Before superheroes became a phenomenon that appealed to all ages and demographics, they were written primarily for young boys and male teens. For many of us, Spider-Man represented the angst-ridden, smart-mouthed hero we could be in the present—all we needed was a radioactive spider bite. Batman represented the brooding, brilliant hero we could be in the future—all we needed was training and a few billion dollars. But Superman was different. He didn't represent us so much as a hero from our past, the first superhero we ever admired—our fathers.
My own dad was a superman before I had ever heard of Superman. He was faster than The Flash (no matter how far my head start, he could always beat me in a foot race), stronger than Thor (he could open the lid of any pickle jar with ease), and more powerful than the Incredible Hulk (he could crush soda cans with a single smash of his fist). From the age of 2 to 7 I saw my dad as more amazing that any creation in the DC or Marvel universes.
But then it all changed. I don't know when exactly it happened, but I began to see my father as no longer Amazing, Incredible, or Super. He was just a man, a dad much like everyone else's dad.
When I became a father myself, I vowed to extend that period when my own child would view me as Superman. But it didn’t last long as I had hoped. It couldn’t, because fathers aren’t meant to be superheroes. We’re meant to be surrogates.
Surrogates to a King
The vocation of fathers is to be a surrogate for a king. Here’s what I mean.
A vocation is something we are called to by God in order to channel his love to others. In most of our vocations—such as in our jobs or our ministry in the church—we are called on to serve multiple neighbors. Yet in the vocation of a father we are called to channel God’s love in particular ways to a specific group—our children.
In some vocations, we are called to act as a surrogate, which is defined as a person appointed to act for another. In the case of fathers, we are appointed a vocation that is akin to being a deputy for a king. So fathers are called to the vocation of being a kingly surrogate.
While we aren’t kings ourselves, the one true king has delegated to us some of his own authority, power, and responsibility. Specifically, we are given authority over children who are (or we hope to be) part a royal family, God’s own elect.
Exercise Godly Authority (and Godly Submission)
To understand what this means, let’s hear from a famously flawed kingly father, David. On his deathbed King David spoke these inspired words of God (2 Sam. 23:3-4):
When one rules over people in righteousness,
when he rules in the fear of God,
he is like the light of morning at sunrise
on a cloudless morning,
like the brightness after rain
that brings grass from the earth.
In these verses the Lord reveals the two primary demands of those, such as fathers, whom he has placed in positions of authority. The first requirement is that one who exercises authority over others must use that authority in a manner consistent with the Lord’s teachings. The second is that those in authority must fear God, that is, they must recognize and submit to the authority of the Lord.
All authorities have certain powers or rights to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. David reminds us that the proper use of that authority is a blessing. If fathers are using their authority in the way that God intends, it causes our children to flourish in a way similar to the way the sun causes the grass to grow.
But we have to be constantly on-guard against abusing this authority. As Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Mary J. Moerbe explain, “Jesus himself teaches that, at least for Christians, authority must manifest itself not in the exercise of power but in service that finds its ultimate expression in sacrifice.” The father is called to use his authority in service to his children, not to lord it over them. If you want to know if you are wielding authority in a godly manner just ask yourself, Is my authority expressed in sacrifice?
Along with the requirements to be a godly authority to our children, the Bible also gives us requirements to submit to authorities. In the book of Romans, Paul tells us the authorities that exist have been established by God, and that “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Rom. 13:1-2). Our children should see firsthand how we humbly submit to the authorities God had put over us. We should not be surprised to find we have rebellious children if they have learned such rebellion against authority from us.
We must also recognize that all earthly authority is delegated from God. We therefore have no reason to feel either superior or inferior since exercising authority and submitting to authority are both forms of obedience to God. And if we want our children to be obedient to Christ we will model for them how to both wield authority and to also submit to authority in a way that is loving and gracious.
Surrogates, Not Supermen
Which brings us back to the distinction between a Superman and surrogate. The difference is in how we want to be perceived, which affects whether in raising our children we will seek our own glory or the glory of the Lord.
Initially, I wanted my own daughter to see me as a superhero because I craved her admiration and awe. I wanted her to see her dad as the most Amazing, Incredible, and Super being in the galaxy.
Now, I want her to see me as a surrogate for the same reason: I want her to see her heavenly Father as the most Amazing, Incredible, and Super Being in the universe.