A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 6:4. 2). The duty of parents.
The instruction to children to obey their parents presupposes, as we have seen, the fact of parental authority. Yet when Paul outlines how parents should behave towards their children, it is not the exercise, but the restraint, of their authority which he urges upon them.
The picture he paints of fathers as self-controlled, gentle, patient educators of their children is in stark contrast to the norm of his own day. ‘At the head of the Roman family…was the *pater familias*, who exercised a sovereign authority over all members of the family… The autocratic character of the *patria potestas* manifested itself not only in the father’s right to punish, but also in his *iuo vitae necisque* (i.e. ‘right of life and death’; killing the newborn; exposure of children)… *The pater familias* has a full right of disposal over his children, as over slaves and things…’ William Barclay adds: ‘A Roman father had absolute power over his family. He could sell them as slaves, he could make them work in his fields even in chains, he could take the law into his own hands, for the law was in his own hands, and punish as he liked, he could even inflict the death penalty on his child.’
Completely different was the Christian father, especially if he remembered what Paul had written earlier, namely that his fatherhood was derived from the ‘one God and Father of us all’ (3:14-15; 4:6). The over arching theme of Ephesians is that through Christ’s reconciling work there in now one multinational, multicultural family of God. So human fathers are to care for their families as God the Father cares for his. And incidentally mothers are surely included too. Although the word in verse 4 is, in fact ‘fathers’ (*pateres*), yet it could be used for ‘fathers and mothers’, much as ‘brothers’ (*adelphoi*) meant ‘brothers and sisters’. Certainly it is parents, both father and mother, who are referred to in verses 1-3, so that it is entirely legitimate for GNB to put ‘parents’ in verse 4.
Negatively, they are told: *Do not provoke your children to anger* (verse 4), or ‘do not exasperate your children’ (NIV) or ‘goad your children to resentment’ (NEB). Paul recognizes how delicate a child’s personality is. Some authors have speculated that in his own childhood he was comparatively deprived of love, and that in this instruction to parents there is a flashback to some early childhood reminiscence. We do not know. What we do know is that parents can easily misuse their authority either by making irritating or unreasonable demands which make no allowances for the inexperience and immaturity of children, or by harshness and cruelty at one extreme or by favouritism and over-indulgence at the other, or by humiliating or suppressing them, or by those two vindictive weapons sarcasm and ridicule. These are some of the parental attitudes which provoke resentment and anger in children. How many ‘angry young men’, hostile to society at large, have learned their hostility as children in an unsympathetic home? There is a place for discipline, as Paul goes on to say, but it must never be arbitrary (for children have a built-in sense of justice) or unkind. Otherwise they will ‘become discouraged’
(Col.3:21). Conversely, almost nothing causes a child’s personality to blossom and gifts to develop like the positive encouragement of loving, understanding parents. Indeed, just as a husband’s love for his wife is expressed in helping her develop her full potential, so parents’ love for their children is expressed in helping them develop theirs.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Ephesians: Being a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.