Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 6:3 “That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on
These words are based on the promise connected to the fifth commandment, as expounded by Moses (DT 5:16). This is not a guarantee that every dutiful child shall be healthy, wealthy, and live to be old. The reference is to groups–families, clans, nations. Bad children usually become bad parents and bad citizens. A breakdown in home-life leads to breakdown everywhere else.
Strengthening family life and teaching children to obey parents builds stable communities and nations. “Well” denotes quality of life, “live long” quantity of life. A society which shows kindness to parents, from whom it derives life, will in this life be blessed with good and longevity. Contented, enduring cultures stress family solidarity as the basic building block of society.
Eph. 6:4a “And, ye fathers,. . .”
Paul, turning to the proper discipline of children, aims directly at men, God’s ordained family leaders. Christian men cannot abdicate child-rearing to women, for God holds fathers primarily responsible for the training of children.
Unfortunately, America has moved toward being a matriarchal society with regard to child-rearing. We too often let men abdicate their rightful role.
About 50% of America’s children live at least a part of childhood separated from their father. One in four (27%) children now lives in a single-parent (mostly moms) home, half with a divorced, half with a never married, parent. This trend is fueled by high divorce rates, more teen pregnancies, and older single women who tire of waiting for a mate to have a child. Annually, a million children see their parents divorce, another million are born out of wedlock.
Of this crisis, child psychologist Wade Horn says, “To my knowledge, this has never happened in the history of human civilization.” Senator Moynihan calls us a post-marital society without historical precedent to guide us.
This absence of dads spells serious trouble in America. Fatherlessness is the piston, the driving force, impelling most of our social problems. When boys must learn on the street what it means to be a man, society has the devil to pay. The consequences are staggering. Some 70% of juveniles in long-term correctional facilities, 80% of drug dealers, and 80% of convicted felons, grew up apart from their fathers. Compared to children in two-parent families, children in single-parent (again, mostly moms) families are six times as likely to be poor, three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, more likely to drop out of school, be expelled or suspended from school, get pregnant as teens, become single parents, use drugs, or be in trouble with the law.
Unless the trend can be reversed, our social nightmare will become ever scarier. Society must pressure entertainment and music industries, movie producers, television gurus, and commercial makers to stop deifying wanton sex.
Society must also reduce our high divorce rate. Sociologists, psychologists, and children’s workers are screaming that our notion of “getting a divorce for the children’s sake” was absolutely wrong. We thought it would be better for children if their quarreling parents divorced rather than stayed together and fussed. We now know the old-fashioned maxim “stay married for the kids” was a stroke of genius. Divorce is needed to halt brutality, but we must end the days of easy divorces, especially where children are involved. We must make it harder for couples to split up. We have for too long sacrificed our children on the altar of parental quests for freedom, independence, and choice. Fathers, as well as mothers, must be held responsible for rearing children.
(Sources include US News and World Report, 08-01-94 p. 6, 04-12-93 p. 72, 09-12-94, p. 25, and Word and Way, “Absent dads spell trouble,” Dec. 93)
Eph. 6:4b “. . .provoke not your children to wrath:”
Avoid harsh, cruel punishment which drives a child to inner bitterness and outer hostility. Our text is a safeguard. Parents do not have the right to act as they please toward a child. Scripture always handles authority/submission relationships with balance and fairness. God protects the submissive by forbidding bitterness and austerity in those to whom He gives authority, including parents (here and CL 3:21), husbands (CL 3:19), bosses (CL 4:1), and pastors (1 P 5:3). God gives authority to all these, but they must not abuse it.
The Bible gives parents two parameters within which to administer discipline: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son” (PR 13:24), “Provoke not your children to wrath.” Do discipline children, but not excessively. Trouble arises when we venture past these boundaries and go to one extreme or the other.
My grandfathers were raised under Victorian discipline. Children were to be seen and not heard. Parents repressively ruled with an iron fist. They were tyrannical, often severe, sometimes brutal. This was wrong, dead wrong.
Over-reacting to this aberration, society swung the pendulum way too far the other way. Victorian discipline was rightly cast aside, but wrongly replaced by a philosophy which downplayed all forms of punishment. This new erroneous ideology toward child-rearing is part of a larger social mind-set that helped foster much of the social morass we find ourselves in today. At least three things are wrong with this “no punishment” child-rearing philosophy.
The “no punishment” philosophy is wrong, first of all, because it is based on a fallacious guiding premise: human nature is essentially good. All that is needed, some say, is to let children express themselves, let them be free. Do not stifle their creativity, do not correct, repress, control, or punish. Most important of all, never never spank, for it will teach the children to be violent.
