Ephesians Study 16: Children and Parents

In the previous lesson (really the last three lessons), the notion of submission has been an important topic. Recall the idea of submission is setting aside our “rights” and preferences, and serving others. Why? “Out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). 

As Carlin explained, learning to submit, practicing submission to one another is part of what brings us closer to God’s presence and is essential to our transformation into being more like Christ. As we move to chapter 6, Paul continues with the topic of submission. In this chapter Paul deals with ideas that are very applicable to us all.

In the first part of chapter 6 Paul has some instructions for children and parents.

Ephesians 6:1-4

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so 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.

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

– Before we begin – 

As we begin to think about these verses let me make an observation I believe is important. It is easy for parents to read these verses and focus on the first few words, “Children, obey your parents…” 

Paul’s instruction is for children to obey their parents, BUT, there is more in these opening verses than just those words. It is important for parents and children to appreciate there are lessons for both, and neither should disregard the entirety of Paul’s message.

One more point before “digging in” to the verses…Paul used the term “children” in addressing those who are not adults. The terms tweener, teenager, high school student, and young adult likely were not in use when Paul was writing. Paul’s instructions about the relationship between children and parents is not bound by age. No matter how young or how old, children are to obey and honor their parents. Please do not be “put off” by use of the term children. I use the term because that is what Paul used, and the focus is on relationship between parents and their children, no matter what the age of the children.

– The big picture – 

Thinking about these verses, there are three points I am going to focus on. First, instructions for children that direct the relationship children are to have with their parents. Second, instructions for parents that direct the relationship parents are to have with their children. Third, for both, the relationship children and parents are to have is based on the fact that we are in Christ. Remember, our submission to one another is out of reverence for Christ, and a desire to become more like (really more of) Christ.

– For children –

Paul’s message for children seems straightforward, obey your parents and honor your father and mother. To obey and to honor, are those the same? They are related concepts, but there are differences. If you look up the definition of “obey,” you will find, “to follow the commands or guidance of; to conform or comply with” (Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary). If you look up the definition of “honor” you will find, to regard or treat (someone) with admiration and respect; to give special recognition to” (Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary). We begin learning during childhood what it is to obey and to honor.

As we grow up, we learn so much. We learn how to talk, to stand, to walk, to run. We learn to make choices. We have to be taught that some choices have bad consequences. I expect at some point we were all taught (more likely told) not to touch a hot stove. When we are very young, we explore the world around us with our eyes and our hands. That is part of how we learn, by touching objects, picking them up and playing with them. A young child will automatically reach out to touch items, including a hot stove. The child has not yet learned about getting burned, so she or he is told by his parents not to touch a hot stove. A very curious child may continue to reach out for the hot stove, and the parents may have to use discipline (like slapping the child’s hand) to teach obedience. At this stage a child obeys the command to avoid a hand slap, even though she or he does not understand about getting burned.

One point to understand from the preceding is that we have to be taught to obey instructions or directions. We are to obey our parents, to follow their instructions because it is their responsibility to teach. Our natural inclination would be to make choices that serve our own interests, to only be concerned with what we desire. When we are given instructions or directions, regardless of our age, we must make a choice to obey or to disobey. We must be taught what it means to obey.

I do not get to do or say anything I want, anytime I want. Recall from the last two lessons Paul encourages his readers to be careful how we live, to be wise and not unwise (Ephesians 5:15). More specifically, Paul instructs us all that we should follow God’s example (and walk in the way of love; Ephesians 5:1). Rather than having a self-focus, God has shown us what it means to have an other-focus. Parents have the responsibility of helping us learn what it means, and what is involved, in having an other-focus.

When we are willing to obey our parents-without arguing or complaining-when they give instructions, that is one way of showing honor. Children also honor their parents when they make choices that are consistent with how they have been taught, or “how they have been raised.” 

In our home we have a walling hanging with “family rules.” The rules include be kind, share with others, listen to each other, respect each other. When our children follow those rules, without having to be told to be kind or to share with others, they are showing honor. Our children also honor us when they live out those rules away from our home, when they are kind to others, when they respect others. My wife and I do not always know our children’s behaviors away from our home, but following through on how they have been taught is honoring their father and mother. 

– Some historical context –

In verses 2 and 3 when Paul writes about honoring one’s father and mother, he is referring to one of the ten commandments.

Deuteronomy 5:16 

“Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Paul gives a reason for honoring (and obeying) one’s father and mother, so it may go well with you and you may enjoy long life. In the first century (and earlier), children were subject to a father’s authority. A father literally decided his child’s fate. A child could be treated as a slave, could be made to work at whatever task needed to be done, could be punished in whatever way the father decided was appropriate, could even be put to death if a father so directed (the latter was by no means a common occurrence). 

The point I want to make is that the parent-child relationship has evolved over time, and that Christ’s teachings have been an important influence on recognizing that children are to be valued, to be recognized, that we are to consider ourselves as children of God. Think about Jesus’ response to little children in Matthew 19.

Matthew 19:13-15

13 Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. 14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

Consider also Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18.

Matthew 18:1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

In a time when children were not highly regarded, Jesus taught the importance of acknowledging children, and also the importance of having a child-like quality in our relationship with God. Children are trusting and loving, which are important characteristics for us to have in our relationship with God. Consistent with the teachings of Jesus, Paul encourages parents to raise children in the training and instruction of the Lord.