Previous article in this series: February 1, 2020, p. 210.
Not all godly men will be husbands, and not all godly men will be fathers. But, ordinarily, God’s will is that a man marry and have children. He must know, then, what it means to be a faithful husband and father. The previous article in this series on biblical manhood focused on what it means to be a godly man in marriage. This article addresses how a godly man is to conduct himself as a father. I realize that you young men who are reading this are not yet fathers, but there is profit in knowing what you will soon be called to, God willing.
There is much that could be (and has been) written about the calling of fathers, but I want to focus especially on what God says to fathers in Ephesians 6:4: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
Take note of the fact that this calling is addressed specifically to fathers: “And, ye fathers….”
The point of addressing fathers is not to exclude mothers. In Ephesians 5 husbands and wives are said to be one flesh, so to speak of fathers is to speak also of mothers. In addition, Ephesians 6:1 says that children are to obey their parents (plural), and verse 2 says that they are to honor both father and mother. What is said here to fathers also applies to mothers.
In fact, mothers have an essential place in the work of childrearing (cf. I Tim. 2:15; Tit. 2:5). To mothers falls the lion’s share of the work of rearing covenant children. They are home with the children throughout the day, caring for their needs and instructing them in the ways of the Lord. In the end, mothers will spend more time with the children and have more of a hand in their rearing than fathers.
The main reason why fathers are addressed specifically here is that fathers are the heads of their homes, and the responsibility for the rearing of the children falls first of all to them. In Ephesians 5 the husband is called to be the head of his wife, and by implication he is also the head of his children and of the entire home. The father will have to answer before God for how his children were reared.
It is important that future fathers take this to heart. There is a wrong idea among some that fathers do not have to be involved in the rearing of the children but can leave this to the mothers. There is a danger that fathers are gone out of the house too much for work, for recreations (for example: golf, hunting), or even for the work of the church. There is also the danger that, while home, fathers are essentially “checked out,” because they are playing video games, watching TV, tinkering in the garage, or taking a nap. And meanwhile the poor mothers are at their wit’s end trying to rear the children alone. This is a shirking of fatherly duty. Fathers must be home with their wives and children and, when home, must be actively involved in the nurture of the children.
Fathers have been given the weighty responsibility to be models to their children of the Fatherhood of God (cf. Ps. 103:13). God is the perfect, loving Father, and earthly fathers must strive to imitate Him as the spiritual heads of their homes.1
The fundamental calling that God gives to fathers as heads of their homes is that they “bring [their children] up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
The word translated “bring up” means “to nourish, promote health and strength.” The idea is similar to that of caring for a plant. When caring for a plant, you have to be careful to give it the right balance of water, light, and fertilizer. Your goal is to promote the healthy growth of that plant so that it bears good fruit.
Our homes must be greenhouses where our children can be brought up as healthy “olive plants” (Ps. 128:3). The goal of our parenting is that our children are brought to spiritual maturity. We labor that they might grow physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually as strong, healthy sons and daughters of God. Children ordinarily cannot grow to maturity on their own, just as a plant ordinarily cannot grow without care and attention. God is pleased to bring children to maturity by the careful oversight, direction, and guidance of parents.
Fathers “bring up” their children by means of “nurture.” The word “nurture” is a comprehensive word that refers to the whole process of training or instructing the child, but the word can also refer specifically to the discipline of our children (as it is used in Heb. 12:7).
In order to bring up a child, parents must give more than positive instruction. Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child, and the way to drive it out of him is by means of the rod of discipline (cf. Prov. 22:15). In order for our children to grow into spiritual maturity, they must learn to turn from the way of sin, and that comes through discipline. Fathers especially must be involved here. As the head and protector of his children, his greatest concern is to protect them from sin. Fathers must not only encourage the weary mother who disciplines the children all day while he is at work, but he must relieve his wife of this responsibility when he is home.
Fathers also “bring up” their children by “admonition.” This word means literally “to put something into the mind of another, to counsel and teach.” When we hear the word admonition, we often think of the negative, of telling someone they are doing something wrong (which is part of what is meant here). But the word also carries with it the idea of positive instruction and encouragement.
Children need this as well. For them to be brought up, they need more than just correction and discipline. They need to be taught positively the Word of God. We must teach our children about salvation from sin in Jesus Christ, which is their deepest and most fundamental need. We must teach them to view every aspect of earthly life through the lens of Scripture. And we must teach them positively how to live a holy, godly life. Again, fathers must take the lead here. As the heads of their homes, fathers must be spiritual leaders who are actively involved in the instruction of their children.
