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Paul the Apostle does children’s ministry (Ephesians 6:1–3)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

Children’s ministry is exceptionally important. I can vouch for that first-hand. I first came to know Christ when I was a child, through the ministry of volunteers who taught the Bible in my school. As I’ve served on various ministry teams, I’ve had the joy of sharing the Bible with children. I’ve also had the privilege of working directly alongside vocational children’s ministers, and had a lot of fun in the process. I’ve seen first-hand how valuable children’s ministry is and how much of a difference it makes, not only to the lives of children themselves (including my own children), but also to the lives of their families (including to my own family as I was growing up), and in fact to the church family as a whole.

To do children’s ministry well, you need great theological depth. As I teach theological students at Moore College, one of the things I often highlight is that children’s ministers need exceptionally good theological training. Why is that? Well, when you’re teaching adults, it’s possible to get away with just regurgitating big words and technical stuff. Adults are polite, and they’ll often at least pretend they know what you’re talking about. But children won’t let you do that. To teach children, you need to understand your theology so well that you can boil it all down to a few simple points that children can process. You also need to understand the wider implications of that theology so well that you can lovingly and rightly apply it to their individual lives. Doing that properly takes great theological depth and skill. Now of course, the same is true in ministry to adults; and of course, it’s possible in children’s ministry to simplify things wrongly, and so teach in a way that’s highly accessible but still wrong. So really, we all need good theology. But still, children’s ministers—those whose task it is to take the great truths of the God of the universe and make them accessible for children—need especially good theological training to do their task well.

In this part of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul the apostle does children’s ministry. There’s a lot we can learn from Paul here, both about the gospel, and about the value and significance of children’s ministry itself:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother”, which is the first commandment associated with the promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may have a long life on the earth.”

Ephesians 6:1–3

What can we learn from these verses about the gospel and about children’s ministry?

Children matter to God

To start with, the very fact that Paul addresses children directly teaches us something profound: children matter to God. Paul doesn’t just talk about children to the grown-ups; he talks to children. This was revolutionary in Paul’s day. You might remember the account in Jesus’ life where people brought children to Jesus, and the disciples tried to turn them away (Mark 10:13–16). In the ancient world, children were seen as unimportant, and of little value compared to grown-ups. Children existed for the sake of adults; their value was defined by whether adults wanted them. Tragically, that attitude is returning in many Western countries today, as abortion legislation is debated and passed in various parliaments. Children prior to (and now soon after) birth are slowly but surely losing their protections under law, because they are not seen as inherently valuable in themselves; rather, their value depends on whether a grown-up chooses them. But Jesus turned this attitude upside-down. Jesus welcomed little children. In fact, Jesus made their “littleness” and seeming insignificance the great pattern and example of what it means to receive the kingdom of God!

Here too, Paul shows that he sees children as valuable in themselves. He addresses children directly. He believes that God’s Spirit is at work in them, so that they are able to hear and follow God’s word, as responsible people. Paul was almost certainly writing his letter so as to be read among Christian gatherings, as God’s people came together to praise God and hear his word, as it is today (see Ephesians 5:19–20). So, Paul is clearly assuming that families with children would be there in the gathering, and that the children would hear what he has to say. These words, in fact, are like a little time for a children’s talk in the gathering.

This children’s talk is clearly short and simple and directly applicable, like all good children’s talks. But as we look further at what Paul has to say, we can see that wrapped up in this brief talk is wonderfully deep and gospel-centred theology.

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Soaked in theology

Even the first short sentence of this simple children’s talk is soaked in theology. Paul says:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.

Ephesians 6:1

Paul tells children here to obey their parents. But he doesn’t just give a command; he also gives reasons. He’s not just giving the command because obeying parents is good for society, or because it’s what everyone expects, or because adults are more important. Rather, Paul gives profoundly theological reasons for his command to obey parents. What Paul says here is intimately related to the things he has already spelled out in detail in his letter so far.

