1. OT background to the command
2. The status of children in NT society
Paul now turns his attention away from wives and husbands to children and fathers, once more placing the ‘under-privileged’ group of believers first. Paul’s instructions in the parallel passage in Eph 6:1-4 is more extensive but it seems to be that it’s only the latter half of the final verse that adds anything to the teaching which is being presented in Colossians.
Col 3:20 is almost a carbon copy of the previous Col 3:18 for the apostle begins both with the name of the group to whom he’s addressing his comments, then continues with the command and, finally, how obedience is seen in God’s eyes. Col 3:21 runs slightly differently to its counterpart Col 3:19 for it contains a command and an explanation while the latter has two commands with no word of reason (though Colbrien sees each singlet as containing an explanation for such necessary behaviour).
It’s interesting to note that it would have been all too easy for Paul to speak about marital, parental or infant ‘rights’ and advise the group concerned that such-and-such was the bottom line of expectation when it came to being dealt with - such a method would have seen the commands being reversed as they appear in the passage and Paul would have urged fathers to see that their word was being obeyed by their children and the children that they should stick up for treatment which saw them not being provoked.
But he does no such thing. Rather, he speaks of the obligations which are laid upon them to uphold the ‘rights’ of those either under or over them - to children it’s the parent’s right to be obeyed in the household and, to the fathers, it’s not to provoke them to the point where they lose heart.
Where men and women come to know Jesus, grace triumphs and the individual’s ‘right’ before God becomes the free and willing gift which is given from the Father’s hand (one of the things never to demand of God is what you deserve - all that we ever deserve is judgment and punishment!). It’s almost anathema to speak of ‘rights’ in the life of the follower for they become swallowed up by the obligations laid upon them to live correctly from the new nature out into all the world. So, too, in individual relationships here recorded where it’s the responsibility to give another’s rights to them by one’s one attitude and response of grace.
Colwright observes the ‘household rules’ which were current in Greek and Jewish societies of the first century and notes especially the Stoic regulations which based their considerations on those things which were observable through ‘nature’ or, as Colbruce observes, that were
‘...in conformity with nature’
Paul, as Colwright observes
‘...bases his law on the new nature: Christ releases you to be truly human and you must now learn to express your true self according to the divine pattern, not in self-assertion but in self-giving’
where the household rules might lay down more in the way of individual expectations of treatment but Paul’s words lay down individual expectations of behaviour. The source of the instructions is also different for the apostle appeals to the Lord in four of the six instructions (wives, children, slaves and masters) and so roots obedience in reflecting God’s will for their lives and, therefore, as an outworking of the new nature within.
Even though Paul had brought his teaching to a close at Col 3:17 and believers might be happy to think of their response of displaying the new nature to those that they were regularly meeting with as possible and attainable, the apostle hits fairly hard at insisting that the new life was to govern even the relationship of the home where the eyes of their fellow brethren might seldom have looked. Even though these words must be taken with full seriousness, they point towards a unity of lifestyle when seen and unseen and a reminder that Christ saves every part of a person so that in everything they might reflect Him.
Apart from the two passages of Col 3:20-21 and Eph 6:1-4, there are no places in the NT that instruct these two groups of people together and set them in contrast to one another. Even I Peter 2:18-3:7 which mentions three of the six groups dealt with by Paul in Col 3:18-4:1 (slaves, wives and husbands) misses children and fathers out completely.
Col 3:20 Pp Eph 6:1-3
The subject of ‘children’ is naturally a large one and would need extensive study to do justice to it. Paul’s words aren’t meant to bring to mind the totality of duties and responsibilities for children but to give them a clear instruction that might be observed as the ‘bottom line’ of their relationships within the familial household.
It would appear, if we read between the lines, that the same type of breakdown between parents and their children was prevalent in first century society as it is today or else there seems to be little reason for such a warning. Obedience to the rule of the house, then, was something which was fundamental to the outworking of God’s purposes for the family, and children who were old enough to understand his words were being reminded of their obligation.
The use of the word ‘children’ is fairly diverse in the NT and a brief list of some of the variety is necessary for us to realise that, in the majority of cases, it would appear that natural children are not what are being referred to, even though the type that they represent is being used in a figurative sense to bring home a point.
