“Train up a child” and Proverbs 22:6: What is “the way he should go”?

two paths diverge

Can you guarantee that your children will be followers of Jesus when they grow up? Putting the word “guarantee” with any claim about how children will turn out once they grow up seems foolish. But some well-meaning people have taught that there is a biblical guarantee. And it is found in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV).

While this verse sounds promising, it is premature to claim it as a promise that if you keep your kids in church and raise them up in a Christian environment, they will become followers of Jesus. The key problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the nature of proverbs as teaching tools. Accounting for the proverbial nature and the big aim of biblical wisdom literature, we can find a hopeful promise in Proverbs 22:6 about child-rearing, but one that falls far short of a guarantee that Christian parents will have Christian kids if they just try hard enough. Instead, the promise has to do with the way of wisdom.

Proverbs 22.6: Raise up a child in the way he should go – two main interpretations

There are two main ways I have heard this passage interpreted: (1) if you raise up your child in a Christian manner, they will remain Christian for life and (2) you should figure out the unique “way of your child” based on their aptitudes and raise them in such a way that teaches them how to thrive within their giftedness.

Appreciate how different these two understandings are.

The key to this passage is making sense of what “the way he should go/his way” means.

The Way he should go…

The Hebrew expression in question is literally “on the mouth of his road/way.” The images of a mouth and a way/road work together to give the following idea: a child put on the proper path at the beginning will keep walking that path, even when they are older. So, what is this way?

The way of wisdom.

As one commentator perceptively notes, in Proverbs there are only two ways: “the way of the wise and the righteous or the way of the fool and the wicked” (African Bible Commentary, 803). Only one of these is the way a child should go.

Proverbs and Wisdom

Proverbs is a book of wisdom. Wisdom in the bible is a far-ranging concept. It discusses practical skills associated with understanding and successful living. But we must never mistake Proverbs—or biblical wisdom—with modern day self-help tools. A couple OT scholars describe it well:

“Wisdom is not primarily interested in relating a list of theological truths, an account of history or a picture of the future. Wisdom is about the ways of things—how they are meant to exist and work.”

Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction, 23.

Wisdom is a way of life concerned with finding the grooves of the patterns God has woven into creation and following them.

The grounding conviction of biblical wisdom is that there is a God who has created a world that works in certain patterns. Wisdom is the pursuit of understanding these patterns of relationship: (1) how things in the world relate to each other, (2) how people relate to things in the world, (3) how people relate to each other, and (4) how God’s nature and purposes guide all these relationships into predictable patterns.

Don’t miss that God is central to biblical wisdom.

The way of wisdom

Since Proverbs is the book of biblical wisdom, we should understand Proverbs 22:6 as part of biblical wisdom. In a book concerned with passing on wisdom (Prov. 1:1-7), it is best to understand “the way he should go” to mean “the way of wisdom.”

This way of wisdom includes lots of practical insight into how the world works in general and is grounded in the conviction that God, the Creator, has made the world and people in it to work a certain way.

Aim for the right way, and you might just get it

Practically speaking, to say, “raise up your child in the way he should go” is to say “in the way of wisdom.” This proverb is less than a promise that if you take your kids to church and teach them the Bible they will become a Christian and more than saying you should figure out the unique “way of your child” based on their aptitudes and raise them in such a way that teaches them how to thrive within their giftedness.

As parents, we should respect the individuality of each child and temper our approaches to suit them. But their self-will will always lead them into the way of folly, that is, the way of sin. The biblical antidote to the way of folly is the way of wisdom.

As we teach our children the way of wisdom, we put them in the best place possible to see that wisdom flows from and towards God. We put them on the path that can lead them to Jesus. But there are no guarantees they will walk it.

You can be sure, though that if you don’t make the effort to show your children how to walk on the way of wisdom, they will probably never find it on their own.

Single in Christ, or just Single?

This last week someone raised an important question regarding singleness. In a past sermon on singleness, I called singleness a sort of spiritually elite category a couple time. Someone raised an important concern with such language to me. Given the history of the church, isn’t it problematic to elevate singleness as a spiritual category? After all, for much of church history the celibate priests, monks, and nuns were viewed as more spiritually significant than other people. Does calling singleness a spiritually elite state fall into the trap which the Reformation helped rescue us from?

This is a worthwhile question to consider. I’ll freely grant that spiritually elite may not be the best title to describe singleness. However, such a title does force a conversation for our time that is different than the historical concerns of the Reformation. Namely, the rise of singleness divorced from spiritual significance. Ponder with me this modern state of singleness.

