In a famous passage in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, young Pip embodies the plight of many Victorian-era children. Placed in an uncomfortable position at the dinner table, he’s expected to remain silent, is given only “those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain,” and is castigated by the grown-ups around the table.
Many modern parents have veered to the opposite extreme in relating to their children. Instead of treating them like dirt, they treat them like peers. In her popular 1970s book Your Child’s Self-Esteem, Dorothy Briggs encouraged parents to share power within their families and set family rules together with their children. As Briggs said, “Democracy has little meaning to a child unless he feels the daily benefits of it at home.” I know parents who operate this way, interacting with their kids as peers, reasoning with them as those with equal authority.
Ephesians 6:1–4 sets out a very different approach to parenting. One of the distinctives of this approach is a call for parents to love their children by occupying positions of authority within their homes.
Fathers, You Will Answer to God
The Bible is full of surprising words. One of them is found in Ephesians 6:4, where Paul writes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The surprising word in that verse is “fathers.” Paul instructs children how to relate to their “parents” (Ephesians 6:1) and to their “father and mother” (Ephesians 6:2). Therefore, when we come to verse 4, we’re naturally expecting Paul to turn the tables and instruct moms and dads how to relate to their children.
But he doesn’t say, “Parents, do not provoke your children.” Instead, he says “fathers.” Why?
“It is good, fitting, and right for children to obey their parents. We all need to hear this.”
Some might assume it’s because fathers are more likely to provoke their kids and are therefore in greater need of the command! I think we find a more likely answer in the preceding passage, where Paul teaches God’s design for husbands and wives. In Paul’s vision of home and family life, there’s a mom and a dad, and the dad is the primary leader of the family. Fathers are singled out in verse 4 because they’re the ones ultimately responsible for what happens in their homes — just as God came first to Adam, even though Eve was first to eat the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:9).
Paul’s focus on fathers should be a wake-up call for Christian dads, many of whom prefer to concentrate primarily on their careers while handing over supervision of the children to their wives, gradually sliding out of close touch with how their kids are really doing spiritually and emotionally. Dads, are your children being nurtured, disciplined, taught, and warned? You’re the one ultimately responsible for ensuring that is happening. If it’s not, don’t blame your wife. You will answer first to God.
Children, Obey Your Mothers
Paul’s focus on dads certainly doesn’t mean moms have no responsibility or authority over their children. On the contrary, Paul instructs children to honor and obey both parents (Ephesians 6:1–2).
Moms and dads, that means if we’re to occupy the roles God intends for us, we must believe that authority and obedience are good things. The squashing, silencing, and scorning of children described by Dickens is ruled out by Paul’s command not to “provoke” our children. But as Paul says in verse 1, it is good, fitting, and right for children to obey their parents. We all need to hear this, some of us desperately so.
Perhaps at the heart of your relationship with your children, there’s a big question mark about who’s actually in charge. Maybe the answer isn’t entirely clear either to you or your child.
Two Benefits of Authority
When parents embrace their God-given authority in the home, two precious outcomes follow. One result is that children receive their first experience of firm, loving authority, which prepares them to one day submit to the authority of God himself. As Tim Chester says, “Learning to enjoy your parent’s authority is the first step towards welcoming God’s authority.” And here’s the sobering reality: if our children don’t learn obedience, they cannot be Christians. Becoming a Christian requires obedience to Christian teaching, obedience to the gospel, and obedience to Jesus himself (Romans 6:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 5:9).
The second outcome of embracing our parental authority is that we’ll be in a position to parent as God intends us to. According to verse 4, properly authoritative parents “nourish” their kids – that’s the meaning of the word often translated “bring up.” “Nourish” captures well the tenderness and care of the word (see Ephesians 5:29, and 1 Kings 11:20, where it’s used for breastfeeding). To “nourish” something is to feed it, care for it, and make sure it’s healthy and strong. Christian parents are ultimately responsible for the spiritual formation of their children. Not a school. Not a day care. Not a church.
“If our children don’t learn obedience, they cannot be Christians.”
Verse 4 says we’re to nourish our children in two ways. First, by instructing them through godly, loving discipline. Second, by instructing them through verbal warnings (including teaching them about God’s holiness and judgment). This is a robust vision of what it means to nourish our children, one that requires mom and dad to be the undisputed authorities in their homes.
Paul isn’t merely saying to parents, “Teach your kids wholesome values and good, clean living.” We know that because he tells parents to bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Good parental instruction points children to Jesus. It’s the instruction, discipline, and warning that Jesus himself has given us in the New Testament. This isn’t moralism. It’s gospel-centered parenting that focuses on the Lord Jesus.
Dads and moms, let’s gladly embrace the authority God has granted us as parents, for the glory of Christ and the eternal good of our kids.