What We Believe

Edification—not Provocation

Arie van Eyk

Exam question: In what order would you arrange the following items: private devotions, corporate worship, family worship? Defend your answer. Your arrangement of these items will speak volumes about your theology (cf. WCF 21.6).

Individual and family worship should flow out of corporate worship. Following corporate worship, family worship is more important than individual devotions. The reason: in a godly home, the blessings that God brings upon the family normally come through the parents. In our day, we have largely ignored this great means of influence that God has given to shape our children for his glory. When we take our vows at the baptism of our children, we promise "to endeavor by all the means of God's appointment to bring [our child] up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." Let us explore Ephesians 6:4 as a biblical directive for family worship.

At first glance, it seems that the apostle Paul is giving two commands—don't do this, but do that. This is often how we understand this text. But on closer examination, fathers are given one command, specified positively and negatively. Positively, we are to bring up our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Negatively, we are not to provoke our children to anger. These two commands are interrelated.

Positively: Discipline and Instruct

Fathers are singled out here. Paul could have addressed this command to fathers and mothers, but he doesn't. He does this to emphasize the biblical principle that the husband and father is the leader in the home. Fathers have been given authority by God to command their children (Gen. 18:19). The father (or the mother, if the father is absent or an unbeliever [1 Cor. 7:14]) is God's representative to his children. It is his responsibility to ensure that the spiritual atmosphere of the home is conducive to godliness.

Fathers are to bring up their children "in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4). The Greek word that is translated "bring up" is translated "nourish" in Ephesians 5:29. This word conveys the idea of gentleness and forbearance. Fathers are to provide for their children's physical needs, but preeminently to care for their spiritual needs. As we nourish the body, we need to nourish the soul. Our children don't grow up to maturity in one day; there is a process of months and years. But the source of their maturing is regular nourishment. Family worship provides the necessary spiritual nourishment, so that their love for Christ can mature. As fathers, we are the guardians and custodians of our children's souls.

Paul uses two words which together comprise the content of godly nurture: discipline and instruction. Discipline is the same word that the writer to the Hebrews uses in chapter 12 regarding the hardship that the Lord places upon his children. This discipline is not pleasant, but it must always be for our children's good, so that they may share in God's holiness. It must be hardship that is intended to produce a harvest of righteousness and peace.

If discipline addresses the body, instruction addresses the mind. The emphasis is on speech. Sometimes we think (and more often act) as if our children will come to faith and love our Savior by osmosis because they have been born into a Christian environment. But Scripture reminds us that our children do not come out of the womb knowing how to love God. As parents, we must instruct them in the ways of God so that they "may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God" (Deut. 31:13). We must instruct our children that God promises blessing for obedience, but at the same time warn them of the folly and danger of turning away from him, of going their own way, of resting in their own wisdom.

Now there are many different ways and times in which we instruct our children. We are commanded to teach God's commands at every juncture of life. "You ... shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deut. 6:7). Here Moses uses hyperbole to impress on our minds that the Word of God should saturate our homes. Although family worship is not the exclusive means of teaching our children, it is most important in creating an environment where Deuteronomy 6:7 and Ephesians 6:4 can be implemented. In family worship, fathers have the opportunity to instruct their children systematically through the Scriptures and apply biblical principles to every aspect of their children's lives. During family worship, Jesus Christ is confessed to be the master of our lives and we are taught to submit to his rule. On the Lord's Day, our corporate worship reminds us that the remainder of the week belongs to him. When we gather for family worship, we are reminded that the entire day belongs to him.

The apostle includes a phrase that is intended to qualify our discipline and instruction. He says it should be "of the Lord." Here Paul means a couple of things. First, there must be a Godward focus. We are not bringing up our children to be good basketball players or gymnasts. Our primary concern is not that they be honor students or great musicians. Rather, our goal is that they be godly children who love and honor the God who has set his seal upon them. The second aspect of this qualifier speaks of method. If godliness is our goal, godlikeness is our method. We are to train and instruct them in the same way that the Lord disciplines and instructs us: with patience and love, with tenderness and forgiveness, remembering who they are. It is crucial to remember this as we conduct family worship. Godlikeness will protect us from frustration and enable us to communicate God's Word effectively to the souls of our children.

Negatively: Do Not Provoke to Anger

Having considered the positive component in this command, let us now consider the negative component and identify the interdependence of these two components. Paul commands us, "Do not provoke your children to anger." What does this mean? Does it mean that we should not make our children angry by asserting our authority in an ungodly way, by giving unbiblical commands, by making unjust demands, by subjecting our children to humiliation, by being insensitive to their needs, or by being too harsh or too lax? Is this what Paul means, or does he mean something more specific?

The Greek word for "provoke to anger" is used only one other time in the New Testament, and that is in Romans 10:19. There the apostle Paul is simply quoting one of the covenant curses, where God tells his covenant people that he will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation (Deut. 32:21). In Romans 9:4-5, Paul has just recounted the magnificence of the blessings that God had granted his people. But rather than rendering gratitude and worship to their covenant Lord, they made him jealous by serving other gods. And so what will God do in response to their unfaithfulness? He will make them jealous by blessing another nation and showing them his favor (cf. Jonah 1:2). Israel will become angry when they learn that their covenant blessings have been granted to another nation (see Acts 13:45; Gen. 17:7). With this background, we can better understand what Paul means by saying, "Do not provoke your children to anger."

Fathers provoke their children to anger by acting toward them in such a way that the blessings promised to them by covenant, which could have been theirs, are given to others. Or we could say, "We provoke our children to wrath by not bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." To neglect our covenant obligation to nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord is to provoke them to wrath. If we fail to bring up our children as biblically mandated, unless God's grace intervenes, our children will be angry when they realize that they don't have what they could have had by way of God's promise.

You see, Paul uses the negative aspect of this command to underscore the great responsibility we have as fathers. He stresses that fathers are the primary means that God uses so that our children might embrace the promises of the gospel and heed the commands of God. How will fathers become a conduit of blessing to their children and not a cause of anger? By bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. These simple directives are God's formula for a blessed family. Following these, our children will receive the promised blessing of the covenant (Eph. 6:3).

By caution and command, Ephesians 6:4 teaches us the importance of a father's duty to instruct his children in the ways of the Lord. What better venue, what more effective way, is there than family worship? What better time is there than family worship to engage the hearts of our children in spiritual activity to remind them of God's claim upon them and their obligations to him? Family worship creates the atmosphere for Christian piety in the home and yields spiritual and eternal rewards. In the busyness of our lives, family worship will harness the time, allowing parents to be faithful in their covenant responsibilities. In Christian homes, family worship ought to be the order of the day.

The author is pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2007.

New Horizons: March 2007

Kids, Character and Catechism

Also in this issue

Kids, Character, and Catechism

The Lost Art and Practice of Family Devotions

The Divines' Intent

Helps for Worship #16: Prayer of Confession (Part 2)

Download PDFDownload MobiDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church