‘Children’ is a word used of believers (Mtw 15:26, Mar 10:24, John 1:12, 11:52, Rom 8:16-17,21, 9:8, Eph 5:1, Phil 2:15, I Peter 1:14, I John 3:1-2,10, 5:2) and of people in general (Mtw 23:37, Luke 13:34, Gal 4:25) where some of the idea may be of the helplessness of the individuals concerned and their reliance, if believers, upon their Father in Heaven who provides for them.
The father/child relationship is also used to denote a special relationship between two individuals (I Cor 4:17, Phil 2:22, I Tim 1:2,18, II Tim 1:2, 2:1, Titus 1:4, Philemon 10) or an individual and a group of people (I Cor 4:14) where Paul’s idea of the relationship is based upon the natural one where the father is responsible to provide for his children and to give them nurturing that they might grow into mature and responsible adults (II Cor 12:14 see also Mtw 7:11, Luke 11:13).
Even though good relationships were to be maintained between parents and children, Jesus noted that the time was coming when such would be the problems brought about through the rejection of the Gospel that it would have the effect of breaking down even familial relationships (Mtw 10:21), also echoed as being one of those things that would be witnessed just before the end when Jesus was to return to set up the visible Kingdom (Mark 13:12).
1. OT background to the command
The parallel passage (Eph 6:2-3) should be carefully noted here for Paul quotes one of the ten commandments in justification for his assertion that children should obey their parents. These simple statutes formed the basis of Israelite culture and are accepted by Paul as being equally applicable to the Gentile as well as the Jew by his citing of them to a fellowship that would have had both Jews and Gentiles present.
It’s worth us stopping for a few moments to consider the OT background for it forms the basis of what Paul’s bringing to the recipients of his letter. The first record of command occurs in Ex 20:12 but the fuller version is in Deut 5:16 (my italics) and runs
‘Honour your father and your mother, as YHWH your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which YHWH your God gives you’
where the italicised phrase is the additional idea which has been included (the negative version of the same command can be found a little later in Ex 21:15,17 where disobedience appears to have been punishable by death - something that some present day parents may wish was put back on to the statute books...). Paul seems to take the idea of ‘honouring’ described here and turn it into a matter of obedience - but we need to ask ourselves whether this association is warranted or whether it’s something that the apostle has interpreted as applicable.
The Hebrew word used in the original (Strongs Hebrew number 3513) is one that has a great many meanings in different contexts. TWOTOT notes that the way it’s used in Ex 20:12 and Deut 5:16
‘...is a further extension of the figurative use of the term. In this case, the idea is of that which is weighty in the sense of being noteworthy or impressive...The reputation of an individual is of central importance in these usages’
Therefore, it’s because the parents are in a position of ‘responsibility and authority’ that they too are deserving of honour (notice, it’s both the father and the mother who are included and not the father only as would have been expected had Israelite society taught that the woman was no more than a ‘child machine’ or ‘housekeeper’). The word seems to stop short of an unqualified statement that one should obey them unquestioningly but, if there’s respect for a person, there’s more likely to be the commitment to go that person’s way and to do their will. Exdur defines the word used in similar terms as TWOTOT but describes the honour due to one’s parents as conveying
‘...more than to be subject to them or respectful of their wishes: they are to be given precedence by the recognition of the importance which is theirs by right, esteemed for their priority and loved for it as well’
Perhaps the commentator goes just a little too far in his description but at least he does show us that there’s a whole series of ideas inherent in the word that the word ‘honour’ needs to conjure up in our minds if we’re to fully understand the expected relationship of children to their parents in the Mosaic Law.
From a natural point of view, those who we don’t respect, we won’t obey because whatever regard we have for that person is so finite as to ignore the words which come from their mouths. There’s been a great deal of emphasis in the Church in the last few years about leaders needing to earn the respect of their congregations and, while this might well be true to a certain extent, there’s no such qualification being included in the command to children to ‘honour’ their parents.
Excole should be noted here for he takes a broad overview of the outworking of this commandment and sees in it a mindset which must have been prevalent within Israelite society. Although one might regard his words as exemplifying a society based on selfish principles, he’s justified when he notes that
‘Those who build a society in which old age has an honoured place may with confidence expect to enjoy that place themselves one day’
The point is clear, then, that respect for an elder (that is, an older person) is something that is reaped in years to come (see Lev 19:32 for a clear command concerning the old person and the reason why both Grecian 2000 and cosmetic surgery don’t appear to be ‘of God’ - okay, I’m only half serious). But the commentator also notes that the traits in our own society in which old age is shunned and where
‘...the folly by which men or women strive to remain eternally youthful...’
is shown to be an impossible attainment. It demonstrates that it’s the young who have the pride of place and who are considered with greater importance than the elderly. Such a society is topsy-turvy, therefore (and have you noticed how we have loads of ‘youth meetings’ but much fewer ‘OAP groups’ in the Church?), and needs reverting to a Biblical standpoint that the old might once again be respected and honoured - and that those who grow old can feel safe and secure within society.
