Children and Parents
Open Your Bible
Ephesians 6:1-4, Exodus 20:12, Matthew 15:1-9
BY Jen Yokel
Over thirty years later, I can still hear it: small children’s voices, chanting with precise cadence, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1, KJV). I was one of those children. Memory verses were a specialty for me, an overachieving, rule-following kid. And I can definitely see why this would’ve been a verse our teachers wanted to sink in.
As a child, I read this as a reminder to do good things, like clean my room and brush my teeth and share my toys. Now, as an adult, this instruction to children toward the end of Paul’s letter seems a little bit puzzling. Is it about telling six-year-olds to do what their parents say? Some of the verses around it suggest there’s a little bit more going on here.
Just before Paul offers his instructions to husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters, he encourages the whole church community to live informed by the Holy Spirit, to let their lives reflect their deep transformation through God’s grace. It’s a big-picture view, one that encourages them to “walk in love,” stay wise, and pay attention to how they live (Ephesians 5:2,15). This new way of life applies to everyone, from the lowliest servants to the highest-ranking officials.
So Paul takes the time to address children, some of the most powerless, no-account people in Greco-Roman society. His instructions aren’t surprising; he tells them to obey their parents and reminds them of a commandment that goes all the way back to Mount Sinai: “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:2). It’s the sort of instruction you’d give to a child, obedience in a technical sense, recognizing the grownup’s authority. But then Paul turns it around: “Fathers, don’t stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
It strikes me that all throughout these sections, Paul’s instruction to the powerless and the powerful is not so different. They’re all rooted in love, service, and care for each other. Though the greater culture may not think twice about fathers holding absolute power over their families, but in God’s economy, the powerful are asked to bend low, to love and care and nurture. Though the power structures exist, they’re made to be subverted by love. The law may call for honor in a technical sense, through traditions and household codes, but God seeks self-sacrifice motivated by grace, gentleness, love, and kindness—a way of life led by and filled with His Spirit.
So then, for children, simple obedience makes sense. But what of their fathers and mothers? What of the grownups tasked to care for, teach, and help show the way to adulthood? In the kingdom, all have the worth and dignity of being made in the image of God. This is where we begin.