“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.” This well-known commandment to Christian children contains the phrase “in the lord.” The meaning of that phrase in this verse has been interpreted in two different ways: some have said that the child is to be in the lord, others have said that the only parents he should obey are those who are in the lord.
Which is it?
If we are going to teach our children to obey scripture, we’ll need to understand it ourselves. I have been teaching my infant son that his duty before God is to obey and honor his father and mother. My primary text for this teaching is Ephesians 6:1-3
Eph 6:1-3 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
I have always wondered what the phrase “in the lord” signifies here. It takes on a new importance now that I have a baby. Since it is my duty to train my child, it is incumbent on me to understand what Christ requires of him.
Option #1 – limiting obedience
Perhaps we should understand that “in the lord” is a limiting principle. If so, it modifies the conditions under which a child is to obey his parents. That would mean the following is true:
We must teach our children to constantly judge whether their parents are “in the Lord” or not. If a father is issuing orders in obedience to Christ, if he is in harmony with the will of God and acting out of that motivation, then the child must obey. On the other hand, we should teach our children that they do not have any duty to obey us unless our instructions to them flow from our devotion to Christ.
Option #2 – characterizing the obedience
The other possibility is that the phrase “in the lord” refers to the child’s frame of mind. In this case…
The child should obey his parents because he reverences Christ. The promptness and cheerfulness with which he obeys his parents are a service rendered to Christ. Because the little one is always mindful of Christ Jesus, and because he seeks to honor him, because he counts it a privilege to be found in Christ and always seeks to honor him, therefore the child obeys his parents.
Servant or judge?
I might point out that the responsibility of judging whether his parents are acting in Christ is a rather heavy one for a child to bear. Does he have the wisdom or the understanding necessary to be a judge of this? This would seem to make him responsible not just to obey clear instruction but rather to judge whether those instructions are appropriate when all things are considered. In a sense, it reverses the relationship, making the child not the servant, but rather the judge of his father.
Also, it requires not only that the child judge his father’s commands objectively, but that he judge his father’s motivations. To issue a command in the lord means more than simply not contradicting scripture. To do something in the lord means to be motivated by genuine respect for the lord Jesus. This means the child would be responsible to judge not only the family’s broad circumstances and the consequences that his own obedience might bring, but to also judge the secret motives of his father’s heart.
It is safe to say that this is putting too much on the narrow shoulders of a child. In fact, none of us, no matter how old or wise are competent to judge anyone’s heart. The lord alone looks on the heart. The rest of us can judge only by the outward appearance. There are many things that do not necessarily contradict Christ, and often our own self-interest aligns with his commandments. If we view these actions from the outside, as we must, then we can only conclude that they might be undertaken out of reverence for Christ. But we can never be sure.
The pattern of scripture
There is another method could use to answer the question of whether option #1 or #2 is meant in Ephesians 6. We can compare this text to the other texts that command children to obey their parents and also the parallel commands given others under authority. What we would be looking for are instances where the scripture commands us to obey those in authority but with Christ presented as a limiting principle, that is option #1, or where Christ is presented as the principle motivating obedience, option #2.
The section of Ephesians that address obedience to authority introduces it this way:
Eph 5:20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Eph 5:21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
That would be option #2.
The three relationships handled are wives-husbands, children-parents, servants-masters.
Eph 5:22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
Eph 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
Eph 6:5 Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,
Similar instruction is given in Colossians:
Col 3:18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Col 3:20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Col 3:22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.
The apostle Peter also addressed obedience to civil government:
1Pe 2:13-14 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
“For the lord’s sake” is option #2.
1Pe 2:18-19 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.
This scripture written to servants explicitly requires them to obey unjust masters. If the master was acting out of obedience to Christ he would be just not unjust. So the word of God commands servants to obey masters who are disobedient to Christ.
Peter’s instruction to wives is similar:
1Pe 3:1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives,
Particular attention is given to obeying husbands who are disobedient and ungodly.
My conclusion is that the pattern of scripture is for us to obey, out of reverence for Christ, those who genuinely have authority over us. We are not to judge whether they are sincerely following Christ before we render them obedience. Children, wives, servants and subjects are to obey those in authority over them even if those authorities explicitly reject Christ as lord.
Because Christ requires us to submit even to ungodly masters, every Christian can spend his days in service to Christ. Thus every Christian is the lord’s freeman.
This is not to say that everyone who claims authority has the authority he claims. All human authority is limited in scope. We should rebuke those who exceed their own authority. Furthermore, we simply must refuse to obey anyone who commands us to sin against God. In this case, the motive for our obedience becomes also a limiting principle. Since we are motivated by a desire to honor Christ we can not obey a command to dishonor him.