Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother"-which is the first commandment with a promise-"that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:1-4)
As simple as these words appear, mothers and fathers in the decadent culture of ancient Ephesus may have been tempted to a bit of exasperation with Paul. The words of instruction are so few! Only one sentence actually gives any direct instruction to parents. And, as a further complication, this sentence is addressed only to fathers.
Surely parents in that Roman world were not unlike us in wanting a healthy selection of child-rearing manuals at their ancient equivalent of a bookstore at the mall. How could anyone in that age of rampant ungodliness raise children properly with so little guidance? Parents who have to raise children in this age will ask the same question. With all the cultural perils facing our children, and with all the consequent questions facing us, does the Bible sufficiently equip parents? We cannot answer yes unless we consider the building blocks undergirding a child's nurture that the apostle laid prior to framing these few words of parental instruction. The Bible's short instruction to parents follows a host of instructions for the household of faith. This structure should remind us that God has clear expectations for the relationships that form the context and foundation of biblical child rearing.
A Love Relationship with the Lord-The First Building Block
Paul's instruction to parents grows out of a larger discussion of how the church should operate. This earlier foundation is not inconsequential. It means the Lord expects biblical parenting to occur in a church context. We can learn much about parenting from those in the church-through the preaching of the Word, the example of elders, and the advice of other Christian parents.
Beyond these practical implications, however, there is a more fundamental reason why the Bible teaches parenting in a church context. God's true church is made up of those whose hearts are committed to Christ (Eph. 3:16-21). The formal relationship one has with a church should be indicative of one's personal relationship with God. This means that a deep, personal relationship with the Lord is the most basic building bock of Christian parenting. A Christian parent's first priority and most important duty is to love Jesus.
To more fully sense the importance of the tie between God's love and good parenting, consider how Paul begins his instruction to Christian households: "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us" (Eph. 5:1-2, italics added). We learn how to love others by understanding how God loves us as his children. His love for us becomes the pattern for the way we love. In this way our own children become the most direct beneficiaries of our deep, personal understanding of God's parental care.
To prepare for our own parental care, Paul expresses God's love in parental terms over and over in his letter. Even his opening greeting stresses God's parental love:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. (Eph. 1:2-5, italics added)
These loving words demonstrate Paul's zeal to root our parental practices in a solid understanding of our relationship with our heavenly Father. There are at least two reasons that a love relationship with God is a necessary foundation stone for biblical parenting. The first relates to parents' need for a model, and the second to our need for security.
Our Heavenly Model
We tend to become our parents. For good or ill, parental models significantly shape us. Abusers raise abusers, alcoholics raise alcoholics, well-adjusted parents raise well-adjusted children. Of course there is comfort in the equation only if you are on the positive side. Fear and despair press in, however, if you recognize your own parents' modeling was inadequate or horrid. How can we hope to raise our children well if our own models are broken? The words of the apostle rescue Christian parents raised in deprived situations from hopelessness by reminding them that they are on the positive side of the child-development equation.
The Father of all Christians is God. The passage quoted above says simply that God is "our Father." The obvious grace in this simple statement is more profound to some of us than others. The truth that God is our Father frees us from our past. Because we have a heavenly parent, we are not bound to the negative patterns and practices of our earthly parents. We are not destined to repeat their errors because theirs is not the only imprint on us. God provides us with another parental model as well-himself.
The reality of the heavenly Father's love can be more real, more powerful, more motivating than biology and learned behavior. For this reason an intimate relationship with him does more to establish what we will be as parents than any other single factor in our existence or background. The realization that the Father we perceive our God to be largely shapes the parent we are able to be challenges us to make sure that our understanding of, and consequent relationship with, our God is biblical.
Our Heavenly Security
When the apostle says that God has been a Father to us since before the creation of the world, Paul directly reinforces the security we must have to be effective Christian parents (Eph. 1:4-5). Our greatest failings as parents typically result from our insecurities. I recognize this in myself when I confess what usually upsets me most with my children. What makes me angriest? Too often it is what my children do that embarrasses me or makes me look bad. In such moments I find that I can easily discipline out of my concern for me rather than out of primary concern for my children's welfare. At its root such selfish discipline is a fear of the rejection of people outside my family. Buried beneath my anger is the fear that others will not think as highly of me as I desire-that I will be relegated to the sidelines of their acceptance or respect.
