As you know, many endangered species around the world face extinction unless there are concerted efforts to save them. In our own area, the California condor and the Mexican gray wolf are the focus of such rescue efforts.
But perhaps the most endangered species on the planet is the Christian home. Homes where the dad and mom are committed to each other in biblical love, where they are rearing their children to know and follow the Lord, are increasingly rare. But rather than a campaign to save this endangered species, the modern world seems bent on making it extinct. Movies, TV, and other media portray the family as any group of people, male or female, who live together. Shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet,” which were common when I grew up, are now viewed as quaint museum pieces from the past. Traditional Christian families are an increasingly rare breed!
In our text, Paul shows how to preserve this vital but endangered species. His commands build on the two commands given to wives and husbands just before. The relationship between parents and children is built on a healthy, godly relationship between a husband and wife. If children see modeled before them a husband who sacrificially loves his wife and a wife who submissively respects her husband, they have the proper environment to live out the apostle’s command to them. Paul shows us that …
A Christian home should have obedient children and sensitive, encouraging parents.
The species is so rare that some of you may chuckle as you hear it described: Obedient children? Our culture never emphasizes that! The Duke of Windsor once remarked (cited by Warren Wiersbe, Listening to the Giants Baker], p. 253), “The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children.” The idea of obedient children sounds so abnormal we may question whether it’s healthy! We aim at assertive, confident, expressive children with healthy self-esteem. But obedient children? Won’t that stifle their personality development? But Paul says,
1. A Christian home should have obedient children.
The Greek word for “children” can refer to almost any age group. But by addressing children directly, Paul assumes that they are old enough to understand what he’s saying and that they’re still living at home. As a child matures, there should be increasing freedom to discuss things with the parents in the right spirit. But if there is still disagreement, in obedience to the Lord a child needs to obey his parents. Once a young person is old enough to support himself and be on his own, he is not under his parents’ authority, but he still should respect and honor them. Implicit in the command is that parents are responsible to teach their children from an early age to obey.
But what if the parents are not believers? What if as Christians they are wrong in what they command?
A. Children, obey your parents in all things, except when to obey them would mean disobeying God.
Paul says, “in all things.” He assumes a Christian home, so he doesn’t mention any exceptions. Children need to be careful about claiming an exception, because human nature is such that we’re all prone to disobey and claim that we were obeying the Lord above our parents. But in Christian homes, such exceptions will be rare.
Young people, please note, if you live in obedience to your parents, you’re going to have to be willing to be different than most other kids. Our culture encourages challenging all authority. Parents are portrayed on TV and in movies as dummies who rarely know what’s right for their kids. Other kids will taunt you if you say, “My parents won’t let me do that.” You need to commit to obedience up front, because it’s not always easy to obey the Lord on this matter. But God promises a blessing to all children who obey their parents (Eph. 6:1-3).
By God’s design, parents are always older and more experienced than their children. Mark Twain once said that when he was 17 he was amazed at how stupid his father was, but that when he was 21, he was surprised at how much the old man had learned in four years.
But what if your parents are insensitive and unreasonable? What if you’re a teenager and they treat you like you’re five? What if they’re harsh and overly strict? If so, you’ve got a more difficult situation in which to obey God than if your parents are loving and sensitive. But their shortcomings as parents do not give you the right to disobey them, unless they command something where to obey them would be to disobey God. Even Jesus, the perfect Son of God, submitted to His imperfect earthly parents when He was a child (Luke 2:51).
But here I must talk about an extremely unpleasant subject. But since it occurs even in Christian homes, I must discuss the sin of parents sexually abusing their children. Statistics vary and may not be completely accurate, but I’ve read that as many as one-fourth of girls and one-fifth of boys are sexually abused before age 16, often by a family member. When the abuser is a parent (most often it’s a father with his daughter), the child usually submits and keeps silent out of fear.
