The Parent-Child Relationship
American Journal of Biblical Theology
Copyright © 2011, J.W. Carter. Scripture quotes from KJV
The Monument of Memmius, Ephesus.
One of the more tragic events taking place in our society is the continued eroding of the family as its basic functional unit. Though the nuclear family is still the majority of this world's society, the percentage of broken homes is higher than at any time in history. This same deterioration of the family has taken place in all of the 'western' cultures around the world. No social group is free from this blight, no family has been left untouched. What is going to happen to our society if the role of the nuclear family continues to decline? There are many instances of this pattern in recorded history. For example, it was the onset of secular humanism that destroyed the Roman empire when its military lost its focus and the family unit dissolved in an amoral, hedonistic ethic. This same philosophy is gaining considerable strength in today's society, and most people have no idea that it is not a new idea, but one of the classic Greek philosophies. Secular humanism denies deity, and recognizes man's reason as the highest authority. As the most pervasive philosophy in our nation's educational system, it strips society of Judeo-Christian values, replacing them with a self-centered and Godless world view. Commitment to the family unit is taught to be secondary to the fulfillment of one's own desires. Family values are considered passť to comical in the television and movie industry. "Father Knows Best," and "The Andy Griffith Show" have been replaced by programs that present broken families, illicit affairs, sex, rationalized homosexuality, and violence to such an extent that most people have lost their sensitivity to any of these issues.
The breakdown that we have witnessed can be described in a breakdown in the value given to relationships both within and outside the home. Concern for the well-being of others has been overwhelmed with messages of self-gratification. The open and even violent questioning of authority that started in the mid 1960s has continued until there are very few places where many people will recognize any significant authority at all. The first part of the sixth chapter of Paul's letter to the Ephesians addresses relationships within the home, and how they can be shaped by God's virtues, establishing a paradigm in the home that is different from that of the pagan society, a model that honors God and returns the home to what God desires. The first few verses, 1 - 4, address the relationship between parents and children. The next verses 5 - 9, address relationships between masters and slaves which, in ancient times involved the home, but today address the workplace.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. 2Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise; 3That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
Paul felt that if children were old enough to accept Christ, they were old enough to listen to his instruction. Given the opportunity to teach children, what is the very first point he makes? Paul considers obedience to parents one of the most important characteristics of childhood behavior. When Paul lists many of the most grievous sins in his letters, he often lists disobedience to parents alongside with all sorts of debauchery, murder, and mayhem. Here he quotes one of the ten commandments, the first with a promise. What is the promise with this commandment?
Exodus 20:12. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
What does obedience to parents have to do with living a long and prosperous life? We might find some insight into that question if we consider the alternative. The first authority figure that a child who is part of a family recognizes is that of the parents. If a child does not learn to respect the authority that is within the home, he/she will not respect authority outside the home as well. As a society, we live in a complex network of authorities to which we submit. One who balks at that will find themselves in conflict with all areas of society. One who rejects the network of authorities in society will at best case be an outcast, and at worst case, and out law. Note that this commandment does not necessarily promise to extend or shorten one's life, though living a rebellious lifestyle can certainly shorten one's life. God simply states here that one's days upon the land that was given will be long. Remember that the ancient Hebrew culture centered around the land, and the land was granted to the families, the sons of Israel. In their culture, being cast off of the land was to be disowned by the family, an act that would have been approved by the family patriarch. The command states that, should a child refuse to obey mother and father, he/she will not experience God's plan for a close, nuclear family, but instead will find himself/herself cast away from that family, and will be alone. In the same way that rejection of the authorities within the home will produce an outcast, rejection of authorities outside the home will only serve to heighten the loneliness and frustration of the rebellious soul. Paul extends this idea even further when he reminds us that a rebellious lifestyle can certainly serve to shorten one's days on the earth. Rebels tend to die young.
