that he only had so much time before he would become a man (and that he had a lot of work to do to get there). If we determined that he wasn’t prepared at 13, we would have slowed the process and delayed entrusting him with more freedom and responsibility. Age 13 may or may not be a wise target for your son. It does seem wise, however, to have some intentional and communicated time frame. Targeting a specific age gives both you and your son a sense of clarity and urgency for cultivating the right maturities.
Teach and train him in knowledge and practice. Having established a target time frame, we instructed and trained our son for this calling. Leaning heavily on counsel from Vern Poythress, we pursued and encouraged specific growth and development in a handful of key areas. For example, we sought to train our son in knowledge of the Bible and the gospel, memorization of Bible verses (Psalm 119:11), and a grasp of our church catechism for basic theology.
We also repeatedly encouraged him to seek God through the disciplines of Bible reading, sermon listening, and repentance and gospel restoration. We exposed and called him to serve others by serving some of our homeless neighbors, helping other kids in the church, and leading in prayers in the home and in smaller group gatherings. We called him to develop physically with running, push-ups, and chin-ups. We studied financial stewardship. We reflected on basic objections to Christianity. We also taught him the goodness of God’s design in human sexuality.
Lean on the community. Another essential piece has been the local church. Our sons need the social skills of interacting with others from all walks of life, so we must lean on our churches to help in raising them.
Furthermore, our sons will learn how to lean on the community as they see their fathers getting help. Our church encourages and prays for adult members to build meaningful friendships with the children of the church for present and future discipleship. There is a wealth of wisdom and grace poured into the lives of our church families. To benefit from the church family, my son came up with several questions to interview some men he admired. He asked them questions like, When did you become a Christian? When did you feel like a man? What prepared you to lead a family? What helped you grow spiritually?
As sons hear the call, receive training in the knowledge and practice of maturity, and spend meaningful time with other men in the church, they will continue (by the grace of God) to mature in masculinity. Once ready for manhood, we now have an opportunity to clearly communicate their arrival.
Fire! His Turn to Step Up
To launch a son into manhood with clarity, we can now affirm his manhood, cut the cord of childhood, and partner with him in ministry.
Verify and affirm his manhood. For a father to clearly affirm his son’s manhood, we must first discern it. In a sense, the testing is going on for a year or so (or even longer) before the formal declaration of manhood.
I watched my son read his Bible and interact with family and friends. We conversed about many topics. I asked him questions about the Bible, basic theology, and personal purity. I observed his disciplines. We tested him physically in running and basic upper-body strength. I asked the other men who met with him how their conversations went and what they observed of my son. Once satisfied, we scheduled a time to declare and celebrate his manhood (again, inspired by Poythress) with our family, the men who invested in him, church family, friends, and neighbors.
Cut the cord of childhood. Once we declared our son to be a man, it has been up to us to live consistent with that reality and calling. Though he is a man, he has still been dependent on us. While he lives in our house, we have let him make as many decisions as possible. We switched our approach definitively from parental control to parental influence and guidance.
Partner in life and ministry. At this point of responsibility, we gave our son the opportunity to publicly profess faith in Christ and join the church. As he joined the church, we reminded him of his responsibilities as a member and of his accountability to church discipline (Matthew 18:15–17). We have encouraged our son to continue to engage the men and members of the church as he did in childhood. The difference now is that he does so as a man in discipling, accountability, and service. Like other members in the church, we share life and Jesus with one another and partner together to love our neighbors.
Sons of Clarity and Confidence
Even though the specific applications will look different for other families, I advise fellow parents to consider intentionally cultivating mature manhood in their boys through a clear aim, persevering and patient preparation, and a definitive declaration and commencement.
If we continue without clear direction, our boys may grow up confused and unprepared for manhood, leaving us disappointed with missed opportunities and untapped potential. But if we move forward deliberately, then our boys can grow up with clarity and confidence. If the Lord graciously saves them, then they will be set up for a life of joy serving our King and his kingdom.