Over 30 years ago Christianity Today (2/15/85, pp. 32-34) ran an article that mentioned a woman who had been sexually abused by her father an average of two times a week from the time she was three until she was 13, when her mother found out and the family disintegrated. Her dad was a Boy Scout leader and a choir member, active in a fundamentalist church.
This woman asked all 247 female students at a Christian liberal arts college to respond to a survey. Of the 96 who responded, more than half said they had been abused as children. Even if none of the ones who did not respond were abused, that’s about 20 percent! Almost all of these students had been reared in Christian homes. Of her own experience, this woman says, “I did not like what he was doing. I felt it was wrong, but I feared him. I was taught to honor, trust, and obey my parents….” Her father told her to trust him and assured her that what he was doing was okay.
Let me say emphatically: It is never okay! If you’re a child and an adult is doing things to you that you know are wrong, then God does not want you to keep silent and obey the adult. Tell an adult you trust, such as one of the pastors or youth leaders, and we will get you the help you need. If a parent is doing something to you that displeases God, then you need to do what God wants, not what your parent wants. It’s not okay. It needs to stop immediately and you need to get help for yourself. Obeying your parents “in all things” does not include submitting to immoral, abusive behavior. But with that exception, or if your parents tell you in some other way to disobey God, you should obey them. Why?
B. Children, obey your parents because this pleases the Lord.
Paul says that such obedience is “pleasing in [lit.] the Lord.” This means that if you believe in Jesus as your Savior and Lord, even if it’s hard to obey your parents, you can do it for the Lord and know that He is pleased with you. Even if your parents don’t ever seem pleased with you, the Lord is pleased if you obey them in obedience to Him. This means obeying cheerfully, not grudgingly. It means looking for opportunities to serve your parents by being helpful around the home. It means telling your parents that you’re thankful for them and you appreciate all that they do for you. Yes, this is radically countercultural! But it is pleasing in the Lord.
There’s a common myth, even in Christian circles, that teenage rebellion is normal and even healthy. I’ve had Christian parents tell me, “Yeah, my teenager is rebellious, disrespectful, and disobedient, but they all have to go through that phase.” I disagree! I never rebelled against my parents. I did some stupid, sinful things that I should not have done, but I never did these things in rebellion against them. They loved me, treated me with respect, and gave me a lot of freedom. I remember thinking, “If I come home drunk or if I get a girl pregnant, it would devastate my parents.” I didn’t want to hurt them because I knew that they loved me. At that point, I wasn’t so much focused on pleasing the Lord as I was on not hurting my parents. But the greater motivation should be, “I don’t want to do anything to dishonor or displease the Lord, who gave Himself for me on the cross!”
But Paul doesn’t just address the children. He also speaks directly to the parents, especially to fathers (the Greek word can refer to both parents, but here it’s probably weighted toward fathers, who are responsible to God for the family). In that culture, where fathers had absolute authority and could legally kill their children, you would think that Paul would have said, “Fathers, make sure that your children obey you at all times.” But instead he says …
2. A Christian home should have sensitive, encouraging parents.
If you only had one sentence to tell a bunch of new Christians from a pagan culture how to relate to their children, what would you say? Paul says (Col. 3:21), “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart.” Maybe he knew that dads tend to be overly harsh and strict, especially Christian dads who want their kids to turn out right.
A. Christian parents should not exasperate or provoke their children so that they become discouraged.
The word translated “exasperate” means to provoke (ESV, NKJV) or stir up, often to anger or to a fight. The only other time it’s used in the New Testament, Paul uses it positively to tell the Corinthians how their zeal to give had stirred up other Christians to follow their example (2 Cor. 9:2). So it has the idea of motivating someone to action, either positively to good deeds or negatively to anger or discouragement. Fathers can provoke their children to anger, rebellion, or discouragement in many ways:
- Unpredictability—a kid never knows if his dad will blow up over a minor infraction or will let a major offense go by.
- Unreasonableness—a parent won’t listen to the child’s explanation or consider the circumstances before passing judgment.
