Dad, the family nurturer

When we read Paul’s words to the Ephesians carefully, his instruction to fathers makes us shake our heads and wonder, “Did I hear that correctly?”

The word for “bring them up” in 6:4 is the same word as “nourish” in 5:29 — it has the idea of tender care and feeding, like a mother providing for and feeding her children.  That fits our mindset of what a mother should be.  But the truth that Paul is conveying in this verse is that fathers are to nurture their children in Christ.  If you are a dad, you have one fundamental priority in your role as Dad — nurture your children.  If you want to honor Christ as a father, you will nurture your children.

That sounds funny to our ears.  Women are considered to be nurturers, not men.  But if that sounds odd to our ears, it sounded even more odd in the first century in Ephesus.  So a little background is helpful.

In Israel, the father had absolute control over his family so that he could stone his brother, children, or wife if they enticed him to serve other gods.  He could have rebellious children stoned. He could even sell his daughter into slavery.

In the Greek world, the role of the father was similar:  the father was over his children like a king over his subjects.  He not only was responsible for the education of his children, but also had a right to reprimand, degrade, beat and imprison their children who were treated as subjects and slaves.

The Romans thought Greek fathers were rather lax in their treatment of their children.  The Roman father’s control over his son was for the entire length of his life.  He could imprison his son, scourge him, shame him, sell him into slavery up to three times, and even have him put to death.  The son’s position in the community was of no consequence.  The father could take the law into his own hands with his children because the law was in his own hands — he could punish his children completely as he liked.  As one example:

A letter written in 1 b.c. by a man named Hilarion to his wife, Alis, reads, “Heartiest greetings.  Note that we are still even now in Alexandria.  Do not worry if when all others return I remain in Alexandria.  I beg and beseech you to take care of the little child, and as soon as we receive wages I will send them to you.  If — good luck to you — you have another child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it”…

Seneca, a renowned statesman in Rome at the time Paul wrote the Ephesian letter, said, “We slaughter a fierce ox; we strangle a mad dog; we plunge a knife into a sick cow.  Children born weak or deformed we drown.”  [MacArthur, Ephesians.]

That’s tragic.  And the attitudes we see reflected in those actions are not so very different from the attitudes that we see today.  So what Paul is doing in this passage is correcting an ungodly and unrighteous view of what it means to be a man and a leader in the home with one’s children.  This was not only a message that the Ephesians needed to hear, but it is something that needs to go in our ears and down to the depths of our souls.  We also need transformation in this area of our lives.  And I do not need to give you any statistics or anecdotes for that reality to resonate in your hearts.  We understand that the general state of fatherhood in our culture is poor and that even in the church there is much room for improvement.

So, while you may no longer have children at home, if you still have children and are a dad, this principle should still frame the way you relate to your children.  If you are a wife with children, gently encourage your husbands to use and apply this priority.  And if you are a teenage young man, this is a truth you need to cultivate now so that you will one day be effective in parenting.  Our culture is not going to reinforce this truth, so you need to cultivate it on your own now.  If you are a teenage young woman, this should be the kind of man you pursue; this attitude ought to shape his life — and if it doesn’t, think very carefully before marrying him!  And if you do not have children, this is still for you because this attitude is appropriate for every relationship we have in the body of Christ (1 Thess. 2:5-8).

But most of all, again, it is the role of the father to provide the primary leadership in the home of nurturing, developing, encouraging, and helping the children to grow in Christ.  Nurturing is man’s work.  Spiritual disciplines and spiritual training is a man’s work.  That doesn’t mean that mom shouldn’t be involved in the process of spiritual training of her children — she should be.  But it does mean that the man should be the leader and initiator of that process.

To be a man is to lead a family spiritually.

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