Every day we make decisions. It’s part of being human. We can choose. But we know that there are some decisions in life where we have a sense of obligation – a sense of duty. But such obligations need to be awakened. Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right, writes the Apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 6, verse 1.
In chapter 6 of his Letter Paul continues the theme of family relationships. Significantly, he speaks of obedience in the Lord in a child’s relationship with their parents.
Obedience. Many in our progressive society today don’t agree with the notions of obligation or duty. Ethics has become subjective, people doing what they feel is right for them. It’s one of the reasons why there’s so much ambivalence about sexual matters, or about honesty and justice. So, when a young child questions a parental expectation, they are told, ‘Because we say so’. But, in time the growing child will question such authority. They will want to know if there is a better reason.
It’s here that many parents today come unstuck. Developing children need to be instructed in the Lord and, in turn come to understand the nature of the relationships that follow – not simply as rules and regulations, but out of the relationship of love that the Lord has for us and, in turn that parents have for their children. They need to come to know God who, though we were dead through our trespasses, in his mercy has made us alive together with Christ. Without such knowledge children in today’s world may as well do as they like.
“Honor your father and mother” – this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth”, Paul continues (6:2-3).
The promise. Paul conflates the two different versions of the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long” (Exodus 20:12) and, “that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16). The first four of the Ten Commandments are usually understood to refer to our duty to God, and the second six, our duty to our neighbor. Significantly, the Jewish world understood the first five to refer to our duty to God and the second five to our duty to our neighbor. Thus, to honor parents is tightly connected to honoring God, and speaks of children developing and growing in their understanding of God within a relationship of love.
Furthermore, so important is the injunction of obedience to children that Paul promotes it as the first, or primary commandment for children with a promise. While interpretations abound concerning Paul’s meaning – it’s actually the only commandment with a promise – let me suggest that we understand it as a general promise, with reference to a stable society. As Martin Luther commented, a stable society is dependent on a secure and safe family life, where growing children learn to obey their parents within a loving framework.
Now it’s important to note the caveat that Paul includes here: children are to obey their parents in the Lord. That is, children are not called upon to obey their parents in matters that conflict with the Lord’s instruction.
Parents. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, Paul writes (6:4). These words would have shocked the Roman world where the father was the autocratic head of the family, with untold power over his offspring – including killing a newborn or selling them into slavery. Parents, for mothers as well as fathers can translate the word Paul uses, are not to abuse their children in any way, victimizing them and arousing anger and hatred.
Rather, parents are to equip their children in the knowledge and love of the Lord. The words of Deuteronomy chapter 6, verses 4 through 7 come to mind: Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
The single most important educational influence on our children is their parents. It’s built into the very nature of the parent’s relationship in the child’s experience. Children don’t stop learning when they get home from school: they are learning every waking hour of the day. It’s one of the strong reasons children need to be guided in their use of their phones and social media as well as tv viewing. The best people to instil fundamental attitudes and form children’s self-identity and moral lives are parents. Yes, it’s hard work and requires sacrifice. But it is our duty and the rewards are great.
So, we should never give up talking about our convictions. Create an atmosphere of learning in a relationship framed by genuine love, care and fun – when you’re at home or going out, when you put them to bed and when they wake up. There’s no point in sending your child to church if you don’t go yourself; there’s no point in telling your child to pray and read the Bible, if you never do yourself; there’s no point in telling your child not to lie or swear, if you do yourself.
The home. Think about the time you spend on your phone or in front of the big screen. Use the precious conversations at bed-time and around the dinner table. Answer their questions about life – about right and wrong, life and death, about drugs and alcohol, about climate anxiety, about God. Speak as plainly as you can about what Jesus means to you. These are crucial times. Their educational experiences at home will live in the memories of our children for a life-time.
It’s in the home, as we instruct our children about God and Jesus Christ, that they learn their own value and self-esteem as a boy or girl, made in the image of God. It’s in the home they are socialised: they learn how to get on with other people. It’s in the home, they learn to respect authority and discipline. It’s in the home, they develop as individuals and find their individuality accepted, appreciated and affirmed.
Parents (as well as grandparents and uncles and aunts) are well placed to blend the demands of society and the needs of the child in a way that fully affirms the dignity of the child and yet also makes that child ready for society, to mix with other people and not just to be a self-centered little island.
The big picture. In Ephesians chapter 5, verse 21 through chapter 6, verse 5, Paul sets out the balance of selfless and responsible attitudes that are vital in marriage and family life.
So much more could be said about this important and complex section of Paul’s Letter. You may want to follow up with your local church ministry team.
As Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
A prayer. Almighty God, our heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ shared at Nazareth the life of an earthly home: bless our homes, we pray. Help parents to impart the knowledge of you and your love; and children to respond with love and obedience. May our homes be blessed with peace and joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.