Fathers, don’t make your children bitter about life. Instead, bring them up in Christian discipline and instruction. Ephesians 6:4 (God’s Word Translation)
If you wanted to tackle the myriad of interconnected and interrelated social problems that our society faces today, where would you start?
- Poverty & hunger
- Drug & alcohol abuse
- Crime and violence in our neighborhoods
- Rising prison populations
- Marriage breakdowns and violence in the home
- Educational achievement and the learning environment in the schools
- Physical and mental health
- STDs and & teen pregnancy
- Youth suicide, self-image and hopelessness
It’s hard to know even where to begin untangling this mess.
What if I told you that there was one thing that you could do that would have a positive impact on every single one of these social problems? Would you be interested in learning about one very significant thing that you can do to help transform our world into a better place? Here it is: if you are a male parent, be a good father.
Being a good father has a measurable, positive effect on every one of these problems. Sociological studies show a high correlation between good, basic fathering practices and positive outcomes in each one of these areas.
So, be as good a father as you can be. Love your children as God the Father loves you. Love your children with a Christ-like love.
Even if you grow up in the worst neighborhoods in the country, you are many times more likely to finish high school, become economically self-sufficient, and have a healthier life than your peers if your father is constructively involved in your life.
The web sites of The National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org) and The National Center for Fathering (www.fathers.com) have links to some of the statistical information to back up this claim. (They also have some good advice for fathers in all sorts of parenting settings and situations.)
But there’s a problem. In 1960, 8% of children in the U.S. lived without their fathers; by 1996, that figure was 28%. Divorce rates have soared. So have the rates for single-parenting by choice and by default. While divorce and broken relationships shouldn’t end a father’s relationship to his children, in far too many cases that is the outcome.
Not only are fathers sometimes physically absent from their children’s lives, they are all too frequently emotionally absent and uninvolved. That doesn’t mean that every child that grows up without a father’s constant presence is doomed! I know that life is complicated, and there are many reasons why life turns out like it does. My intent is not to add to anyone’s guilt feelings, but to encourage fathers to be fathers. Many divorced dads – and even some never married dads – do a good job of staying connected with their kids and exerting a positive influence on their lives. The more you deal with individuals, the less statistics seem to matter.
Every situation is unique. God’s grace often brings wholeness where we might expect to find brokenness. Some parents do exceptional jobs in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Some children are extraordinarily resilient. None of these facts, however, should encourage us to close our eyes to the importance of doing our best to offer our children healthy, functional homes headed by both mothers and fathers.
Compare the situation with fathering to the case of smoking tobacco products. We all know that smoking is bad for you, but we also know people that smoke who never get sick. In the big picture, however, the statistics show that those who smoke are much more likely to have certain health problems than non-smokers. In the same way, we all probably know many children who grow up in less-than-ideal circumstances who come out on the other end as complete, mature human beings. Thanks be to God for his grace! Looking at the big picture, however, it’s clear that children who grow up with their fathers as present and engaged as possible in their children’s lives are far less likely to suffer from some significant problems. One of the most loving things that the Christian church can offer are strong, connected and committed families.
So, I encourage you to be good fathers for the sake of the community, and of course for the sake of your family and your children. But I also encourage you to be good fathers for the sake of your own soul and your own walk with Christ.
God gave us the family as the one of the most important contexts for living in Christian love. One of the basic precepts of the Christian faith is that Christ calls us to love others as he has loved us. It’s one thing to say that I love my neighbor when my neighbor is a faceless, nameless person on the other side of the world. It’s quite another thing to love my neighbor when my neighbor is the person down the hall who makes me want to pull my hair out. God gave us families so that we could put Christ-like love into practice and thus grow in our own relationship with God.
Loving Parenthood in Ephesians
In Ephesians 6:4, Paul dedicates one sentence to Fathers. Form-equivalent translations like the NASB and the ESV render the verse like this:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
God’s Word translation more clearly captures the meaning.