- Unfairness—a parent gives a harsh punishment for a minor matter.
- Favoritism—one child gets away with murder and another is treated sternly.
- Selfishness—a parent uses the child to meet the parent’s needs, without regard for the child’s needs.
- Extremes of over and under discipline.
- Criticism without praise—the parents rarely praise a child’s positive behavior and often criticize his faults.
- Insensitivity—a parent won’t listen or minimizes what to the child is an important problem.
- Unavailability—a parent is absent or too busy when the child needs him.
- Breaking promises—which teaches a child not to trust what his parents say.
- Hypocrisy—a child sees a parent putting on a front of righteousness before others, but living differently at home.
- Legalism—a parent lays down the law on petty issues and puts more weight on keeping the rules than on helping a child deepen his relationship with God and with the parents.
These are some common ways that parents exasperate or provoke their children so that they become discouraged or disobedient. If any of these errors describe your parenting, ask your children’s forgiveness and make an effort to change. If you glance at the list again, you’ll note that none of these behaviors describe the heavenly Father’s dealings with His children. So I can state in one sentence how you should aim to raise your children:
B. The overall principle for child-rearing: I must relate to my children as the heavenly Father relates to me.
That sentence sums up everything you will ever need to know about being a godly parent. If we had time, we could work back through the ways you can provoke your children to discouragement and look at their opposites. But I want to explore just four aspects of relating to your children as God relates to you:
1) I must accept my responsibility to father my children.
To put it another way, God is not a passive father towards us. He takes the initiative to establish and provide for a relationship with us. He has entrusted our children to us for a brief period of time. Especially as fathers, we’re accountable to love them as God loves us and train them in His ways, both by example and precept.
The difficult thing is that for most men, the time when your kids need you the most is the same time that your career is making the greatest demands on your time. To succeed in your career, the company wants you to travel or put in long days at the office. You rationalize by thinking, “I’ll give my kids quality time.” But there’s no such thing as quality time apart from quantity time! Kids interpret an absent father as rejection, even if from your perspective you’re working hard to provide for them.
One of the saddest books you can ever read is, Days of Glory, Seasons of Night [Zondervan], by Marilee Pierce Dunker, the daughter of Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision. He was so dedicated to helping the needy overseas that he virtually abandoned his family. For fifteen years, he was gone on average about ten months out of the year (p. 79). Tragically, he said (p. 103), “I’ve made an agreement with God that I’ll take care of His helpless little lambs overseas if He’ll take care of mine at home.” But one daughter committed suicide. He and his wife eventually divorced. And the daughter who wrote the book went through agonizing emotional struggles before she came to a place of peace in the Lord.
I contend that no matter how impressive your ministry or how successful your career may be, if God gave you children, then it’s your job to spend time being a father to them.
2) I must make grace and love, not discipline, my main emphasis with my children.
In my opinion, many Christians are out of balance here. Most books on childrearing emphasize discipline. Certainly our kids need consistent discipline. But discipline is only effective if it’s wrapped in love that is felt. My dad used to tell me, “You don’t have the right to discipline your kids if you don’t play with them.” You’ll never spoil a child by giving him too much love, as long as it’s biblical love, which seeks the child’s highest good. This allows for correction when needed. But our main emphasis should not be disciplining our children, but showing them God’s grace and love.
God relates to us primarily with grace and love. When Moses asked God to reveal Himself, the Lord proclaimed (Exod. 34:6), “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.” That description of God is repeated many times throughout the Old Testament. It should be descriptive of every Christian father.
Before you discipline your children, you need to discern whether they’re being defiant or just immature. If a child is defiant, he needs strong enough correction to learn that his defiance will not be tolerated. He should never be allowed to hit you or his mother or to throw a temper tantrum to get his way. But if a three-year-old is just acting immaturely, you try to help him grow up. Three-year-olds don’t act like ten-year-olds. So you give correction in a spirit of love and grace.
3) I must not only love my children—I must like them.