However, before we develop an age-theology that promises long life to those who obey their parents, we must consider the entire context of this verse in light of God's promise. The statement is not, "that thy days may be long", as much as we might like it to be. It is, "that thy days may be long upon the land" of the promise. Disobedience to parents does not bring with it a promise of premature death. It does bring a promise that such behavior will result in rejection from the covenant. This is a far greater issue, one of enough import that it is worth exploring. Simply stated, a rejection of the authority of parents is an expression of the rejection of the authority of God, resulting in a lost soul. This is not a trivial issue. When one fully accepts the authority of God, he/she accepts God's commands that fundamentally include obedience of parents, an obedience that is characterized by a respect for parents based upon an understanding of God's purpose for the family structure.
What does this command to children have to do with adults? Certainly, as adults we are to continue to respect and care for our own parents, but the lesson here is for parents to require obedience from their children. How do we go about putting together a home atmosphere that encourages obedience? Children need suitable motivation. There are two ways to motivate someone to exhibit a specific behavior: loving reward or autocratic punishment. The choice of these is identified in the next verse:
And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
This word translated 'wrath' is also translated 'exasperate' and might be best illustrated by an example. If someone continually treats you with love and kindness, and you learn to love them in return, how do you respond when that person asks you to do something for them? Usually you would respond without hesitation. You know that they would do anything similar for you if you were in need, and you feel blessed by the opportunity to serve the one who is asking. This is how one responds when the relationship is built on love.
The second scenario involves your reaction to someone who forces you to do something against your will by sheer autocracy and belligerence, using threats to get you to do what they want. When you do it anyway, that person is never satisfied and continues to berate you, belittle you, and demand yet more from you. How might you feel? This sounds like a suitable environment for exasperation. This is a close parallel to the feeling that Paul uses. He commands parents, (the word translated fathers can also be translated parents in our society since both mothers and fathers have the responsibility of authority in the home), to create an environment that will not drive the children to exasperation in the process of exercising parental authority in the home.
Consequently, how does a parent motivate children to obedience: with a stick or with a hug? A caring, loving parent-child relationship will produce much more result than an autocratic one. Is it necessary, however, to keep the rod of authority at hand? Children will always push at the limits of their environment in order to find out where they are, and by so doing, establish for themselves the comfortable and secure margins of their lives. When parents fail to provide such boundaries the child is also exasperated by what is an obvious lack of parental concern. When boundaries are well-defined, the child is secure in knowing that the parent cares. Consequently, appropriate boundaries must be set, and the exercise of both discipline and appropriate punishment must always be an option. However, the threat of the rod is often much more powerful than its actual use. When raising my own children I fashioned a small paddle out of thin Philippine mahogany plywood with only one layer running along its length. It was flexible, made a very loud slapping sound, and yet had a very mild sting when carefully applied. The noise was worse than the impact. My most effective application of the paddle was to (1) ask the child to get the paddle and bring it to me, and (2) upon receiving it, I would first try it out on my own leg. The loud slapping noise was almost always sufficient to produce necessary repentance. The actual use of the paddle on the child's bottom was rare. When applied it was always done some period of time after the child had disobeyed, always followed a discussion of why the paddle was being used, and after its use, hugs and kisses were lavishly given. Invariably, the application of the rod was followed by playtime with the children. The crisis was over, and the lesson learned. The boundary was set, and the child was secure. I was later told by my children that the worst part of the punishment was retrieving the paddle. As a result of this family model, neither of my two children went through periods of rebellion, and had strong, confident self-images that empowered them to maintain their Christian beliefs in their public school settings. They are adults now, my daughter, the elder, graduated from Seminary and with her pastor husband are engaged in the ministry. My son is heading in a similar direction.
