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Exasperation or Instruction (Ephesians 6:4)

Angry ParentsAs a parent and pastor, I’ve thought often of Ephesians 6:4. However, until recently, I haven’t understood the connection between its two imperatives:

  • Provoke not your children to wrath.
  • Bring them up in the nurture (disciplined instruction) and admonition (compelling warning) of the Lord.

Two points are particularly important, I think:

First, what does Paul mean by “provoke not your children to wrath”? Commentators note the many ways in which parents exasperate children: favoritism, inconsistency, hypocrisy, unnecessary rigidity, negativity, etc. All of these will do the trick, I think, but I don’t think Paul meant to be that open-ended. I believe that Paul is cautioning parents—and fathers in particular—against abusing their God-given authority by exercising it harshly or for selfish gain. Such an understanding is consistent with other passages that describe authority in human relationships:

  • Wives, submit to your husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24), but husbands, don’t abuse that authority; instead, live for your wives, not yourselves (Ephesians 5:25 ff.).
  • Servants, obey your masters (Ephesians 6:5), but masters, don’t abuse that authority; be mindful that you’re under authority, too (Ephesians 6:9).
  • Christians, submit to your leaders (understood in I Peter 5:2a, et al), but elders, don’t abuse that authority; be an example for the flock for their good, not a tyrant for your own (I Peter 5:2b-4).

Scripture tends to follow teaching on authority with a warning to those who exercise that authority. Likewise, I believe Paul is cautioning fathers against abusing the authority he just described in Ephesians 6:1-3. The second imperative of the verse backs this up, I think: Don’t exasperate them (with harsh authority), but do the opposite: gently “bring them up” (using your authority for their benefit). The commands are contrasted because they are exact opposites: the first forbids arrogant harshness and the second commands humble gentleness. The word translated as “bring them up” in 6:4 is translated as “nourish” in 5:29. It describes a benevolent care and tenderness. A.T. Robertson says it means “to foster with tender care.” To borrow the idea from I Peter 5, then, Paul is commanding fathers not to exasperate children by lording their authority over them, but instead to be as gentle as possible with them. The applications mentioned above may be legitimate, but I think the intent of the command is to avoid overbearing authority.

Second, and more importantly, how do the two commands relate to one another? I think the answer is this: the danger of exasperating our children by abusing our authority is not merely that we are sinning and provoking them to sin, but that we are thereby eliminating the possibility of having a spiritual influence in their lives. In other words, Paul isn’t changing the subject; the two commands are directly related. If we exasperate our children by our severity, our teaching influence (bringing them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord) will be hindered, if not entirely eliminated. They may obey for a time to save themselves grief, but they’ll have no interest in the Christianity which produced a selfish tyrant of a father. If we harm the relationship, we harm the instruction.

This is vitally important. Many a Christian father assumes that he’s fulfilling Ephesians 6:4 by giving his child an angry lecture, laced with Scripture carefully chosen to make his point. However, if the only time the Bible is alluded to is when dad is in the middle of a diatribe, and if the father is obviously interested in his own interest the rest of the time, he’s not fulfilling Ephesians 6:4. Indeed, he’s breaking it. Little wonder if junior isn’t interested in dad’s lesson—or his God.

(Aside: The role of parents is amazingly like the role of a pastor. I believe that the same principles apply to the church as well as the home. In other words, the jokes about “the angry preacher” aren’t so funny.)

God has given parents authority in the home. That authority must be used for God’s glory and the child’s good, not the parent’s, and it must be exercised with humility. Only leading in this manner will earn the right and build the rapport necessary to have a spiritual influence on our children. Our care and character will either pave the way for our instruction or make it impossible. We can command outward obedience, but we must earn spiritual influence.


Note: These thoughts are taken in part from the fifth message in TCBC’s current series on parenting.


5 Responses

  1. Well, I feel extremely convicted. Thanks for that great reminder, Chris.

  2. Chris,

    The last line in your post is great and really boils everything down.

  3. […] Her greatest legacy is that she, in tandem with my dad, raised 3 boys who love her God with the same passion she does, and who have served Him where she cannot, and will probably continue to do so when she cannot. Her cradle-rocking hand may not rule the world, but it’s helped to reach it. She’s impacted eternity by being a godly mother. Though they’re not perfect, Mom and Dad are both great examples of the principle I discussed here. […]

  4. The message in which I addressed Ephesians 6:4 is now available here.

  5. I think some fathers would rather that scripture mean something else than what you would say, such as “don’t make them angry by saying no all the time, so give in and keep peace in the house.” But, as a step-parent, your message is right on target because the first rule of step-parenting is that we aren’t the authoritative parent, we parent in steps earned by trust and evolving relationship of care and strength. I certainly have made my lion’s share of mistakes on this, especially with a challenged and challenging stepson. But, standing my ground and not engaging in his behavior; keeping my cool and not lowering myself to his level actually allows him to rise up to mine. There can be no rules without relationship and that relationship cannot be assumed. The child will learn from the parent who is consistent the right way to live. Consequently, the child will learn from the inconsistent parent, applies to weak parenting as well, that there is no clear right way to live…so they might as well choose one on their own.

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