A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 6:1-3. The duty of children (continued).
This brings us to the second practical question: who are these ‘children’ who are to obey their parents? And when do they cease to be such? Is Paul addressing himself only to infants, and do young boys and girls? Or does he include all young people who are still unmarried and living at home, even though now they may be grown up and may long since have left their childhood and their teens behind? No single answer can be given to this question; for different answers would need to be given in different cultures. In most western countries the age at which young people attain their majority has in recent years been lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. At that age now they are no longer minors, they are given the vote, and they are free to marry without parental consent. At the opposite extreme, in the empire of Paul’s day, ‘the power of the Roman father extended over the child’s whole life, so long as the father lived. A Roman son never came of age.’ In some third world countries to day, especially in Asia, a similar custom prevails. All one can say in relation to such situations is that either law or custom in every society recognizes at least a measure of independence for young people, either when manhood or womanhood is reached, or when they attain a certain age, or when they leave home and marry. Christians should not defy the accepted convention of their own culture in this matter. So long as they are regarded in their culture as children or minors, they should continue to obey their parents.
One other important point. Even after we have attained our majority, are regarded in our culture as being no longer under the authority of our parents, and are therefore no longer under obligation to ‘obey’ them, we still must continue to ‘honour’ them. Our parents occupy a unique position in our lives. If we honour them as we should, we will never neglect or forget them. Many third world cultures, even non-Christian ones, care for elderly parents far more conscientiously and thoughtfully than most of us do, who live in the so-called Christian West. Although in some circumstances it may be unavoidable and in others even desirable, it is a sad reflection on the selfish western tradition of the nuclear family that instead of looking after our elderly relatives ourselves, we consign them to an old people’s home. Thus to isolate, and even symbolically to reject, one’s own parents can seldom be reconciled with the command to honour them.
So far we have been following Paul as he grounds the child’s obedience to his parents on both nature and Scripture, on natural law and revealed law. That is, he urges it first because it is right and secondly because it is written. His third argument introduces the gospel and the new day which dawned with Jesus Christ. This is implied in the injunction that children should obey their parents *in the Lord*, namely, in the Lord Jesus. Already we have seen that these words modify the parallel command in Colossians to obey parents ‘in everything’. But this does not exhaust their meaning. They bring child-obedience into the realm of specifically Christian duty, and lay upon children the responsibility to obey their parents because of their own personal relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is he who as creator first established order in family and society, and in the new society which he is now building he does not overthrow it.
There is an essential continuity between the old order and the new, between the original creation and the new creation in Christ. Families have not been abolished. Men and women still marry and have children. ‘In the Lord’ there are still husbands and wives, parents and children. What has changed relates to the ravages of the fall. For the family life which God created at the beginning and pronounced to be ‘good’ was spoiled by human rebellion and selfishness. Relationships fell apart. Society was fractured. Love was twisted into lust, and authority into oppression. But now *in the Lord*, by his reconciling work, God’s new society has begun, continuous with the old in the fact of family life but discontinuous in its quality.
For now all our relationships are transformed precisely because they are *in the Lord*. They are purged of ruinous self-centredness, and suffused instead with Christ’s love and peace. Even obedience to parents is changed. It is no longer a grudging acquiescence in parentalauthority. Christian children learn to obey with gladness, ‘for this pleases the Lord’ (Col.3:20). They remember the loving submission which Jesus himself gave as a boy to his parents (Lk.2:51). Now this same Jesus is their Lord and Saviour, and the creator of the new order, so they are anxious to do what pleases him.