Today, it is not uncommon to see fathers in the church who are either passive (leaving it to the mother) or absent (too busy at work or with hobbies) in raising their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. As a father of seven children (2 boys and 5 girls), when I read the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:4, I realize that God has given me the responsibility to raise my children in the ways of the Lord:
Raising your children in the Lord is about leading as a father who is himself constantly under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1–4)
Paul’s words here come in the context of the Spirit-filled life (Ephesians 5:18). Raising your children in the Lord is about leading as a father who is himself constantly under the influence of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:16–23). When fathers are living Spirit-filled lives, the result should be the glad submission of their children in obedience to them and their children’s acceptance of their discipline and instruction.
Do Not Provoke Your Children
After first commanding children to obey their parents, Paul then gives fathers1 two commands: one negative and one positive. The negative command is for fathers not to provoke (parorgizo) their children. In other words, he was telling fathers not to do what discourages their children (see Colossians 3:21). How do we as fathers tend to do this? Well, it can be through many different things, such as being overprotective of them, never trusting them, mocking the decisions they make, depriving them of any freedom, pushing over-realistic achievement on them, and pressuring them to excel in things like sports or academics. Children tend to become bitter in trying to live up to unrealistic expectations. What we should be doing as fathers is giving our child wisdom and input, teaching them to make wise decisions and encouraging them when they make mistakes.
What we should be doing as fathers is giving our child wisdom and input, teaching them to make wise decisions and encouraging them when they make mistakes.
Paul then gives fathers a positive command to bring children up (as this is not something they will do themselves) in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. The Greek word for “bring” (ektrepho) means “to nourish up to maturity” (see Ephesians 5:29). Our intention in bringing up our children is that we nourish them in the instruction of the Lord so that they become mature in the faith.
The discipline (paideia) Paul has in mind here is for an “instructional” or “educational” purpose. Whereas our culture would tell us that the reason our children rebel is that they lack self-esteem, the Scriptures tell us that they are sinners and in need of a saviour. Biblical discipline starts by recognizing that our children are not born into the world innocent and then warped and distorted by bad parents or the society around us, but that they are born in sin (Psalm 51:5). We should not be sentimental about human nature, especially that of our own children. I know people think, “I just can’t accept that negative view of human nature,” because even Christians can think we are good people deep down when we are anything but (see Romans 3:1–26; Ephesians 2:1-10). Yet, if we fail to discipline our children because of too much sentimentality, there will be consequences, as Eli found out with his sons (1 Samuel 2:27–36).
Although, we are called to discipline our children, discipline must not be confused with anger, as “[T]he anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20); rather, discipline is about love (Proverbs 3:11–12). Though not all children are equally rebellious or need the same amount of discipline, the Bible gives us wisdom in how to discipline a child (Proverbs 22:15). This is not a promise that every disciplined child will not stray into the folly of sin, but there is great success when we follow the wisdom given in God’s Word. There are also warnings if we do not follow this disciplinary wisdom (Proverbs 13:24, 29:15).
The reason children need instruction (nouthesia) is that they will not naturally obey their parents. Obedience must be taught to them. We must remember that because of their sinful nature, children are naturally rebellious and need to be confronted with the instruction of God’s Word. Fathers are to take seriously the responsibility of instructing their child as they are responsible for teaching their children (see Proverbs 4; Isaiah 38:19)2. This means that fathers will have to sacrifice their own agenda, plans, or hobbies for their children, or they will end up teaching them that those things are more important than they are.
In instructing our children, we must be purposeful, consistent, and biblical.
In instructing our children, we must be purposeful, consistent, and biblical. For example, we should use the law of God; otherwise, they will be grounded in their own self-righteousness. And if they don’t understand that there is a God who has a righteous law they have violated, they will not fully understand the gospel or why Christ is worthy of our worship (Galatians 3:24).
Just like discipline, instruction should come in the context of love. How are fathers to do this? Instruction is verbal teaching, and one of the greatest examples of this comes in Deuteronomy 6:4–25. Fathers are to teach their children to love God with the whole of their being (6:5). This means they should be leading by example, using life as a classroom, taking every opportunity to instruct their children—when they sit, walk, lie down, and rise (6:7). A father should also leave visual reminders of God to their child in order to show them that the Word of God governs the whole of our lives and not just a part of it (6:8-9). Most of all, fathers are to bring their child to a knowledge of the gospel, warning them about the evil in the world and explaining how and why God redeems people (6:20-23). Fathers who fail to instruct their children with the gospel to fear and love the Lord, have failed to instruct their children.
In our world today, submission is seen as a negative quality, yet Jesus’ attitude shows us that submission is in fact a positive quality.
The greatest example we can leave our children is Jesus, a child who listened to his parents’ instruction. In Luke 2:39–52, we read a fascinating account of Jesus at the age of 12, going to the temple in Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover with his mother Mary and his legal father Joseph. After the Feast had ended, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth, but Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem (Luke 2:43). When Mary and Joseph came back to search for him, they “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46–47). Mary and Joseph were not interested in the conversation Jesus was having with the teachers of the Law because they were in “great distress” over his whereabouts (Luke 2:48). Yet Jesus gave them a surprising answer: “And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 2:49). At this young age of 12, Jesus knew that his true father was not his legal father, Joseph, but his heavenly Father, God. Even though Mary and Joseph did not understand what Jesus had said to them, Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them” (Luke 2:51). Then we are told that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). As a child, how did Jesus grow in wisdom? By listening to his parents and being submissive to them. This is not a reference to Jesus acting out of his deity. Notice the text is prefixed and suffixed by the fact that Jesus grew in wisdom. As God, Jesus did not need to grow in wisdom. This account of Jesus as a boy in the temple is clearly a reference to his humanity. Jesus’ willingness to submit himself to his earthly parents shows his commitment to follow the Law of God and honour his father and mother (Exodus 20:12; cf. Deuteronomy 5:16). In our world today, submission is seen as a negative quality, yet Jesus’ attitude shows us that submission is in fact a positive quality. We need to be teaching our children submission; moreover, we must set an example with this attitude reflected in our own lives as we submit to the instructions for leading our families in the Word of God.