Researchers have long thought that there are four distinct parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and uninvolved. While parents generally exhibit some combination of these four styles, most practice one dominant style.
As Christians, we believe God is our Heavenly Father. So what are the theological implications of the four parenting styles? Is there one that is more clearly a Christian approach to parenting?
Scripture clearly teaches that God is not uninvolved in the lives of His children. Psalm 68:5 describes God as a Father to the fatherless, and Jesus referred to God as Father almost 200 times throughout the Gospels. Isaiah 40:1 speaks of God’s desire to “comfort” His people, just as a parent might do in the wake of disciplining a child. It seems clear that Scripture reveals God in the role of Heavenly Father.
That is not to say we will always feel comforted. We may have long periods of spiritual hunger and darkness in which we feel neglected by God. For most Christians, these “dark nights of the soul” (a term introduced by St. John of the Cross in a poem in the 16th century) end in resolution and reassurance of God’s presence and activity in the lives of believers. “Dark night” seasons may be purposeful to facilitate greater dependence on God, or they may be in response to unconfessed sin or a lack of repentance. It is critical to note that the dark night seasons are not indicative of an uninvolved God.
Likewise orthodox Christians rarely view God as a permissive God. He is not so focused on His desire to have a relationship with us that He is willing to completely set aside all His expectations. Christians who have been influenced by “pop theology” may have the idea that God wants nothing more than for them to be happy. They may use their belief in a permissive God to excuse all manner of immoral living. A permissive God is clearly the invention of an immature and selfish society and is inconsistent with God as revealed in Scripture.
Many people view God as an authoritarian Heavenly Father. This view focuses on the divine attribute of holiness. Because God is holy, He has the expectation that we also be holy (Lev. 11:44, 1 Pet. 1:16). However God’s expectations of us do not contradict His desire to be in relationship with us. Romans 5:8 says that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
God recognizes that we are unable to be holy on our own. Therefore He has made a way for us to enter into His presence. The great lengths God has gone to so we may be in relationship with Him reveal the value He places upon us. A strictly authoritarian God would lose His desire to be in relationship with us if we were not able to follow His rules.
Most parenting research reveals that the best parenting style for raising healthy children is the authoritative parenting style. I would argue that the authoritative parenting style is also the most reflective of our Heavenly Father.
Authoritative parents are not weak. Their expectations of their children are high. They do not easily give in, but they do take into account the feelings and needs of their child. They are strong yet gentle. Christian authoritative parents use parenting as an opportunity to demonstrate the Fruit of the Spirit. When they are angry or disappointed with their children, it is at that very moment that they exhibit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).
God has clearly communicated His expectations to His children. There are rewards for meeting His expectations and consequences for falling short. As parents, however, we reflect our Heavenly Father when we parent our children with a healthy balance between relationship and rules.