What does it mean to bring children up “in [the] discipline and admonition of [the] Lord” (Eph. 6: 4)?
Children are not only of interest to their parents but to the god of this world, who would seek to fashion them according to his interests and values and not the Lord’s. This is what lies behind Pharaoh’s question to Moses in Ex. 10: 8: “Who are they that shall go?”. He was prepared to concede the possibility of “ye [that are] men” (v11) serving Jehovah but not the children. Satan wants the children for himself. It is vital therefore that there is a recognition of the spiritual battle that is going on for the hearts and minds of those that are young.
The instruction in Eph. 6: 4 is addressed not to the mothers but the fathers. Mothers, of course, bear a heavy load in practical terms in the raising of children, particularly when they are very young, but it is the fathers who are responsible to set the tone and direction. If the woman is to “rule the house” (1 Tim. 5: 14) then it is as a delegate to the man, “for a husband is head of the wife” (Eph. 5: 23). Nor can fathers abdicate their responsibility to the Assembly. Some men seem to think that they need to do no more than to ensure that their children attend ‘church services’ thereby effectively off-loading spiritual nurture to others. The outcome of this dereliction of duty is often ruinous. 1 Tim. 3: 12 refers to those known for “conducting [their] children and their own houses well”, where the Greek verb translated conducting (proistemi) strongly implies active engagement. Of course, 1 Tim. 3: 12 is presented in the context of a particular ecclesiastical office, but it is quite clear that the men in view were chosen for that function because they were exemplary Christians. It would be perverse to argue that other men not qualified were excused conducting their children and households well.
That God takes these matters very seriously can be seen in an example from the OT. Lot had two unmarried daughters (Gen. 19: 8), “sons” (v12), “sons-in-law, who had married his daughters” (v14) and a “wife” (v15). He also had a position of respectability within the city of Sodom (see vs. 1, 9), and the NT reveals him to have been a righteous man (see 2 Pet. 2: 7). Lot spoke with some earnestness to his sons-in-law of the judgment of God that was imminent but left the doomed city with only three of his large family, none of whom showed any evidence of being born again. There is a clear contrast with Abraham, of whom Jehovah says “For I know him that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of Jehovah, to do righteousness and justice, in order that Jehovah may bring upon Abraham what he hath spoken of him” (Gen. 18: 19). Abraham conducted his house in the light of the promises regarding the future that God had given him. Lot lived by what he could see (see Gen. 13: 10)—he is not presented as living by faith—and his household followed his lead. These solemn matters are “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4).
Eph. 6: 4 speaks of both “discipline” and “admonition” in relation to the children. Discipline in Greek is paideia, a word which is translated elsewhere as “instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3: 16) and “chastening” (Heb. 12: 5, 7, 8, 11). It usually implies corrective training by means of an act, whereas admonition (nouthesia) refers more to discipline via a word. It can be readily seen how the two things naturally sit together. Both, however, are qualified by being “of [the] Lord”. Every home has a system of authority by which order is regulated and discipline administered. In the Christian household, the ultimate authority (implied in His title) is the Lord. This authority exists over every member of the household, irrespective of whether they have spiritual life. In practical terms this means that the moral compass of the home is derived from the Bible, and that Christ is honoured and respected (even if not yet known). Along with this, the home ought to be a sphere in which the children are preserved from the influence of the world. Of course, no parent can bring his child into God’s eternal salvation, but the faith that desires heaven for the family, would also train that family for heaven. “Train up the child according to the tenor of his way, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22: 6).
Such training is possible even where the father is ‘absent’ (spiritually or literally) and we have a prominent NT example of this. Timothy was the “son of a Jewish believing woman, but [the] father a Greek” (Acts 16: 1). Beyond that, we are told nothing about his father, but it would be fair to assume that not all the influences in the household would be conducive to faith. What we learn elsewhere, however, is that “from a child” he had “known the sacred letters, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation, through faith which [is] in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3: 15). The source of this knowledge we can trace back to his mother Eunice, and very likely his grandmother Lois as well (see 2 Tim. 1: 5).