Children in the Lord – Ephesians 6:1-4
Guest Posting by Eric Prost
(This article can also we found on our website
at http://www.bethelkingston.com under the tab called "Blog")
This Touching Base is a useful tool for small group discussion, personal reflection or in a one-on-one conversation. We believe that if the Sunday teaching is discussed outside of the morning services, it will be an opportunity to go deeper and build healthy community because God's Word needs to be discussed in community.
Why is a single, childless, celibate Roman Jew teaching us about child-rearing this week?
The simple - and definitive - answer is that the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the Word of God. But there is more.
In this week’s sermon, and in this accompanying Touching Base, we’ll first see why, 2000 years later, we should still listen to Paul. To do this, we’ll then need to see the 1st-century Roman context of this text, as well as its place in the letter to the Ephesians as a whole.
1. An Old Text
Forty years ago, the American psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) wrote his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. At its beginning, before giving the details of his own theory, he explains why a new science of human behaviour is necessary. He writes that physics and biology have advanced immeasurably since antiquity, but that, regrettably, knowledge of human behaviour has changed little in the last 2500 years.
And yet we’re studying an ancient text this week. Quoting our text in its oldest English translation (with original spellings) will convey just how old it is:
“Chyldren obey youre fathers and mothers in the lorde: for so is it right. Honoure father and mother, that is the fyrst commaundement that hath eny promes, that thou mayst be in good estate, and live longe on the erthe. Fathers, move not youre chyldren to wrath: butt brynge them uppe with the norter and informacion off the lorde.”
--William Tyndale, 1526 (so go back another 1500 years to St. Paul).
Our text is almost 2000 years-old and surely concerns human behaviour: Child-rearing. It is millennia old, and yet is relevant. It is not a parenting manual, and yet is practical and quite specific.
2. The Roman Context
Historians’ views about the Roman family change based on evidence and opinion. However, it is always too easy to say that pagan Roman parents (and especially fathers) were all-powerful and cruel.
They were not Christians but, as humans, they (not surprisingly) showed the full range of emotions towards their children, including delight in toddlers: “[Little Fronto] shows some signs of his grandfather’s character as well: he is particularly greedy for grapes” (Fronto, Letters to his Friends, 1, 12, 2nd century AD).
It is true that fathers had the right of life and death over children, even if it wasn’t exercised; a father acknowledged that his new-born would live and be accepted by symbolically picking it up off the ground. Physical beatings were also common as the following quotation complaining about the teachers at a nearby school illustrates: “The cocks...have not yet broken the silence, and already your threatening grumbles and beatings thunder” (Martial, Epigrams 9, 68, 1st century AD).
And evidence does show that parental, and especially paternal, authority was paramount because children were viewed as merely partly rational - along with animals, barbarians, and slaves.
So in our text, Paul writes that children should obey their parents in the Lord, for this is right. Underscoring obedience to parents would not have been surprising to his audience. “For this is right” has the connotation that it is natural and understood. He then re-enforces his point with scripture, citing the Ten Commandments - “Honour your father and mother”.
But Paul addresses this command to the children themselves, these only “half-rational” beings of Roman society (just as he directly addresses slaves in the next passage, another group seen as but semi-rational). Children need to obey because they do not always know what is best and need to be instructed; children have responsibility though and are sentient beings with eternal worth and are treated with this dignity by Paul.
Then comes a command to the fathers, the powerful head of the household, that basic family and economic unit of Rome. “Do not exasperate your children” but “bring them up” or nourish them in “the Lord”. This is new, and not Roman commonsense, but a command nonetheless.
3. The Context in Ephesians
The first three chapters of Ephesians describe lofty truths from God’s point-of-view. It’s not the legal argument of the letter to the Romans about the human condition or the explanation of righteousness in Galatians. It’s about God’s reasons for things, purposes from above, from the “heavenly realms”.
Read this short letter again, looking for examples of this. Here are some: events unfolded “in accordance with his pleasure and will” and his (previously hidden) purposes. He has blessed us in the “heavenly” realms; the goal is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together”; Christ is now seated in the “heavenly realms”; we, too, are seated in the “heavenly realms”; God’s plan was that the “wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms”; even now we fight against “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”.
The last three chapters of Ephesians explain how we must act since the first three chapters are true. As we examine chapters 4, 5, and 6, keep in mind the lofty heavenly purposes of God.
How does this help explain our text about child-rearing?
Amy Chua, in her controversial 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, describes how she pushed her daughters in every way to achieve high standards both at school and in other activities. She was often asked, “Who are you doing all this pushing for - your daughters...or yourself?” (p. 148).
Ephesian 6: 1-4 is about neither. It is not teaching parenting so that the parent’s self-esteem will be bolstered; it is not teaching parenting even for the benefit of the child. It is not instructing fathers how to raise children so that family honour will be preserved; and it is not describing child-rearing so that the kids will get into university.
It is describing child-rearing that is in alignment with God’s purposes from an eternity past to an eternity in the future - “not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). It is giving a few short but specific commands to children and their parents of what God wants because of how he is doing things and how he did them by sending Christ and how he planned on doing so since the creation of the world. The way to align with God’s great plans is to nourish children in the instruction and admonition of the Lord.
Let’s fall in step. It’s not always about us.
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Classical quotations taken from Gardner and Wiedemann, The Roman Household: A Sourcebook (1991).