In this debate, the verdict of history verifies the plain teaching of Scripture. Human nature is evil. Children are rebels and lawless by birth. Their spirits are not to be crushed, but must be corralled and corrected.
The “no punishment” philosophy is wrong, in the second place, because it accepts a false assumption: the opposite of wrong discipline is no discipline. This is wrong. The opposite of wrong discipline is right discipline. We admit, excessive discipline does more harm than good. However, the same is true of too little discipline. Only properly administered punishment benefits children. Stay within God’s two prescribed parameters. To violate either is wrong.
Third, the “no punishment” philosophy is wrong because it was spawned by the wrong circumstance: over-reaction. We tend to over-react to past error. “The ever-present danger is to react too violently. It is always wrong when our attitude is determined by another attitude which we regard as wrong. Our view should never result from a merely negative reaction” (Lloyd-Jones).
This is where the Christian family holds a tremendous advantage. We do not have to be swayed by the passing theories of any given era. We have the unchanging, eternal, dependable Word of God to base our views on.
Eph. 6:4b (cont.) “. . .provoke not your children to wrath:”
Being responsible to the One who gives them their authority, parents are to act in His spirit, and avoid behavior which might provoke children to wrath.
“Provoke not your children to wrath” through public humiliation. Discipline is a private matter between a parent and a child, not a public forum for shame. Parents are sometimes brutally rude to their children. This is not right. Parenthood does not include a license to degrade. We do not own our children. They belong to God, and are souls placed under our guardianship. Created in His image, they are to be treated with respect and courtesy.
“Provoke not your children to wrath” through neglect. Created in God’s image, children are to be valued. Take time to shower them with attention.
A house is built of logs and stone,
of tiles and posts and piers;
A home is built of loving deeds
that stand a thousand years. (Victor Hugo)
Parents, give your children priority in your life. Build your calendar around theirs. Attend their school, church, and sports functions. Be there when they shine. They know that what we do with our time is what matters most to us.
“Provoke not your children to wrath” through favoritism. Isaac favored Esau, Rebekah preferred Jacob (GN 25:28), the results were disastrous. Avoid demeaning comparisons, as in, “Why can’t you be like your brother.” Never verbally compare siblings to one another in their presence. The law of every house should be, each family member will show equal respect for every other member. Parental partiality inflicts wounds on a child’s self-esteem, causes a child to be bitter toward parents, and drives a child away from other siblings.
”Provoke not your children to wrath” through extended punishment. Be careful about grounding and other forms of punishment which extend over a long time. Protracted time can allow bitterness to fester. Another way we wrongly extend punishment is by constantly bringing up the past. Avoid insults like “You always mess up.” Deal only with the specific incident at hand. Let the past be the past. Once disciplined, leave a wrong behind. In any given matter, when you bury the hatchet, do not leave the handle sticking out.
“Provoke not your children to wrath” through anger. Angry parents usually produce angry children. Children can understand controlled bursts of anger for serious offenses, but are also quick to perceive when parents lose control, throw needless temper fits, and punish too harshly. Avoid the latter. Discipline administered during a temper fit usually does more harm than good.
Truly good discipline can be dispensed only when we parents exercise self-control, for the purpose of our discipline, ultimately, is to teach children self-discipline. It is hard to learn self-control from one not showing self-control.
Before seeking to corral your children, corral your temper. “What right have you to say to your child that he needs discipline when you obviously need it yourself” (Lloyd-Jones). It is better for our children to see our grief and pain than our anger. A parent’s broken heart has more effect than a raging fit.
When I was about twelve, I helped a group of boys steal some sodas from church one day after Vacation Bible School. We took them into the woods behind our church and spent the afternoon drinking them. Stealing from a church was more than one of our saintly ladies could abide. The next day at VBS she told Dad, with me standing close by, “I couldn’t steal from a church. I’m afraid God would strike me dead.” Dad agreed. I piously did, too, knowing I was as guilty as sin itself. Weeks later, Dad learned I was in on the heist. In mid-afternoon, he brought me into the living room and had me sit on the couch. He told Mother to leave the house and to take with her my sister and brother. Once they left, Dad locked all the doors, closed all the blinds, pulled out his trusty belt, and walked straight toward his sobbing son. I truly believed life as I had known it was coming to an end. Dad wrapped his belt in a circle, laid it on the coffee table in front of me, leaned over me, and said, “Son, I am sorry you stole the sodas from church, but what hurts me most is that all these weeks you have lied to me about it.” He then turned and walked away, leaving me alone in the living room. It is the only time in my life I can remember wishing I had received a spanking. That was the most effective use of discipline I ever saw from my dad. He punished me with his grief rather than his anger. I have never forgotten it, and was made much better by it.
