“Christian Fatherhood”

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:4

In Ephesians 5-6, Paul explains how the gospel impacts the Christian's relationships in marriage (5:22-33), the family (6:1-4) and at work (6:6-9). In each pairing, one is in a position of authority while the other is in subjection. It is remarkable that when Paul addresses how the one in authority is to treat the one in submission, he never emphasizes the exercise of their authority but rather the restraint of it.

When ancient philosophers drew up codes of behavior, it was usually one-sided. Wives, children and slaves were to obey. Period. But the gospel teaches that everyone has both rights (including those in submission) and responsibilities (including those in authority) because, no matter our earthly roles, we are all under God’s authority (6:9).

Fathers are to be self-controlled, gentle, patient educators of their children. In this one verse, Paul captures what thousands of parenting books have struggled or failed to express. Sometimes discipline is over-emphasized and restraint is forgotten in the zeal of fathers not to spare the rod lest they spoil child. Other times, the child’s rights are over-emphasized and they trample over the family to get their way because fathers are too afraid of crushing their spirit. Children need discipline, but so do fathers if they want to be the dads God has called them to be.

First, Paul gives a negative warning: “fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” In a parallel verse, he gives the reason for this: “lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21). We can parent in such a way that discourages our children and drives them away. Fathers need to recognize how delicate and precious our child’s spirit is and how lasting an impact we have on their lives. How might we ‘provoke’ our children?

We may provoke our children through manipulation: threatening them, bribing them with rewards for obedience or shaming them when they get it wrong. We may provoke them through our hypocrisy when we hold them to a higher standard than ourselves. Yes, kids misbehave. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov. 22:15) and they need discipline. But so do fathers. These aren’t the answers. Fathers, let’s not provoke our children.

Next, Paul gives a positive command: “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” To “bring up” is to literally nourish or feed, an act of sacrificial love (5:29). We are to love and value our children for who they are, not for who they ought to be, should be, or could be if they only tried harder. A father’s love cannot be conditional (Mt. 5:43-48).

Love must be expressed through the balanced pairing of “the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Fathers must take their cues from the Lord. How did Jesus discipline and instruct others? He is our model.

The “instruction of the Lord” primarily refers to teaching. That is, we “bring them up” by telling them about Jesus and instilling within them biblical ethics and principles. We teach them to make their bed, not because the house will explode if they don’t. We teach them to do their best in school, not because they will never be successful if they don’t get straight A’s. We set expectations and limits in the home to instill within them self-control, honesty, respect, accountability and hard work because these are the principles that will serve them throughout their lives.

The “disciple of the Lord” refers to the whole training program. This is a more hands-on approach that includes commands and warnings, rewards and punishments. Discipline enforces the instruction when it is loving (Prov. 3:11-12), fair (Prov. 29:15) and constructive (Prov. 22:14; 23:13-14).

But parenting isn’t just about enforcing regulations. In the Christian home, grace is needed in addition to law (Jn. 1:17; Titus 2:11-12). When grace accompanies instruction and discipline, it results in heart transformation. When there is misbehavior in the home, fathers must take time to connect their child’s behavior to their heart. Ask them what happened, what were they thinking when they did it, why they responded in the way they did, what the result was and what they would have done differently. Such questions can give them insight into the condition of their heart and lead them to true repentance and seeking the grace of God.

Moses’ leadership of Israel through the wilderness is a lot like parenting. There was plenty of grumbling, complaining and frustrated prayers but there were also many blessings along the way. Fathers, if we want to help our kids get to their Promised Land, let’s resolve to be faithful (Ex. 3:10-12a; Heb. 13:5), patient, humble (Num. 12:3) and merciful (Num. 14:19-19). Children need discipline but so do fathers.