Fathers, don’t make your children bitter about life. Instead, bring them up in Christian discipline and instruction.
This verse is part of the so-called “house tables” of Christian responsibilities. In Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Paul addresses wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. Some have seen Paul’s intention here as “keeping everybody in line.” They think that Paul is suggesting a list of traditional roles and responsibilities to preserve the status quo in society. A closer reading of Paul’s entire letter to the Ephesians, however, shows that he intends his instructions here to reflect particular applications of the Christian duty to love others as Christ has loved us.
The epistle to the Ephesians is rather neatly divided two halves. Chapters 1-3 relates to God’s grace in Jesus Christ and how through Christ God has overcome divisions between Jew and Gentile. Chapters 1-3, then, are the theological foundation for the “therefore” section of chapters 4-6. Chapters 4-6 discuss how Christians should live in light of what God has done and is doing.
Paul begins the “therefore” section in Ephesians 4:1-2.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Paul returns to the theme of gentle, patient love in Ephesians 4:32. One aspect of living a life that is “worthy of the calling you have received” is “be[ing] kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Paul continues,
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
So Christians are to love and forgive others as Christ loved us. It is within that context that we are to read the three pairs of household instructions in Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Paul gives the general principle in Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21 applies to all Christians; wives, husbands, children, parents, slaves and masters are all to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
In Ephesians 5:25, Paul makes the application of Christ-like love within the family specific:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
A few verses later, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 and compares the marital union to Christ’s union with believers.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a deeply profound truth — and note that I am relating this as an example of Christ’s relationship to the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32) (Author’s translation. Verse 32 literally translates, “This mystery is great and [de] I am speaking with reference to [eis] Christ and with reference to [eis] the church.”
(This is the same passage, by the way, to which Jesus refers in Mark 10:2-9. There, Jesus establishes God’s intention in creation: one man united to one wife throughout their lives. While God in his grace has made provisions for human failings – what Jesus called our “hardness of heart” – God’s grace is not a reason to close our eyes to God’s perfect will.)
In Ephesians 5:33, Paul alludes to the second half of the Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31).
However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:33)
The Nurturing Father
The second half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, then, repeatedly returns to the subject of living in Christ-like love as the proper response to God’s grace. In Ephesians 6:1-4 , Paul applies this point of view to the relationship of parents and children. As we have noted, Ephesians 6:4 is Paul’s sole word about parenting in this section. There is more here, however, than first meets the eye.
Fathers, don’t make your children bitter about life. Instead, bring them up in Christian discipline and instruction.
The word behind “don’t make your children bitter” is parorgizo, which literally means “to make angry.” I trust that Paul doesn’t mean, “Never do anything that makes your children yell and stomp their feet.” Paul’s use of the word “discipline” and “instruction” rules out that overly-permissive interpretation. Ancient discipline and instruction of the young could be quite strict by modern standards. Indeed, the ancient father (pater familias) held the patria potestas (paternal authority), almost unlimited power over the members of his household. Paul is telling Christian fathers not to use this power abusively, to destroy relationships and to do lasting damage to the child’s spirit. Don’t, in other words, raise your children in such a way as to make them angry, bitter people.
In English, “bring them up” is almost a throw-away phrase. Its significance is easy to miss. The word behind “bring them up,” however, is ektrepho which in classical Greek carries the meaning of “nourish” and “cherish.” Paul uses the same word in Ephesians 5:29 to describe the self-care that all people exercise toward themselves. Fathers, then are to nourish their children like young, tender plants. As a gardener carefully tends his garden, ensuring the young plants are adequately watered and the soil adequately fertilized, so a father nourishes his children. As the gardener protects young plants from insects, hungry varmints and invasive weeds, so a father protects his offspring. A father cherishes his children. He holds them close in his heart and counts them among his most valuable treasures. Fathers who nourish their children appreciate, respect and encourage them.
