Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:4 (ESV)
Shakespeare’s King Lear is the prototypical proud, rash father. The play opens with Lear entreating his three daughters to flatter him. His eldest, Goneril and Regan, happily oblige, but Lear sees red when Cordelia, his youngest, refuses. He flies into a rage, disowns her, and divides his kingdom between the two, unworthy, older daughters. Lear’s failure as a father may be the most important theme in the entire play. Shakespeare wanted his readers to see the faults of a father destroy a family and topple a kingdom. This negative example of fatherhood cries out for a positive example—how should a father relate to his children?
Paul’s wisdom for the father is twofold. First, “do not provoke your children to anger.” They, though little and immature, are nonetheless still made in the image and likeness of God. So do not bully them or mock them or dismiss them or ignore them. Not only would this provoke them to anger but it would be dishonoring to God. Second, “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Positively, a father is to nurture his children with Scripture. Fathers are not to set themselves up as the standard; they are not to do what is right in their own eyes but are instead to be men of God’s Word, men of Scripture, constantly pointing their sons and daughters to the Bible by tenderly but firmly laying the expectations of Scripture upon their shoulders. This is no small task. Furthermore, it is not a task—according to Paul—that can be finally outsourced to a school, a church, or even a wife. The Lord, in His wisdom, has decreed that the father has the final responsibility for teaching his children Scripture—and the faithful father will not shirk this important duty.
For Paul, exhorting the entire congregation to holiness meant exhorting individual families to holiness. In other words, Paul did not separate private family life from public church life. Theologically, the health and unity of the Church is directly related to the health of the marriages and families within the Church. After all, local churches are simply congregations of everyday people: husbands and wives (5:22-33); children and parents (6:1-4); and, in the early church, slaves and masters (6:5-9). If these relationships are dour or unruly, the Church will suffer. Thus it makes sense in a letter where Paul is so concerned about Church unity that he would speak so directly to fathers.
What father does not want to be loved and adored by his children? King Lear longed to hear all three daughters—especially Cordelia—sing his praises. But the Christian father’s ultimate goal has to be for the children to sing Christ’s praises. The Christian father cannot, of course, coerce his children into the kingdom. But he can model Christ’s love by not provoking his children to anger, and he can expose them to Christ’s Word by bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Furthermore, as every Christian father guides his own family, he will be helping his own church understand what it means to be in Christ. Indeed, every Christian father is a shepherd.