Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
Following the negative charge to fathers — “do not provoke your children to anger” — Paul captures a positive vision for Christian parenting with two key terms: “discipline and instruction” in the ESV. The Greek words beneath them have been the subject of much discussion and have led to a variety of translations. We might capture the meaning just as well, if not better, with training and counsel — which might help both our clarity of vision and practical application in parenting.
The first concept, “discipline” or “training” (paideia), is the broader and more comprehensive of the two. It likely speaks to the full educational process from infant to adult, and the years of intentionality, initiative, energy, and follow-through it takes to train a child for adulthood. That is, it is a long-term process, like training for the Olympics, but with far more at stake.
We might think of it as whole-life training — body and soul — not mere classroom instruction. “The term paideia,” comments S.M. Baugh, “has rich cultural associations in the Greek world for the training and education of youths in a wide range of subjects and disciplines” (Ephesians, 509–10). This kind of fatherly training, then, involves not only words, but example and imitation.
Training Toward Maturity
Such comprehensive life-training is what Moses received when he was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” making him, in time, “mighty in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). It’s what Paul received, for years, as he was brought up in Tarsus, “educated at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). Such whole-life training, as extended preparation for healthy adulthood, is our calling as Christian parents, training both the outer person and behaviors as well as pressing through to the heart to form and re-form the inner persons of our children.
“Maturity, after all, in any sphere of human life, typically does not come automatically, but through training.”
As Jesus spoke about his disciples being trained during their time with him (Matthew 13:52; Luke 6:40), so we disciple our children toward Christian maturity. Maturity, after all, in any sphere of human life, typically does not come automatically, but through training (Hebrews 5:14). Discipling does something; it changes the disciple — and greatly so over time. And such training is often not easy but requires persisting in moments of discomfort, even pain, to endure on the path toward the reward set before us (Hebrews 12:11).
Work ethic, for instance, is not automatic; we must teach our children to work. Nor does holiness come naturally, but God’s grace in Christ trains us, and our children through us, “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12).
Well-Equipped to Train Well
We might be so quick to disclaim the proverbial nature of that famous childrearing verse that we neglect to pause and really ponder what training involves. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). There may be far more to training — both with the body, and with the more pliable soul — than modern parents tend to recognize.
And our God has made sure that we as parents are amply supplied and fully resourced for these extensive years of training our children: he gave us his Book. At the heart and center of parental training is not our own life experience and acquired wisdom (valuable as that is), but the Scriptures, “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
This training doubtless includes what we might more narrowly call discipline (Hebrews 12:3–11), even as we note well the difference between discipline toward a goal and punishment as an end (1 Corinthians 11:32; 2 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:25; Revelation 3:19). Yet the whole process of parental training is comprehensive and constructive, not only responsive; and holistic, not only intellectual.
Specific Verbal Training
The second concept, then, translated “instruction” — or perhaps “counsel” (nouthesia) — is more specific, and included under the broader category of training.
With this second term, the accent is verbal, and less hands-on — specifically about the role of our words as parents. Now we move beyond visionary teaching and demonstration to corrective speech, but still as a means to the child’s long-term good, not as an end. This is how we often use the word counsel today, though not without the sense of “admonishing” or “warning.” And parental counsel typically endures beyond the years of immediate training. Parenting doesn’t end when our children move out of the house. Parental training, at that point, may be essentially complete, but parental counsel, we hope, will long endure.
Such counsel in the New Testament covers a range of circumstances, whether the more positive counsel that Old Testament examples provide for Christians today (“they were written down for our instruction, 1 Corinthians 10:11), or the more negative warnings we extend to “a person who stirs up division” (Titus 3:10). On the whole, we do well to remember the kind of father’s heart — slow to chide and swift to bless — from which such warnings and admonitions issue.
Consider, then, at least five realities that will accompany godly counsel.
Friends of Fatherly Counsel
The first friends of fatherly counsel are our tears. On the beach at Miletus, when Paul bids farewell to the Ephesian elders, he reminds them that “for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears” (Acts 20:31). His apostolic counsel came with tears, not vindictiveness. He did not speak critically, from an angry or distant heart, but in love he spoke his words of correction for their good.
Second, and related, is a good heart. He says to the Romans that he’s confident that they are “able to instruct one another,” because “you, my brothers, . . . are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge” (Romans 15:14). Fullness of both knowledge and goodness coexists in a heart that offers such counsel. It is from such a good heart that our children need our counsel and warnings.
Third, fatherly love. When Paul spoke hard words, as he did to the Corinthians, he did so not “to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” The reason he gives is his fatherly heart for them: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers” (1 Corinthians 4:14–15). General counsel and admonitions may have their place; but our children have special need of corrective words that flow from a father’s peculiar love.
Fourth, teaching and wisdom. Twice Colossians speaks of “warning everyone” and “admonishing one another” (that is, Christian counsel) that is both paired with teaching and accompanied with “all wisdom”:
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. . . . Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 1:28; 3:16)
As parents, we might also observe here the goal of our parenting (Christian maturity), the essential means of our calling (the word of Christ), and the correlation with singing (joy made audible) and thankfulness. Singing, thankful fathers make for good counselors, who both correct and give hope.
Finally, brotherly warning. In 2 Thessalonians 3:15, Paul contrasts the disregard one might have for an enemy with the kind of warning counsel of a brother. And in 1 Thessalonians 5:12–14, this warning counsel is again the kind of speech characteristic of a congregation’s loving fathers — that is, its pastor-elders (verse 12) — and is deserving of the church’s esteem (verse 13). Such warning keeps company with encouraging, helping, and patience (verse 14).
Making Fathering Christian
In Paul’s one-verse vision of parenting, he finishes with one final phrase that is no throwaway. In our efforts at fatherly training and counsel, we dare not ignore it. In fact, this last note is the most important one of all. All our years of training, and all our hard and precious words of counsel, will be for naught in view of eternity without the finishing touch: “of the Lord.”
“Christian parenting aims, in everything, to teach our children Christ.”
Christian parenting aims far higher than competent, seemingly healthy adults. Christian parenting aims, in everything, to teach our children Christ. We want them to “learn Christ.” Which fits with the way Paul warns the church in Ephesians 4:20–21: “That is not the way you learned Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.”
In Christ, we want all our parenting covered by the banner of teaching them Christ. As Charles Hodge comments on Ephesians 6:4, “This whole process of education is to be religious, and not only religious but Christian” (Ephesians, 204). Our parental training is training in Christ. And our parental counsel, however encouraging or corrective, is counsel in Christ. In him, and through him, and for him is all Christian parenting.
As we nourish our children in the training and counsel of our Lord, we make knowing and enjoying him the final focus of our efforts. As we do, we get to be instruments in his hands, and mouthpieces of his words, in his cause for the deep and eternally enduring joy of our children.