Parents have Authority

Al Mohler has a stimulating blog post today.

My impression is that this is an ongoing issue, even in some of our fine Christian homes. I tried to tackle some of the material in a recent sermon on Ephesians 6. This is an edited version of the talk.

If you want to cause unrest amongst an all age congregation then surely one of the ways to do it is to teach clearly on the subject of Christian parenting. It’ll be controversial if the majority of our congregation have allowed their view of parenting to be shaped by the culture and not by the Bible. But this is also a sensitive and personal issue and as a result we can be very defensive. We feel examined, assessed and judged. And, quite understandably, we don’t like it.

My working assumption is that there’s only one perfect parent and that’s God. He’s as good a parent as we could ever wish for. This means that, in comparison to him, we’re all parenting failures. But that puts us all on a level playing field. This ought to mean thatt we can be honest with one another about our failings. I therefore hope that we won’t struggle to debate the issues or be fearful of what others may say. We can safely assume that we’re all work in progress and so we won’t be judgmental, critical or sensitive.

One problem with tackling this issue is that most people have preconceived ideas about what constitutes good and bad parenting. Some of those will be formed after reflection on the biblical material and others not. It’s possible for us to hold very strong opinions on these issues. We must be careful not to require of one another what the Bible does not require of us. The explicit commands of scripture are few but clear and we should encourage those in one another. In the whole New Testament there’s only Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 to understand. And so many of our parenting decisions are concerned with applying these principles with freedom and wisdom. There’s great scope for a variety of approaches and we need to be generous and not critical in our assessment of what others are doing.

The section on parenting is introduced in (5:18). Paul describes what it means to be filled with the Spirit rather than filled with wine. The influence of the Spirit is seen in a number of activities, one of which is our relationships. He cultivates a willingness to submit in a whole set of different relationships (5:21); husbands and wives, employers and employees and parents and children.

Paul gives two clear commands, the first of which is covered in this post. The second is found here.

1. Children should obey their parents (1-3)

6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honour your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

To whom is this command addressed?

This command is aimed at children. And how we wish that they would hear it! The Greek word translated ‘children’ implies that what’s in view is not primarily an age but a relationship. In other words the word is broad enough to describe those of us that have parents, not simply at those that are under the age of 18. However, in the context of (4) it’s clear that Paul has in mind those who are still under the instructional influence of their parents in the family home.

Presumably Paul was addressing children that were old enough to understand what he was saying. But it’s quite possible to teach big truths to children as young as two. So we’re not talking about adolescents here. And let’s be honest, if we leave it till their teenage years they’ll be so well practiced in disobedience that it’ll be impossible to reverse. After all, we get good at what we practice. The longer we leave practicing obedience, the harder it’ll be to perfect. So as soon as they can understand, let’s start addressing this!

What’s required of the children?

Children are required to obey their own parents. Paul uses a Greek word stronger than the word ‘submit’ that he used in 5:22. ‘To submit’ means to willingly place yourself under the authority of someone else. But in this word the voluntary element is downplayed. Obedience means doing what you’re told. For a child that means doing what you’re told without challenge, without excuse and without delay.

Of course parents will need to be wise about when they require obedience. Don’t make everything an obedience issue. We’re not talking here about the parenting equivalent of a totalitarian regime. If we make everything an obedience issue we’re not parenting our children, we’re bullying them. They’ll end up crushed and we’ll end up doing nothing but disciplining. Or they’ll end up rebellious and we’ll end up be broken. But when we decide that something is an obedience issue we should expect our children to do what they’re told. We’ll need to make concessions and allowances for their age and stage. For example when the kids are very young and tired their reluctance to obey isn’t merely sinful rebellion. They’re exhausted and they can’t obey to the same degree that they would when they’re on top form.

‘Obedience’ is a strong term but we mustn’t think that it implies that children are inferior to their parents. It denotes not differentiation in status but differentiation in role. The responsibility that children have towards their parents is that of obedience. The the single most important lesson for a child to learn during the period from infancy to childhood is that he or she is an individual under authority.