Eph 6:3 also infers that obeying one’s parents achieves longevity if taken literally. But, even naturally, to respect and honour the old sows seeds to be respected and honoured when old oneself, something which is equally retrievable from Ex 20:12 (‘that your days may be long in the land’) and Deut 5:16 (‘that your days may be prolonged...in the land’).
One also wonders how Jesus’ delay in returning with His parents to Nazareth (Luke 2:41-52) might be seen to be obedience to the commandment if this is what it was specifying. Certainly, when his parents return, He quickly heeds their words and follows them home (Luke 2:52) but does ‘honouring’ in the context of the commandment allow for a child to listen to the voice of God and to do it without first discussing it with their parents and getting permission?
Quite obviously, Jesus lived as if obedience to the Father was of much more importance than listening to and following the commands of anyone on earth. Therefore He can teach the disciples (Mtw 19:29) that
‘...every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life’
where disobedience actually becomes a blessing that’s rewarded by God Himself. We must remember, then, that parents are to be honoured at all times and obeyed only when their words and their will don’t contradict what’s clearly the will of God for an individual - whether that’s because God has called the child to His service or because the parents are wanting the child to be immoral are important criteria.
As for the first, we should remember the example of Samuel who was called by God to serve Him as a boy in the Tabernacle (I Sam 3:1ff) when parental obedience (or, in this context, obedience to Eli the priest) would have been considered to be of great weight. We must remember that God has a purpose for children just as much as He has for ourselves and, although there must be protection placed around both children and young people, there must never be placed a stumbling block in their way which would prevent them from serving and obeying God.
As to the second observation that parents are not expected to be obeyed when commanding the child to be immoral, I’m still reminded of a Sunday School teacher I knew a great many years ago who told me that, because of the places where the children were coming to him from and because of the parents which he’d met, he would never tell the children to obey their parents - honour them, yes, but not obey. And there were ‘known’ instances when the urgency of the parents was such that to obey would have caused them to go against the clear statements from God about morality in the Bible.
The best we can say, then, is that honour is to be given to parents by children but that it comes from a respect that’s based upon the parent’s reflection of Godlikeness to the child where we must stop short of saying that it’s only if the parent earns respect that the child should be obligated to obey. Col 1:18 notes that obedience is to be ‘in everything’ but, as we’ve seen, there needs to be some parameters placed around such a description in modern day society and when those who have the care for children are devoid of God in the world and who have a morality that is so loose as to fall apart completely.
But the idea of children obeying their parents seems also to be qualified by Paul’s description of them as being ‘in the Lord’ in Eph 6:1 where Paul is saying that obedience is all the more expected from them because their parents are believers.
Deut 21:18-21 is a case in point for there the mother and the father are noted as having tried to bring their son up in a way that would cause him to be a valued member of society but, in spite of repeated ‘chastisements’ and warnings, he fails to give heed and to mend his ways. The conclusion of such a life is stoning where danger for the society as a whole far outweighs the familial loyalty which would have been present. It’s clear that obedience towards the parents is intent on securing a child who grows into adulthood and who is neither a danger to others nor one who would forfeit his own right to live by his lifestyle and conduct.
It seems that, when a man converted to the Way in NT times, it was quite probable that the entire family would be expected also to give themselves over to the head’s new ‘religion’. This can be seen in Acts 16:33 where the Philippian jailer seems to have come into the Kingdom through Paul and Silas, bringing his entire family with him.
Just how sincere a conversion could have been expected from those who were following someone’s lead is questionable and Paul nowhere states that he accepts families as believers without first expecting some sort of evidence that the person has given themselves over to Christ. We should, perhaps, accept that what took place in the jailer’s house in Philippi was entirely genuine and that the whole family were sincerely converted that evening.
It seems to be this sort of wholesale conversion which must have taken place in a great many places - though, for others, the conversion of their partners and children was something which hadn’t taken place at the time of Paul’s teaching on the matter (I Cor 7:12-16).
