Not everyone is a spouse or a parent, but we all started out as children. The next verses we’ll look at from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus is directed to children. If you grew up in a Christian home, there is a good chance that you heard this verse quoted, perhaps often. However, the verses which follow also apply to many of us and we would do well to think about them and their impact on our lives. We’ll begin by reading them.
Ephesians 6:1 “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. 5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. 9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
Once again we are confronted with a passage that is remarkably clear. Paul outdoes himself in employing a simple direct approach. As we look at the passage as a whole, we observe that Paul doesn’t load his comments in one direction or another, but points out that both parties in interpersonal relationship have responsibilities in and to the relationship.
Firstly, he draws our attention to the fact that children are to obey. He backs this up by quoting from the Old Testament: “Honour your father and mother that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” He then adds his own editorial comment: “This is the first commandment with a promise.” This seems remarkably simple and does not conflict generally with the norms of most human societies. Yet there is a question which often comes up in either spoken or unspoken ways. “At what age is a person free of the obligation to obey his or her parents?” In some cultures this is really a burning issue.
I’m not going to try to give one absolute answer because of the variety of cultural and personal situations, but I believe the key to this is in the quotation from Exodus which Paul cites. We are to “honour” our parents. I do not believe that we are ever free of this responsibility before the Lord. What that “honouring” will look like as we grow up, get educated, get a job, move away, get married, start our own family, and so on, will be different at different stages. It seems fair to me that as long as children are dependent on their parents, they should literally “obey” them. Once that stage is passed, sons and daughters should still “honour” their parents, but the obligation to “obey” is passed.
Why would I say that? Because the obedience required of children relates to their development. We require our children to do as we say for their benefit. We don’t let little ones play with sharp knives because they could cut themselves. We have rules about them not hitting their siblings to protect their brothers and sisters and to teach them how to relate to other people. We tell them to do their homework because it is important for them to do well as school as they can and to learn good work habits. Parents should be very careful about going much beyond their concerns with their child’s development and welfare in their commands. Our children are not our servants. I would apply Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 12:14. It is not the child’s obligation to work and provide for the parents, but the parents for the children. If this goes against the prevailing culture, consider that perhaps the culture needs to be adjusted.
Having dealt with children’s response to their parents, Paul turns his attention to the parents’ responsibilities to their children. He addresses this verse to fathers, but this is not to exclude mothers. Perhaps it is because fathers, more than mothers, might be given to neglecting to take the child’s emotions into account in his interactions with them. The idea here is that they should not exasperate, irritate, or frustrate their little ones. This is equally applicable to intentional and unintentional cases.
Most fathers I know do not take pleasure in upsetting their children, however, we all fall into traps as we relate to them. When my children were young, I had to be very careful not to give the impression I would give them something or take them somewhere and then disappoint them because it was inconvenient for me. This made them justifiably angry. As parents, we should be careful to treat our children as God, in His grace, treats His children.
Yet, it’s not enough to simply not provoke our children to anger, we need to add some positive aspects to our child-rearing efforts. Paul mentions “discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The discipline of children is sometimes hotly debated. Some confuse discipline with abuse. Perhaps because of their own experience, they equate discipline with the parent’s anger rather than with the child’s wrongdoing. The goal of godly discipline is to correct the child’s errors, not to give vent to the parents’ anger or frustration. Christian parents need to be careful to express discipline as an act of love, not as one of violence. Children notice the difference and respond accordingly. Real discipline is necessary.
The second matter in child-rearing which Paul identifies is the “instruction of the Lord.” Parents who truly love the Lord and seek to follow Him in their own lives naturally do this and, for them, this is a simple reminder. But some parents are personally conflicted. They way they are “Christians” even as they live for themselves. For them, this verse is a rebuke. Children learn far more through observation and following the pattern of life they see than by following a set of instructions unaccompanied by any practical evidence.
Paul now moves beyond the family setting to discuss relationships within the broader community. Once again he touches on both sides of the matter. He begins by talking about slaves. In his context, there were many slaves. During the time when Paul lived roughly one third of the population of Rome was enslaved. In our times, things are different. Most of us earn our own living through employment. I believe it is reasonable to apply Paul’s words to slaves and masters to ourselves as employees and employers.
Employees are to obey, respect and serve their masters wholeheartedly as if they were working directly for the Lord. The injunctions to obey and respect are to be expected. If we, as employees, fail in these areas, we’re unlikely to keep our jobs for long. However, what separates unbelieving employees living by what we might call “standard practice” from Christian workers is Paul’s instruction that they are to serve “wholeheartedly as if they were working directly for the Lord.” When your boss asks you to do something, do you do it as if the Lord, Himself, had asked you to do it? This is a challenge for most of us.
Paul goes on to explain exactly what he means. We are not to approach our jobs with the intent to only look good to our boss, to please him or her. We are to serve as Christ did “doing the will of God from the heart.” Stop there for a moment and notice that human work is God’s will. From the very beginning, even before there were weeds and insect pests, God put His children to work in the Garden of Eden. God intends that all humans work to meet their own needs, to benefit others and to glorify Him.
Moving on, Paul emphasizes that our service to our employers should be done with a good will as though we were doing it directly for the Lord. We can do this because we know that for whatever good anyone does, he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Paul reminds employees that just as the work they do should be done, first for God and secondly for their employer, so their wages and benefits are really gifts from God to supply for their needs. He just uses the boss as His conduit of blessing.
Christian employers are told to treat their workers well, without resorting to threats or ill treatment. At a time of high unemployment, it’s easy for bosses to keep adding to their employee’s workload. After all, people are lined up looking for jobs. Others would be glad to get the work. Christian employers not only treat their workers well, but don’t threaten them as a way of getting to do things that are not already part of their job descriptions.
The most striking comment Paul makes in this passage is the one he addresses to the “masters” or employers. He tells them to recognize that both their servants and they are all under God, the divine master, and He doesn’t have favourites. Paul isn’t bashful about applying a little psychological pressure. He reminds those in authority over others that God is in authority over them and He is always just. The implication is that, God’s justice does not waver. If an “earthly master” behaves unjustly, the “divine master” will put things to right. We wouldn’t want to put ourselves in that position. Just as Christian servants treat their employers with the same respect they treat God, Christian employers treat their employees with the same grace God treats them.
In these verses, Paul clearly expects that our relationship with God through Jesus will make a difference in how we live – specifically in our relationships. Some fall into the trap of embracing the idea of heaven when they die while rebelling against the idea of being like Jesus while we live. Let me challenge you with this: If the gospel doesn’t make a difference in the way we treat those with whom we have the most intense and frequent interactions, why would we expect it to make a difference in our eternal destiny?