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. Ephesians 6:1-4
The Love of a Christian Father
Paul continues his instructions to Christian households in chapter 6 by focusing on the relationship between children and their parents. He is very deliberate about the way Christian parents and children should relate to one another. This would suggest some concerns on his part about the way households were operating in his day. To understand the logic behind this commandment, one has to look at the way children were treated in Roman civilization. In ancient Rome, a father had total power over his children and family. That power was called pairia potestas. Accordingly, “the father could sell his children as slaves, he could make them work in his fields even in chains, he could punish as he liked and could even inflict the death penalty.” Under pairia postestas, the power of the Roman father extended over the child's whole life, so long as the father lived.” A child was expected to always acquiesce to the authority of the father over his or her whole existence. A Roman father had the right to reject or accept a child that is born to him. “There was a custom of child exposure. When a child was born, it was placed before its father's feet, and, if the father stooped and lifted the child, that meant that he acknowledged it and wished it to be kept. If he turned and walked away, it meant that he refused to acknowledge it, and the child could quite literally be thrown out.”
According to scholars, in the time of Paul, children were particularly at risk because of the high rate of divorce in Roman society. Children ran the risk of being repudiated and exposed whenever a marriage collapsed. Thus, the birth rate was so low “that the Roman government actually passed legislation that the amount of any legacy that a childless couple could receive was limited.” Furthermore, “Unwanted children were commonly left in the Roman forum. There they became the property of anyone who cared to pick them up. They were collected at nights by people who nourished them in order to sell them as slaves or to stock the brothels of Rome.” The treatment of sickly or deformed children was even more depraved in ancient Rome. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, "We slaughter a fierce ox; we strangle a mad dog; we plunge the knife into sickly cattle lest they taint the herd; children who are born weakly and deformed we drown." The child who was a weakling or imperfectly formed had little hope of survival.”
It was against such cultural indifference toward children that Paul provided biblical instructions to govern the relationship between parents and children. Those instructions were based on Old Testament teachings and were intended to secure better treatment for children. Paul wanted the Christian household to set the standard for the way husbands and wives and children should treat one another. Paul begins in verse 1, with a command that is taking straight out of the Ten Commandments. He commands children to obey their parents in the Lord, for it is right (Exodus 20:12). Notice that Paul says children should obey their parents in the Lord. This instruction has spiritual implications, as well. It ties in obedience to God with obedience to parents. That is, by obeying God, a child will inevitably obey their parents.
In verse 2, Paul also asks children to honor their mother and father. Interestingly, he says this is the first commandment. Obviously, Paul is not saying this is the first commandment in the Torah. I am opting to think he meant the first commandment that Christian children were taught to memorize. Whereas the fifth commandment only asks Jewish children to honor their parents, Paul wants Christian children to both obey and honor their parents. For, it is in obeying that children can truly honor their parents. In verse 4, Paul sets specific guidelines for the way parents should treat their children. He tells fathers not to exasperate their children. The word exasperate comes from the Greek parorgizo, which means to provoke to anger. Paul is singling out fathers to show more compassion and kindness to their children since it was fathers that tended to treat their children more harshly under pairia postestas.
The instructions to Christian households provided in Ephesians has had a great impact on the way women and children have been treated since the global explosion of Christianity. Paul does not believe that Christians should live like people in the world. He is challenging the cultural norms of his day to present a new set of ethical standards for Christian relationships in the home.
Whereas Paul is very cognizant of his socio-cultural context, he is determined to transform the culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many Christians think it is best to integrate the world’s standards into their practices so they do not come across as fanatics. Paul did not want Christians to assimilate. He wanted them to be transforming agents.
Indeed, Christians have a responsibility to redeem the time because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16). We cannot do so if we are adopting the ways of the world. Paul emphasizes that Christians should live according to biblical principles. These principles should make a wife submissive to the husband who loves her as the Lord loves his church. Within that context of spiritual obedience and submission, children are invited to obey and honor their parents in the Lord.
The instructions to Christian fathers was so important to Paul that he repeats it in Colossians 3:21. "Fathers," he says, "do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged." Children are easily discouraged when they are not affirmed or when they fail to receive the affection they so desperately need from their parents. Being a Christian father is not only about providing for the physical needs of the children. A Christian father is to train up his children in the ways of God. That type of training requires compassion, forgiveness, patience, and it is not easily angered, but always protects (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). That type of training is called LOVE.
Blessed Lord, please help Fathers to treat their children with the love and compassion you demonstrate to your children.