Moralizing our Children?
March 3, 2015
As I think about Ephesians 6:1-3, a number of questions come to mind concerning the way I treat my children (ages: 4, 4, 7, 9).
This post does not in fact aim to raise a challenge to Baptists, but rather to get Reformed Presbyterians to think through the implications of how we should read the Scriptures. There are the dangers of "hyper-covenantalism" and "hyper-conversionism" that nobody holds to in their own thinking, but we all know these people exist. How about the ubiquitous "middle-ground" for us as Presbyterians? What is it? I don't know. But this post is an attempt to wrestle with the fact that we might, perhaps unwittingly, be guilty of moralism with regards to our children and the obedience we demand from them.
Does this command to children have any sort of indicative present, whether in the verse itself ("in the Lord") or in the rest of the book (chs. 1-5)? If there is no indicative (i.e., what God has savingly done for these children), is this then a "bare command"?
When we read this verse to our children, do the principles regarding "good works" apply to them? Such as the principles found in WCF 16.3,
Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit to work in them to will and to do of his good pleasure...
Did Paul expect the children to obey their parents in the power of the Spirit or from their own natural strength? What type of obedience would he - and more importantly, God - have been pleased with? Mere outward conformity to a command or true obedience from the heart? I expect he had the latter in view when he wrote Ephesians 6:1, which has certain theological implications for how we apply the text.
If our children disobey us, and we then rebuke them, do we then call them to evangelical repentance (assuming they have the Spirit to do such) or to legal repentance (assuming they do not have the Spirit but must still "be sorry")? (FYI, I call the Sikh players on my U10 soccer team to "legal" repentance when they harshly foul each other).
If our children repent, can we assure them that God has indeed forgiven them? Or, if they repent, should we simply be thankful they are sorry for being disobedient, but refrain from telling them their sins are forgiven when they ask God for forgiveness? I am curious what parents tell their young children when they repent and ask God for forgiveness. Personally, I assure them, as I do with anyone in the church, that God forgives the penitent.
My worry is this: if there is absolutely no indicative present in the command in Ephesians 6:1, am I guilty of moralism concerning my children when I tell them to obey me?
Or, as a father, can I command my children to obey me "in the Lord" because they are covenantally in the Lord, and thus part of the unity of the body (Eph. 4:1-16)? Can I appeal to God's gracious acts towards them (chs. 1-5, e.g., Eph. 5:1-2) as the basis for why they must obey me? That is to say, they must be holy (Eph. 6:1-2) because they are holy (1 Cor. 7:14). The indicative leads to the imperative, not vice versa.
Assuming this latter model is correct, I am able to do three things:
1. Press home to my children the need for daily repentance (against a form of unhealthy presumption).
2. Press home to my children the grace of God, who willingly accepts those who repent and also rewards children for their obedience (Eph. 6:2-3).
3. Treat my children as Christians because that is how Paul treated the children in Ephesus, knowing of course that this judgment of charity is not infallible but answers to the promises of the covenant.
This way of raising our children also helps us to make sense of Colossians 3:20 where Paul writes: "Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord."
Surely our children are able to please the Lord because they obey from a heart of faith (Rom. 14:23) with the power of the Spirit at work in them, just as husbands love their wives according to the same inward principles (Col. 3:19). Colossians 3:20 could be a sort of: God is pleased even when Muslim children obey their parents. But contextually - at least in Paul's corpus - Paul has already said children are to obey "in the Lord" (Eph. 6:1), which means that a specific/particular type of "pleasing" is in view, namely: the pleasure God receives from the obedience of his people.
Ephesians 6:1 and Colossians 3:20 are thus consistent with the language of WCF 16:6,
Yet notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
In sum, I do not think the indicative-imperative model goes out of the window when it comes to our children. It was there in the Decalogue, and it has only been heightened in the New Covenant (Jn. 13:34). Paul addresses children as those who are "in the Lord" and, as such, expects them to obey based on the realities of being "in the Lord" (this is called "proper reception").
For me as a Reformed pastor, the issue over whether our children are covenant children or not has major practical implications regarding the manner in which they are expected to obey their parents and how the relate to others.
Here's a practical example: Having twin boys, aged 4, can I appeal to an indicative in order to drive home the imperative? If Matthew sins against Thomas, can I appeal to Thomas to forgive penitent Matthew, as Christ has forgiven him (Eph. 4:32)? Or should Thomas only forgive Matthew because it is the right thing to do? Does Eph. 4:32 have any real connection to Eph. 6:1? I think so.
If this is true, then Ephesians 3:19 is something my children are able to know and enjoy, which (contextually) is a type of love for God's people and God's people alone.
Far from ruling out the need for daily repentance, this view actually provides us with the proper grounds for which we constantly plead with our children, both at home and from the pulpit, that they, like us, must improve upon their baptism (WLC 167). They must never, ever presume upon the Lord's grace which has been offered to them (Heb. 3:15).
Pastor Mark Jones is looking forward to conferences in Greensboro and Greenville next week, where he will be speaking on the danger of bible studies for middle-aged women who meet at Starbucks.