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When you read the New Testament account of Mary and Joseph leaving their son behind at the Temple, it’s easy to wonder how on earth they forgot that child?

It happens. At the end of first grade, my parents packed me and seven other Cavanaghs into a station wagon to camp our way across the country New York all the way to Arizona, where my Dad had been accepted into a summer grad program.

At one of our gas station and bathroom breaks, we piled back in and were well down the road when my parents realized it was a little too quiet. Turns out the most talkative Cavanagh kid (not me) had been left behind. This is back before smartphones or even car phones. Smoke signals were the best available technology back then. When we arrived back at the gas station, Dennis was contentedly staring at the candy he wished he could have. Hadn’t missed us in the slightest. Amazing that we all made all made it to adulthood. 

We come today in our study of Ephesians to a condensed and power-packed section on childhood and parenting; the relationship between children and parents in the distinctly Christian family. If you have young kids at home, this is spot-on for everyday practice. If you are single, this passage can help you reflect on how you were raised, and what you might want to do the same or differently if you become a parent. If your kids are grown and out of the house, everything in here can be applied to being a grandparent. And for all adults, what’s in here applies to how we interact with kids within the church family.

Everything we’re talking about today is useful, in whatever life stage you find yourself. There’s an outline on your bulletin which I encourage you to fill it in as we go along. It begins with…

  • The duty of children: Obey your parents, even as they obey Christ.

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise—‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’”

Ephesians 6:1-3

The fact that kids are personally addressed in the New Testament shows how from the very beginning, Christian churches valued children. We remember Jesus saying…

“Any of you who welcomes a little child like this because you are mine is welcoming me and caring for me.”

Matthew 18:5 TLB

That was a radical change from how children were abused throughout the Roman Empire. In those days, unwanted babies were abandoned outside. Weak and deformed newborns were murdered. Even healthy children were regarded by many as a nuisance because they got in the way of sexual promiscuity and easy divorce.

So the Holy Spirit inspiring this passage was a direct rebuke of the norm back then. It begins with the call for children to obey parents, then immediately shifts to how we as adults are called to parent our children—what distinctly Christian parenting should look like. Paul anchors children obeying parents on three grounds. Think of these as three tent pegs anchoring the home and bringing stability where there otherwise will be chaos.

3 Grounds for Children Obeying Parents

  • Nature: we see it in natural law self-evident to all.

All you have to do is observe cultures around the world and throughout history. In every society, Christian or not, the norm is that children obey their parents. Because when kids are allowed to rule the family and call the shots, what you get is chaos. You get the plot line from “Lord of the Flies.” 

All civilizations throughout history have viewed children obeying their parents as fundamental to a stable society. It’s common sense; it is self-evident.

Second, Paul appeals to…

  • Scripture: we hear it in God’s revealed law given through Moses.

The ten commandments include the commandment to honor your father and mother, as a key way we honor God. And Paul ties that in with the blessing of honoring your parents. The Old Testament Scripture he cites, Deuteronomy 5:16, related to the physical blessings God promised when Israel would be in the promised land, with the Lord himself as their King. This is before they had any earthly king like Saul or David.

The promise when Paul wrote it, and for today, is simply that blessing flows from obeying your parents; the family benefits when children obey their parents, society benefits when kids obey their parents, and conversely, both family and society suffer when children rebel. 

The command here is qualified, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord…” That is to say, obey your parents as long as they are obeying God. This passage is teaching the norm. The exception is when parents demand or expect something that goes against Scripture or conscience. In such cases, loyalty to Christ over family prevails. 

A real-life example: Jim Denison was at a worship service in a small church in Malaysia when a teenaged girl came forward to announce her decision to follow Christ and be baptized. During the service, Jim noticed worn-out luggage leaning against the wall. He asked the pastor about it. The pastor pointed to the girl who had just been baptized and explained, “Her father said that if she was baptized as a Christian she could never go home again. So she brought her luggage.”

