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  • Father’s Daze:  Making Dads Great Again

    Posted in
    June 3, 2024

    “Antidotes to Idolatry” – Part 7

    By Dr. Jeffery J. Ventrella

    Their names conjure greatness in the minds of devoted and knowledgeable sports fans:  From boxing:  Ali, Tyson, Holyfield, & De La Hoya; from the “Antidotes to Idolatry” – Part 7 NBA:  Shawn Kemp, Larry Johnson, & Calvin Murphy; from the NFL:  Marshall Faulk, Ray Lewis, & Derek Thomas.  Their tales of triumph comprise the stuff of legends and many fans buy their jerseys and otherwise emulate them.  Several of them define and set the standard for competitive greatness.  Some even transcend their chosen sport, and their records and other accomplishments remain praiseworthy and prodigious, and in some instances, unsurpassed.  

    This cluster of the aforementioned 10 athletes is also great in an ignored, but infamous way:  They are all Dads, but not exactly great ones.  These 10 men have fathered 79 children (not including those aborted) by 58 women.[1]  And these totals represent a small snapshot of athletic fatherhood “greatness” – actually in biblical thinking, these irresponsible professional gamers belong in the Father’s “Hall of Shame.”  Fathering lots of children via many sex partners fails to make a man a great Dad.

    Perhaps the recent commencement address by NFLer and committed Latin Catholic Harrison Butker – loathed by feminists and the other profligate athletes – had a point, a point which should be uncontroversial.[2]  How should we think Christianly about this ruckus and about our seriously misplaced cultural priorities?  How can Dads be great again – off the playing field?  Let’s get to the gist.

    The Honor Factor

    Stories about irresponsible athletes sometimes spur calls for boycotting sports altogether, as if athletic endeavors are intrinsically immoral.  This reaction tends to jettison all enjoyment of sporting participation and even entertainment, even if the competition in itself is moral.  “Don’t golf; it could lead to suicide.”[3]  “Don’t make love with your wife; it could lead to an affair.”  Theses reactions reflect a form of “taste not, touch not” Gnostic moralism that Scripture condemns.[4]  In fact, we can commit idolatry by being proud of our abstinence from otherwise moral activities – if so, our prideful “self-restraint” essentially becomes a worthless religious and pietistic form of Gnostic asceticism:

    These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.[5]

    Scripture in fact commands giving honor to whom honor is due.[6]  We can cheer for athletic achievement.  It’s appropriate to praise effort and accomplishment.  Moreover, the apostolic writers invoke sports analogies and metaphors when conveying truth, often in the form of making an a fortiorari argument or comparison – they understood and assumed their readers were – and would continue to be – familiar with the surrounding culture, including its sporting culture:

    Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.[7]

    I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.[8]

    Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,[9]

    An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.[10]

    Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.[11]

    Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.[12]

    Notice the broad sporting menu drawn upon by the scriptural writers:  Running, Olympic games, boxing, and general physical exercise.  Perhaps our disordered cultural priorities regarding sports result, not from athletics per se, but from misconstruing greatness itself – attributing greatness to things improperly.  

    To honor or venerate the wrong things, or the right things wrongly, constitutes a form of creation worship.  This happens when we praise evil, or when we elevate something good over God.[13]  While it’s not as overtly pagan as idol or idea worship, it nevertheless comprises a manifestation of the Truth being exchanged for the Lie.[14]  To defeat this form of idolatry, and to make Dads great again we need to recalibrate our understanding of Kingdom Greatness.

    Recalibrating Kingdom Greatness, Ambition, and Excellence

    Between Christmastide and Eastertide, the United States annually convenes the nation’s apex religious ritual:  The Super Bowl.  Fans express quasi-religious fervor that would make many charismatics blush.  Avatars “represent” this religion, and debates arise as to who’s the GOAT — the greatest of all time:  Brady or Mahomes, or ???  Identifying and justifying “greatness” and the GOAT spans many sports:  Tennis:  Roger Federer or Serena Williams?  Golf:  Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus?  Basketball:  Michael Jordan or LeBron James?  Gymnastics: Simon Biles or Nadia Comaneci?  And, these friendly debates continue almost eternally.

    And of course, we also rank things other than sports: the top films, the best roller coasters, the best bands or songs, et al.