Serving God’s precious, covenant children in this way is a tremendous privilege for a father, but it is also a weighty responsibility! Our best efforts are required as fathers!
There is a great danger that we fathers face in the rearing of our children. Ephesians 6:4 addresses this when it says, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath….” To provoke our children to wrath means that by our sinful actions we make our children angry and bitter.
This does not mean that fathers may never do anything that upsets their children. There are some who view parenting that way. The moment their child pouts, daddy and mommy run to fix the problem by giving their little baby whatever he/she wants. But this is not the way we are to parent. There are times in the course of our faithful parenting that we are going to make our children upset and irritated. There are times when they are not going to get their way, when they have to do things they do not like, when they need to be admonished and disciplined. The explanation for their anger then is not sin on our part as fathers, but a sinful response on the part of the children.
What Ephesians 6 is talking about is provoking our children to anger by our sins as fathers. By our sins as fathers we can do tremendous spiritual harm to our children. We provoke them to wrath. Because of our sins the children can become discouraged and angry with us and lose respect for us, which in turn may be the occasion for them to rebel against us. But not only do the children come to resent their fathers, they may come to resent everything that fathers stand for. They resent the faith their fathers confess and the church their fathers attend. In the end, they may become bitter and angry toward the God of their fathers. This does not excuse the sin of the children in responding this way, but it simply shows the disastrous effects of our sins as fathers.
The parallel in Colossians 3:21 also says that the result of our fatherly sins is that the children become “discouraged,” which carries the idea of being broken in spirit. Our sins can so harm our children that they become broken down, disheartened, and hopeless.
Consider the following ways in which fathers can provoke their children to wrath:
- We can provoke our children to wrath by abusing our authority, by being severe, by being angry and impatient with them. We can discipline them in anger, lose our temper and shout at them when they do something wrong, and generally be distant and unloving.
- We can provoke our children to wrath by being unjust, unreasonable, and inconsistent. We might be unfair in the rules that we set or in the discipline that we administer. Or we might be inconsistent, saying one thing at one moment and another thing at another moment.
- We can provoke our children to wrath by our discouragement of them. We can be always negative, telling them that they did something wrong, pointing out their mistakes, and never positively encouraging them for the good that they do. We might even put them down in front of other adults in our children’s presence.
- We can provoke our children to wrath by playing favorites. Think about the damage to Isaac’s home when he favored Esau. Think about the damage to Jacob’s home when he favored Joseph. We do the same damage when we do not love and treat our children equally.
- We can provoke our children to wrath by our hypocrisy. We confess to love Christ and to be faithful members of the church, but in private we show the opposite by our constant criticism of the church. We tell our children not to love the things of the world, but our own life shows a love for the world. We tell our children to flee the sinful entertainment of the world, and we ourselves indulge in it. Our children are not ignorant; they can tell when we are being hypocritical.
- We can provoke our children to wrath by our neglect of them. We simply do not spend much time with our children. We hand them off to others to care for. We plop them in front of the screen to babysit them. We are so busy with our own interests and pursuits that we neglect them. Maybe we salve our conscience by thinking that we can take them on a vacation and spend time with them, but the rest of the time neglect them.
- We can provoke our children to wrath by making the home a miserable place to live. When husband and wife do not love one another but are constantly arguing and fighting, there is great damage done to the children. One of the most important things we can do as fathers for our children is love their mother, speak highly of her, and support her in her work.
There are other ways in which fathers can provoke their children to wrath, but these are some of the more common.2 Fathers must be so careful to guard against this danger and do nothing to stunt the spiritual growth of their children.
Recognizing the weighty position into which they have been placed and confessing their many sins and shortcomings, fathers will be men of prayer. They will nurture their children from their knees, knowing that God alone can work in the hearts of their children and give the increase.
“Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.” (Ps. 127:1).
1 The idea that fathers (and mothers) are to be imitators of the heavenly Father in the rearing of their children is the subject of a little pamphlet by David J. Engelsma, “As a Father Pitieth His Children” (Grand Rapids: Evangelism Committee of First Protestant Reformed Church, 1998). If I could make all new parents read just one thing on parenting, this would be it. More than anything else, this work has aided me in my own parenting, and I keep going back to it again and again.
2 Cf. the list of twenty-five ways that parents provoke their children to wrath given in Lou Priolo, The Heart of Anger (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1997).