Singleness in church history

It is always beneficial to be aware of the past. Up until the Reformation, it was self-evident to most people that the family of God consisted of two categories of unequal worth: the celibate clergy and the profane laity. The church taught—and people largely believed—that the single Christian clergy members had greater spiritual significance than the laity.

While it’s not completely clear how this situation developed, it started early in church history. Various strands of Greek philosophy and related religious expressions taught that material reality (i.e., bodies) was inherently bad and that spiritual reality was inherently good. Thus, avoiding certain aspects of creaturely reality—like sexual relations—was good. These very influential philosophies, combined with a few passages from Scripture, buttressed up the view that single church leaders and religious “professionals” were of greater value to God than the married laity.

Singleness in churches today

Spiritually elite may not be the best title for the singleness, but both Paul and Jesus do present singleness as a difficult state that has spiritual benefits. However, it is a pathway in life that won’t be easy or readily fit for most people. This teaching is most clear in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul writes things like:

  • 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
  • 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
  • 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

There is a lot to chew through in 1 Corinthians 7. But this much is clear: Paul presents singleness as a spiritually advantageous state.

Note very carefully that I’m talking about spiritual advantages not spiritual worth. Nowhere does the text tell us that being single is of more value to God than being married, spiritually or otherwise. In fact, the Bible tends to assume that marriage is the default pattern for humanity. But there are (potentially) spiritual advantageous to singleness.

Which leads to the key point for today: when it comes to singleness, the modern world doesn’t seem to be much like the ancient world.

Single in Christ ≠ plain single

The modern phenomenon of high rates of singleness outside and inside the church has very little to do with this the picture painted by both Paul and Jesus. Instead of men and women foregoing sexual relations in order to further devote themselves to Jesus, we see marriage rates plummeting in society, and also plummeting amongst those who follow Jesus. We see widespread practice of (and increasing acceptance of) premarital and extramarital sexual relations and pornography use among followers of Jesus. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:9, “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (NIV). The data, both largescale and personal, suggests that many young adult followers of Jesus do indeed burn with passion, but increasingly don’t turn to marriage.

There’s a wealth of reasons and sociological explanations for all of this. Our chief interest is to illustrate that for many followers of Jesus today, singleness is quite different from what Paul and Jesus envisioned. Their teaching was a challenge in their day when marriage was normal and sexual immorality ran rampant. And it is still a challenge today when marriage seems to be faltering and sexual immorality still runs rampant.

In addition to the change in single life, we should not miss another way that our time and place is different from the past life of the church.

Single as normal, not a vocation

There are many single followers of Jesus who talk and write about the vocation of singleness as a way to make sense of their position in life. That is well and good. But I have yet to see someone stand up and argue that the best move in the spiritual life for everyone is to reject marriage and any forms of sexual relations. But, if you must get married, make sure you keep sexual relations to a minimum to avoid the taint of lust. We tend to see this view as self-evidently wrong. But that is essentially what St. Augustine taught about sexual relations. And he was by no means unique on the topic among early church leaders.

In my view, the greater threat to the church at this point is not the re-emergence of the teaching (among Protestants) that God prefers you to be single over married. The greater threat is that we will simply adopt the cultural slide towards a casual singleness. A singleness that is not spiritually engaged. A singleness that has little regard for God’s intended patterns of sexual relations. The greater threat to the church is acquiescence to the cultural norms of today, rather than those of 2,000 years ago.

Most people today assume that sexual relations are necessary for a flourishing life, finding it comedic and/or sad for an adult to not be sexually active. The boundaries of marriage are deemed irrelevant for pursuing such sexual relations. And increasingly, people in the church are in agreement with that.

Single in Christ

While spiritually elite may be bad language, something is required to reassert a biblical picture of singleness. Followers of Jesus can learn to pursue spiritual devotion to Jesus within singleness. And don’t get me wrong, a great many singles in fact do this. But the social norms and behavioral patterns of modern singleness are very far removed from a pursuit of godliness. To the degree that our version of singleness within the church looks like the rampant social singleness around us, to that degree we have lost the vision of what single in Christ means.

And that is where I end. Single in Christ. That is a name better than sons and daughters. And that is a name that is better, but far harder, than single in contemporary America.

Sexual relations within marriage

married couple kissing in cornfield

What role should sexual relations play in marriage? Since marriage is the God-ordained arena for giving of yourself in a sexual relationship, how is this supposed to work out? First Corinthians 7:2-5 guides us to the heart of the matter: those married in Christ should have robust sexual relations that are mutually beneficial, helping both husband and wife to navigate the tricky waters of sexual immorality.