How well do you think we’re teaching our children that truth? Is the way we parent reinforcing the idea that God has invested authority in us? Or is the way we parent reinforcing the impression that we’re open for manipulation from stroppy toddlers or that we’re open to negotiation from persistent primary school whingers or that we simply capitulate if they make enough of a scene?

In our parenting we’re either teaching them one of two things. We’re either reinforcing the idea that obedience to authority is right or we’re teaching them that it’s alright to disobey authority. Some of us may be teaching them the wrong thing.

What motivation is provided?

Paul gives two reasons for children to obey their parents

a. they should do so in the Lord

This means that their obedience to their parents is all of a piece with their submission to Christ. And so, if our kids are serious about following Jesus, as many of them say that they are, then we need to help them understand that following Jesus means doing what Mummy and Daddy says, because God has put them in charge. And we’ll help them see that they can show they’re serious about following Jesus by responding to their parents in the way that he responded to his father.  It’s not a trick; it’s Christianity. We need to help them understand this and accept it. Don’t enforce it on them, persuade them that it’s right and sensible.

b. it’s right

The second motivation obedience is simply that it’s right. In other words it’s what ought to happen. Let me put it the other way round. If children don’t obey their parents it’s wrong. It’s really seriously wrong.

Paul supports his command to children by quoting the fifth commandment from Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16. In the original Old Testament context obedience to the fifth commandment resulted in a material prosperity and long life in the Promised Land. But when Paul applied it to Christians he generalises it. But what does that mean? It’s a general principle not a cast iron guarantee. But, all things being equal and generally speaking, children that have been brought up being obedient to their parents and observing the God given authority over them are more likely to live long and prosper. For example, if your kids are the wild unruly ones, they won’t get invited to parties. It won’t go well for them in their early years. If they’re the ones who don’t do what the teacher says their experience of the education system will be unpleasant and they won’t learn what they could. We’re tempted to do whatever makes for a quiet life. It’s worth remembering that in the long run the quite life comes through rightly applying obedience in the early years.

I know some people in our congregation who’ve had a terrible time in their local community because of a group of unruly children. I’ve met some of these kids and seen them at work. Responding to authority or even to seniority with obedience or submission is anathema to them. They simply won’t do what they’re told. Not even the Police can seem to control their behaviour. I can only make some assumptions about their home lives. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d grown up without being taught or expected to obey their parents. Children ought to obey their parents, parents must teach and expect that and society as a whole must encourage and promote that.

Disobedient children will become disobedient adolescents and then disobedient adults. If they remain unwilling to submit to the authority that God places over them, it will not go well for them. If we teach them this essential truth now we’re doing them a massive favour.

Some of us reading this will be ‘grown up’ children. We still have obligations towards our parents. Whilst we’re not required to obey them as we once did God still expects us to honour our parents. That doesn’t ever go away. What that will mean will depend on their circumstances and ours.

But what does this mean for those of us that have children?

Let’s not take the path of least resistance. Our kids need us to teach them that they are under authority and that they’re expected to obey. Some of us are possibly too ‘child-centred’ in our approach. We negotiate with our children rather than exercise our authority. The house sometimes revolves around them, their desires and their strops. We need to ask what we’re teaching them when we allow that? To my mind we’re teaching them that they can get their way by causing a scene and kicking up a fuss. Let me be provocative and suggest that we need to cultivate a zero tolerance approach to strops, tantrums and answering back. I know it always happens at the worst possible time, usually in Sainsbury’s when we’re shopping for supper that night. But speaking as a husband I’d far rather that the shopping trolley was left where it was, the youngster was walked back to the car, driven home and disciplined than have Rosslyn overlook it, even if it means that we’ve got nothing to offer friends for dinner in the evening. There’s always takeaway!

If we’re a Father we need to take a lead on this set the tone and back up our wives. They need and appreciate our support in this, especially if we have boys. Usually our kids respond best to the authority of the Fathers. For those of us who are single parents this is especially tough. There are no easy answers. Yours is a demanding calling and I hope that you can find the help that you need from your church.

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