Conversely, I recognize it is often difficult for my wife (and for many other women) to discipline because of the fear that a child will be upset with her or reject her. Fear of a child's getting angry, turning a cold shoulder, or spurning a mother's love has stifled many a mom's discipline-and stirred many a child's rebellion.
Of course these are not gender-specific traits. There are plenty of fathers who will not discipline for fear of a child's rejection and many mothers who serve their own egos through managing the performance of their children. My point is not that both mothers and fathers have flaws but that insecurity can affect the behavior of us all. If we are more concerned about how people outside the family view us, we tend to overreact in discipline. If we are more concerned about how those within the family view us, we tend to underreact in discipline.
The sum of these truths is that anxious parents do not make good parents. So the Bible deals with the source of our anxieties by assuring Christian parents that God dearly loves us and has so loved us since before the creation of the world. Once this assurance takes deep root in a mother's or father's heart, it helps minimize the concern for protecting self that can be the hidden but driving motive behind our parenting decisions. Our security in our relationship with God frees us to parent for our children's good rather than for our own-giving to them our security rather than taking it from them (see Eph. 5:2).
A Love Relationship with a Spouse-The Second Building Block
The necessity of parenting from personal security further explains why Paul talks about the relationship between spouses before discussing parenting (Eph. 5:22-33). He is concerned for more than biological order. His words establish a relational priority that grounds biblical parenting. My relationship with my wife should so confirm her personal security with the Lord that she can afford to do what is best for our children, even if that action threatens a child's acceptance of her. My wife's relationship with me should be such a reinforcement of my own security with the Lord that I do not need to discipline my children for my ego's sake. A healthy relationship between husband and wife provides the spiritual support that grounds discipline in love for the child rather than concern for the parent. God pours his love for the children through parents whose priorities have developed within a context of personal confidence and security. Thus a second building block for a child's nurture is the love the parents share for each other.
The Bible says much about how husbands and wives should love before saying a little about how they should parent (Eph. 5:22-33). The implicit message is that a healthy relationship between a husband and wife is a prerequisite for biblical parenting. This does not mean that single parents cannot do a good job of raising children, when, through the providence of God, they have sole charge, but this is not the regular pattern of Scripture. The reasons that God desires tightly bonded parents are more than the pragmatics of having a united front when it comes to discipline (though such shoulder-to-shoulder responses are an important indication to a child of parental unity). More important is what that unity itself should accomplish.
Through the completing of a man and a woman that a healthy marriage nurtures, a child learns a healthy pattern of intimacy, not just with another person but with God. What, after all, is the ultimate goal of the submission of a wife to her husband's authority and the sacrifice of the husband's prerogatives to the needs of his wife? The ultimate aim is to bring the reality of Christ's love into the marriage. To the extent that parents enable each other to learn and love Christ more, they also establish the model of intimacy that ultimately teaches the child what intimacy with the Lord means. Expressions of love for one another in the home are a direct path to understanding God's love for each of us. As a result, it is important to resurrect the time-tested and biblically corroborated truth that the greatest earthly gift you can give your child is a loving relationship with your spouse.
Because the relationship between parents is a primary conduit of God's grace into a family, a parent who slights his or her spouse for career advancement, unnecessary economic advantage, or even ministry concerns ultimately hurts the child. The eternal consequences of selfish advancements bought at the expense of a healthy home cannot be underestimated. Not even the pursuit of ministry at the expense of a family will serve God's purposes, since ministries are destroyed by broken families.
For the good of a child, the love of one's spouse must even take precedence over the relationship of the parent with that child. A parent who pours affection and attention into children at the expense of honoring a spouse may seem to be serving the children, but such priorities actually jeopardize the ultimate welfare of children. Because God intends for the parents' relationship to bring the reality of Christ's love into the home, a spouse who sacrifices the marriage-even out of apparent concern for the child-jeopardizes the spiritual welfare of that child. When the parents' love for each other takes a backseat to any earthly concern-even a child-the child's ability to know the character of the heavenly Father is hampered.
By these standards the Bible does not encourage parents to slight their children for their own selfish pursuits and enjoyments. Parents are simply not permitted to neglect each other by directing the love that God intends for their spouse to their child.
A loving relationship with God and a loving relationship with a spouse form the foundation of biblical parenting. When we assume the responsibilities of biblical parenting, we subject ourselves to the consequences of these truths. This means we commit ourselves to honoring God and our spouse for the sake of children even when such commitments prove to be trying and difficult.
