Ten Biblical Truths on the Obedience of Children

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Two years ago, I must have struck a nerve with the article “Parents, Require Obedience of Your Children.” It has proved to be one of our most visited resources.

In view of that, I thought it might be helpful to go behind that article, and give a deeper, wider biblical basis for rearing and disciplining children. My guess is that most of us parent by intuition and tradition. That’s not all bad. Parenting is an art, not a science. And artists do not consult manuals as they paint.

But our human intuitions and traditions should be shaped by God’s revelation. So think of this article as a short lesson about some things God has revealed in the Bible that give foundation and guidance for our parenting. We’ll start with the very basics.

1. Marriage between one man and one woman for life is God’s plan for the procreation and rearing of children.

The lifelong covenant of marriage between a man and a woman is God’s original idea for the human race. It is modeled on, and rooted in, God’s eternal plan to redeem a bride for his Son — the church.

A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)

“From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:6–9)

“A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31–32)

2. The covenant union of marriage was the way God planned to fill the earth with human beings who would reflect his glory by their faith and creative productivity.

God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

3. Children were not to be conceived outside the covenant of marriage. For that reason — and others — sexual relations were denied to the unmarried, and adultery was forbidden to the married.

Flee from sexual fornication. (1 Corinthians 6:18)

“You shall not commit adultery.” (Romans 13:9)

4. Children are a gift from God; they are not of our own making.

Job tells us that it was God who gave him his children. The psalmist says our children are a heritage from the Lord. And Ruth illustrates that, when a child is conceived, that conception is the work of God.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. (Psalm 127:3)

Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. (Ruth 4:13)

5. Parents, therefore, are to provide for their children’s needs.

Parents are to provide for the basic needs of their children, from their first nursing at the breast to their establishment of self-sufficient maturity. Paul taught the fathers of Ephesus to “nourish” or “nurture” their children. This is the basic meaning of the Greek ektrepho in Ephesians 6:4 — “bring them up.”

Paul modeled the providing father in his relation to his spiritual “children” in the church of Corinth:

I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. (2 Corinthians 12:14)

6. Parents are to instruct their children in the basic skills of cultural life, the truths about God and his way of salvation, and the path of wisdom in this world.

“These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:6–9; see also Psalm 78:5–7)

Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, he taught me and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live.” (Proverbs 4:1–4)

7. Parents are to discipline disobedient children with proportionate and loving measures of punishment.

God teaches us this through direct commands in Scripture.

Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death. (Proverbs 19:18)

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. (Proverbs 22:15)

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol. (Proverbs 23:13–14)

The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. (Proverbs 29:15)

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

God also teaches us to discipline our children by examples where fathers failed to do it.

“I declare to [Eli] that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” (1 Samuel 3:13)

Adonijah [David’s son] exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, “Why have you done thus and so?” (1 Kings 1:5–6)

And, thirdly, God teaches us to discipline our children by setting us an example in the discipline of his own children. This is especially relevant for Christian parents, because God has already covered the sins of his children by the blood of Christ, yet he believes they need discipline in the shaping of their faith and character.

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)

“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:19)

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7–11)

No one loves his children more than God does. And no one is more attentive to discipline us for our good. Every Christian parent should consider seriously that when our children are under our care, we are God’s representatives to prepare them for their heavenly Father’s discipline when they are no longer under ours. If they find God’s discipline surprising, we may have left something undone.

8. Parents are to encourage their children.

“No one loves his children more than God. And no one is more attentive to discipline for our good.”

We receive this instruction through direct commands in the Bible to encourage our children rather than discourage them. The commands come in the negative form of warning, perhaps because we are so prone to dishearten our children with criticism, and so inept at authentic, spontaneous, non-manipulative praise.

Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Colossians 3:21)

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger. (Ephesians 6:4)

God gives us his own fatherly example of the encouragement of his own children.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. . . . As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:10, 13)

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

And the apostle Paul gave himself as an example of this kind of encouraging treatment of children.

You know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12)

9. The responsibility of parents to require obedience is underlined by the duty God gives to children to obey.

We see this in the Bible’s direct commands to children.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12 = Deuteronomy 5:16; Matthew 15:4; Mark 10:19)

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.” (Ephesians 6:1–3)

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. (Colossians 3:20)

And we see our duty as parents to require obedience of our children in the way the Scriptures indict those who do not obey their parents.

Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. . . . They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty . . . disobedient to parents. (Romans 1:28–30)

People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy. (2 Timothy 3:2)

And the elders of the church are told to model for their people a home-life with submissive children.

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive. (1 Timothy 3:4)

10. The both-and task of parenting — encouraging and disciplining — is rooted in God’s purpose that true biblical faith flourishes when Christians (and their children) are regularly reminded of God’s kindness and his severity.

You stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. . . . Note then the kindness and the severity of God. (Romans 11:20, 22)

“Faith flourishes when Christians (and their children) are reminded of God’s kindness and his severity.”

The kind of fear we should cultivate in ourselves as Christians, and in our children, is not the cowering fear that slaves have of their masters, but the reverential fear of the one we love and delight to please — a fear that awakens when we are drifting from him, and sends us hurrying back. Such is the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). It is what we feel toward our Father in heaven (1 Peter 1:17; Psalm 103:13), and what we expect our children to learn from our fatherly kindness and discipline. “My son, fear the Lord” (Proverbs 24:21).

Faithful Parenting Takes Sacrifice

Parenting is a very high calling from God. It is one of the most influential roles in the world. It portrays God to children before they know what God is like. It shapes them profoundly. It is the way God designed for his saving truth to pass from one generation to the next. It is not easy, but costly.

Passive parenting is easy, and bears bitter fruit. Faithful parenting demands sacrifice and self-denial. It is not guaranteed success. The best-reared children may rebel. God’s did. “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me” (Isaiah 1:2). This is a great sorrow. But it is not the bitter fruit of parental neglect.

Pour out your prayers to God, and give your heart to your children. Give them your strength, and give them God’s truth. The rewards will be great. And you will not regret it.