Let me start by quoting a mother who wrote this to Readers’ Digest:
Our son, Robin, was notorious for his room being a mess. And having nagged him, I finally wrote a note and left it on his bedroom floor. It read: ‘Dear Robin, I wish I was clean and tidy like the other rooms. Love, Bedroom.’
Next day, I looked into his room, and was amazed to find it tidy, dusted and hoovered. And on the floor was another note. It read: ‘Dear bedroom, I hope that feels better. Love Robin. P.S. You’re beginning to sound just like my mother.’
Well the topic of this week’s passage in our Ephesians series Is ‘Children and Parents’. Which we all know from experience isn’t always an easy relationship. And can I say, please don’t narrow this down in your mind to the young family plus dog in the car adverts. Because this speaks to us all, because we’re all children of some age – even if, like me, you can only relate to the memory of your parents. And if we’re not parents now, a good number of us will be. And even if we never have our own children,
there’s a role for all of us in helping to bring up the children in our church family; and maybe for some, in fostering or adoption. So before we get into the passage, let’s pray:
Father, through this part of your written Word, please help us to understand your will for us as children and parents.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So if you have a Bible, please turn to Ephesians 5.21 – because that’s the heading to the bit of Ephesians we’re in right now. And it says we’re to be:
submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
And as we saw last week, that word ‘submit’ means to recognise and accept where there’s a certain order in a relationship. So Ephesians 5 is about the God-given order in marriage. While Ephesians 6 is going to tell us about the God-given order between children and parents. And it says first:
1. Children, honour the God-given position of your parents (Ephesians 6.1-3)
Listen to Ephesians 6.1-3 again:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. [And Paul then quotes the reason it’s right – which is the fifth commandment. Quote:] “Honour your father and mother” [and Paul adds in brackets:]
(this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
So the word that sums up how the Lord wants children to relate to their parents, is ‘Honour’. Which means, ‘give due weight to’, ‘have high regard for’, ‘respect’. And that’s because of their God-given position – not only as those who brought us into the world, but as our primary educators. And if they’re Christian, above all, they’re our primary educators about Jesus and the Bible.
So I remember one of you in our CYFA group being interviewed at our baptism and confirmation service and saying, ‘I’m so grateful that, whether I’ve been keen on it or not, my parents have opened the Bible with me all my life.’ And that’s why the fifth commandment comes where it comes. So commandments 1 to 4 are about relating to the Lord. Commandments 5 to 10 are then about relating to each other. And within that, isn’t it striking that relating to parents comes first? So above the sanctity of marriage (‘You shall not commit adultery’), even above the sanctity of life (‘You shall not murder’), comes the sanctity of the parent-child relationship. Because, if they’re believers, they’re our primary educators about Jesus and the Bible. And even if not believers, they’re our primary moral educators. Which is why we need to resist it whenever the State tries to usurp the position of parents.
That’s what was happening in Scotland with the Named Person Act – which, thank God, was stopped through the work of The Christian Institute. That’s what is happening with the Scottish Justice Secretary trying to introduce a new law that would criminalise so-called ‘hate speech’ in the home. (‘Daddy, can two men really get married?’ The new law could threaten a parent’s freedom in their own home to say, ‘No’.) And it’s happening with the new Relationships Education in English primary schools, where the State has stripped parents of the right to withdraw their children from exposure to all sorts of false ideologies. And yet the European Convention on Human Rights (which we’re signed up to regardless of Brexit) says:
“…the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
And the European Court of Human Rights has said:
“The State (including state-funded schools) is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions.”
So this passage raises big political issues – which may mean legal battles ahead for Christian parents. But let’s come back to the personal issues and ask: What exactly does it mean to ‘honour your father and mother’? And the answer depends on your age as a child. So here in Ephesians 6, Paul seems to have younger children in mind. Partly because he says in Ephesians 6.1 that honouring involves obeying. And partly because in Ephesians 6.4, the children are still being brought up by their parents. So for young children, obeying parents is central to honouring them. And the problem with teaching these verses at this time of day is that the people they’re primarily written to are having supper or in the bath or on their way to bed. So, parents: you need to teach them these verses.