Raymond McHenry, Stories for the Soul (Hendrickson, 2001), p. 48; submitted by Steve May, Humboldt, Tennessee

A Jewish college peer of mine, Shelley, was invited to the college student Christian fellowship when we had Messianic Jewish speaker Sam Nadler come. She stayed afterward to speak with Sam, and the Lord opened her heart that day. She asked Yeshua—Jesus—to be her Meshiach—Messiah. Shelley’s family kicked her out and considered her dead from that point forward. Shelley made the harder, better choice. She chose to follow Jesus.

So children are called to obey parents because it’s the right thing to do. Second, because it is written as a commandment from God. And third, children are called to obey parents because of the…

  • Gospel: we embrace it as appropriate to belonging to God’s family.

Just as all of us accept Jesus’ authority over us, children are called to accept their parents’ authority over them, as an act of trust in the Lord. 

The family has always been God’s plan for raising a godly next generation. When sin entered the world, the family was corrupted. Authority too often gets twisted into authoritarianism, ruling with an iron fist. 

The gospel challenges that, because that is not how Jesus wields his authority over us. He leads in ways that make us want to obey him. In the Christian family, then, it should be that children see parents handling their God-entrusted authority like Christ loves and leads the Church, the family of God. 

A friend told me of his preschool daughter getting caught disobeying. She later came to her Dad and said, “Daddy, I want to do good, but sometimes I just I can’t!” For a Christian family, that becomes an opportunity for the gospel, a teachable moment when your child’s heart is tender and teachable, to tell them about sin and salvation, that this is why Jesus came, to begin changing our hearts. 

Let’s move on to…

The Duty of Parents is to Instruct and Discipline Children, even as the Lord does you.

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

Ephesians 6:4

This, too, was powerfully countercultural in the 1st-century. New Testament scholar William Barclay explains, “A Roman father had absolute power over his family. He could sell them as slaves, he could make them work in his fields even while in chains, he could take the law into his own hands, and punish as he liked, he could even inflict the death penalty on his child.”

The rebuke here is that just because something is legally within your rights doesn’t make it right

God’s call to Christian Dads is to parent your children like God our Father parents his family. Care for your family the way God the Father cares for his family. What should that look like? First…

  • Exercise self-control and patience as you train your children how & why to live for the Lord.

Your kids need to see self-control and patience from you when you discipline them and try to teach them right from wrong. And the reason they need to see self-control and patience in you is because that’s what they’re going to need to succeed in life, no less in parenting. If you scream at your kids or abuse them, the picture they get is that God is like that. Whereas if you discipline your children with empathy and patience, they get a clearer picture of the love and patience of God. 

The word translated exasperate here, don’t exasperate your children, literally means to anger alongside. It’s getting in your kid’s face to berate and belittle. It’s acting like an adult bully against your own child. The Holy Spirit speaking through Paul warns that while you may get immediate compliance, what you’re producing is an angry kid, an angry teen, an angry young man or woman, an angry and resentful adult. They will rebel, because you provoked them. 

Parenting is one of those things everyone is an expert on, until they have their own children. We know so much about how others ought to parent their kids, then you get your own children, and you have to figure out what makes them tick. 

Jewish Rabbi Israel Salanter famously reset expectations when he wrote this:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family.”

He continues, “Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.”

You know what he’s describing? God’s plan! The New Testament speaks of the power of God coming into you as you yield to Jesus Christ as Lord, daily offering yourself mind and body to God as your offering of grateful worship. Then as you carry that mindset into how you parent, you model for your kids what they’re called to pursue, what it looks like to love Jesus. You make the gospel as attractive as it truly is. And then from your family growing in the patient love of God, other families within reach of yours families see the gospel in action, and find themselves drawn to Christ. That’s the ideal. 

Second bullet point for parents:

  • Learn to distinguish between childish irresponsibility & willful defiance.

