(A sermon based on Proverbs 13:24; 22:6; Ephesians 6:1-4)
I once heard a mother expressing the frustration that so many parents feel. She was talking about the behavior of her three children, the youngest of whom was then on the brink of adulthood. “I just don’t know,” she said. “We tried it both ways. We were extremely strict with the first two, and they both rebelled. So we were very lenient with the third and she took advantage of the situation. It just has seemed that nothing works.” Most parents understand what this mother was experiencing. The problem is how to discipline our children most effectively.
The goal should be to discipline our children so as to guide them into making wise choices and decisions about their own lives. Therefore, we must not confuse “punishment” with “discipline.” The latter may sometimes include elements of the former, but they are not the same thing. So the first thing we may need to do as parents is to change our vocabulary; we are talking about “discipline,” not “punishment.”
We will use the various sections of Ephesians 6:4 in organizing our thoughts.
The theology of discipline (“of the Lord”)
The discipline of which we speak is Christian discipline. That is, it is to be based on Christian principles. The discipline that we exercise in our homes should be rooted in who God is, especially as he is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. By thinking about that we begin to acquire a theology for our discipline.
God is loving. As our heavenly Father, God loves us. In his love, he is concerned that we become the people he wants us to be and that we need to be. Even when we, God’s children, are disciplined by him, it is because he loves us.
God is involved. That is, God is involved in the lives of his people. His love leads to his involvement. While many people believe that God created the world and its inhabitants and then detached himself from it, it seems to me that the active love of God, especially as seen in the life of Jesus, militates against such a notion. God’s love is active and can lead to discipline. In Hebrews 12, the writer interprets persecution of his readers as a form of discipline from the Lord. Then he quotes Proverbs 3:12: “For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
God is just. By nature, God acts with justice. In the final judgment, for example, reward and punishment will be assigned to the choices we have made, not according to some unfairly designed arbitrary system.
God is sovereign. That is, God is in a position of authority over us. Nevertheless, he has given us the ability to make choices. What discipline comes our way or what progress we make is a consequence of our choices.
The pitfalls of discipline (“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger”)
While Ephesians 6 counsels children to obey their parents, it also instructs parents on how not to discipline their children. The relationship is a reciprocal one. The child’s obedience assumes proper parenting; proper parenting should result in the child’s respectful obedience. To “provoke your children to anger” is to cause them to feel wrath that can lead to bitterness (cf. Gustav Stahlin, TDNT, V, 419). Mishandled and misapplied discipline can drive our children away in anger and bitterness. Now, anger is to be expected on the part of our children when we discipline them. I am not saying that we should avoid discipline that angers our children. But there are pitfalls to be avoided that, if not avoided, could lead to lasting damage and bitterness.
Permissiveness. I would term permissiveness “a lack of active, exhibited love.” All parents have had their child wail, “You don’t love me! If you loved me, you wouldn’t do this to me!” Nothing could be farther from the truth and even children know that somewhere down deep. From very early on, children are testing the limits. By nature they are explorers. One thing for which they are seeking is a knowledge of whether Mom and Dad love them. And if we let them get away with anything and everything, what is communicated to them is “Mom and Dad don’t care what I do or what happens to me; therefore, I’ll do whatever I want regardless of how it hurts me or them.”
Authoritarianism. Kevin Leman has said that we need an authoritative rather than an authoritarian approach to parenting. Authoritarian parents try to control their children and make all of their choices for them [Kevin Leman, Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), pp. 22-27]. Authoritative parents, on the other hand, recognize that they have a special responsibility to raise their children to be adults who are capable of making sound choices. The authoritarian parent has a stifling influence on a child’s life and all too often a crippling influence on the child’s ability to make decisions. This effort always to keep a child under our thumb without allowing her to take some chances usually leads to open rebellion which may or may not occur until the so-called “mid-life crisis.”
Inconsistency. All parents need a plan for parenting. We need to decide what we hope to accomplish in the raising of our children and how we are going to accomplish it. We definitely need a plan for discipline. Otherwise our children remain thoroughly confused. C. Leslie Mitton said that we can provoke our children to anger by “inconsistency, so that the same action by a child may one day be greeted with amusement and another day by angry condemnation” [Ephesians, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 212]. Leman calls the same phenomenon a “yo-yo of inconsistency” between permissiveness and authoritarianism (pp. 26-27).
The practice of discipline (“bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”)
What would the practice of Christian discipline be like? The following adjectives apply.
Educational. The Greek word variously translated as “nurture” (KJV), “discipline” (NRSV), and “training” (NIV) has in its background the general meaning of “education.” In this case, the education is designed to be correct and corrective. We are, as Proverbs 22:6 puts it, to “train up a child according to the way he should go, and when he gets old, he will not leave that way” [my translation].
Even the biblical teachings about “the rod” have an educational connotation them. Leman said,
The Jews believed in discipline, true, but when biblical writers used the word rod they were thinking more of correction and guidance rather than hitting and beating. For example, the shepherd used his rod not to beat his sheep but to guide them. We are all well acquainted with that phrase from the Twenty-third Psalm, “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”…. But I doubt that many of us would feel very comforted if the Lord’s rod was waling away at our heads or bottoms at every wrong turn we made (pp. 23-24).
The point is that guidance is an important element in discipline. As Christian parents, the uppermost thing in our minds should be to equip our children to make decisions for themselves. We will not always be there, and sooner or later they will declare their independence.
Consistent. Have a plan and stick to it. If there are both a mother and a father in the home, you must work together, having the same goals and methods. If one parent is more permissive than the other, be sure that our wise children will pick up on that and play one parent off against the other. This situation of course becomes more complicated if the parents are divorced. But most vital is this: be consistently involved in the lives of your children. They must know that we care. We must consistently show our love for them no matter what. Consistent, steady, uniform discipline is one way to show that love. Love is revealed when we set fair limits and then enforce them.
Purposeful. In general, discipline should relate to what we are trying to accomplish. If we want submissive, indecisive children who will almost certainly finally rebel, then authoritarianism that majors on corporal punishment will suffice. If we want manipulative, spoiled children whose greatest accomplishment is the cutting of corners, then permissiveness will suffice. But if we want children who are raised “in the Lord,” that is, if we want them to learn to make responsible choices and to learn the right way to go, then purposeful discipline is called for.
Kevin Leman calls this type of parenting “reality discipline.” What is real, he says, is that everything we do has consequences. Therefore, good discipline will allow those consequences to take effect. For example, let’s say that your five-year-old has been getting increasingly troublesome at the dinner table. He just doesn’t want to eat. Purposeful discipline will let him know that he does not have to eat, but if he doesn’t, there will be nothing else until breakfast. In other words, if he says he is not hungry, throw his food into the garbage, excuse him from the table, and forbid him from having a snack or anything else until breakfast the next morning.
Or let’s say that you have told your fourteen-year-old daughter that during her summer vacation she has certain chores to do each week. You tell her that as long as she accomplishes her weekly tasks by the end of the week the weekend is hers to do with as she pleases (as long as she pleases to go to church on Sunday, of course). So the youth group is going to Six Flags on Saturday. On Friday night she asks you what you think about her “wearing these shorts” tomorrow. “Tomorrow?” you ask. “What’s tomorrow?” “Oh, you know—Six Flags.” But you know that she has not done her chores and that even if she worked all night she couldn’t finish them. What do you do? You say, “I’m sorry, but you can’t go. You haven’t done your jobs this week.” Cold and cruel, our children would say. The way reality operates, we would say.
Always, with any discipline, direct your attention to what the children have done. Make sure that they know that you love them no matter what.