Three kinds of “single moms” exist in the church: the literal single mom raising children on her own, the mom whose husband is an unbeliever, and the mom whose husband professes belief but does not partner in the spiritual nurture of the family. For the true single mom and the mom married to an unbeliever, the task is clear: train your children in the Lord because no one else will. For the wife of the believing father guilty of spiritual absenteeism, the lines are blurry. She lives in the tension between wanting to honor her spouse and wanting to spiritually equip her children.

All three “single moms” desperately need the support of the church, but in this article I want to focus specifically on the third mom, a woman trapped in a dilemma.

To Wait or to Act?

This mom walks in a great deal of anxiety, particularly in more conservative environments that emphasize fathers leading spiritually in the home. She sees her children going to bed each night with no family time spent in the Scriptures or in prayer, with no conversations broached on the critical subjects that help kids transition to adulthood with the wisdom they need. She has gently raised the suggestion that Dad initiate these teaching moments, to be met with apathy or with short-lived token attempts. And because she has been taught that God wants men to lead such conversations in the home, she begins to believe she can only sit silently, not wanting to usurp authority, confused about what her role should be as mother and wife, praying that the Lord would change her husband’s heart.

Not that prayer is a give-up position. It is a far better use of mom’s words than berating or begging Dad to be more involved. Prayer for dad’s heart and for the hearts of the children should always be the first action mom pursues, both in homes where dad is spiritually present and also in homes where he is not. But in homes where dad is spiritually absent, I believe mom is called both to pray and to act.

Step into the Street

When my children were in early elementary school I would walk them to the corner where the crossing guard helped them across a busy intersection. She wore an orange vest and carried a stop sign. She had a whistle. She knew the traffic patterns. It was her job to make sure the cars stopped and the children crossed safely. As a parent, I did not have authority to tell my kids to cross the street when the intersection looked clear to me. That was the crossing guard’s job.

But let’s say the crossing guard doesn’t do her job one morning. Let’s say she sees me coming with my little ones but decides to stay in her lawn chair scrolling through Instagram. Let’s say that I ask her to help them across the intersection, but she ignores my valid request. What should I do? I don’t have an orange vest or a stop sign. I don’t know the traffic patterns like she does. Should I turn to my children and say, “Well, good luck—I’ll pray you make it safely to the other side”?

Of course not. I should do what she has chosen not to do. I should watch for an opening in the traffic and walk my children safely across the street. I should submit to a higher authority than the crossing guard in the interest of doing what is safe and right.

Moms dealing with spiritually absent dads rightly feel anxiety for their children. In the busy intersection of life, it is neither safe nor right to leave children untrained in spiritual matters. In fact, it would be reprehensible to do so. But don’t worry—it’s possible to honor your sacred responsibility to your children and their heavenly Father while still showing honor to their earthly father.

Make Disciples in Your Home

The Great Commission calls followers of Christ to make disciples, teaching them to obey all he has commanded (Matt. 28:18–20). Parents are charged with this call within the home. A mom who can’t count on her husband to partner in fulfilling it will need courage and humility to move ahead in obedience to Christ. As his disciple, she can and must spend her efforts to make disciples of her children, teaching them to obey his commands. Moms, not only do you have permission to take on this responsibility, you have a mandate. 

In the absence of Dad’s help, move forward to fill the gap. Without vilifying Dad, simply begin having the conversations necessary to guide your children safely to adulthood. Continue to pray for him. Continue to invite him periodically to join the conversation. Continue to honor him by committing to speak well of him to your children. As you ask the Lord to help you in your efforts and to soften your husband’s heart, keep confessing any resentment or self-righteousness you might harbor. Lean on your Christian community for support. But don’t let fear of usurping an authority Dad does not exercise keep you from equipping your kids with the fear of the Lord. The Lord delights in those who do his will. Train those kids. Remind yourself that God is their perfect heavenly Father, and trust him to care for them and shape them to be like his Son. 

Editors’ note: Register to hear Jen Wilkin speak on various topics at our 2015 National Conference, April 13 to 15, in Orlando.