And in our family Bible time, over the years, we’ve come back to the commandments or these verses – to remind us of the Lord’s will for children and parents, and to help our children see that the Lord wants them to obey us. And in our home, when obedience doesn’t exactly happen on cue, I often say, ‘What does obedience mean? It means doing what your told, when you’re told, and doing it willingly.’ And I sound like a broken record. But much parenting is about sounding like a broken record – in the knowledge that your digital children probably don’t know what a record is, broken or otherwise. Well look at Ephesians 6.1 again:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord
Which means, ‘in order to please the Lord.’ So with the husband-wife relationship or the parent-child relationship, we need to think of a triangle – with the Lord Jesus at the top, and the husband and wife or the parent and child at the other corners. And if both parties are trying to please the Lord Jesus and live out his will for them, that’s what will make the relationship work. It won’t make it perfect, because of their sin. But it will make it work – or at least work better. So for young children, obeying parents is central to honouring them.
But as you move up the age range, honouring parents becomes less about obeying them as they tell you in detail what to do, and more about respecting them as you use your growing freedom. So honouring them will involve asking for their advice, listening to what they say, and involving them in your decision-making – even when the decision is now yours. And while you’re still under their roof – which you are as a student albeit part-time – there will still be some component of obedience to their boundaries. So for example, when I was a student, my then non-Christian parents said they didn’t want me to give any of the money they gave me to church. So I didn’t. Or for example, in uni holidays, if they lent me the car and said, ‘Be back by 11pm’, I was back by 11pm. Honouring your parents as a student means things like communicating well with them while you’re here at uni – and not just when you need a financial top-up. And when you’re back at home, it means not behaving as the independent adult you are here, but fitting back into their home, and not just treating it as a hotel where you hardly relate to the staff.
And then as we move well up the age-range, honouring parents begins to include caring for them in older age, as those who’ve looked after us in our dependency need us to look after them in theirs. One last thing from Ephesians 6.2-3 – and it’s where it says:
…(this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
So this commandment was originally given to God’s Old Testament people Israel, to prepare for their move into the promised land. And God said: if they were faithful to him, things would go well and they’d live long in the land – they’d be blessed. Whereas if they didn’t, as a judgement he’d remove them from the land. And the reason why this commandment came with that promise is that God’s blessing depended on the next generation being faithful, and that depended on the knowledge of God being passed on through this crucial relationship between parents and children. Having said which, we may be very faithful in trying to pass on the knowledge of God to our children, but that doesn’t mean they’ll definitely trust in Jesus themselves. Because it’s a special case of evangelism and in evangelism, results are completely out of our hands. As the Aussie evangelist John Chapman used to say:
‘Results is God’s department, faithfulness is our department.’
So that’s Ephesians 6.1-3: Children, honour the God-given position of your parents. And then Ephesians 6.4 says:
2. Fathers (together with mothers), fulfil your God-given responsibility of spiritual influence (Ephesians 6.4)
Look on to Ephesians 6.4:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Now sometimes in the New Testament, that word translated ‘Fathers’ is used to refer to both parents. But I don’t think Paul is doing that here. Because he could easily have used the same words for ‘father and mother’ as in Ephesians 6.1 – but didn’t. So I think he’s addressing fathers in particular – for two reasons. One reason is that it’s the father’s responsibility to take the lead in the role of bringing children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. It is the role of father and mother, together, but Christian fathers are responsible for taking the lead – it’s part of the headship role we saw last week. So, for example, if Tess and I weren’t opening the Bible and praying with our children, the Lord would hold me primarily to account. But the other reason is that fathers need a particular corrective, which is, Ephesians 6.4:
…do not provoke your children to anger
I preached on this a while back, in the days when people could quiz you on the door about what you’d said. And one Dad asked, ‘Why is there no verse saying, ‘Children, do not provoke your fathers to anger’?’ But we fathers mustn’t duck the issue here. Because I take it: we’re singled out because we’re more prone to provoking anger in our children than our wives are –
because we tend to be more harsh or impatient or insensitive or unreasonable. So Ephesians 6.4 is addressed to fathers, but applies to fathers and mothers – including those parenting on their own, who need our support as they play this role solo.