Understanding that parenting grows out of more foundational relationships can give us important comfort. The Bible's emphases show that the daily context of Christian living is the most powerful tool of child rearing, rather than a precise set of right or wrong parental behaviors. A child's nurture is not determined by a list of rules that we mysteriously divine from Scripture's relatively few statements on specific parenting practices. This conclusion flies in the face of some handbooks on Christian parenting that teach there is only one correct way to affirm or show affection or discipline. Some have even claimed biblical proof for the proper feeding times of infants. Such instructions defy the liberties of Scripture and deny the dignity of individual differences. This kind of teaching also seems to imply that children are likely to be ruined if we make a single mistake in some particular moment or aspect of a child's upbringing. This is precisely what Scripture does not attest.
We will all make mistakes as parents. This does not automatically make us bad parents nor immediately threaten the ultimate welfare of our children. There are actions and practices through which I know my wife and I have made mistakes with our children. There have been times of improper discipline, impatience, and poor judgment that I hope their young minds will not recall. Still, Scripture does not require me to believe that a momentary error will wreck my children. Were I to believe it could, then I would become paralyzed for fear of doing something that would forever ruin them; or I might refuse ever to examine my parenting patterns lest I have to confess that I had warped my children by past mistakes. Because God places the foundations for biblical child rearing in a spiritual- and marital-relationship context, no single act of well-intentioned parenting is determinative of a child's future. The grace that a Christian heart embraces and that a Christian's marriage should foster allows Christian parents the privilege to fail, to seek forgiveness, and to try again. The Father's unconditional, eternal love erases the dread that a momentary lapse or a mistake in judgment will ruin our children or destroy our own relationship with him. This grace of God frees Christians to parent without second-guessing every act of discipline or feeling the need to deny past errors.
The Responsibilities of the Child-The Third Building Block
The fact that we can make mistakes and still be good parents does not mean that God, therefore, releases us from the responsibility of conscientiously promoting godly character in our children. The Bible not only reveals the relationships that form the foundation of Christian parenting; God's Word also describes the responsibilities that should direct the actions of both parents and children.
We will parent well only if we know what God wants to nurture in our children. What does God expect children to do? The simple answer is that he expects them to obey (Eph. 6:1).
Special qualifications accompany the obedience God requires of children. The Bible tells children to submit to their parents "in the Lord." This means that a child should do whatever parents require so long as their instruction is not contrary to God's will or Word. However, Scripture also makes it clear that this submission is to be more than just doing what a parent requires. Sullen, angry, begrudging fulfillment of duty is not acceptable. An obedient child must also honor father and mother (Eph. 6:2). Children must submit in action and attitude to their parents' instruction.
The Apostle Paul supplies two reasons for such submission. First, children are to obey "for this is right" (Eph. 6:1). What a peculiarly simple and, at first glance, unnecessary statement. Despite our temptation to retort, "Of course," there is great wisdom in the apostle's simple affirmation of the rightness of a child's obedience. We sense the importance of his remark when we wonder whether to make our children obey. Because God knows that we parents are easily torn by our love for our children and our insecurities about ourselves, he graciously speaks plainly. When our hearts wrestle with the question, Should I insist my child obey? God answers, Yes, "for this is right." When a young mother cannot bring herself to discipline her child, when a father will not provide the time or attention to discipline, when the latest child-rearing book has made you question whether you should just ignore some improper outburst from your child-in each of these moments we need the straightforward simplicity this Scripture supplies.
The apostle explains why there is a relationship between loving our children and disciplining them when he gives the second reason for children to submit to their parents. Not only is it right for our children to obey, it is good for them (Eph. 6:2-3). God promises obedient children blessing ("that it may go well with you") and safekeeping ("that you may enjoy long life on earth"). This last statement does not guarantee that obedience will ward off all disease and accidents. It is rather a repetition of the general promise of well-being that accompanies the fifth of the Ten Commandments, telling children to obey. (Note, however, that the promise also has a literal fulfillment in that children who honor God with their lives will be kept safe for eternity on this earth when it is renewed by Christ's return.) In effect, the apostle warns that a disobedient child endangers himself physically and spiritually.
