A father and son

No Father, No Manhood

Because manhood is caught, not just taught, becoming a mature man requires a father. Hence, many young men today are “clueless bastards”—and even more so when they won’t take advantage of God’s provision of fatherhood through the church.

The film Good Will Hunting follows 20-year-old janitor Will Hunting, an unrecognized genius. After assaulting a police officer, he is required to see a therapist as part of a deferred prosecution agreement.

To legally avoid the therapy, Will uses his genius to find ways to emotionally trigger the therapists assigned to him. One after another they all quit—until he is paired with Sean.

At first, everything seems to go according to plan. Will alienates Sean by insulting his deceased wife in their first session.

But Sean is able to see past Will’s defense mechanism, as revealed in this scene:

What does this have to do with masculinity?


Will is an orphan. He is fatherless. He has tried to compensate for what he should have learned from his father by memorizing entire volumes of books. But his extraordinary ability to do this has only highlighted how ineffective it is at filling the void. It only magnifies the gulf between the knowledge he has, and the wisdom he would have inherited from his father.

Genius or not, he is a paradigm example of what we call a clueless bastard.

A clueless bastard isn’t necessarily an illegitimate child. He is simply someone whose father, for whatever reason, has failed to impart the wisdom and skills that a boy needs to mature into a man. Like all men, he instinctively knows that wisdom and competence are integral to masculinity—but because he lacks a father, he seeks these in books, blogs, YouTube, the internet.

You can’t achieve mature manhood while you’re still a clueless bastard

As long as you are one (and we don’t mean you necessarily), you will always be a cocky, scared-shitless kid. To grow into a mature man means growing out of being a clueless bastard.

Today, however, the West is almost entirely populated by clueless bastards. Although it sounds rather derogatory, the point of this term is not to condemn these men, but rather to identify their problem so the solution will become clearer. And the problem is simple: you can’t become a mature man from books, YouTube videos, and online forums.

These mediums have value—but mature manhood can only be forged in the fires of fraternity. You don’t achieve manhood by gaining knowledge. You achieve manhood by participating in the manhood of others; by experiencing and internalizing it. Masculinity is learned by imitation.

This begins with your father.

The power of fathers is undeniable. In Life Without Father, Dr. David Popenoe writes, “Involved fathers—especially biological fathers—bring positive benefits to their children that no other person is as likely to bring.” Research continues to pile up proving this; 82% of father-involvement studies since 1980 have found “significant associations between positive father involvement and offspring well-being.”

Children with strong, active fathers do better. It’s that simple. And this shows up in surprising ways. For example, there is evidence that a father’s overall fitness (not the mother’s) is the best indicator of a child’s future physical health. We see similar correlation in the area of educational performance, in vocabulary, and even in spiritual condition.

Back in 2003, Robbie Lowe wrote a helpful article in Touchstone on the Importance of Fathers to Churchgoing. In it, he explains:

In 1994 the Swiss carried out an extra survey that the researchers for our masters in Europe (I write from England) were happy to record. The question was asked to determine whether a person’s religion carried through to the next generation, and if so, why, or if not, why not. The result is dynamite. There is one critical factor. It is overwhelming, and it is this: It is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.

But doesn’t the mother’s influence matter? Lowe comments:

In terms of commitment, a mother’s role may be to encourage and confirm, but it is not primary to her adult offspring’s decision. Mothers’ choices have dramatically less effect upon children than their fathers’, and without him she has little effect on the primary lifestyle choices her offspring make in their religious observances.

Even long before scientific studies, churchmen knew the straight connection between fathers and the well-being of their households. J.W. Alexander, for example, preached that:

There is no member of a household whose individual piety is of such importance to all the rest as the father or head. And there is no one whose soul is so directly influenced by the exercise of domestic worship. Where the head of a family is lukewarm or worldly, he will send the chill through the whole house.

There is no chill like the cold reality of a fatherless home. Its icy effects are sobering. In his book Fatherless Generation, John Sowers reports that children from fatherless homes account for:

As a father goes, so goes the household. And as the household goes, so goes society. The benevolent presence of a father results in a more orderly and fruitful life. His absence, whether by distance or abdication, results in disorder and chaos.