“Provoke not your children to wrath” through manipulation. Do not bulldoze your children toward what you want them to be. It is not our job as parents to determine what our children should be in life. We are to love them and help them prepare for whatever role they decide God has selected for them.
As parents, our objective is to help our children be able to stand on their own, whatever career they pursue. Do not try to squeeze them into our mold. Our children do not have to do what we do to be deemed successful, nor do they have to go as high up the corporate ladder as we have gone. Some fathers try to make a son into the ballplayer they once were or always dreamed of being. Some mothers try to make a daughter into the debutante or social success they were, are, or always wanted to be. Let’s not try to live out our own fantasies through our children. They have their own set of dreams to fulfill.
“Provoke not your children to wrath” through discouragement. “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged” (CL 3:21). A broken and sullen spirit in a youth is a bad sign. Be reasonable in your demands. Do not ask for things beyond a child’s capability, or load the child with so many expectations that frustration is inevitable. Do not rob your children of their childhood, or try to make them into miniature adults.
Do not discourage the underachiever. A constant sense of failure can destroy one’s person-hood. Do not discourage the overachiever. A constant sense of never having done enough can lead to exasperation. Constant criticism and rebuke often produce broken self-despair. Mary Lamb had serious mental troubles. Walking to the asylum with her brother Charles she would often ask, “Why is it I never seem able to do anything to please my mother?”
Some children finally give up. They somewhere begin wondering whether it does any good to try to please their parents and do what they say. Children can be driven into frustration, and if their despair is bad enough, they do desperate things–run away from home, join the wrong crowd because accepted there, marry the first person who offers a chance of getting away.
Parents, we need to shower our children with love and encouragement. Barclay tells how Benjamin West became a painter. Left at home in charge of his little sister Sally, Benjamin discovered some bottles of colored ink and began to paint Sally’s portrait. He made a terrible mess, but when his mother returned and saw the mess, she said nothing. She instead picked up the paper, examined it, and said, “Why, it’s Sally!” She then stooped and kissed him. Ever after Benjamin West would claim, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.”
Martin Luther, whose dad was strict to the point of cruelty, said, “Spare the rod and spoil the child–true! But beside the rod keep an apple, and give it to him when he does well.” “Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath.”
Eph. 6:4c “. . .but bring them up. . .”
Via the conjunction of contrast, “but,” Paul turns to the positive side of his teaching. The word translated here as “bring them up” is rendered “nourish” in 5:29. In the same way we nourish our body, and Christ nourishes the Church, we are to raise children. We are to “bring them up,” not jerk them up.
”Children, obey your parents” is not meant to be a weapon wielded by the hand of a ruthless tyrant. Parents are to be disciplinarians, not dictators. The sternest parents often fail miserably and raise the wildest children. Many parents ruin their influence by being “much too conscious that there is no chair in the house big enough for their enthronement” (Parker). Some adults have to be bullies at home because they are not much of a person anywhere else.
Households should be ruled gingerly. Avoid severity and undo cruelty. Do not alienate your children. “Never make your children your enemies, and never rule them too much. . . .He leads best who never seems to lead” (Parker).
Authority figures, including parents, must act in ways which elicit love as well as respect. “Bring them up,” positioned in our text as the antonym for provoking to wrath, “unquestionably conveys the idea of gentleness” (Calvin).
Both Moms and Dads, hold, bathe, and feed your newborns, and change their diapers. Put your children to bed at night, tuck them in with a Bible story and prayer, hold them tight. Hug your teenagers and grown children. We know that many young women who go astray are merely craving the hugs and caresses a father never gave. Men are true men when gentle with the wife and children. Parents, cultivate gentleness, and raise your children tenderly.
Eph. 6:4d “. . .in the nurture. . .”
The word translated as “nurture” denotes sternness, firmness, training, discipline. It emphasizes actions, highlights what is done to a child, and refers to rules, regulations, rewards, and retribution. “Nurture” implies a regimenting, a drilling, which can be backed up when necessary by punishment. Parents have far-reaching executive powers over a child. They have the right and responsibility to give commands, to enforce them, and to punish disobedience.
God is pleased when parents exercise their authority and order children to keep His ways. With joy YHWH said of Abraham, “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord” (GN 18:19). Parents can rightly command, “We will–no questions asked–say grace at meals, go to church, not curse, not lie, not steal, etc.”