The Responsibilities of the Parent-The Fourth Building Block
The final building block in the foundation of child rearing is formed from the expectations God has for parental obedience. Simply stated, parents are to raise their children. The Bible's words carry an implicit understanding of who is to do the raising of a child. Fathers and mothers are those given parenting instruction (Eph. 6:2-4), not grandparents, not paid babysitters or servants, not institutions outside the home. This does not mean the Bible forbids parents ever to utilize the services of others in fulfilling the biblical responsibilities of child care. Still, the words of Scripture challenge all parents to make sure they are the chief caregivers.
The fact that the parenting God requires is a spiritual discipline helps explain the wording the Apostle Paul uses to instruct parents. Paul addresses "fathers" with his only specific instruction for child rearing (Eph. 6:4). This is not because the apostle thinks mothers have no role in child rearing. He clearly identifies the mother's importance when he instructs children to "honor your father and mother" (6:2). However, by addressing the spiritual head of the home directly, the apostle underscores the spiritual challenge and significance of biblical parenting. Because the Bible holds the spiritual head of the home accountable for the nurture of children, the task has obvious spiritual priority. While a man may need to delegate child-rearing responsibilities, he cannot turn over all child-rearing decisions and activities to another. A father remains biblically responsible for the nurture of his children.
Having laid the foundation of relationships and responsibilities on which God expects us to build our parenting, the apostle next issues his instructions for Christian parents through the comments he directs to fathers (Eph. 6:4). Through these imperatives God tells us how his expectations for our children should translate into parental action. These divine commands to which Christian parents must submit themselves come in both negative and positive form-we are told what not to do, and then what to do.
What Parents Should Not Do-The Fifth Building Block
Submitting ourselves to our children's welfare means first that Christians must not parent with unbiblical patterns or priorities. The Bible says, "Do not exasperate your children" (Eph. 6:4). Understanding the special term Scripture uses for this negative instruction unfolds its broad implications for parenting. The Old Testament usage of exasperate (in the Greek translation with which Paul would have been familiar) does not simply refer to frustration, anger, or anxiety. The term describes God's own just anger over Israel's idolatry. The exasperation described here refers to a righteous resentment of actions or attitudes inconsistent with one's faith commitments. Thus an exasperated child is one who has a right to be provoked because of the inconsistencies between a parent's stated beliefs and that parent's actual behaviors.
Our children have a right to be upset with us when our parental actions conflict with our spiritual values. We do not have to guess what values the apostle has in mind in this passage of the Bible. Preceding verses stress the importance of using authority based on the example of Christ, expressing love patterned after the sacrifice of Christ, and showing respect out of reverence for Christ. What would be inconsistent with these values that would cause exasperation in children?
Authority that requires submission but submits to none, as when a mother tells a child to quit whining by whining at him, or when a father compels self-control by throwing a temper tantrum.
Love that requires sacrifice but seeks self, as when a mother pushes for a child's success to affirm her own worth, or when a father punishes to enforce behavior that secures reputation, adulation, or service for himself.
Respect demanded at the expense of individual dignity, as when a mother shames a child into obedience, or when a father exerts control by comparing the child with others inside or outside the family.
Whether discipline takes the form of manipulative guilt trips, shaming silent treatments, or abusive denials of a child's worth, the home that rules by condemnation undermines biblical obedience. The essence of biblical parenting is recognizing that we are the dispensers of God's grace into our children's lives. Our children learn to identify and reverence God's character through the way we treat them, both in moments of profound pride and in times of intense disappointment.
Godly parenting should reflect a deep understanding of our Lord's grace. Out of respect for the individual gifts God has granted my children, I must submit myself to the responsibility of discovering ways to discipline them that honor the unique ways God has made them and plans to use them. Biblical parenting requires me to respect the dignity of my children's differences, to use my authority selflessly, and to affirm their worth without seeking to inflate mine. As my children have grown older and as their maturing involves issues more complex and prolonged than in earlier years, I have discovered how important it is simply to resolve to love them-and to express my resolve even when we differ. In short, more and more I realize that my parenting must remain consistent with my understanding of the grace God extends to me. I must not exasperate my children by disciplining for my sake (rather than theirs) and without regard for the unique ways God has made and is maturing each of them.
