“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor 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.”
Paul’s instruction to children that they should obey their parents presupposes the principle of parental authority. Yet when Paul outlines how parents should behave towards their children, it is not the exercise of authority, but the restraint of it that he emphasizes. The picture he paints of fathers as self-controlled, gentle, patient educators of their children is in dramatic contrast to culture of the Roman Empire in Paul’s day.
In the Roman Empire the “pater familias” was the oldest living male in a household, and he exercised “patria potestas” (total authority) over all members of the family. The Roman father was a complete autocrat, who not only had the authority to punish, but also the right to “iuo vitae necisque” (the killing of the newborn). The father as pater familias had full right of disposal over his children, just as he had full right of disposal over slaves and all other possessions.
In stark contrast to the Roman culture of Paul’s day was the culture of the Christian community. A central theme of Ephesians is that through Christ’s reconciling work there is now one community, one family of God comprised of every nationality and gender and culture. All who trust in Christ are brought into this one family: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. We are all one in Christ.
So Christian fathers (and mothers) are to care for their families as God the Father cares for his family. Although the word in verse 4 is ‘fathers’ (pateres), it could be used for ‘fathers and mothers’, much as ‘brothers’ (adelphoi) often meant ‘brothers and sisters’. Certainly it is parents, both father and mother, who are referred to in verses 1–3.
Negatively, they are told: “Do not provoke your children to anger” (verse 4). Paul recognizes the vulnerability of a child’s heart. How many ‘angry young men’ have learned their hostility as children in an angry home? There is a place for discipline, as Paul goes on to say, but it must never be arbitrary or unkind or driven by impulsive anger. Discipline that is motivated by a parent’s mismanaged anger or frustration will result in children who ‘become discouraged’.
Conversely, almost nothing causes a child’s heart to blossom and gifts to develop like the positive encouragement of loving, understanding parents. Indeed, just as a husband’s love for his wife is expressed in helping her develop her full potential, so parents’ love for their children is expressed in helping them develop theirs. Behind this biblical framing of parental authority there lies the clear recognition that, although children are to obey their parents in the Lord, yet they have a life and personality of their own.
Children are to be loved and respected … not dominated, exploited, manipulated, or crushed. The dominant father who uses his authority for his own ends is no more entitled to claim Christian authority than the rebellious son.
Paul does not rest content with his negative instruction to parents not to provoke their children to anger. He complements it with this positive exhortation: “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The verb (ektrephō) means literally to ‘nourish’ or ‘feed’ and was used earlier in 5:29 of the nourishment we give to our own bodies. Here it is used in reference to the upbringing of children.
Calvin translated this verse: “Let children be fondly cherished … deal gently with them.”
Here is the recognition—centuries before modern psychology—that emphasizes the vital importance of the earliest years of life, that the developing hearts of children need the tenderness and security of love from their parents, as well as instruction and wise discipline.
Children are a gift from God, and the Lord calls us to be wise and loving stewards of that precious gift.