Exasperation or Instruction?

Sound Words graphicAs a parent and a 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, but 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, 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 (Eph 5:22–24), but husbands, don’t abuse that authority; instead, live for your wives, not yourselves (Eph 5:25 ff.).
  • Servants, obey your masters (Eph 6:5), but masters, don’t abuse that authority; be mindful that you’re under authority, too (Eph 6:9).
  • Christians, submit to your leaders (understood in 1 Pet 5:2a, Heb 13:17), but elders, don’t abuse that authority; be an example for the flock for their good, not a tyrant for your own (1 Pet 5:2b–4).

Scripture tends to follow teaching on authority with a warning to those who exercise that authority. Likewise, 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: 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 “bring them up” in 6:4 is translated “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 1 Peter 5, 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—he’s breaking it. Little wonder that junior isn’t interested in dad’s lesson—or his God.

God has given parents authority in the home. That authority must be used for God’s glory and the child’s good, 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.

October/November 2007


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