Firstly, going back just a few verses, we can see that the command to obey parents fits into a wider set of instructions. It’s an example of how to “submit to one another through respect for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). That is, obedience to parents is a particular way in which children are to voluntarily place themselves within rightly ordered relationships—something that all of God’s people should be doing, in various ways. This, in turn, is part of what it means to live as God’s new people in Christ, “fulfilled by the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).

This is reinforced by Paul’s phrase “in the Lord”. As children obey their parents, they are actually joining in on God’s great plans, which are all centred on “the Lord”, Jesus Christ. Paul has already spoken a great deal about what it means to be “in the Lord”. He began his letter by praising “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, in Christ!” (Ephesians 1:3). He has talked about believers as those who are being built “into a holy temple in the Lord… a dwelling-place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:21–22). As “the bound prisoner in the Lord,” he has urged believers “ to walk in a way that is worthy of the calling with which you were called” (Ephesians 4:1). And he has reminded them that “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8). So behind this phrase “in the Lord” are so many deep truths about being blessed, having God dwell among us, having a great calling, and being light. And one way children can do this is by obeying their parents.

Paul also says about obeying parents: “this is right”. That’s not just a throw-away line. Paul is saying that when children obey their parents, they’re taking part in the new “righteous” life that God has given his people to live—a life that is to be lived well, according to God’s good standards. The believers Paul is writing to, including these children, were taught “to be renewed by the Spirit of your minds and put on the new humanity, which has been created according to God in the righteousness and devotion that come from the truth” (Ephesians 4:23–24). And so Paul has urged them to “walk as children of light: the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8–9). Paul is here reminding these children of the effect of the gospel in their lives, bringing them to live as God’s new people. And one way they can live out their new life is by obeying their parents.

So this short sentence to children is deeply soaked in theology. Yet at the same time, it is simple, applicable, and obvious—which is appropriate for a message addressed to children. Of course, it’s clear there will be situations where more nuance is needed—for example, children shouldn’t obey instructions from parents telling them to do what is wrong and against God’s will as it is revealed in his word. But here in Ephesians 6:1–3 is not the place for that more nuanced discussion. Rather, it’s a simple word given to children, and it has a simple but profound point: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

Sun over city

Driven by the gospel

But there’s more. As Paul continues his children’s talk, he also teaches them some profound biblical theology—that is, theology rooted in the Bible and driven by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The instruction for children to obey parents, Paul says, is in fact a gospel-driven application of a text from the Old Testament:

“Honour your father and mother”, which is the first commandment associated with the promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may have a long life on the earth.”

Ephesians 6:2–3

The commandment “honour your father and mother” comes from the Ten Commandments (it’s commandment number five: see Exodus 20:12). In its original context this commandment isn’t just for children (i.e. adults should also respect and care for their parents). But here, Paul specifically applies it to children: individuals who are young enough to be under the instruction and discipline of a family home (see Ephesians 6:4).

How does Paul apply this commandment to children? One thing he doesn’t do is apply it moralistically. That is, he doesn’t just tell the children: “This is what God says you have to do, so just do it”. That’s one of the big mistakes we can make in children’s ministry: assuming our job is to give children a list of moral instructions for them to perform so God will be happy with them. That is certainly not what Paul does here.

Rather, Paul applies the Old Testament in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. How does he do that? He does it by showing how this commandment from the Old Testament is connected to God’s gospel “promise”. Paul explains that this is a significant commandment, because it is “the first commandment associated with the promise”. What promise is he talking about? He’s not just talking about any promise. Rather, he’s reminding the children of the “promise” that he’s been talking about in his letter to the Ephesians so far: the promise of inheritance and future blessing for Israel, which has been fulfilled in Christ, and which these gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) children have come to share in through Christ.

