Ephesians 5-6 contains instructions and wisdom for husbands, wives, children, and other people in the home and society at large. While plenty of these passages receive lots of attention, one that’s often overlooked is Paul’s admonition to fathers: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” What does it mean to not provoke a child to anger?
As with many Bible passages, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Constructive parenting looks different in each family. However, there are particular behaviors or strategies that this verse seems to pretty clearly rule out. Let’s take a closer look at the verse and see how it applies to fathers today.
A Look at the Original Greek Text
The Greek word translated as “provoke” in the NASB can also be translated as “exasperate”. This slightly more familiar word sheds a little more light on the verse. Fathers are instructed not to behave in such a way that causes intense frustration in their children.
Likewise, translations of words later in the verse provide additional insight. The word “children” can be translated either as young children or as generic offspring, but the inclusion of the word “nurture” (translated as “discipline” in the NASB) refers specifically to teaching and raising of young children. Paul is speaking specifically to fathers who are still “bringing up” children, not fathers of adult children.
Go Deeper: The Bible never commands children to obey their parents unconditionally and forever. Looking more closely at the original text and the culture in which the Bible was written reveals a more nuanced interpretation.
How are Children Provoked?
Compiling a complete list of everything children get frustrated over would take years. However, the Bible does provide several key ideas. As mentioned above, this particular verse is referring to fathers of small children who still need to be “brought up”. A father trying to adopt the position of an authoritative parent over an independent adult child would definitely cause exasperation. This demonstrates a condescending attitude and a lack of respect for the grown child’s maturity and independence.
The same principle applies to younger children who are still being brought up. Remember the audience Paul was writing to. Ephesus was a Greek city, and ancient Greece was a decidedly patriarchal society. Fathers were kings of their homes and wielded near-total, unquestionable authority. Paul’s teaching here opposes this principle. Fathers are not to act like tyrants in their own households and produce restless or rebellious children who resent their treatment. Rather, fathers are to be like our own Heavenly Father–nurturing, loving, and merciful.
Imitating the Heavenly Father
In the previous chapter, Paul exhorts husbands to behave toward their wives the same way Christ behaves toward the church with self-sacrificing love. He even begins chapter five with the famous command to “be imitators of God”. While he doesn’t explicitly repeat himself in his instructions to fathers, the idea is still present. The Bible shows us God’s nature. While we can never fully emulate God’s holiness in our lives, knowing how God thinks and feels about us tells us how we ought to think and feel about our families.
Being a Godly Father
No father is perfect, just as no child is perfect. Every father will have regrets about things they did or didn’t do. However, the Bible provides excellent guidelines for being the best, godliest father you can be. Spend time in prayer and with your children to discover the exact type of attention and nurture they require.
Join the conversation to learn more about what the Bible says to families.