The Colossian verse, however, is without qualification (as Eph 6:1 is) and it should be applied equally well to believing or non-believing parents with the applicable conditional observations stated above.
2. The status of children in NT society
So far, we’ve based our considerations of the two passages on the OT Law which deals briefly with children (Col 3:20, Eph 6:1-3) and how Paul would have drawn his teaching from them. This has the effect of making us think that the instructions would have been almost automatically accepted within the church at Colossae and that, perhaps, most of the believers there present were Jews - but this is unlikely.
It’s more probable that, although the apostle had perceived that the relationship of child to father was predominantly the same in the NT as it had been in the old, he’s applying it to a group of believers that have Gentiles in the majority. I’ve refrained from describing the general relationships as they were in Jewish culture (and given a decent introduction in Edersheim’s ‘Sketches of Jewish Social Life’) because Paul is far away from the land and customs and seems to be tailoring his instructions to bring out the fundamental principles that need passing on.
Judging by Edersheim’s observations, the child could have been regarded as little more than an honoured slave but, as his quotes are drawn from the much later composition known as the Talmud, it’s impossible to know just what was applicable in the first century. The only points worth mentioning here in passing is that Jewish life expected that the father of the household should provide for his own children as a matter of course or else Jesus’ observations become somewhat meaningless (Mtw 7:11, Luke 11:13, II Cor 12:14) and that children were considered to be amongst the possessions of the father so that, when debts needed paying, the children and wife could be sold into slavery as settlement (Mtw 18:25).
Children, therefore, although causing obligations to be laid at the father’s door were also seen as an asset that might have to be forfeited if extreme financial situations were to prevail. But what was the general practice of the Greek world that would have been expected to have been prevalent in Colossae at the time of Paul’s writing?
Ephlin spends a significant amount of time introducing the Ephesian passage with a description of family relationships in both the Roman, Greek and Jewish worlds and is worth reading at this point (primarily because I can find no other source which thinks it useful to do so - most commentators and resources seem to root Paul’s instructions in Jewish culture and tend to forget that the apostle was writing to a predominantly Greek city). His observations begin with a consideration of the ‘Patria Potestas’ which granted supreme power to the father over the son - and that seems, in principle, to have included just about anything that he deemed was necessary.
However, the absolute power granted by Roman law wasn’t necessarily observed to the extremes that are mentioned or that could be imagined. Ephlin quotes Dionysius (Rom Ant 2.27.1) as writing that
‘Greeks regarded the Romans as cruel and harsh’
when it came to the father’s dealings with their sons and that the relaxing of such dealings came as a matter of course, so that Tacitus at a later date observes his own society in which there’s a laxity in the father’s effort within the family allowing children to grow in rebellion rather than with respect for others.
Whatever the exact familial expectation of those in Colossae before they came to follow Jesus Christ, there appears to be no doubt that children were looked to for complete obedience and that the father’s word was both final and absolute with the mother having little or very limited legal power over their offspring.
What Paul does, therefore, is to uphold the need for obedience towards a child’s parents but he dilutes the notion of the father as absolute controller to take into consideration the role of the mother. Just how much of a shock the word ‘parents’ came when it was being either read or read out is impossible to say though, amongst the Jewish believers where the mother was charged with teaching the child for a great part of their life, it would have sounded normal.
Perhaps the only surprise to many of those who listened, then, would be the expansion of a child’s obedience to include the mother and it’s a pointer in the direction noted previously that women, as co-heirs in Christ, were to take an active and responsible role in the family, even though their husband would still determine the ultimate choices that they, as a family, would make.
Col 3:21 Pp Eph 6:4
I’ve naturally had to deal with the father’s position within the family during the last section regarding children because it had to be understood why children were being exhorted to obey their parents. I also noted that Paul’s insistence of including the mother within his observations was tantamount to showing that women had a significant role to play in the believers’ home and that this was, very likely, a cut across general cultural acceptability.
Perhaps it’s not without significance that the Greek word employed at this point and translated ‘fathers’ (Strongs Greek number 3962) might just as well be rendered ‘parents’ as it is in Heb 11:23 because the plural can be used to denote the mother and father. However, why Paul should change to this word when he’s used another one in the previous verse for ‘parents’ (Strongs Greek number 1118) seems strange.
It’s better to accept the translation as ‘fathers’, therefore, and to take Paul’s words as relating directly to the heads of the families who were present in the Colossian fellowship and who were responsible for the welfare and upbringing of children.