    To be human is to rank things – it’s one-way we humans use our rationality:  by making or drawing distinctions according to some standard – whether legitimate or not.  And, because this reflects humanity, we see this tendency noted in scripture among the very human followers of Jesus.  Scripture deals honestly with real humanity, warts and all.  In particular the disciples debate – and seek to rank – greatness with respect to the Kingdom of God:

    At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.[15]

    Jesus’ teaching here reflects long-established criteria that God requires humility – faith like a child – God’s attention is drawn to the humble, child-like heart, something the disciples seemed to have overlooked or forgotten.  Yet as Jews who studied the scriptures, this is something they should have known well:

          All these things my hand has made,

                and so all these things came to be,

                                  declares the LORD.

          But this is the one to whom I will look:

                he who is humble and contrite in spirit

                and trembles at my word.[16]

    Peter applies this precept to interpersonal Kingdom dynamics:

    Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”[17]

    From this we see that “greatness” does not rest on “stats” or “championships.”  Greatness in the Kingdom begins with character:  humility, sadly a virtue often glaringly absent from professional athletes.  But, there’s more.  Kingdom greatness may begin with humility, but does not and may not stay there. Character is necessary, but not sufficient for Kingdom greatness.  Again, Jesus corrects His disciples’ thinking.

    In Capernauan, Jesus encounters the disciples again quarrelling about Kingdom greatness:

    And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them.”[18]

    To humility, Jesus adds this point: greatness expresses itself in serving others.  Or as Paul applies this, humility must be combined with actions that serve one another:

    Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.[19]

    In other words, Men – great Dads – should conduct themselves as humble/serving gentlemen, not rogues, or as Dr. Sandlin puts it, not as goons:

    Goons are starting to outnumber gentlemen. Gentlemen treat women with honor, respect, and grace.  Gentlemen define masculinity in terms of personal responsibility, protection of the weak and young and elderly, and perseverance through hardships, not bulging biceps, inked-up forearms, and sagging britches.  Gentlemen speak with firmness but thoughtfulness, clarity and courtesy.  Gentlemen are honorable, keeping their word.  Gentlemen do not play the victim card.  Gentlemen would rather suffer wrong than inflict wrong.  Gentlemen believe that evil must be defeated properly, that might does not make right, even – perhaps especially when the cause is just.  Goons find these traits unnecessary or counterproductive.  Goonery is not masculinity.  It is not gentlemanliness.[20]

    A Brief Excursus on Ambition

    Let’s be clear:  Neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers ever demean, let alone condemn, the category of greatness.  In correcting the disciples, Jesus never hints that a motive pursuing Kingdom greatness is suspect, inherently mistaken, let alone unethical or sinful.  Instead, Jesus affirms seeking and obtaining – Kingdom greatness – if done appropriately:  with child-like humility and as a servant.  

    Back to Greatness:  The Ethical Mandate

    Yet, there is another aspect of Kingdom greatness that’s often overlooked.  We learn of this, however, not in Jesus’ response to His disciples’ bickering.  Instead, we see Jesus present this aspect of greatness directly during His longest sermonic message:  The Semon on the Mount.  After laying out the Beatitudes (that is, what characterizes a blessed life), Jesus explains how His followers ought to conduct themselves in the world starting with metaphors drawn from a shared and common New Testament cultural life:

    You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 

    You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. 

    Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever [1] does them and [2] teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.[21]

    Using familiar metaphors – salt and light – Jesus teaches that a faithful presence in, but not of, the world consists of:

    • Good Works which are:
    • Public, beyond the private or internal realm; 
    • Evident, where others see them, beyond the ecclesiastical or faith community realm; and
    • Ethical – derived from the Law of God, implying:
    • Legal applications;
    • Policy applications; and
    • Full-Orbed Public Justice:
    • Sequence & Process
    • Substance
    • Structure/System[22]

    The basic point is this:  True Kingdom greatness will be evident – beyond inner rectitude or pious platitudes or limp moral McNuggets.  

