A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 6:1-9. Parents, children masters and servants.
Paul now passes in his *haustafeln* from the reciprocal duties of husbands and wives to those of parents and children. As he does so, it is immediately noteworthy that he thinks of the local congregation as a ‘church family’, consisting of both sexes and of all ages. Since he addresses the children in this paragraph as well as their parents, he evidently expects whole families to come together for public worship and not only to praise God but also to listen to his Word. They would hear the Old Testament Scriptures and the apostle’s letters read aloud and expounded, and when the apostolic *haustafeln* were read out, they would learn their own Christian duties and those of other members of the family. That children should have been included in the instructions, and given a section of their own, is an indication of the already pervasive influence in the church of him who had said, ‘Let the children come unto me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God,’ (Mk.10:14) and again, ‘Whosoever receives one such child in my name receives me.’ (Mt.18:5). It was a radical change from the callous cruelty which prevailed in the Roman Empire, in which unwanted babies were abandoned, weak and deformed ones killed, and even healthy children were regarded by many as a partial nuisance because they inhibited sexual promiscuity and complicated easy divorce.
1). The duty of children (6: 1-3)
*Children, obey your parents…* Here is another example of that general submissiveness which according to 5:21 is expected of all members of God’s new society. But this time the requirement is stronger, namely obedience. For wives were not told to ‘obey’, and in my view the 1662 Prayer Book marriage service was wrong to include this verb in the bride’s vows. The concept of a husband who issues commands and of a wife who gives him obedience is simply not found in the New Testament. The nearest approximation to it is the cited example of Sarah who ‘obeyed Abraham, calling him lord’. But even in that passage the apostle Peter’s actual instruction to wives is the same as Paul’s, namely, ‘Be submissive to your husbands.’ (1 Pet.3:1-6). And as we saw in the last chapter, a wife’s submission is something quite different from obedience. It is a voluntary self-giving to a lover whose responsibility is defined in terms of constructive care; it is love’s response to love.
Children, however, are to obey their parents. Although Paul goes on to restrict parental authority and to guide it into the channel of Christian education, it is still clear that parent’s authority over their children is distinct from and stronger than the husband’s ‘headship’ over his wife. Yet Paul does not take it for granted. His teaching is always rationally argued. As with the wife’s submission, so with the children’s obedience, he builds his instruction on a carefully laid foundation. He gives three grounds for the obedience of the children in a Christian home: nature, the law and the gospel.
First, nature: *Children, obey your parents…, for this is right*, or righteous (*dikaios*). Child obedience belongs to that realm which came in medieval theology to be called ‘natural justice’. It does not depend on special revelation; it is part of the natural law which God has written on all human hearts (Rom.2:14-15). It is not confined to Christian ethics; it is standard behaviour in every society. Pagan moralists, both Greek and Roman, taught it. Stoic philosophers saw a son’s obedience as self-evident, plainly required by reason and part of ‘the nature of things’. Much earlier, and in oriental culture, one of the greatest emphases of Confucius was on filial respect, so that still today, though centuries later, Chinese, Korean and Japanese customs continue to reflect his influence. Indeed, virtually all civilizations have regarded the recognition of parental authority as indispensable to a stable society. We experience no sense of surprise, therefore, when Paul includes ‘disobedient to parents’ as a mark both of a decadent society which God has given up to its own godlessness and of ‘the last days’ which began with the coming of Christ (Rom.1:28-30; 2 Tim.3:1-2).