In December, I read through the new edition of Andreas J. Köstenberger's God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation. Even though the book has been justly criticized for its treatment of family ministry in the church, I think it is still most helpful theology of family that I've read. One of the best sections is the book comes on pages 105-106, and it is entitled "Children in Paul's Teaching." In this section, Dr. Köstenberger overviews the New Testament's commands for children to obey their parents (Matt. 15:4; 19:19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Luke 18: 20; Col. 3:20-21; Eph. 6:1). In Ephesians, according to Köstenberger, "Paul indicates that children's submission to their parents is a result of Spirit-filling (Eph. 6:1; cf. Eph. 5:18: "be filled with the Spirit"), which suggests that only regenerate children can consistently live out this pattern of relationship in the power of the Holy Spirit."
On the one hand, the command to obey parents is part of God's unchanging moral law. The statute appears as the fifth of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16), so "this is right" for all children, whether or not they know Jesus. However, in this context, the command is conditioned by the phrase "in the Lord," which "indicates that children's obedience is part of their Christian discipleship."
Seeing obedience to parents as part of Christian discipleship has a number of implications.
- First, we can't neglect to teach our kids to obey. As Köstenberger writes, "Parents who neglect to hold their children accountable for rendering obedience faith them in that they do not help them along the path of Christian discipleship, of which obedience is a central component."
- Second, we shouldn't expect that our kids will be able to obey in their own power. Even as we discipline them, we should be realistic. Our children are sinners, and we should expect that they will sin and disobey sometimes. Having realistic expectations helps us to respond with grace and consistency rather than anger and exasperation. Children "are not slaves owned by their parents but are entrusted to them by God as a sacred stewardship... Paul notes that as a result of improper treatment, children may become discouraged (Col 3:21). Indeed, few things are more heartbreaking than a child who has 'lost heart'" (107).
- So, thirdly, teaching them to obey involves first teaching them the gospel. In Ephesians, "Paul treats children as responsible members of the congregation whose obedience to their parents 'is all of a piece with their submission to Christ.'" This passage, more than any other, should put to rest any debate over whether or not children can be converted. Paul addresses kids as believers. This means that they can come to know God. This should strongly encourage parents and children's ministries to preach the gospel with boldness. Children need to hear about Jesus, and they need us to call them to love and trust in him.
- And, fourthly, teaching them to obey involves teaching them to pray. If Ephesians 6:1 should be logically related back to Ephesians 5:18 as Köstenberger suggests, then we need to teach children to pray. We need to teach them to look outside of themselves for the help of God's Spirit. This is especially important when a child has disobeyed. We need to pray with kids both for God's forgiveness and for God's help to work out obedience in their hearts.