There are all sorts of reasons for the power of fathers, but they boil down to the simple reality that human fathers image God the Father. Although we may think of fatherhood as a metaphor which we apply to God, Scripture has things the other way around. When Jesus calls God his Father, this is not anthropomorphic language. Rather, when we call men our father, that is “theomorphic” language. God is the archetypal Father. In Ephesians 3:14–15, Paul puts it this way,”When I think of the greatness of this great plan I fall on my knees before God the Father, from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name…”

Clueless bastards are destructive because they have not had God’s fatherhood imaged to them in the way God designed. They are therefore stuck in state of arrested development, unable to properly image God themselves. As we have observed in the past, you cannot image God if you do not fear him—and our fathers are the ones who teach us the fear of God. This begins at the earliest age, when we hear the difference between his voice and our mother’s: one deeper and stronger, a voice of command; the other softer and nurturing, a voice of comfort. It continues as we begin to learn about his physical presence in our home as the one who commands submission and brings order. We learn that although our mother is bigger than we are, she is the one who feeds us from her own body, who draws us close to warm and comfort us; our father, by contrast, is both bigger and more distant—a force who brings comfort not by folding us into his body, but by subjecting us to his body. He has a fearful power to impose order upon us. Indeed, both boys and girls tend to love their father especially because he is to be feared. It is precisely because he is dangerous that they value his presence in the family—not because he is dangerous to them, but because he is dangerous to the sin and chaos that threatens the harmony of the household. He is the center that holds their world together; if he were not dangerous he could not defend that world against everything that endangers it and threatens to pull it apart.

Why is this? Simple—because they image the fatherhood of God! Just as Jesus, as the representation and radiance of God, upholds all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3), so human men, as the image and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7), uphold their families, their houses, their societies by the power entrusted to them, in accordance with the word of God.

You can’t be a father before you’re a son

Adam was made to take up the fatherly work of God; this is what it means to be a son at a fundamental level (John 5:19–20, 30; 8:28; 14:10 etc). A son represents his father, and thus the most important aspect of his sonship is becoming a father. This fatherhood is passed down from generation to generation—from God to Adam to his sons (Genesis 5:3)…all the way to us. It is the natural chain by which God trains up young men to take over the work of their fathers as fathers, and to continue his image into the world—establishing order, upholding society, exercising dominion.

A break in the chain of one house can be catastrophic to that house’s sons, who find themselves foundering to represent God in the world—not having learned to do this (cf. Acts 17:26–27; Exodus 4:22). But a break in the chain for a whole nation of houses is catastrophic for society itself. A culture that seeks to “smash the patriarchy,” that seeks to destroy father-rule, is therefore a culture that seeks its own annihilation. The closer it gets to removing the image of God in father-rule, the closer it gets to unraveling. The further it eliminates the means by which God orders and upholds the human world, the further it descends into chaos. Without the mechanism by which God exercises his dominion over the human world, it can no longer do the work of God: dividing, shaping, filling (cf. Genesis 1). It becomes a society of abortion, of butch women, of effeminate men, of pride in homosexuality, of belief in gender fluidity, and of every other degrading doctrine that now blurs together that which God separated.

Young men today are the unwitting, unwilling beneficiaries of such a society. They are clueless bastards in dire need of fathers. They do not know how to image God, and so they do not know how to mature into wise, strong men.

Unfortunately, many are trying to fill the father void by turning to teachers who promise knowledge, rather than fathers who will disciple them into wisdom. They seek easily-obtained learning, rather than hard-won wisdom, wanting to be told how they can exercise authority, without themselves being placed under authority. They are like Simon the Magician, seeking to gain the power of God through money, when they should be like the Hebrews, seeking to gain the holiness of God through chastening:

It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? But if ye are without chastening, whereof all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. (Hebrews 12:7–8)

By turning to guides, rather than to fathers, they are doing what comes naturally—unwittingly seeking to remain bastards. They don’t see the value in becoming sons, because in their case they cannot relate to the verses that follow:

Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. (Hebrews 12:9–10)

But Paul, in writing to the clueless Corinthians, exhorts them:

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Corinthians 4:14–16)

We see again that sonship is imitative. It is not something learned from guides, but from fathers, and so it cannot be picked up from YouTube or from blogs or from books—it must be absorbed through active participation in the life of the man whose son you wish to be. At the risk of stating the obvious, that participation is as his son; not as his peer or his bro. It means being under his authority, under his discipline. In other words, sonship involves real life discipling, as Paul immediately goes on to show:

That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? (1 Corinthians 4:17–21)

Clueless bastards naturally resist fathers, and seek out guides instead. They are too isolated and too weak to easily cope with being sons. They are created for sonship, and so they long for fathers—which is why they idolize men they can look up to as leaders. But being damaged from childhood, they do it from a distance. They have learned as youngsters that they must order their own worlds, that they must defend themselves from threats, that they must be the strong ones in their own lives. Forcing this on a child is cruel and tragic; it creates young men who are undisciplined, defensive, and brittle. Young men who find it extraordinarily difficult to endure the chastening that produces the fruit of righteousness; who avoid it when they can, and chafe against it when they cannot.

You can’t become a son disembodied

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the natural relations that God built into the world. We are created as embodied creatures, where the physical and the spiritual are intertwined—which means that the physical matters. Clueless bastards frequently don’t understand this, or outright reject it, because they have not experienced it. They think they can replace what God has made with an abstract facsimile; recreating the intimacy of fraternity in the form of text on a screen.

But no matter how good your theory of mind, you cannot have true relationship with text on a screen. We’re not living in the Matrix, where experience can be downloaded into your brain. Embodied existence matters for participating in the experience of other men—and the only thing you really need to understand in order to know this, is that God made us embodied. Yes, the internet is valuable—but it is not fraternity. It is an aid and supplement to fraternity. In many cases it is a sad substitute for fraternity. But it can never be fraternity.

Speaking from our own experience, Michael and I live on opposite sides of the world. We met on Facebook. But as we got to know each other, as we developed a stronger friendship, we found that we naturally used Facebook’s voicemail feature more and more—because the physical connection of hearing someone’s voice is far more powerful than that of simply seeing the words they’ve typed. When we were blessed to spend time together in person earlier this year, we were reminded of the apostle John’s words:

Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 12; cf. 3 John 1:13)

John, the recognized expert on love, understood that for the joy of brotherly love to be complete, it required more than words on a page. It require physical connection. Embodied relationships matter. The internet can both supplement and facilitate these—but it can never replace them. Paul describes love as the perfect bond of unity (Colossians 3:14). Its origin is God himself, who is love—three persons participating in each other with such unity that they are one being. This unity, this “onetogetherness,” is something men are made for—but we are made to experience it by living with one another, by participating in one another’s lives. Online fellowship is a shadow of embodied fellowship. You can no more have digital fraternity than you can have digital sex. You can’t cheat God’s natural order.

Fraternity, sonship, and fatherhood thus starts in the natural household—but that is by no means the extent of what God made us for.

The gospel of sonship

So far we’ve described the problem. But we do this only to better understand the desperate need for a solution. And there is a solution.

It begins with Jesus.

There are no orphans like Will Hunting in the kingdom of God. There are no bastards. There are only sons. The gospel is a gospel of sonship:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him… And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:14–17, 28–30)

Sonship is the antidote to clueless bastardry, and God is the great, archetypal Father—even to those who are fatherless (Psalm 68:5). We don’t say this to suggest that believing the gospel will fix all the childhood damage of fatherlessness, and transform you into a mature man. We say it to suggest that believing the gospel is the necessary first step to fixing the childhood damage of fatherlessness, and that doing so will eventually bring about your transformation into a mature man.


Well, we will become sons by being conformed to the image of his son. We will become glorified by sharing in his glorification. And we will enjoy these things provided that we suffer with him also.

No one likes to suffer, and clueless bastards like it least of all. But if they wish to be true sons of God, they must.

Now, when we think of Christian suffering, we tend to think of persecution. That is certainly on the table, as the passage from Hebrews 12 illustrates. That is one way that God disciplines us as sons. But as we’ve also covered, God has established a social order through which his fatherhood is represented by men. And so another way that he disciplines us—and another way that we suffer his chastisement—is through this social order.

In other words, it isn’t just natural, biological fathers of natural, biological households who represent God’s fatherhood—and to whose discipline we must submit ourselves as sons.

This leads us to the household of faith.