Sexual relations in marriage

The husband and wife are supposed to “fulfill their marital duty” to each other (1 Corinthians 7:3). Notice that this frames sexual relations within marriage as a duty each spouse owes to the other. The use of the phrase “deprive one another” in verse 5 also displays sexual relations as a mutual duty. After all, if it wasn’t yours to begin with, then you can’t be deprived. If only all duties in life had such potential for pleasure…

Of the much that could be said regarding the duty of delight within marriage, I want to highlight two issues. First, this teaching on sexual relations is surprisingly equal in its attention to the sexual desires of both the man and woman. Second, we must be careful to not misrepresent the power that marital sexual relations have in helping each spouse remain sexually pure.

It takes two…

It is refreshing to notice that Scripture here provides a relatively balanced picture of human sexuality. Often in discussions of sex throughout history, women get overlooked (or ignored, or minimized, or misrepresented, etc.). When we read these verses in 1 Corinthians, notice that women’s sexual desires receive as much attention as men’s.

That is very different from a common sexual script we hear today, the common male-dominated picture where men try to take what they want from reluctant women who put out as a means to meet some other goal. In contrast to this lopsided, male-dominated view of sexual activity, 1 Corinthians calls for spouses to jointly work out patterns of life that result in a mutually beneficial sexual relationship.

Of course, the particulars of working out such a relationship are complicated. Each couple needs to figure out their own balance of give and take. This requires exploring, trial and error, and communication. For example, one spouse may find it uncaring to be approached for sex after they had a bad day; another may desire that.

Sexual relations need to stand in balance with all the other rights and responsibilities of life. But they are a right and responsibility. The biblical ideal commits a husband and wife to the project of knowing one another in deep ways such that their sexual relationship is a blessing to each.

Communicate. Couples tend to follow a simple pattern doomed to fail. They don’t talk about their sexual desires and pleasures with each other. Then they are frustrated when things are out of balance. It is hard to forge a mutually beneficial sexual relationship when both parties are always guessing in the dark. Spouses, to pursue the biblical ideal of 1 Corinthians 7 requires talking to each other about the status of your sexual relationship.

Sexual relations are not a rescue project

While recognizing the beauty—or at least beautiful potential—of sexual relations in marriage, there is an important limitation. This limitation has to do with how sexual relations in marriage relate to sexual immorality (that’s porneia).

There is a long-running idea in certain Christian circles about sexual relations in marriage. It goes something like this: girls need to remain sexually pure and modest until marriage where they can then rescue the boys from their sinful sexual longings. While this is a crass and simplistic way to put it, the basic idea is clear. On the one hand, yes, when a man and woman marry they should direct their sexual longings at one another. The problem, though, is that this simplified message under-estimates the destructive power of sexual immorality. It is also wrong to the degree that it puts pressure on women to guard the sexual morality of men, but not really vice versa.

According to 1 Corinthians 7:2, people should get married “because of sexual immorality.” That is, marriage is a guard against being herded down wrong paths by sexual desires. Based on this verse, many Christians have conveyed the idea to young people that getting married fixes “sexual immorality” issues. If you just wait until marriage, then everything will work out great and sexual immorality will blissfully disappear. This often well-intentioned advice, though, is wrong.

The problem is that this will never work if one (or both) of the parties in a marriage come in already devoted to sexual immorality. And, let’s face it, sexual immorality is one of the key idols of our time. We are primed, trained, and encouraged to devote ourselves to it.

God does not give the wife—it’s usually the wife, but the reverse holds true—the job of rescuing her husband out of the clutches of sexual immorality through sexual performance in marriage.

Sexual relations within marriage are not a pathway to rescue anyone from sexual bondage. They are more like a pleasure garden to tend together. But if one or both spouses have a tornado of sexual immorality raging inside, the pleasure garden has no chance to grow and bloom. Pornography, habitual masturbation, and/or affairs will destroy the garden.

Worship of sexual immorality will not be defeated by sexual relations with a spouse, no matter how often or enthusiastic they be. Rescue requires far deeper work of grace and self-repair.

On gardening

Sexual relations in marriage should rank among the most pleasant and fulfilling duties a spouse ever has. This beautiful duty calls for spouses to know one another and aim at fulfilling one another’s needs and desires. There is no place in this vision for tyrants, demands, or power struggles. Instead, spouses get to tend with each other a pleasure garden that is theirs and theirs alone.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash