|Murillo: The Return of the Prodigal Son ~1667
This week I was asked about how far to go in discipline and instruction of youths or children who aren’t our biological children but are living in our household. It comes to pass quite often in Christian circles, that people often take in kids who aren’t their blood relatives. They aren’t adopted, and they haven’t gone through a formal foster home process, they just wind up living with Christian parents for a while. It is a quasi-parental situation and though the bible is full of advice for children that are ours, when asked, I have not been able to find verses which address temporary or informal foster-situations.
The Proverbs are saturated with eternally wonderful advice for parents. The Psalms as well and the New Testament have plenty to say about families and children. But what about children who aren’t ours and when there is some expectation that sometime the child/youth will likely go back to their home of origin?
There are several verses in the New Testament which address the household. In the 1st century, the household included the immediate family, extended family, servants, and slaves.
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)
He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved. (Acts 11:14)
Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. (Acts 16:32)
These verses do NOT mean that if one member of the household becomes saved, by extension all the members are automatically saved. No. It means that when the Gospel is preached in the household by even one person, and lives are lived by Christianity’s precepts by at least one of its members, then the Spirit moves and salvations occur in the rest of the members. Salvation is ever and only an individual event. But without at least one person in the household preaching and instructing, salvations are not as likely to occur.
We are undoubtedly familiar with all the verses in Psalms and Proverbs addressing how to train up a child in
|Eli and Samuel, John Singleton Copley, 1780
the way he should go. (Proverbs 22:6). However, to specifically address the question, I immediately thought of one book of the bible where it depicts a long-term foster-youth situation- Philemon.
It seems from other contexts that Philemon lived in Colossae. Philemon was an adult man whom Paul had led to the Lord. Philemon had a household where he owned at least one slave, Onesimus. Onesimus was not saved. He stole from his master and ran away to Rome. Providentially, Onesimus met Paul and Paul took him into his house. Though Paul was imprisoned, he had been allowed to live in a rented dwelling, albeit accompanied by a guard. (Philemon 1:1, Acts 28:16, 30; cf. Ephesians 6:20.) Paul immediately began instructing Onesimus in the way of the Lord. Onesimus was saved.
Paul’s imprisonment in Rome lasted two years, but it is not clear how long Onesimus was with Paul. Long enough for Paul to come to love Onesimus as a father, both personal and spiritual.
“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” (Philemon 1:10).
As Onesimus lived with Paul, Onesimus’s story came tumbling out. He was a thief and a runaway. Despite the fact that Paul had come to love the youth and he was useful to Paul, and Paul wanted to keep Onesimus living with him, (Philemon 1:13), the consequences to Onesimus’s behavior had to be addressed. It was the secular law of the time regarding slaves that they be returned. In addition, it was right to do this according to Christian ethics. Paul made the decision to send Onesimus back to his household of origin.
Paul asked Philemon to graciously accept Onesimus back as an example of forgiveness, in the same way Jesus had forgiven all of us. Forgiveness and unity in ministering in the name of Jesus in general is the high example here. Paul didn’t harangue Philemon but did intimate that there are expectations given the stellar example in Jesus. (Philemon 1:16).
Paul must have taught the boy well- Onesimus might have faced severe consequences. He could be flogged. Under Roman law Onesimus could even be killed. He could be sold to a harsher master. Yet Onesimus agreed to go. Paul’s letter to owner Philemon was a plea for forgiveness to Onesimus.
Paul was sensitive in this area. He could have trumped Philemon by claiming his apostolic authority and could have commanded Philemon to take Onesimus back kindly, but Paul didn’t. He appealed to Philemon on the basis of Christian brotherhood. And Onesimus submitted, willing to face the discipline awaiting.
Whether for long term or short term, we see several models for foster parents in this short book:
–Taking in a lost and wandering youth as Paul did. We give hospitality.
–Paul unhesitatingly taught the youth the way of Jesus without permission or seeking advice from Philemon. If a young one is in your house, you teach him the Way of Jesus.
–Behavior has consequences. Paul didn’t shirk disciplining the runaway slave by teaching him that right thing is to return to face them.
–At some point, when it’s time for the youth to be returned to his household, he should understand that if there are to be consequences due to his behavior or consequences on no account of his own from the master of the house, either way, he should be willing to take those consequences and forgive the household leader in turn. Philemon is a book of forgiveness.
I believe Philemon is a book that shows us that whoever is living in the household, we teach the younger and the vulnerable and the lost the way they should go, AND discipline them accordingly. Above all, Philemon is a book that relies on the example Jesus gave us. It is a book of forgiveness, love, and service.
Now, Philemon was a Christian, and Onesimus was a Christian and so was Paul. If you have a youth living with you who must return to their home of origin and that home is not Christian, then I believe the same principles apply. If we demonstrate Christian love at all times, model forgiveness and persevere in dedication to the name of Jesus, then one by one, families can be re-knit. (“You and your household.”) Who knows, it could be as Paul intimated in Philemon 1:15-16…
“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord“
…that the escape and the return of Onesimus, now that he was in Christ, perhaps will have a further good.
Paul was clear in his expectation that Christian ethics be applied to the situation by the youth and the adults. He also shows us that the relationship does not end when the youth returns home. Paul expected to be released soon, and he planned a visit.
“Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.” (Philemon 1:21-22)
Alternately, what if you have an unChristian prodigal biological son or daughter who doesn’t live with you but wants to return? What if he is in rebellion and though he doesn’t live with you he wants to visit? What if he doesn’t want to visit but you want to make it clear that he is still welcome, yet set boundaries that uplift the Gospel and protect the rest of the family members?
I am reminded of a very good essay of a letter a dad hypothetically wrote to his son. In 2007 when the hateful letter of a ‘Christian’ dad disowning his gay son went viral, David Murray responded by hypothetically writing his own letter in 2012. Please read this wonderful and loving letter. Below is a short excerpt.
What letter would you write to a gay son?
Perhaps these boundaries are not going to be easy for you to accept, but please try to understand that I have a duty to God to lead my home in a God-glorifying manner. Psalm 101 commands me to prevent sinful behavior in my home. While extremely anxious to preserve a relationship with you, I am especially concerned that your siblings are not influenced into thinking your lifestyle is fine with God or us.
Here it is read aloud:
Two letters to two gay sons
These are difficult issues and I am certainly no authority, I don’t have children. I did my best in thinking and praying about these kind of questions regarding informal domestic foster-child situations and prodigals. I recommend the book of Philemon, it is so short but bursting with love and forgiveness and the power of the Gospel to change families and people.
Bible Introductions: Philemon
The parable of the prodigal son
Does the bible allow for slavery?