by Vern S. Poythress, Ph.D., Th.D.
God gave me two boys to raise, Ransom and Justin. Ransom is now 14 years old and is already a Christian man. Justin is a Christian boy 12 years old, and is training to become a man before he is 13.
What is going on here?
Something special. I believe that God has given to my wife Diane and me a special idea about raising boys, an idea that may be of use to you if you have sons in your family. We have created a special celebration and ceremony to introduce them to Christian manhood. This celebration we call “Bar Jeshua,” that is, “son of Jesus.” This celebration marks the point at which a boy becomes a man, a mature disciple of Jesus.
Is such a thing weird? We don’t think so. Let me tell you about it.
The Idea and the Challenge
Almost every culture in the world has something to mark the difference between a boy and a man. A boy goes through a “rite of passage,” after which he becomes officially a man. The rite of passage may involve an ordeal, a test, or a training period of some kind. The boy who has reached a certain age must kill a crocodile, or train with a bow and arrow, or go on a long journey alone, or join in a dangerous hunt with the men.
When does a boy become a man in white American culture? When he gets a driver’s license? When he graduates from high school? When he moves away from his parents? When he can vote? When he gets his first full-time job? When he is 21? When he gets married? When he owns his own home?
No one can say. There is no clear point of transition. There is no one “rite of passage.” One of the unfortunate effects can be that boys are insecure. They don’t know when they are men. Again and again they may try to prove that they are “grown up.” Sometimes they may choose destructive ways-join a gang, go hotrodding, learn to smoke, get drunk, take a girl to bed.
What do we do to give proper guidance? I know and you know that there is no magic formula. God must be at work in teaching us and our boys, and he must be the one who causes them to grow (1 Cor. 3:7). But you and I can plant and water.
I decided that one way I could help my sons was by showing them what it was to be a man. What is a man? What marks maturity? In the Bible, true maturity does not consist in being able to kill a crocodile! The true maturity is spiritual. It is wisdom in knowing God and his will, and being able to carry it out in your life (Prov. 1:1-7).
I must set an example by my manhood. I must be like Paul, who said, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). That is an awesome challenge. I fail to live up to the biblical standard. But part of being a man is being able to admit it when I fail and then to ask forgiveness.
Passing to Manhood
In addition to all the regular things that must go into Christian living, I decided that my boys should have a rite of passage. It involves training and testing. It is not easy for them. They must prove themselves to be Christian men.
My son Ransom, 13 years old, has been through it. He knows that he is a man. He knows it not only because he worked and sweated at it, but because we had a celebration at the end. We sent out invitations. At the party, in the presence of about 90 people, his friends and our family friends, we reviewed some of the testing, and then I declared in front of everyone that he was now a man. “As your father, I declare that you are no longer Master Ransom Poythress. You are Mr. Ransom Poythress. You are now a man.”
The change of name is significant. White American culture still has a tiny fragment in which it recognizes manhood. According to formal etiquette, a boy is “Master” until he is 12; after that, he is “Mr.” (Mister). One of my Latino friends tells me that they have a celebration of manhood at the 12th birthday. The Jews have a “Bar Mitzvah” for a boy when he is 13.
The Jews became a model from which we attempted to learn. Though Diane and I are not Jews by birth, Jesus is a Jew. The Jews of the Old Testament are therefore our spiritual ancestors. In addition, we live in a neighborhood with many Jews. So in our neighborhood the idea of having a ceremony for manhood was not strange. We created a celebration called “Bar Jeshua,” “son of Jesus,” by analogy with “Bar Mitzvah,” son of the commandment, the Jewish celebration for entering manhood. We can also point to the incident recorded in Luke 2:41-50. At 12 years old Jesus, our Savior and Representative, shows his manly maturity in his understanding of the Bible and his understanding of his role.
The Bible does not require us to imitate slavishly any one culture. But we see wisdom here.
So what did we do? We tried to do the normal things that go into Christian parenting. But in addition, we told the boys from an early age about the Bar Jeshua we were planning for each of them. We told them that they would become men when they were 12. They were going to have to train for it beforehand.
In what does the training consist? Christian manhood is the goal. The training must match the goal. So we set for them projects. They acquire and demonstrate skill in each of several overlapping areas.
- Knowledge of the contents of the Bible.
- Know the names of books of the Bible in order.
- Know Bible history.
- Read the Bible all the way through.
- Know main themes of biblical books.
- Understand how Biblical teaching centers on Christ.
- Know Greek and Hebrew (amount of knowledge tailored to the child’s ability)
- Memorization of selected verses and passages of the Bible.
- Knowledge of the major teachings of the Bible (doctrine).
- Memorize a children’s catechism as a summary of doctrine.
- Be able to explain doctrines and respond to questions using one’s own words.
- Personal piety.
- Using devotional materials
- Prayer diary
- Day-long personal retreat for prayer and fasting with Daddy
- Growth in understanding of means for overcoming sin
- Projects of service and mercy.
- Serving the church; serving the needy.
- Wisdom in dealing with various spheres of life.
- Finances: tithing, drawing up a year-long budget; checkbook balancing; investing.
- Etiquette: table etiquette, greeting etiquette, letter etiquette, conversational etiquette, sexual etiquette.
- Apologetics: answering questions and objections about Christian faith; understanding the Christian world view and the main competing worldviews and ideas in the United States.
- Sexuality: knowing Christian teaching and standards for thoughts and actions. Understanding how God designed male and female bodies.
They work on these areas over a period of years. Many times we just integrate the work into our family devotional times. At other points we have periods where they have concentrated study in one area. When the boy is 11 years old, we assess progress. If our boy is honestly far from ready, we are willing in principle to put things off for another year. But if he is showing more maturity, we have a time of more concentrated preparation.