    Non-kingdom evidence competes and contrasts with Kingdom greatness.  We have been told, for example, the evidence of the Evil one’s efforts:

    So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.[23]

    This evidence will not stand, however.  Indeed, the very reason Christ came purposed to crush the evidence of Satan’s works:

    The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.[24]

    Now, what might replace those destroyed demonic works?  Ah, yes, good works, products of grace-produced salt and light, consistent with the law of God.  Paul capsulizes this, linking grace and good works:

    For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.[25]

    This evidence consisting of good works can be – and should be – as comprehensive – to some degree – as redemption reaches – the entirety of the cosmos.  As Joe Boot explains concerning the light metaphor Jesus uses:

    The light exposes the spiritual antithesis at work in the world and we are promised that darkness cannot overcome its illuminating presence. [John 1:5] The works we are calledto do are also works of light, which are kingdom works grounded in truth and righteousness, or justice [ dikaios].  Nothing in scripture limits these works of light to ecclesiastical activities; indeed, these works are the totality of our life, because “we are his workmanship.”[26]

    True Kingdom redemption – and greatness – then contains an ethical dimension.  Redemption is a redemption from lawlessness, and Jesus tells us that the ensuing lawfulness reflects Kingdom greatness.  We pursue humility, we serve others, and we act consistently with the ethical conscriptions of God’s law.[27]  Why?

    God’s law forms the core of the promised New Covenant in His blood:

    For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.[28]

    The author of Hebrews, who exalts the supremacy of Jesus, corroborates this aspect of the New Covenant:

    For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

    And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

          “This is the covenant that I will make with them

                after those days, declares the Lord:

          I will put my laws on their hearts,

                and write them on their minds,”

          then he adds,

          “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

          Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.[29]

    In Sum:  The Man of God dare not ignore, (let alone demean or denounce), the Law of God and expect to be great in the Kingdom of God.  And, greatness should be rightly pursued.

    Kingdom Greatness and the Public Square

    Does the law of God apply beyond individual Christians, families, or congregations?  In other words, does the New Covenant ethically impact the world that Christ loves and is redeeming?  Indeed, it does, and this is the consistent witness of Scripture.

    Consider Proverbs 28:4:

      Those who forsake the law praise the wicked,

    but those who keep the law strive against them. 

    Notice three things here:

    • First:  No neutrality, no middle ground exists between Christ and His standards, and the world’s standards:

    Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.[30]

    • Second:  The standard for opposing those who do evil is the Law of God, the Core of the New Covenant

    If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.[31]

    Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”[32]

    “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”[33]

    Jesus defines law in terms of love and love in terms of law.

    • Third and critically:  Abandoning this engagement or abandoning this standard when engaging, comprises:
    • Not merely an omission, oversight, or mistake, but rather
    • An affirmative act of worship, of praise, for the wicked

    This text informs us that failing to use and properly apply God’s standards in whatever context is a form of false worship:  it praises the wicked.  As Paul elaborates in Roman 1:18-32, theology and ethics – worship and behavior – correlate.  This means that another indicia of the Truth being exchanged for the Lie manifests an abandonment of God’s righteous standards, whether under the guise or veneer of Christianity or not.[34]

    Note this key correlation Solomon adds:

     Evil men do not understand justice,

    but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.

    Seeking the Lord – true worship – informs true justice:  how we treat one another, including our neighbor.  When we properly worship the Creator and ascribe the glory due His name, we are positioned to rightly live according to God’s precepts – and we become increasingly less likely to ascribe honor and glory wrongly.

    Accordingly, a moral dimension exists for rightly loving our neighbors.  Put differently, there is a moral, and by implication, public, political, and legal dimension as we discharge this duty to love our neighbor– obeying the Second Great Commandment:

    If we truly love our neighbors, we will bear witness to the fullness to which they are called. If we truly desire their welfare, we should proclaim the thickness of moral obligations that God commands as the gifts to channel us into flourishing, and labor in hope that these might become the laws of the land, though with appropriate levels of expectation. This would be political action that recognizes that humanity’s natural end is supernatural, that the fullness of human being is elucidated in the gospel, not the minimalism of “nature.”[35]

    If we long to love our neighbor, we will strive to be great in the Kingdom.  In fact, as O’Donovan affirms, the context for accomplishing this is the Kingdom of God:

    God’s Kingdom . . . is the condition for our actingit underwrites the intelligibility of our purposes.[36]

    The Kingdom presupposes a King or Lord, which we know is Christ.  Lordship is THE crucial issue for unlocking Kingdom greatness:

    Jesus Christ is Lord.  That is the first and finalassertion Christians make about all of realityincluding politics.  Believers now assert by faith what one day will be manifest to the sight of all:  every earthly sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.[37]

    Make No Mistake:   It IS the Christian worldview – faithfully cultivated and lived publicly –- that has historically justified two great needs we presently face – and in the process effectively loving our neighbors:

    • Confronting Injustice[38]
    • Promoting Tolerance[39]

    Explaining this, Douglas Farrow poses a clarifying question showing WHY this all matters and thus justifies pursuing Kingdom greatness in a way that impacts the public square:

    [A]re we really to suppose that the state [and by implication its legal system] functions best when it concerns itself as little as possiblewith what is actually right or wrong, good or evil, conducive to happiness or unhappiness?[40]

    God has shown us what is right, good, and conducive to human flourishing.  To be great requires advocating[41] for God’s standards publicly, including in the public sphere – if we are to truly love our neighbors.  As Isaiah laments while tying truth to justice:

          Justice is turned back,

                and righteousness stands far away;

          for truth has stumbled in the public squares,

                and uprightness cannot enter.

