Ephesians 6:1-4 is Paul’s household code, or top tips for raising a good Christian family. But how relevant is it to your family in 2023?

The irony of a proudly single man, who spent part of his letter to Corinth telling them that celibacy is the best option, and to only get married if you can’t control yourself (1 Corinthians 7:1-2), giving advice on raising children should not be wasted on any of us. This of course reaches a new level when I too have had no experience raising children either, but still choose to meditate on its meaning for the modern family. However, all scripture is God-breathed so Paul’s words must be good ones, and I have a lot of time on my hands to try to work out what to take from Paul, so I’m hoping mine aren’t wasted either.

Paul has a lot of advice for the Christian home. If we read it sentence by sentence it can assume a legalistic tone: children do what your parents tell you (Ephesians 6:1), dads don’t annoy your kids (Ephesians 6:4). Picking out these phrases without noting the full passage or even the full sentence they’re in loses the flavour of what Paul is saying, and turns them into excuses to browbeat our other family members. In worse cases, this passage and the bookends of marriage advice and slavery in Ephesians 5:21-33 and 6:5-9 are used to justify domestic abuse and claim that Christianity endorses slavery. This is of course a corruption, and as Tom Wright so wisely puts it: the worst is the corruption of the best. So, what is the best that lies within Paul’s writing?

This passage needs to be read as a passage about love not law, and in doing so it can be recognised for what it is: a radical redistribution of power. To understand how much this is the case, we need to look at Roman family life. For the Romans, including those living in Ephesus, family was the ultimate bedrock of society. A hierarchy was set in the home in which the father ruled in absolute over his subjects – his wife, children and slaves. This structure was firmly protected as a model that mirrored the ultimate rule of the Caesar over the empire and would have been deemed worthy of protection at all costs. 

“This passage needs to be read as a passage about love not law”

In light of this, it’s not the passages about childhood submission to the father that would insult Paul’s original readers, but the submission of the father to those beneath him. For a father to honour his children with such curtesy as verse 6 asks of him would be far more shocking than the submission expected of children to their fathers in verse 1. Taken together these verses instead model a reciprocal respect to one another, in which the child recognises the authority of their parents and the parents honour the autonomy of the child. When we take this passage into the context of Paul’s advice on marriage and on slave-master relations, it is not about individual rules but a culture in which respect is given not because of the earthly rank of that person, but the status they hold as equal children in the eyes of God.

Paul’s family code is one that levels all as adopted children into the family of God and co-heirs with Christ (Ephesians 1:3-5). Children honour their parents as co-heirs and parents honour children in kind, as an overflowing of the agape love found within the three persons of the Trinity and the grace they’ve known through relationship with God.

So why are fathers only told to not annoy their children? Is it because mums don’t need this advice? Or are they given a free pass to drive their kids up the wall? More likely it’s that this sentence is talking to the parent who at that time was given responsibility for the formal training and instruction of the children. Sorry mums, no free pass here.