Parental authority extends to secular areas as well. Parents can rightly command, “We will do homework, do chores, have curfew and observe it, etc.”
The Bible gives parents not only authority, but also provides the best method for effective enforcement. The predominant Biblical model for disciplining children, the paradigm mentioned most often by far, is spanking. It is repeatedly referred to in Holy Writ (eg. PR 13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14).
Corporal punishment is nowadays often equated with wanton cruelty, but I disagree. Spanking allows punishment to be rendered soon after the wrong, thus increasing the discipline’s effectiveness (EC 8:11). Spanking enables the discipline to be finished quickly, thus removing a danger often connected with extended punishments, the allowing of time for bitterness to settle in and fester (EP 4:26b). Spankings can be effectively administered early in life, and thereby reduce the number of corrections needed later in life. Seven spankings at age three are better than three spankings at age seven.
Spanking must of course be done rationally, reasonably, and very carefully–no slapping, no hair-pulling, no arm-jerking, no berating, no biting (except in rare cases where your child is a chronic biter), no slugging, no punching, no whelps or marks left on the body. The best method is reasonable swats on the bottom, where God provides natural padding. My cousin Thomas Hill decided his padding was insufficient. Since he often received a spanking for causing trouble at church, he began wearing five pairs of underwear to church.
A final caution–after the spanking, give love in abundance. Let the incident end in sweetness. As parents, our love must never have to be earned.
Eph. 6:4e “. . .and admonition. . .”
“Admonition” deals with what we say to children–talking, verbal training, instruction, whether it be by teaching, warning, encouragement, counsel, advice, reproof. We parents need to explain the why of our discipline. Children need to understand the rationale behind our actions. “Because I said so” explains nothing. Say instead, “Children must have defined boundaries, and God chose parents to set them.” By the way, when administering discipline, please never say, “This is going to hurt me worse than it hurts you.” When being punished it is hard to grasp the subtle nuance contained in this thought.
In the home, “admonition,” general conversation, is critical. Knowledge, not ignorance, is the mother of our devotion (Birrell, in BI). Talk everywhere, in the living room, at the table, in the kitchen. Discuss the music on radio, talk about the news on TV. Analyze things in Christian terms by ever asking, “I wonder what Jesus thinks of that. What should Christians do about this?”
Talk about table manners and treating elders with respect. Tell daughters how to dress and sit modestly. Teach boys how to treat girls. Talk to children about the friends they make, the movies they watch, the temptations of life. Teach the spiritual realities of life. Detail the dangers of the evils we tell children to avoid, and the advantages of the course we want them to follow.
Thalwell deemed it unfair to seek to influence children in religious matters. He felt they should be free to investigate such things on their own. Coleridge asked Thalwell to come see his “botanical garden.” Upon seeing only weeds in it, Thalwell expressed displeasure and disappointment. Coleridge replied, “I thought it unfair to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.”
A lady said she would not prejudice her young children with religious instruction. Archbishop Sharpe replied, “If you do not teach them, the devil will!”
“If you do not guide those children heavenward, Godward, Christward, churchward you will be the only one who is neutral, who is not influencing them” (Criswell). We are seriously fooled and naive beyond credulity, if we think the world, the flesh, and the devil are not using the hard rock culture, the entertainment industry, and drug and criminal elements to seek to win the hearts, minds, and souls of our children. Evil will have its influence and say. “The streets of the city offer no diplomas, they confer no degrees, but they educate with terrible precision” (Criswell). Parents must use “admonition,” verbal training, to counteract the flow of evil being flooded upon our children.
”Nurture and admonition,” discipline and instruction, actions and talk–parents, use every weapon in our arsenal to help children not be lost to evil.
A vital ingredient of parental “admonition,” the talking part of raising children, is passing to them a blessing. This concept of bestowing favor is minutely detailed in Smalley and Trent’s excellent book, The Gift of the Blessing.
The idea of parents bestowing a blessing on children is rooted in the Old Testament. Isaac blessed Jacob; Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons; Hebrew parents, from generation to generation, conveyed a blessing on their children.
Offspring desperately need to sense approval and favor from their parents. When Sir Thomas More was Lord Chancellor of England, he would on bended knee in Westminster Hall beg the blessing of his father, Sir John, one of the judges of the King’s Bench. We may not be as outwardly dramatic as Sir Thomas was, but our inner desire for a parental blessing is just as real.