There’s a huge difference between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance. In the moment, it’s not always easy to discern the difference. So take a breath. Count to ten. Ask your spouse to step in while you put yourself in time out, so that you don’t blow up.

Some of you have had infants screaming night and day with cholic. From the moment kids are born, they test your patience! A newborn takes over your schedule; suddenly you have this little human who demands attention at a moment’s notice and cannot explain what they want. All they know to do is wail.

Then when toddlers learn to talk, among their first words is this one: “No!”

The fastest land mammal in the world, it has been said, is a toddler who’s been asked what’s in their mouth. 

There’s also the innate curiosity in kids that requires you to stay on top of what they’re up to. If they’re ever going to make it to adulthood, they need you to instruct and discipline them, to be hands-on and intentional, not passive parenting. 

As our kids grow, they need moral and spiritual guidance and teaching. That is first and foremost our job as parents. If you can afford to homeschool and you’re good at it, go for it. Protect your kids as long as you can from ungodly influences. Let them enjoy being kids. If you can afford a good Christian school, go for it. But regardless, we as parents bear the primary responsibility for raising not just smart kids, but raising godly kids, bringing them up “in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

The word translated training here emphasizes correcting kids starting when they’re young. It’s the same word used in Hebrews 12:9 to describe fathers disciplining us for our good. If your father was abusive in how he disciplined, you need to differentiate what he did with what this is calling for. This is about discipline that distinguishes between a kid just being a kid, and a kid staring you down while they willfully extend a fork toward an electrical outlet. Painting their sibling’s face with Mom’s lipstick? Childish irresponsibility. Don’t sweat it. Post it so we laugh with you about it. Besides, you can project that photo at their wedding reception!

The second word, speaking of the “instruction of the Lord,” emphasizes verbal education. Teach your kids what the Bible teaches, on everything the Bible speaks to. 

Here’s how to think of it: as a parent, right now you are raising someone else’s future employee, co-worker, or boss. Train and instruct them in what Christian servant leadership looks like, and why we make that our aim. 

As a parent, you are cultivating someone else’s future husband or wife. Train and instruct them in what a distinctly Christian marriage ought to look like. 

As a parent, right now you are preparing someone else’s future Dad or Mom (what kind of parent do you want them to be? Teach and model that.)

And behind you stands the Lord Jesus himself, guiding you and prompting you to dig into Scripture, to live it out yourself, and to intentionally train and instruct your children in what you’re learning. 

I want to end with a handful of…

Practical applications

  • Eat meals together. 

Dinner together is the best way for modern families to stay connected not virtually, but in reality. Turn the TV off. Earbuds out. Put your phones and tablets and laptops on silent, away from the table. Studies show the mere presence of a phone on the table distracts. It’s an uninvited guest who at a moment’s notice will hijack family time. Put them away, on silent. You’ll all survive an hour away from the electronic umbilical cord.

In one survey, American teens were asked when they were most likely to talk with their parents: dinner was their top answer. Kids who eat dinner with their parents experience less stress and have a better relationship with them. For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art. 

Adolescents who ate family meals five to seven times a week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week. Family dinners have been found to be a more powerful deterrent against high-risk teen behaviors than even church attendance or good grades.

Well what do we do when we get to the dinner table? If we’re all used to constantly checking electronics, it’s awkward to suddenly not have something to guide the conversation.

Something our family has added in the past couple of months is discussion questions. Ask open-ended questions rather than yes/no questions.

Something else we use once in a while is called Rose & Thorn: Go around the table and ask each person to share the rose (the best or most special part of their day), and the thorn (the most difficult part of their day). This can be a great way to get around the dreaded one-word answers when you ask, “How was your day?” It helps everyone think about sharing their day in a new way.

After your kids are used to sharing their “rose” and “thorn,” get those creative juices flowing by asking them to come up with a different analogy for the best and most difficult parts of the day (peak and pit, high and low, sunshine and storm, you name it!). Maybe for this race weekend it could be Full Speed and Pit Time, or Green Flag and Yellow Flag.