What Parents Should Do-The Sixth Building Block
God does not tell us merely what not to do for our children's welfare. Thankfully he tells us what to do as well. Scripture instructs Christian parents to "bring them [children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4). The great theologian John Calvin communicated the import of this "bring them up" phrase by translating the words as "let them [children] be fondly cherished." This interpretation reflects how the Bible uses these nurturing terms elsewhere. The Apostle Paul uses a similar kind of wording earlier in this passage when saying a husband should cherish his wife as much as he "cares" for his own body and just as Christ does the church (5:29). Paul now intensifies these concepts in his instruction to fathers regarding the care of their children. The effect of this wording is that the apostle tells each father to care for his child as deeply and intensely as possible-as much as he "cares" for his own flesh.
The biblical use of these terms has deep theological significance for parenting. As the first husband, Adam, "cared" for his wife as flesh of his flesh (i.e., the product of his own body); and as Christ "cares" for his bride, the church (which is the product of his sacrificed flesh), so we as parents are to "care" intensely for our children. They are the product of our flesh. Since our life is in them, we are to bring up our children with the care we give to our own bodies. We should nurture our children as the essence of our lives. This means the physical and spiritual vitality God grants Christians should also thrive in their children as the product of sacrificial care. Parents are to be givers, pouring themselves into the nurture of those God commits to their keeping.
How do we nurture with such care? The Apostle Paul gives two words to guide: "training" and "instruction." Both of these terms refer to the discipline of children but with slightly different shades of meaning. Training carries the more positive connotation-parents are to model, teach, and encourage godly patterns of life. Instruction contains a slightly negative nuance-parents are to warn, correct, and discipline when actions or attitudes are inconsistent with godliness. The shades of meaning may be a bit more clear in older translations that encourage parents to raise children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." The biblical writers most typically use these words when describing the ways Scripture itself instructs believers through caring guidance and loving reproof. Paul's use of the same terms should remind us that godly parenting requires a balance of affirmation and correction.
How do we achieve this balance of training and instruction, of affirmation and correction, of firm but kindly parenting? The answer lies in the final words of the Apostle Paul's instruction. We are to raise our children in the training and instruction "of the Lord." The chief goal of parenting is to enable children to know and honor God. This means we parents should constantly examine whether our words, our manner, our correction, and our home environment nurture an understanding of the Lord. This requires more than the application of a specific technique of discipline or setting a curfew in accord with the standards of the latest parenting seminar.
No single set of techniques or rules will make us good parents. Our sins and our children are far more perplexing than any book, seminar, or sermon can comprehensively cover. I am not devaluating the many helpful things that we can learn from Christian authors and other experienced parents. We simply must remember that the complexities of each child's nature and situations will not allow template responses.
Parenting by Grace
Christian parenting compels us to reflect our God and as a consequence leads us to greater dependence on him and to a greater appreciation of him. By submitting ourselves to the good of children, we discover our own most noble purposes and are drawn most closely to the divine nature. News reports of the action of two parents aboard Amtrak's Sunset Limited in 1993 revealed these truths with a powerful poignancy.
Gary and Mary Jane Chancey were riding on the Limited on a foggy September morning when the train plunged off a railway bridge into a bayou outside Mobile, Alabama. The Chanceys were traveling with their eleven-year-old daughter, Andrea, who has cerebral palsy and requires a wheelchair. As their train car sank into the bayou, water rushed into the Chanceys' capsized compartment. Fighting the flow of water rushing through the window, the two parents combined their efforts to lift Andrea to a rescuer. Then the water pressure overwhelmed them, pushed them deep into the darkness of the train cabin, and they were gone.
These parents gave their lives to the purpose of lifting their child to physical safety. God calls all Christian parents to similar sacrifice, enduring what may be intense pressure and pain to lift our children to spiritual safety. We are not all called to die for our children, but we die to self each time-for our children's sake-we hold our tongues, control our anger, endure being misunderstood, take time for a ball game, absorb an insult, ignore an embarrassment, turn down a promotion requiring more time away, love patiently, discipline consistently, and forgive always. By the ways we love God and each other, by the ways we model the Lord and mold our children's perception of him, by the way we raise them in the patterns of his love, and by the way we constantly seek his direction-in all of these ways we give ourselves so that our children may understand their Savior's love for them. In doing so, we discern the love we require as well as the love we must give. By lifting our children to the Savior, we become like him and thus discover in a parent's heart another means to measure and to marvel at the love of the Savior who lifts us to heaven by his sacrifice.