So in preparing this, I asked our three children if they could think of any ways I provoke them to anger. To which Naomi said, ‘Well, all the times you tell us to do something we don’t want to.’ But of course at plenty of those times, I’m telling them to do things I should, and the anger is provoked by their sinfulness. Whereas this verse is about how their anger can be provoked by my sinfulness. So, for example, hypocrisy will provoke our children to anger. Like when we raise our voices to say, ‘Will you stop shouting at each other.’ There’s no more unanswerable reply from our children than, ‘Well, you do it!’ Inconsistency or unfairness in how we treat them or discipline them will provoke our children to anger. And the same goes for unreasonable demands – for example, that their bedrooms should conform to my ideas of tidiness and order.
One book I recommend on this is Fatherhood by Tony Payne (Matthias Media). And when it comes to the list of things that provoke our children to anger, he adds:
‘nagging and condemnation, insensitivity, harshness, humiliation, favouritism and failing to accept that they are who they are and not who we might wish them to be.’
So the obvious application is to guard against those sinful things in us which provoke our children to anger. But the ultimate application is to face the fact that we’ll never be sinless, and that our sinfulness has spilled out and will spill out into our parenting, and that one of the most important and powerful things we’ll ever do to our children is to apologise to them – as often as we do get it wrong. Because not only is that the surest way of defusing anger and a clouded relationship with them, it’s also the surest way of modelling the two most important abilities in life: the ability to admit sin; and the ability to seek forgiveness. And if we model those abilities, not only will it protect our children’s relationship with us; it will also lay the foundation of their relationship with Christ. So that’s the do not provoke your children to anger part of Ephesians 6.4. Instead, it says:
bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
So remember the picture of the triangle with the Lord Jesus at the top, and the parent and child at the other corners. And the Lord Jesus being at the top reminds us that our children are not our projects to try to shape as we want, and that the first question to ask as a Christian parent is, ‘What does the Lord want for my child or children?’ And the number one thing he wants for any of us is that we come to know him. But as I said earlier, we can’t make that happen for anyone else – ‘results is God’s department’. And if we’re parents, we can’t make that happen for our children. We can only provide – albeit imperfectly – the environment of example and teaching through which God can make it happen.
And that’s not just the environment of the biological family, but also the environment of the church family – where our children can hear the truth of the Bible from others, as well, and where they can see it modelled by others who aren’t hampered like us by being prehistoric or uncool, and where they can be learning it and living it out with their peers. And we are hugely blessed in our church family in that regard. And I want to say thank you to all of you who share in bringing up our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord – from Scramblers leaders to Focus leaders, not to mention the many older brother and sisters and parents and grandparents in Christ that our children have. So we’re told, Ephesians 6.4, to:
bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
And the word translated ‘discipline’ means ‘training’. And the crucial Bible verse on training is Titus 2.11-12 which says:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives
So that says ultimately, only grace – experiencing God’s all-forgiving love through Jesus – will train us to want to live how God wants us to live. So the most important thing that I as a parent, and we as a church, can do for my children is to teach and model to them the gospel of grace. Because my prayer for them is not simply that they become more ‘moral’ – which they could do, while remaining total strangers to God. My prayer for them is that they come to know God. So, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. And the word translated ‘instruction’ means ‘instruction by warning’ or even ‘instruction by punishment’. It’s the more negative side of training, if you like. And we need to hear that in a culture which is deeply uncomfortable with such discipline – even against it. And it should go without saying that the Lord is against any form of discipline that’s harsh, uncontrolled, or an expression of anger rather than an exercise of love.
But the main reason our culture is against it is its rejection of God and the resulting lack of confidence in any absolutes. Which is why some parents I know have said to me, ‘I just don’t feel I can impose my view of right and wrong on my children.’ They have nothing to pass on. Whereas that picture of the triangle – with the Lord Jesus at the top, and us and our children at the other corners – reminds us that we’re not passing on our definition of right and wrong, but the Lord’s. And we can have confidence in doing that.
So that’s Ephesians 6 on ‘Children and Parents’. And as I said at the start, whether or not we’re parents, we’re all children – even if we can only relate to the memory of our parents. So it may be helpful to end with a quote from Oscar Wilde, who once said:
“Children begin by loving their parents;
as they grow older they judge them;
only sometimes do they forgive them.”
And maybe after hearing all this, and comparing it with the reality of our own experience, we need to remember the sinfulness we’ve brought to the relationship as children, and the sinfulness and fallibility our parent have brought to it, and to remember that the only things that heals relationships is grace.