In the two or three months before the Bar Jeshua celebration, we enlist our pastors, young people’s leaders, and (in my case) my seminary professor friends to test the boy privately in each of the areas (1)-(4). I am present at these tests to provide moral support, but not to coach my boy on the answers. We also reserve the fellowship hall at our church as a site for the coming celebration. We send out invitations. We draw up a program sheet and buy decorations and food.
The day of the Bar Jeshua celebration is a Saturday, so that more people can come. I explain the celebration to all present.. Our boy reads a short passage from the Hebrew Bible and explains it (as does the Jewish boy at Bar Mitzvah). The boy reads a short passage from the Greek Bible and explains it. The people who previously tested our boy come and give a “mini-test” as part of the celebration. But our boy already knows that he has passed the private tests, so he does not have to fear the result. We sing our boy’s favorite hymn. We pray for him. I declare that he is a man. Then we eat and converse. That’s it. Many of the guests bring gifts for the boy, because they can see that it is like a big birthday celebration.
Thinking It Through
What do our boys think of it? They are intimidated. At times they get discouraged. “It’s too hard,” they say. “I don’t like it.” “Why do I have to do this?” We did make it hard. Manhood is not easy. This life is not easy for a Christian. We keep encouraging them. But we also challenge them. And we avoid showing any sign of giving in to the pressures around us. “Why are we different?” they say. “This is what Mommy and I have decided to do. God has given us a responsibility to train you to be a man. Because you are in this family, this is what you have to do.”
We have to strike a careful balance. We have to match the projects to our children’s capabilities. We can’t make the work so hard or so time-consuming that it exasperates our children or is just an oppressive burden (Eph. 6:4). On the other hand, we don’t want to give way to the lazy feeling of much of American culture, where many people just float along, without clear goals, and seek to be entertained and avoid hard work. Other people in America work very hard, but for unworthy goals: to be “successful,” to get fame or wealth. We encourage hard work toward the worthy goal of serving Christ. We try to hit the positive note of encouragement many times for every one time that we have to criticize them. But we don’t hide the fact that we are swimming against the cultural tide.
Having Another Man in the House
What happens after our boy becomes a man? He has the privileges of a man. The privileges must be real and meaningful. This part is scary for Diane and me. But we told ourselves, “It is better to give our young man lots of freedom now, while he is still at home. At 14 he is still young enough to come and ask us for advice. He is young enough to know that he doesn’t know everything. For him to explore under these conditions, when he is still in our home, is far better than waiting until he goes away to college and we don’t see him or talk with him about all the challenges.”
When our boy becomes a man, lots of changes take place in many areas, some big, some small. As a man, he no longer needs a baby-sitter. He can baby-sit younger children himself. He sets his own bedtime and rising time. He decides when he does his homework and how long he works on it. He decides what TV programs he watches and how long he watches. He can (at first with supervision) teach a children’s Sunday school class. He participates in the “family council” when my wife and I discuss, plan, and make important decisions. He can buy and care for his own pet. He excuses himself from the table rather than being asked to be excused. He buys his own clothing, school supplies, and gifts. He pays rent once a month, based on an estimate of his share in the utilities, food, and other costs. And he has an allowance to match these new responsibilities! In addition, if I pay him to do an extra job, I pay him at a going rate-at least the minimum wage, and more than that for jobs that are demanding.
But even when our son is a man, he is still part of the family and still lives with us. We love him just as much. We kiss and hug him just as much. We play together. We have certain rules that we would have for anyone living with us, even people outside the family. We expect him to be at meals on time. We expect him to be considerate of other members of the family. If he goes somewhere, we expect to know where he is. On Saturday night we meet as a family and assess the week. We continue to talk with him about where he is spiritually. If we see sin in his life, we will exhort him as we would exhort an adult who was on intimate terms with us. We continue to encourage one another and teach one another as fellow believers in Christ (Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:14).
Christianity, after all, does not isolate adults from one another, but puts them in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12). In that body we are answerable to one another. So Ransom’s freedom is not freedom for immorality. If I were to see my brother in Christ filling his mind with raw TV programs, or neglecting his homework, or even just staying up too late every night and then dragging in the morning, we would sit down and talk. We would ask, “Is this really wise for a Christian man?”
I must say that, so far, we are pleased. It has been work for us. But Ransom is a man now. Sure, he has energy and interests like many other fourteen-year-olds. But in matters that count, he acts like a man. Not perfectly. Not without some stumbles and signs of immaturity. But he does. We noticed a big change right after his Bar Jeshua.
Some Resources That We Used
- Larry Burkett, Surviving the Money Jungle: A Junior High Study in Handling Money (Gainesville, GA: Christian Financial Concepts, 1995).
- Catechism for Young Children: An Introduction to the Shorter Catechism (Philadelphia: Great Commission, n.d.)
- Paul Little, Know What You Believe (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor, 1987).
- Paul Little, Witnessing; How to Give Away Your Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996).
- Susan S. Macaulay, How to Be Your Own Selfish Pig (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor, 1982).
- Theodore C. Papaloizos, Alfabetario: Pre-School Reader (n.l.: Papaloizos Publications, 1990). (Introduction to Greek letters and pronunciation.)
- Amye Rosenberg, Alef Bet Mystery (New York: Behrman House, 1980). (Introduction to Hebrew letters and pronunciation.)
- R. C. Sproul, Choosing My Religion, tape series (Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries).
- R. C. Sproul, Objections Answered, tape series (Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries).
Copyright (c) 2005 by Vern Sheridan Poythress.
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