          Truth is lacking,

                and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

                The LORD saw it, and it displeased him

                that there was no justice.

          He saw that there was no man,

                and wondered that there was no one to intercede;

          then his own arm brought him salvation,

                and his righteousness 

    Did you catch what’s being described here?  It sounds eerily similar to today:  Truth stumbles.  Where?  The public squares.  What results:  there is no justice or righteousness.  What is the solution?  Intercessors: those proposing God’s ways which are true and right, good, and conducive to human flourishing.  

    Great Dads can intercede.  However, they must first be committed to cultivating greatness.  How so?  They must be humble, not harsh; servants, not self-servers; and they must advance God’s precepts, not their own preferences.  They must be great in the Kingdom. Let’s make Dads great again.


    [2] Ross Douthat, Harrison Butker’s Very American Traditionalism

    [3] See the tragedy of PGA winner Grayson Murray, who recently took his life at age 30.

    [4] Col 2:21

    [5] Col 2:23

    [6] Romans 13:7

    [7] 1 Cor. 9:24

    [8] 2 Tim. 4:7

    [9] Heb. 12:1

    [10] 2 Tim. 2:5

    [11] 1 Tim 4:7-8

    [12]1 Cor. 9;24-27

    [13] See, e.g., Is. 5:20 and Col. 1:18

    [14] Romans 1:25

    [15] Matt. 18:1-4

    [16] Is. 66:2

    [17] 1 Peter 5:5

    [18] Mark 9:33-36

    [19] Phil 2:3, 4

    [20] P. Anderw Sandlin, Facebook post, May 28, 2024.  Dr. Sandlin will be speaking at the TxC 2024 Symposium

    [21] Matt. 5:13-20

    [22] Some of the implications to these points of public theology will be addressed during the TxC  2024 Symposium.

    [23] John 10:7-10

    [24] 1 John 3:8b

    [25] Eph. 2:8-10.  In a related passage, Paul explicitly connects goods works with the law of God as these works displace the works of lawlessness.  Titus 2:11-14

    [26] Brian G. Mattson, Cultural Amnesia, (2018), citing Joesph Boot, vii, viii.  Dr. Mattson and Dr. Boot will be speaking at the TxC 2024 Symposium.

    [27] Some may prefer to call this “God’s moral law” (cf., WCF Chapter 19.3) to distinguish the Decalogue (“commonly called moral”) from the ceremonial and judicial law which has been abrogated or expired respectively.  This is understandable under the New Covenant, but unsatisfying in another sense since all of God’s law is necessarily “moral”.  Only man’s positive law can “frame injustice by statute.”  (Ps. 94:20)

    [28] Jer. 31:33

    [29] Heb. 14-18

    [30] Matt. 12:30

    [31] John 15:10

    [32] John 14:21

    [33] John 14:15

    [34] Sadly, antinomianism is rife in some swatches of evangelicalism, including the Reformed camp.  For example, note the ethical fall of Tullian Tchividjian that followed his theological fall in denying the applicability of the Law of God. and

     In more broad evangelicalism, note Andy Stanley’s puffed-up rejection of God’s law and his consequent soft-peddling acceptance of LGBTQ ideas.

    [35] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 163

    [36] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time – Ethics as Theology (2013), 124

    [37] D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, (2008), 203 quoting Richard John Neuhaus.

    [38] The early Christians exposed, opposed, and eventually foreclosed public evils such as gladiatorial combat, infanticide, and slavery – The Truth defeated the Lie.

    [39] Tertullian and Lactantius (third century) promoted religious liberty and later the Justinian code erected protections for religious conscience, including for Jews and pagans.

    [40]Douglas Farrow, Desiring a Better Country: Forays in Political Theology (2015), 90

    [41] Christians thus propose, not impose, these ethical precepts.