Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Thousands of full length books have been written on these verses, and some of them are very good. A few resources that we’ve found particularly helpful:
- Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart
- John A Younts, Everyday Talk
- John Piper, The Conquest of Anger in Father and Child
- Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years (review by Kip Chelashaw)
- Timothy Sisemore, Our Covenant with Kids
There are various questions we might want to ask about specific application of this passage, particularly in our East African context:
- Who is a child? For how long does the obedience relationship continue?
- Where do you draw the line in terms of a parental command which goes against the qualification ‘in the Lord’?
- Which is a greater danger in our context – disobedience to parents and rebellion or over-submissiveness and bondage to the expectations of parents? Or both?
- To what extent are parents, and particularly fathers, aware of their responsibilities as the primary teachers of their children in the Lord?
- What are the primary goals of Christian parents for their children?
- How much is our (subconscious) understanding of God shaped by the parenting we received as children?
- And how much does our understanding of God shape our own parenting style?
- Do we value parenting and children’s ministry as much as the apostle Paul?
I don’t know the answers to those questions but I throw them out there. Right now I just want to mention two things that puzzled me and then helped me from this text from Ephesians:
1. Why does Paul promise obedient children a long life?
“This is the first commandment with a promise, that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth”. Has Paul suddenly become a legalist, a pragmatist, a prosperity preacher? Why is he going back to the Law and saying do this and you’ll get a nice long life? Surely Paul remembers that Jesus died in his early 30s. Surely he remembers holding people’s coats while they stoned the young Stephen. Surely he’s seen Christian children and young people die of accidents, diseases and persecutions all round him. So why is he giving children this promise?
Some commentators suggest maybe he is thinking corporately. I.e. not every individual obedient child will live to 70 years but you would expect a society with strong families to have a higher life expectancy than a society full of rebellion and broken families. Perhaps there’s some truth in that (though the UK??) but it hardly seems enough to inspire the child sitting in the church in Ephesus listening to Paul’s letter being read out.
On reflection I think Paul is thinking of eternal life – life that begins now and continues in resurrection bodies in the new creation into eternity. A few reasons:
- In Ephesians, death is only spoken of as a past event (Eph. 2:1, 5). For Christians, death is past and we have been raised with Christ. Completely secure in Him, with every spiritual blessing, we await only more grace in the coming ages (Eph. 2:7).
- In Eph. 1:14 Paul uses the words ‘inheritance’ and ‘possession’, words that in the OT would have always suggested ‘The Land’, to talk about the New Creation / glory.
- From Paul’s letters and the NT more generally you get the impression that the early church was completely focussed on eternity. They were expecting Jesus to return imminently. In the meantime they were expecting persecution and that they might well have to die for their faith. Their big Hope and encouragement was the coming of Christ (e.g. 1 Thess. 4). They knew that the current age was a valley of tears and pain. It seems that as they read the OT their instinctive hermeneutic was to see the promises and blessings as referring to the resurrection / new creation life (e.g. 1 Peter 3:9-12 in the context of the letter). Completely opposite to us whose default is to apply it all to this life.
There is still a question here about why Paul quotes command and promise – almost as if he is endorsing some kind of salvation by works. He obviously can’t mean this because he’s just made one of the strongest statements in all Scripture of grace not works (Eph. 2:8-9). It could be that the link is not meant to be taken as formally causal (obedience results in eternal life) but more that obedience accompanies salvation, it is fitting, it is ‘worthy of the calling’ (Eph. 4:1), “it is right” (Eph. 6:1). So obedience is a sign that you are on the path of eternal life. Another possibility is that the link is causal as it appears but is more about quality of eternal life – “that it may go well with you” – i.e. eternal rewards over and above simply eternal life (cf. Eph. 6:8).
I think there is another way to resolve it which has to do with the content of what the parents are teaching which the child is to obey. I’ll get on to this in the next point. But for now maybe it’s just worth noting that the obedience of children is supposed to be in light of eternity. Paul sees children as responsible moral agents who are capable of understanding Scripture and fixing their sights on eternal things and being inspired by that vision.
2. Why is provoking to anger contrasted with bringing up in discipline and instruction?
I see a contrast in verse 4. The question is why contrast these things? You might expect, ‘provoke to anger’ to be contrasted with ‘love’ or ‘listen’. Discipline and instruction sound like just the sort of things to provoke anger not allay it.
One answer is that children without any boundaries or discipline almost always end up not only wild but very insecure and depressed. Without boundaries they have no sense of right and wrong, up and down, their place in the world. At first they rejoice in the freedom but eventually they find that a lack of discipline is communicating a lack of concern and love on the part of the parent. They become angry, aggressive and resentful towards parents, authority, themselves.
That’s all true and important. But to go a bit deeper… another way to approach this would be to think more about the content and context of the discipline and instruction. The context is “bring them up”. The word is ‘nourish’ – as in Eph. 5:29. As you feed and cherish your own body; as you feed and tend a tomato plant; so carefully feed, tend and raise your children. This is the parent as servant leader. Just as the husband to the wife, the pastor to the church, Christ to his church – he gets down on his knees beneath his little children to serve them, feed them.
And what is he to feed them? “Discipline and instruction of the Lord”. The first word means practical training. It would include physical chastisement but it is much wider. The hands-on service and on the field practical gospel ministry training that we want the iServe Africa apprentices to experience could be captured by this word translated ‘training’ (NIV) or ‘discipline’ (ESV). It is what Timothy was getting as he got blisters on his feet, walking the roads of Asia Minor, serving with Paul in gospel ministry (Phil. 2:22).
When we get to “instruction” I wonder whether we instinctively think of laws and commands. Do this, don’t do this. But how does Paul instruct his spiritual children? Look at Ephesians and his other letters. He teaches them the gospel! There are commands but they are flowing out of the gospel. He is encouraging his children with the gospel, rebuking them with the gospel, inspiring them with the gospel. To obey Paul is simply to swallow more of this gospel.
If you look at the book of Proverbs we find a similar thing. Much of the book is the impassioned appeal of a father to his son. It is a worked example of Eph. 6:4. And look at his commands: “Hear”, “Do not forget”, “Trust in the Lord”, “Get wisdom”, “Do not go down this path that leads to death”, “Go down this path and find life”. The father is not laying a whole load of laws and moral demands on the son he is simply pleading with him not to lean on his own understanding but to lean on the Lord and cling to Wisdom. To obey the father, to receive his words, is simply repentance and faith.
One more example. Ruth chapter 3. Here is a mother-daughter relationship. The mother gives precise commands to the daughter. The daughter obeys precisely. But the commands are very similar to those of Proverbs really: go to the one who will give you Rest, throw yourself at the feet of the Redeemer, ask him to spread his wings over you. To obey these commands is like obeying Jesus’ command in Matt. 11:28. It is faith. (Which maybe makes sense of the instruction and promise to children in Eph. 3:1-3.)
So coming back to my parenting. Am I laying heavy loads on my children that I and my fathers have not been able to bear? Am I hitting them with the Law? (So that like the early Luther they end up angry with God.) Or am I pleading with them to come to Jesus and give him their sins and take his easy yoke? Am I serving my children with practical gospel training and passionate gospel pleading?
- Kimunya and Harriette Mugo, ‘Parenting Gracefully and by Grace’ in Conversation Magazine Issue 4.
- How to parent small children (iServe Africa seminar).