Here’s a recap of what Paul has said about this “promise” in Ephesians so far. Early in his letter, Paul reminded his readers that “In Christ, you too—having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and also having believed in him—were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit, who was promised to believers in the Old Testament, was poured out by the risen Jesus Christ on his first Israelite disciples as a sign that God was fulfilling his Old Testament promises to Israel. And this Holy Spirit has also been given to gentile believers in Christ. That means we too belong to him, we are secure in him, and our future relationship with God is guaranteed. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is “the first instalment of our inheritance, guaranteeing that God will redeem his possession, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14). Those who believe in Christ can be sure that we will live with God forever, because the Holy Spirit has marked us out as God’s own.

In the Old Testament, the “inheritance” for God’s people is the land of Israel (see e.g. Deuteronomy 1:8). But this inheritance of land points to a much greater promise: a new heavens and a new earth for God’s people, full of fulfilment and life. In Ephesians, Paul has been saying, all those who believe in Jesus Christ have come to share in this inheritance of eternal life. Even though gentile believers we once “apart from the Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12), now “the gentiles are heirs together, and members of the body together, and sharers of the promise together—in Christ Jesus, through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6). Gentiles who believe in Christ have the same wonderful, privileged access to God as Israelite believers. God loves us and cares for us and will redeem us in the end, and give us that everlasting life which is our “inheritance”, in fulfilment of the promise of land to Israel. This is true for all who believe in Jesus—whether from Israel or the nations.

So, Paul is saying, this commandment to “honour your father and mother” is the first commandment that explicitly talks about the forward-looking promise of land, inheritance and blessing for Israel. It’s talking about “having long life on the earth”. In the original language Paul is writing in, the word for “land” is the same as the word for “earth”. This helps us to understand something about what Paul is doing here with the Old Testament promise. Originally, this promise was about the land of Israel. But through Christ, the promise has expanded to mean the new heavens and the new earth. So for believers in Christ, the promise of God is not to inherit the land of Israel, but the promise of eternal life and blessing in the future, in “the fulfilment of time”, when God will fulfil his plan “to sum up all things in Christ: things in heaven and things on earth, in him” (Ephesians 1:10). In one sense, we already have all those spiritual blessings in Christ in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:3). But there is a future promise to look forward to as well: eternal life, in a new heavens and a new earth, which we will receive when Christ returns and “all things” are summed up in him.

And this is the promise that is linked explicitly with the command “honour your father and mother”. As children fulfil this command and obey their parents, they’re not just following a rule. They’re taking part in God’s great promises to his people through his Son Jesus Christ.

Holding child's hand

Valuing children’s ministry

Do you see how Paul’s simple children’s talk here is deeply soaked in theology, biblical theology, and the gospel of Jesus Christ? He’s not just giving children a simple moralistic rule about how to be good little girls and boys. He’s saying to children that they have a part to play in God’s great promises and plans through the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s saying that a key way they can honour Jesus Christ as Lord is by doing the right thing when their mums and dads tell them. That’s because it’s not just about their mums and dads. It’s about living the whole new life of good works that they have been given graciously by Jesus. It’s about lifting their eyes and living life now in light of the future spiritual reality that we share: that inheritance, blessing, and hope of eternal life that Paul has spelled out in great detail already in his letter to the Ephesians.

This is why we need to value children’s ministry. We need to include children in our churches. Of course, we need to speak in ways that children can hear and engage with. But at the same time, we should be assuming that God’s Spirit is at work in children, and that they too can learn the deep truths of the gospel. One key way to value children’s ministry is to make sure those involved in children’s ministry are given the best possible biblical and theological training. We must not sell them short in this valuable role. But in fact, isn’t this a great encouragement for all of us to be doing children’s ministry? If it was important enough for the apostle Paul, surely it’s also good enough for us.

For reflection

If you are a child, or if you are reading this to a child: Ask for God’s help to obey your parents when they tell you to do the right thing. Remember you’re doing it all for Jesus!

How can you value children’s ministry more? Perhaps you can do something specific to encourage people currently involved in children’s ministry, or get involved more yourself?

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.