As we saw above, the father’s rule over their sons was absolute in Roman law and, even though this seems to have gradually become weakened with time in everyday outworking, Roman, Greek and Jewish culture expected that the father’s decisions were binding upon a family and that his desires would be complied with.
In other places in the NT, we find that the moral state of the children becomes a reflection of the father’s character and, therefore, a comment on whether the man is fitted for a position of authority within the local church. So, in I Tim 3:4 (see also 3:12 as it relates to deacons), an elder or overseer must be
‘...keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way’
and, in Titus 1:6, it’s expected that the elder’s
‘...children are believers and not open to the charge of being profligate or insubordinate’
something which is rarely adhered to in today’s fellowships for we think that a child has the right to freedom of expression and that the way they live shouldn’t be taken as a reflection on the character of the father. But the child is developed from its beginnings through the input of the father so that the product probably shows more about the fitness to rule over God’s household than their behaviour in meetings does. How a father rules over his house, then, will adequately reflect how they’ll rule over the house of God and the people who are a part of it.
But Paul undermines the absolute nature of such a rule by putting bounds around what the father should expect from those under him and insisting that his ‘rule’ is to be with kindness and compassion, exhorting him to
‘...not provoke your children lest they become discouraged’
Just what this ‘provocation’ might be seems obvious to the commentators even though they differ widely in their statements. To Colcar, it’s exemplified in
‘...unreasonable demands, by the brusqueness of his approach, by humiliating his child before others or by any other failure to treat the child with understanding’
while Colwright opts for
‘...the refusal to allow children to be people in their own right instead of carbon copies of their parents or their parents’ fantasies’
Colbruce decides that provocation is best described as the father irritating their children
‘...by being so unreasonable in their demands that the children lose heart and come to think that it is useless trying to please their parents’
and Colbrien chips in with
‘...nagging at them or by deriding their efforts...’
Clearly, there must be a lot of personal experience speaking here in the pages of the commentators and, perhaps even to a greater extent, observations of other known families in which the children seem to develop into maturity in a way that’s not going to help them attain their true potential. However, as I’ve said on a great many other occasions, the fact that Paul’s words are particularly vague should warn us against being too specific and we should allow the application of the instruction to be given us as the Holy Spirit points.
That Eph 6:4 adds the phrase ‘to anger’ may give us a hint at the sorts of attitudes of the father which may stimulate such a response, but we should rest with the interpretation that what Paul is urging upon all fathers is that they refrain from abusing their power and authority over their children. This seems to be the reason for his instructions in order that the exhortation recorded for the children might not be taken as an absolute that the parents press home to their own advantage.
In short, the believing father is to reflect the image of God to the child - or, perhaps, just as appropriately, we might say that he’s meant to be the first picture that the child sees of what God’s like. It means that the father is to be even more careful than the childless man or husband to be all that God would want them to be, for the image that he portrays is possible of being absorbed into the life of their offspring.
‘Like father, like son’ may be a worldly maxim but it’s worth thinking about seriously for the reflection of the parent is hated as much in the child as it was in their originator. Indeed, a son who has a good father and who’s been brought up to reflect the morals and beliefs will reap praise for the parent.
To the command not to provoke one’s children, Eph 6:4 also adds the instruction that they’re to
‘...bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord’
a parallel with the work of God in Heb 12:5-13 and showing that, while the father may be disciplined directly by the Father of all, the earthly discipline which he passes on should be learnt by that heavenward relationship. It’s only a believing father, then, who can adequately discipline his children in a manner that reflects the image of God and who can teach them the Truth that has been received directly from the Holy Spirit.
One final point needs noting and bringing home to the Church of our present day society. Paul is clearly making it the responsibility of the father (and I believe that the mother should also be included in this) to both instruct and discipline their children and not leave it to any third party which may have been raised up by the political powers as they exist in the nation.
There’s no point thinking that discipline can be handed out in our schools and on the streets by authority figures if the idea of respect for authority has not first been instilled in the mind of a child. Where our society falls down is that we think that the present schooling system is sufficient to bring our children up and to prepare them for adulthood whereas it’s actually the parental home where this must first be established.
So let’s not look to the failures in our schools and think that by altering the way subjects are taught or by changing the way that disobedience to elders is punished will do anything substantial for the child - both these must begin in the home and be outworked there first before we will ever see a school system that will be successful and be producing young adults that are an asset to society.
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