Several times we’ve dragged a laptop over and shown one of the Bible Project videos on full screen. They’re 8 or 9 minutes in length, then we ask, “What stands out to you?” Again, if you haven’t watched any of them yet, they’re top-notch. Figure out what will work for the ages of your children. 

Second practical application is about how to discipline your kids. Here’s the timeless principle:

  • Find consequences that fit your kids. 

One size does not fit all. Former Colts Coach Tony Dungy says this of how best to discipline your kids when it’s an issue not of childish irresponsibility, but of willful defiance: “What it really comes down to thinking of something that hurts them in a way that they will think, Gosh I don’t want to lose this privilege so I’ll think before I act.” 

For Tony when he was a young boy, a couple of spankings worked. When he became a teen who enjoyed playing sports, the punishment that got through to him was his Dad requiring him to sit down in front of the TV & not move until Dad said so. Tony explains, “For me, that was the worst thing in the world; I was squirming because I wanted to be outside with my friends. I wanted to be active and sitting in front of the television was punishment.” 

But today, Coach Dungy advises, sitting your kid in front of the TV would probably not be an effective motivator. So Dungy finds that what most gets his kids’ attention today is taking away their electronics for a time. 

Another example: We have a family here who had a teenaged daughter who kept slamming her bedroom door, despite warnings to stop. Then she was given a warning: the next time you slam the bedroom door, it comes off.” She slammed it, and the door was promptly removed from its hinges. She got the point. She can laugh about it now as an adult, because it worked back then.

You have a great insert in your bulletin today all about how best to discipline your kids. Discuss this during the fellowship time today. Swap stories about what’s working and what hasn’t worked in your parenting. We can learn from one another.

Third practical application of this Scripture:

  • Admit when you blow it. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson cut to the heart when he wrote, “Your actions speak so loudly that I can’t hear your words.” If what you tell your kids contradicts what they see in you, own up to it. 

Tim Diehl from All Pro Dads explains, “Your kids will repeat what you do more than what you say…Your children will pick up what you model for them. The only thing solid enough to build lasting relationships on is truth. Sometimes the truest words you can utter are, ‘I was wrong.’” 

Adapted from

You don’t lose authority when you ask your child or teen or adult child to forgive you. If your apology is genuine, and they see you working on your own stuff, that’s a win. When you blow it, asking forgiveness is essential. And if you can’t remember the last time you asked someone to forgive you, or apologized to someone, you probably have a blind spot worth asking others about.

A fourth practical application of today’s Scripture:

  • Seek wise counsel.

I highly recommend All Pro Dads. At the website you can easily sign up to receive a 1-minute a day parenting e-mail. They’re concise, they’re to the point, and they’re all aimed at helping you become a distinctly Christian parent. Lots of helpful pieces on things like ways to be a positive influence on your child, meaningful compliments for kids, how to be there for your kids as a busy parent, how to trump a tantrum, and many more. 

Parenting is one of the greatest privileges you could ever be entrusted with. And I recognize that at times it feels overwhelming. You probably have regrets over things you wish you had done differently. Whether or not you are a parent, you likely have resentments at ways your parents failed you. 

So we’re going to circle back to the gospel, the good news that there is forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus. 

  • Where you have blown it, take this time to ask the Lord for forgiveness. 
  • If you need to ask your child to forgive you, decide right now not to let this moment slip by. Make a plan. Put it on your calendar. Pray about it. Write out exactly what you need to say that accepts your responsibility without suggesting any blame on their part.
  • If you need to ask a parent’s forgiveness for a time you disobeyed, decide right now to speak with them.

Even for this Christ came, to empower us as children to obey, to empower us as parents to bring our children up in the training and instruction of the Lord, and when we have fallen short, to receive his forgiveness anew.