Introductory Note:

Richard Foster’s book The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex and Power offers wisdom and insight for these three powerful arenas that often unveil and shake the core of our character. In the last section of the book, Foster offers practical suggestions for the arena of power. He centers in on power’s closest ally The Vow of Service. Foster asks, “Do you sincerely want to engage in the ministry of power? Do you want to be a leader who is a blessing to people? Do you honestly want to be used of God to heal human hurts? The ministry of power functions through the ministry of towel.”[1]

Foster applies practical knowledge to many aspects of our lives and even to the greatest human social context that we will ever engage in … our families. Our families are places of immense power. They are places of power used rightly and places of power in struggle. In his section on The Vow of Service in the Family, Foster casts a vision of a community governed not by power but by mutual respect, by compassion, by honor, and by love. When I read this passage, it reminds me of the Trinity—another community of Loving Persons centered in love, governed by mutual respect and submission to one another.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, help us Lord to trust you, to release our mad grab of power within our families and instead pick up the “ministry of the towel.” Amen.

[1] Richard Foster, Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex and Power. (SanFrancisco: HarperCollins, 1985) 228.

Lacy Finn Borgo

Excerpt from The Challenge of the Disciplined Life

If the vow of service is to function anywhere, it must function in the family. Within the family unit, the ministry of the towel must be mutual and reciprocal. Respect and compassion should permeate all acts of authority and submission in the Christian home.

How do we as parents serve our children? We serve them by providing purposeful leadership. Children need wise counsel and concrete guidelines. They need loving correction. To lead is to serve. 

How do we as parents serve our children? We serve them through compassionate discipline. Children are rendered a serious disservice when we fail to establish reasonable but clear boundaries for acceptable behavior. An early bedtime is important because sleep is important. Good nutrition is important because our bodies are important. Household duties are important because self-worth and a sense of contributing to the welfare of the family are important. Discipline is no small task, but it is one way we serve our children. 

How do we as parents serve our children? We serve them by giving them a growing self-government. We need to train our children for increased independence. We do not serve them by placing them under rigid rules until they reach the age of eighteen and then shoving them out the door. Early on, we teach children how to discriminate good from bad. We walk with them through life’s decisions, gradually giving them opportunities to learn from their own mistakes. At some point in their growing self-government — certainly by age twenty-one — we relinquish all parental authority. We are available for advice and counsel, but only if they ask for it. Providing the atmosphere for a growing independence is serving children. 

How do we as parents serve our children? We serve them by being available and vulnerable. The cliché that it is not the quantity of time but the quality that counts is simply false! Quality in large measure depends upon quantity. We need to give time to our children, and when we are with them we need to be transparent. To go to a child and say, I was wrong, I’m sorry,” is not a sign of weakness but of strength. 

How do we as parents serve our children? We serve them by respecting them. Observe any large gathering of people, and see how children are systematically ignored. Their opinion is neither sought nor appreciated. Indeed, afterward, most adults would not be able to name any of the children in the room. We, however, make a point of getting to know children. We listen to what they say and value their contribution. We do not make light of their concerns. The loss of a puppy for a child, or the breakup of a romance for a teenager, is a matter of genuine consequence and should be treated as such. 

How do we as parents serve our children? We serve them by introducing them to the spiritual life. If we can be vulnerable enough to share our own pilgrimage of faith, it will go a long way toward making the spiritual life real to our children. And it is our job to instruct them in biblical faith; it is a vital service we owe our children. We must not depend upon the church to do the job of teaching for us. 

The obligations of service are reciprocal. How do our children serve us? They serve us by being obedient. They obey not just because the Bible says to obey but because it is good to do so. Children cannot always understand the reasons for what we ask of them, but they can always be assured that their best interest stands behind all we ask. They obey even when it hurts to obey, though, as we shall see presently, obedience cannot be given when it is clearly destructive to do so. 

How do our children serve us? They serve us through respect. Respect is due the office of parent even though sometimes the person fulfilling that role is a great disappointment. Parents whose lives show that they are not deserving of respect place a terrible burden upon children, and it is often a cause for their stumbling (Matt. 18:6).

How do our children serve us? They serve us by meekly refusing to do what is clearly destructive. We parents need all the help we can get, and we can learn from our own children, if we are teachable. Children run a terrible risk when they engage in this ministry of service. They risk our anger, and, more importantly, they risk losing our love and support. We must always assure them by word and deed that our love for them is stronger and deeper than any temporary disagreement. It is an unconditional love that is not dependent upon what they do or do not do. The one thing that is more important than their obedience to us is their obedience to the Voice from above. 

How do our children serve us? They serve us by caring for our needs when the dependency roles are reversed. For everyone, the time comes when Mom and Dad need help. Aging parents may need their children’s financial help, and they need their emotional help. It is not wrong for children to place parents in a nursing home, but their responsibilities do not end there. They also need to give their time, their presence, their attention, and, most of all, their love. Children have an obligation to serve parents in this way. In Jesus’ day people tried to get out of this service to parents with religious excuses (Mark 7:9- 13). It did not work then, and it does not work now. 

All that I have said about the vow of service between parent and child also applies to the relationship of spouse to spouse and child to child. We serve each other in the Christian family because we follow Him who took on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). In modern society, one place where a Christian witness to the grace of God is desperately needed is in the home. The vow of service can help realize this witness.