At its most basic level, Paul’s teaching calls for our presence in our children’s lives. Nourishing our children requires our time and attention. Note well, that’s time AND attention. “Presence” means being “there” when you are there. It is as problematic to be mentally and emotionally absent as it is to be physically absent – perhaps more so. When you are physically absent, your children can hope that you’ll be there when you can. To be mentally and emotionally absent, however, sends the message that you just don’t care.
The goal of parenting is to produce mature, capable men and women who are able to leave home at some point and function on their own. “Bring them up” could just as easily be translated “bring them to maturity.” Perhaps it would be a good idea for parents to keep the “end state” in mind as they raise their children. What kind of children do you want to produce? What kind of people do you want your children to become?
What Makes Instruction Christian?
How do parents “bring them to maturity”? Paul gives us two words: training (paideia) and instruction (nouthesia).” Both words are rather general references to child-rearing. Paideia” is a what one does to a “paidos” (child). It means training or teaching. Physical discipline (or punishment) was a significant component of education and child-rearing in Paul’s day, and so the word is often translated “discipline.””Nouesthia” means “instruction” and carries with it a connotation of “warning.”
More importantly, what is the character of the of training and instruction that children are to receive? They are to receive the discipline and instruction “of the Lord” (kuriou). Paul doesn’t simply mean that Christian children should learn Jesus’ teachings; Paul’s meaning is broader than that. As many have noted, the teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels do not play an extraordinarily large role in Paul’s own writings. Rather, “of the Lord” simply means “Christian” instruction. Everything that is “of the Lord” is an appropriate subject of instruction.
Paul is following his Jewish heritage in emphasizing the importance of religious education for all children in believing families, regardless of their financial situation or station in life. In the ancient world, only a wealthy few received a formal, classical education. All Christian children should be literate (an exceptional thing in the ancient world), able to study, understand and intelligently discuss their faith.
Of course children are always learning from their parents. You are your child’s most important teacher and your actions mean more than your words. What you do matters more than what you say, but both are important. Everything that we teach our children by word and example should be “of the Lord” in the sense that should be consistent with the truth that God has revealed in Jesus.
“Of the Lord” should also describe our style training and not just the content. Some approaches to instilling discipline are more consistent with Christ’s life and character than others. “Let me beat the truth into you,” is hardly “of the Lord” as a method of training.
Still, we raise our children in a fallen world. Child rearing requires both law and gospel! While we may recoil at some of the child training techniques used 2000 years ago, it is still true that children need structure, boundaries, reasonable rules, and so forth. Appropriate family structures and behavioral expectations are important to children for a number of reasons, including their physical safety and emotional security. As children grow older, however, we need to give them increasing levels of both freedom and responsibility. And all along the way, children must learn that actions have natural consequences, that life does not always go their way and that they can overcome obstacles that life puts in their way. If the ancients tended to make child-rearing too strict and harsh, our generation tends to make it too squishy and formless. Both extremes are problematic.
Fatherhood as a Spiritual Journey
Learning to be a good father is an ongoing challenge that I don’t claim to have yet mastered. I was 28 years old when I first became a father. Even at 28 I was immature and inexperienced as a parent. In some ways, my children and I grew up together: I as a father, and they as children. I never became the perfect father and my children suffered for it – to my deep regret and shame. I need God’s grace and my children’s forgiveness.
The job of being a father is too important to give up on. I can’t say, “It’s too hard, so I quit.” The stakes are too high. It’s precisely where love is hard that Christ calls me to love others as he loves me. What I do as a father has a huge impact on my children and ultimately on the society in which we live. Wherever you are now in your ability to be a father to your children, don’t stop there. Today, you can act just a little more like that father that in your best moments you envision yourself to be.
So, let me challenge you one more time, for the sake of the world in which we live, for the sake of your own family, for the sake of your own life in Christ, love your children as Christ loves you. Nurture them. Cherish them. Bring them to full maturity. Teach them and show them what it means to be a member of God’s family where love and grace prevail.