“Fathers, do not exasperate your children” (Ephesians 6:4),or as the King James Version has it, “provoke not your children to wrath.” This I find quite a tricky thing to not do as it is my role each morning to wake our children up and get them going. I can usually count on at least one of the three to be sore about that!
To get what this passage is saying about parenting we need to go back to an earlier passage. While in the English language we hit a period and we think the thought is done and over, in Greek, especially Paul’s Greek, the thoughts and sentences can go on and on, not unlike my sermons somedays. Those who are in the know in such things (meaning Biblical Scholars on Greek, not our church family on my sermon length) tell us that the main thought throughout the first half of chapter six is found in 5:18: “be filled with the Spirit,” with the sub-thought being “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV). Though not restated with reference to children and parents, there in the background is the thought that children should submit to their parents, and that parents ought to submit to their children. We may not be surprised that children are to submit to their parents, but we may be surprised by the thought that “submit to one another” includes the submission of parents to their children. What does this look like? What does this mean?
First, let us think of what being a submissive parent does not mean. A parent being ’submissive’ to a child does not mean handing over authority. I think I owe this insight to a book by Richard Blackaby, that Jesus serves others but never hands over authority. For example, when he washes the feet of the disciples, he is serving them, taking on the role of a slave, and yet the whole time maintaining his proper authority. When Peter tries to usurp that authority: “’No,’ said Peter, ’you shall never wash my feet,’” Jesus stays in charge: “Jesus answered, ’Unless I wash you, you have no part with me’” (John 13:8 NIV). A Christian parent is to always maintain authority over non-adult children, children are to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1) and not the other way around.
How then is a parent to be ’submissive’ to a child? By placing the real needs (and not felt needs) of the child first.
To the original readers this would often mean that a different kind of father was needed. While fathers could be quite loving, society gave the father absolute sway in the family; they could be as harsh in discipline as they wanted, they even had the right to sell their children into slavery. But a Christian father must approach his parental task as a Spirit-filled person who is growing in the character traits of “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23 NIV). Such a father serves the best interest of the child. Thus Paul encourages fathers to not use authority in ways that will demoralize the child, “exasperating” them through cruelty or indifference. Thus Paul also encourages the father to ensure the child is raised “in the training and instruction of The Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 NIV). To know Christ, to live for Christ, and be a member of Christ’s body is in anyone’s best interest!
Sadly, there are those who could use a different kind of father in our day. What “exasperates” a child today? A father who is never sober can leave a child exasperated. Similarly, a father who loses his money at the track, or a father who abuses, whether physically, emotionally, or in any other way. Or a father who sets unattainable standards. Or a father that just doesn’t show up. Or a father who who treats the child’s mother like dirt. Or a father who treats himself like dirt. There are so many ways that fathers are leaving their children exasperated and angry in our day. If you or I are ever that father, then it is time to put down our junk, and pick up our children, submitting ourselves to their need for love, for direction, for Godly example. It is time for repentance.
As we consider the ’parental submission’ our passage in Ephesians is calling for, there is one more thing we can consider. My wife and I signed up for memberships at the local Y about 13 years ago. I knew I was terribly out of shape, something I had known for about twenty some odd years of the twenty some odd years I had been alive. What I was not expecting was that my wife’s heart rate would actually be higher than mine. Soon enough the reason for her elevated heart rate became clear: she was pregnant, which was something else I was not expecting! A woman’s body changes with pregnancy, in fact you could say that it ’submits’ to the needs of the child she carries. Along with the changes in heart rate and hormones were changes in cravings. Sandra began craving BBQ ribs, and along with that I began thinking that ten or more children would be fine.
When a woman’s body submits to pregnancy, it does so naturally, automatically, and beautifully. What a contrast to those who will scream out about rights and decisions! The female body was not designed to think of the rights of the mother, but of serving the needs of the child. Can we who are parents learn to submit our souls to our children naturally, automatically, and beautifully? Can we aspire to this while the child is in our care, even in the womb? We can, especially if we are striving to be filled with the Spirit.
Let those of us who are parents learn to serve. Let the rest be in prayer for us.