Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. This is the first in our series.
“Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth.” –Psalm 127:4
Fred Elliot isn’t a name I’ve heard thrown around . . . well ever. Despite being mentored by Harry Ironside, his legacy is largely unknown in our present day. However, his son, Jim Elliot, is perhaps the most well known missionary of the 20th century. Because the saying is true that disciples aren’t born they’re made, it is difficult to understate the influence Fred had on Jim’s spiritual formation. Here are just four examples:
Interestingly enough, Fred Elliot may or may not even have been able to define the term “Coram Deo,” a Latin term, meaning to live in the presence (literally “face”) of God, but all the same he lived it out. And this had a profound impact on the young Jim Elliot. Prior to marrying Elisabeth he wrote to her of his father:
“Betty, I blush to think of things I have said, as if I knew something about what Scripture teaches. I know nothing. My father’s religion is of a sort which I have seen nowhere else. His theology is wholly undeveloped, but so real and practical a thing that it shatters every ‘system’ of doctrine I have seen. He cannot define theism, but he knows God.”1
Jim was often viewed with suspicion by other students at Wheaton College for taking God’s Word at face value and living in obedience to a simple and literal interpretation of Scripture. A skeptic of human attempts to systematize and categorize biblical truth, Jim took the second part of 2 Timothy 2:9 which states, “the word of God is not bound,” to mean that God and his revelation in Scripture could never be contained by human classifications.
Too often we give the impression that assent to accurate theological teaching is indispensable to salvation. Don’t misunderstand me, while salvation is more than just “right belief” it is certainly not less. But believing “rightly” is not the same as “walking closely” (cf. 1 Jn. 2:3). Fred’s relationship with Christ left a profound impact on the young Jim not because he possessed a tidy, buttoned-up orthodoxy, but because he humbly submitted to the living God and aimed to walk closely with him. The Savior’s words sufficiently warn us of the danger of placing one’s study of God’s Word above one’s submission to the Word Made Flesh: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (Jn. 5:39-40). We must take care not to stuff our heads so full of content of Christ that our hearts lack contact with Christ.
It doesn’t take long for a young mind to come up with a theological question that stumps even the most well read of Christian fathers. Don’t lose heart, dad, let God’s grace melt your pride. Seek his face, live authentically in front of it, and teach your children out of the overflow of that relationship. A simple faith lived out sincerely in front of your children will likely leave a stronger impression than a complex theology devoid of an intimate relationship with the Savior.
2. Intentional Time Spent with His Children
Additionally, Fred carved time out of his schedule to spend with the young Jim Elliot and this too left a lasting impression on him. He wrote on his nineteenth birthday:
“My arrival at this point is not of my own efforts […] but by the quiet, unfelt guidance of a faithful mother and a father-preacher who has not spent so much time rearing other people’s children that he hasn’t had time for his own.”2
Anyone who’s ever tried to serve in any meaningful capacity in ministry knows just how demanding it can be. The to-do-list is never done. The temptation to sacrifice your own family for the sake of another family who is in need of pastoral help and discipleship is always present. Even the time with our families that we guard could potentially be interrupted by phone calls and emails if we are not careful. Even before the cell phone and email, pastors were neglecting their own families enough to warrant Jim mentioning it in his journal.
What measures do you take to guard time with your children? Whether you’re in vocational ministry, banking, accounting, medicine, law, or any other profession, what time do you make “sacred” for your family?
There will always be another email; there will always be something on the to-do-list that still needs to be done. Our children, on the other hand, will remember if dad took time to read to them, pray with them, and listen to them. Conversely, if our “quality time” consists of being physically present, but mentally engaged in answering emails on our phones, our sons and daughters will remember that as well.
3. Praying For His Children
Third, Fred Elliot was a man who prayed both with and for his children. “The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,”3 he writes in one journal entry, going on to attribute his own affection of Christ to the prayers of his own father. Elsewhere he writes to Fred: “Nothing has had a more powerful influence on this life of mine than your prayers […] thank God you took the time—the value of such is inestimable.”4
He didn’t mince words. The single most effective action Fred took in training his son to follow Christ was praying for him. This shouldn’t be surprising when Christ himself, the only perfect person to ever walk this earth, models a life of unceasing prayer for us. Can we really expect to be effective in any of our attempts to make disciples out of our children if we aren’t constantly stopping to pray with and for them?
I know it’s not super flashy to say, “praying for your kids is important.” And then offer that as the most effective way of discipling them. We all prefer 15 new and improved methods of raising children that love Christ, but the simple fact is that God is a person to be related to and not a set of principles to be assented to. While it sounds so simple and dated to say, it does not mean it isn’t true or that it’s easy. Spending time with God and with our kids, praying to him, for them, and with them (as the Bible so intuitively outlines) is likely to pay off better dividends than jumping at the latest trending parenting method that will be forgotten in six months.
So, dad, live in the face of your God and invite your children to accompany you. It’s easiest to introduce them to the living God when you spend a lot of time living in his presence and praying to him.
4. Making The Gospel the Main Thing
Finally, Fred Elliot sought “to show [his children] the glory of Christ above all else, striving always to avoid legalisms or a list of ‘don’ts.’”5 What else could be more important than this?
I only had to wait nine months before my son, Knox, started walking. Then I quickly found myself saying the word “no” more than any other word. Not surprisingly, he wanted to do everything I told him not to. Why is it the fallen human race is so quick to point out everything that shouldn’t be instead of all the great things that are? The Christian life is nothing less than chasing after the glorious risen Christ. Yet, we all too easily can reduce it to a list of things to avoid or define ourselves by the things we are against.
We do well to follow Fred’s lead. Rather than put a spotlight on all the things that are lesser than Christ and discuss their inferiority, we simply exalt him and give him his due praise and our children will hopefully decide on their own that nothing else on this earth is worth their time.
Christ’s defeat of sin and death is proclaimed as Good News. If we continue to proclaim it as such to our children and show them why it is Good News, perhaps they will follow in our footsteps and live their own lives Coram Deo, investing in their children, and praying for the next generation. None of us will be perfect fathers, but, by God’s grace, we can be purposeful fathersand maybe some of our own sons will shake the gates of hell much like Jim Elliot did.
1 Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty, p. 90
2 Ibid. p. 39
3 Ibid. p. 32
4 Ibid. p. 42
5 Ibid. p. 25
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at Terra Nova Church in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is about to be a father for the second time. He occasionally blogs at Hardcore Grace.