Love is primarily a commitment; but liking is primarily a feeling. “Not provoking,” and “not losing heart,” are emotional terms. A sensitive, encouraging father needs to be in tune with his kids’ feelings. They need to feel accepted, to know that they don’t have to earn my approval. With children, especially with young children, feelings are even more important in influencing them than giving them solid biblical content. If a child feels good about his family, there’s a better chance he will follow the Lord when he’s older than if he got excellent instruction from cold, stern parents. I always wanted my kids to know that I liked them and I liked being with them. When they came into my presence, I wanted them to feel that I was glad to see them.
There are many ways to communicate this, but here are three important ways: First, show them that you like them by warm eye contact. If you glare at them, you’re saying, “You’re a bother! I’ve got more important things to do!” But if your eyes say, “It’s good to see you,” they will feel your love.
Second, give them appropriate touch: a hug or a pat on the knee. Wrestle with them playfully on the floor. Tuck them into bed when they’re young with prayer and a kiss.
Third, as I’ve already said, spend time with them. Take them to the store. Do fun things as a family on a day off. Take an annual family vacation together. One thing I did a few times near each child’s birthday was to take that child alone with me on an overnight campout or a special all-day outing. When my middle daughter, Joy, turned 16, she said to me, “Dad, do you remember how you used to take us on a special outing for our birthdays?” I said, “Yes, Joy.” She said, “Do you think that for my birthday we could go down to Sedona, do a short hike, and look at some of the art galleries?” I said, “I’d love to do that!” So we had a memorable father-daughter day together.
4) I must motivate my children to be all that God wants them to be.
The Greek word translated “lose heart” is the opposite of “take courage, be eager.” Each child comes factory-equipped with his own motivational patterns. What gets one excited turns another one off. As a dad, your job is to know each child well enough to motivate him to be all that God wants him to be. One thing is sure to demotivate your child: Make him feel as if he can’t ever please you. He brings home all A’s and one B, and you say, “Try to bring up that B next time.” If you criticize him every time he makes a mistake and withhold praise when he does well, you’re sure to discourage, not motivate him.
The goal toward which I want to motivate my kids is to become all that God wants them to be, not all that I may want them to be. Don’t impose your dreams on your kids, unless your dream is that they follow the Lord all their days. If they follow the Lord, it doesn’t matter what they do for a career.
Of course, we aren’t guaranteed that our children will follow the Lord even if we do everything right. But even if they stray from the Lord, it is our constant love and discipline, reflecting God’s love and discipline, that will bring them back.
The late Joe Bayly was a compassionate, loving servant of God. During the radical days of the 1970’s, one of his sons rebelled against the Lord, quit going to church, and was causing disruption in their home. Painfully, but in love, Bayly had to ask him to leave their home.
Late one night, Bayly got a malicious but untrue call, saying that their son had been picked up by the police. Bayly went to every police station he knew of, trying to find his son. Finally, about 3 a.m. he thought about going by where his son was living to see if he was there. The door was always unlocked. Bayly went in and found his son asleep. He woke him up, told him why he was there, kissed him, told him that he loved him, and left.
That son has been a faithful pastor now for many years. He says that what turned him around was his father’s love, seen both in his tenderness and in the painful decision to discipline his son by asking him to leave their home. In a recent book (Tim Bayly, Daddy Tried, excerpt in a personal email), he wrote, “To this day, Dad’s discipline and love stick in my mind as I carry my responsibilities as a husband, father, and pastor.”
Children, obey your parents. Parents, relate to your children as God relates to you, with sensitivity and encouragement. You’ll help to preserve a vital endangered species—the Christian home.
- What should a Christian young person do if his unbelieving parents forbid him from going to church? Should he submit?
- Discuss: Is it normal for teenagers to rebel?
- How can a parent know when grace crosses the line into wrongful lenience? Do you agree that the emphasis in Christian circles is too heavy on discipline versus love and grace?
- How can parents motivate a rebellious child?