Pastors as fathers

God is a God of means. He uses people, natural process, events, as instruments to bring about his will. God willed that this world be populated and ruled by a “royal priesthood.” He ordained this to come about through the natural family. Man and woman would join together in marriage, have children, and in doing so create a household—which in turn leads to the creation of more households. By these natural means, God’s world would be a temple filled with worshipers.

But our natural parents sinned. Consequently, mankind was alienated from God. Our status shifted from sons of God to sons of the devil. By nature, we represent Satan and do his work, whether wittingly or not (John 8:39–47; Ephesians 2:1–3).

But our sovereign God doesn’t need a plan B. Nothing can thwart his will. This world will be his temple, and it will be filled with worshipers. Where Adam failed, God sent his Son to succeed. And after doing so, Jesus commissioned his disciples saying:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18–20)

Just as God gave a mission to Adam meant to continue through his children, so he gave a mission to Christ which continues through his sons. Again, God is determined to use means to accomplish his will. He did so in the creation mandate, and continues to do so in its expansion, the Great Commission. The former used the natural family; the latter the spiritual family, his congregation, the church.

Families aren’t flat. They have hierarchy. So it is with the church. Paul writes:

I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:1–15)

The church is the household of God, and so there is a right way to conduct yourself within her. Just as in the natural family you are to honor your father, and submit yourself to his discipline, so in the spiritual family. Here, pastors are the spiritual fathers. As we saw in 1 Corinthians 4, Paul was a father to the Corinthians—not by apostleship, but through the gospel (v. 15). The Corinthians were failing to grow up to be mature sons of God because they had too many guides, and too few fathers. Pastors are a central means by which God brings his children into maturity:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11–16)

Do you want to be a mature man? The sort of man who isn’t tossed to and fro? This requires a pastor; a shepherd who will guide and discipline you, to help you to grow in holy wisdom. It is God’s design. That is how he orders his house.

Do you think you are a mature man, but you consider a pastor unnecessary in your life? God is not mocked. What a man sows, so shall he reap; a child who spurns the correction of his father grows to be a fool. You cannot be a patriarch without submitting to God as Father (patri)—and you cannot submit to God as Father without submitting to his design for his household.

Now, it’s true that most pastors are not good fathers. But it’s equally true that most clueless bastards are nitpicky sons. God says you need a pastor—not a hero. It’s easy to idolize a man from afar, especially online, whereas real-world relationships reveal a man’s imperfections, failings, and sins. The idealist will resent a pastor who is a real man. He desires a hero to emulate, a man who never disappoints. But no such man exists in the real world, with the exception of the God-Man.

And yet Christ commands us to submit ourselves to imperfect men.

A father should not be a clone of yourself. Neither must he conform to your own pet expectations in order to disciple you well. God has set the qualifications (Titus 1:6–9; 1 Timothy 3:1–7; cf. 4:6–16). If you’re submitting yourself to his fatherhood, you will accept those qualifications—even if you think you could improve on them. Especially if you think you could improve on them.

This doesn’t mean you should settle for anything. A majority of churches will not disciple you well. A majority of pastors are themselves clueless bastards, weak in constitution and effeminate in conduct—nothing like the tough shepherds (or cowboys) of old after whom they are named. Trying to submit to them is an exercise in futility and frustration, and ultimately will score the lines of resentment and immaturity even deeper into a clueless bastard’s psyche. But the West is still Christian enough that anyone can be near a church with good fathers—if it really matters to him. These churches exist, and if you’d like a recommendation in the continental US, we hope we can help you. Email us and ask. Our only requirement is that you be asking for a church that will father you, not a church that will validate you.

John Calvin argued that God could have sent angels to preach, but he sent sinners. Why? There are two main reasons. First, God is pleased to work through broken vessels as it gives him more glory. Second, God is pleased by our humility in submitting to men with feet of clay. So find a pastor who is a real man. Put aside your ideals, and assess him by God’s ideals in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. You’re looking for a man who, in general, meets those qualifications. He needn’t be the ideal man—he must be a faithful father.

God’s house-rules are not optional. God’s design for embodied creation is not optional. Hence church is not optional. Indeed, when you attend church, you enter the heavenly court. The internet can guide you, but it will not father you. The only way to become a mature son of God, to become a true father yourself, is through the means he established by which he raises up sons to image him. The formula is simple: Find a church that will disciple you. Submit yourself to it. Grow up.