Joseph implored his brothers, “Tell my father of all my glory in Egypt” (GN 45:13). Joseph was the number two man in Egypt, but fame, power, and wealth were not enough for him. He wanted his dad to be proud of him.
Many adults struggle in life because they have not received parental acclaim and applause. Wounded and hurting, they live deprived of the blessing.
The Old Testament parental blessing contained prominent features we need to recapture. One element was meaningful touching. Jacob, preparing to bless Joseph’s two sons, “kissed them, and embraced them” (GN 48:10).
Many parents, suffering a mental hang-up in this area, have trouble expressing their emotions openly. Mom or Dad, if you are weak in this area, analyze yourself. Your child will grow up to act like you. Do you want to pass on to your child your hang-up? For the problem, this is a strange solution indeed!
A second element of Old Testament parental blessings was verbal compliments and statements of value. At their reunion, Jacob told Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen thy face, because thou art yet alive” (GN 46:30).
In many homes, compliments and words of worth are rarely heard. Parents assume a child knows he or she is loved and appreciated. Not true! Say what you feel. Verbalize your pride. Silence conveys confusion, and forces a child to guess about a parent’s feelings. Life becomes a fill-in-the-blank test.
A third element of Old Testament parental blessings was predicting a special future for the child. Jacob foretold of Joseph, “(God) shall help thee, and. . .bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb” (GN 49:25).
We cannot predict a child’s future with Biblical accuracy, but we can encourage them and instill confidence and optimism. We can also commit to help our children fulfill their dreams and aspirations. If your child is musically inclined, buy him or her an instrument. Does your child want to be a teacher, lawyer, or doctor? Help pay for college, law school, or medical school.
Are you giving the three elements of the Old Testament blessing to your child? Have you received them from your parents? Either way, read Smalley and Trent’s book. They give wonderful insights into how to do a good job of bestowing the blessing, and how to handle the pain of not receiving the blessing.
Eph. 6:4f “. . .of the Lord.”
In raising children, parents should clearly set before their minds the object and goal of their efforts. All is to be “of the Lord.” In the Christian home, God should be everywhere, omnipresent, omni-important. He is the end of all discipline and instruction. “Nurture and admonition” are learned from the Lord and administered for the Lord in order to direct children to the Lord.
“The very heart of Christian nurture is this: to bring the heart of the child to the heart of the Savior” (Hendriksen). Children are gifts from God (PS 127:3) to be raised for God. Every Christian parent’s highest desire should be for their children to grow up and serve the Lord. This is more important than good health, educational feats, material prosperity, and social acceptance. All else we leave our children is useless if we fail to bring them up for the Lord.
The main responsibility for child-rearing lies in the home. Schools, day care centers, governments, and churches cannot raise children well. A church gives its all and best, but little can be done in the few hours we have a child each week. Ultimately, the task of raising children is assigned to parents.
Parents, do your best to try to mold and train your children for God. They can know, learn about, and serve “the Lord.” Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me” (MT 19:14a NASB).
Children are often more spiritual than adults. Our Master recognized this and gave the attitude of children an exalted place in His kingdom, saying, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (MT 19:14b NASB).
When Jesus wanted to illustrate true spiritual greatness, He did not point to kings, dignitaries, apostles, or pastors. He rather “called a child to Himself and stood him in their midst” (see MT 18:1-4). Children are capable of genuine religious experience, and parents are to encourage them in this.
This having been said, let me hasten to say there are no guarantees in child-rearing. Properly raised children often go awry. Several children can grow up in the same Christian home with varying results, some serve God, some do not. A child raised in sin sometimes grows up to be a model of Christian virtue (thank God for personal soulwinning!). For better and for worse, there are exceptions to the rule, but the normal, desirable, pattern is for parents to bequeath the heritage of righteousness from generation to generation.
Parents, I want to encourage you. You can make a vital difference for God in your child’s life. John Randolph, the brilliant political leader, said, “When I try to make myself an infidel, I feel the hand of Mother on my head and hear her prayers for my soul, and I start back from all infidelity.”
I readily admit, it is hard to raise children, harder to raise well behaved children, hardest to raise God-loving children. However, “hard, harder, and hardest” are not “impossible.” Christian parents have for centuries successfully raised godly children even in the most adverse circumstances.
We Christian parents have outside help. Though the world, the flesh, and the devil oppose us, God the mighty warrior favors us and wants to help us raise our children for Him. Parents, use your spiritual resources, call God to your aid. If you are on His team, pushing the same direction He is, enlist Him as your partner. “God is in the business of building homes, and he is on our side if we are truly trying to obey him and follow his directions” (Boice).