In order to fulfill the imperatives of Eph 6:1-3, we must put together a home environment where the children obey the parents, doing so by requiring that obedience of the children, and invariably exercising authority through the lavish demonstration of love and caring. What happens if a parent does not require obedience from a child? What happens if a parent allows the child to take over the position of authority in the home? This common error in parenting results in conflict within the family when a child who does not know how to exercise authority over him/herself. Such a child will be overwhelmed by the decisions, out of control, without limits, insecure, and quite unhappy. So, the responsibility for obedience lies with the parent, not the child.
Another way parents can provoke their children to wrath is by expressing favoritism of one child over another. There are several examples of the conflict that arises when this happens. From Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob we see three examples of parents who favored one child over another, and in all three cases the results were disastrous. Abraham, impatient when waiting upon God's promise of a child, had his firstborn son through his wife's handmaiden, Hagar, and named him Ishmael. After his wife, Sarah, gave birth to Isaac, Abraham despised Hagar and Ishmael:
Gen. 21:14. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
Abraham considered the child born of Sarah to be his true first-born child and disowned Hagar and Ishmael, abandoning them to die in the desert. However, at Ishmael's birth, God promised the success of his ancestry, but prophesied that he would always be in conflict with those around him. Many today ascribe the Arab-Israeli conflict to this event. One might think that, upon this experience, Isaac would have learned the error of such a relationship with children.
Gen. 25:25-28. And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau. 26And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esauís heel; and his name was called Jacob: and Isaac was threescore years old when she bare them. 27And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents. 28And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob.
We can see the favoritism shown here. The conflict that arose between Jacob and Esau was just as bitter as that between Ishmael and Isaac. Esau sold his birthright, the blessing of the land of his father, to Jacob for a pot of stew, indicating that he despised the birthright. When Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing, the hatred between the brothers became so extreme that Jacob ran for his life, fleeing to another country. Though Jacob and Esau personally came to an amicable agreement, their families continued to hate each other because of the issue concerning the land ownership. Again, many to day ascribe the Arab-Israeli conflict to this event. Of course, the examples of Abraham and Isaac should have taught Jacob to treat his children properly.
Genesis 37:3-4. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. 4And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
Joseph's brothers hated him so much that they sold him into Egyptian slavery and reported to their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. Israel mourned Joseph's reported death until his own. As an Egyptian slave, Joseph worked his way to the most influential position in the land, the executor for the Pharaoh. When Joseph's brothers fled the famine in Canaan and came to Egypt, instead of using his position to exact retribution, Joseph maintained his care and respect for his family and their heritage. Presenting them before Pharaoh, Joseph used his position to obtain for them some of the best land in the region. The Pharaoh was so impressed by their skills that he even invited them to attend his own flocks. Joseph ended the cycle of hatred. While in Egypt, the Hebrew nation was born, and developed over a period of about 400 years. When Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egyptian bondage they went back to the land of Ishmael and Esau. The conflict between the nations, now separated as Israel and the Arabs, started at this point, and has never stopped.
Many families have been divided over an event where one or more members acted like the brothers of Joseph. Hearts have been hardened and little or no communication takes place after the division. To maintain such a rift is inconsistent in the Christian life. When such a disfellowship exists in the family, everyone suffers.
Bringing up children in today's culture is certainly a challenge. However, these few verses give us some very important insight into how to do so successfully. Parents do not need to succomb to the worldly opinions that leave them powerless. God has a plan for the family structure. God's family is formed of parents who love and care for one another, and love and care for their children. Parents are to teach their children. The scriptures clearly teach that we are to bring up our children in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord. (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 4:10, 6:7, 11:19, 31:19, 2 Samuel 34:11, Psalm 132:2; Prov. 4:1, 5:7, 7:24, Daniel 1:4) When children learn of love in the home, a love that is unconditional, does not show favoritism, and holds them securely to a well-defined set of boundaries, they will not have reason to rebel as those of the world do. Parents can be encouraged that there is a way to raise their children without fear of their being overwhelmed by the world. They can raise their children in a home where Christ is the central authority, worship and prayer is a central activity, and love abounds. When parents do so, their children will not wander far from them.