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Fathers, do you sometimes wish your children were born with an instruction manual? Being a dad is such a big responsibility. A father’s love, emotional presence, approval, and support for his children—from their early lives, through their teenage years, and beyond—is a significant factor in helping them to become secure, able to love and give to others. On the other hand, a lack of love from a father can contribute to various kinds of anxiety and insecurity in relationships and in life functioning. Fatherhood matters so much. Yet it’s not an easy task. That’s why the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:4 are so helpful for us. Paul here gives instructions to fathers. It’s not a detailed manual for exactly what to do in every situation. But what Paul says here is fundamental, and goes a long way to helping us see how to be a dad:
Fathers, don’t provoke your children, but nurture them in the training and admonition of the Lord.Ephesians 6:4
Why does Paul single out fathers here? After all, in the previous verses, Paul has been speaking of the need for children to obey and honour both their father and their mother (Ephesians 6:1–2). And of course, since mothers are intimately involved in raising children, the instructions here are relevant to mothers too (even more so in the case of single mums). But here, Paul deliberately chooses to speak to fathers about their responsibilities. Why is that? It’s because fathers need to hear this instruction directly. It’s too easy for us to abdicate our responsibility to care for and nurture our children, and to leave it up to mum. But Paul is saying here that fathers need to realise we have a special responsibility towards our children; we must not just palm it off, but we must take it seriously.
There are several significant things we can learn from this verse about our responsibility as fathers.
Don’t provoke your children
Paul begins with a negative instruction: “don’t provoke your children”. The word “provoke” means to do things that can give our children a reason to become angry and filled with resentment. This is a warning that fathers need to hear. Whether we realise it or not, we fathers have great power over our children. We’re stronger than they are. They rely on us. They listen to us. We have inherent authority: what we say, goes, especially when they’re very young. Thankfully, it’s not unlimited power and authority! But it’s still real. We need to recognise the reality of this power and authority we have over our children, for two reasons. Firstly, we need to actually use that power rightly, for the good of our children. Authority isn’t bad in itself, but it is there for a purpose. Authority must be matched by responsibility, and used for the good of others. And secondly, if we don’t recognise that authority goes hand in hand with responsibility, it’s easy—far too easy—to wield that power wrongly and in a way that provokes our children.
How could we fathers “provoke” our children? We could do it by our attitudes, our words, and our actions. Provocation can arise from such things as severe discipline and harsh demands. It can arise from being arbitrary in our instructions, or not following through on our warnings. It can arise from being unfair, favouring one child over another, either out of laziness or even intentionally. It can arise from constant nagging without providing help, or unqualified condemnation, or humiliation, or jokes made at their expense. It can arise when we don’t stop to consider a situation from the point of view of the child, but rather think about everything only from our own point of view. We could “provoke” our children just by being weak—that is, acting as if we don’t really have any responsibility. This can happen, for example, if we play the role of the “joker” and leave the hard things and the loving discipline up to others, for example their mum. It can happen when we treat our children as there for our own emotional wellbeing, rather than remembering that it’s our responsibility to be there for their emotional wellbeing. It can happen when we as fathers “need” our children to be a certain kind of person or to act in a certain kind of way just to keep us happy and stable.
The positive, of course, is the opposite of these things. It’s when we take our responsibilities seriously and love our children from a position of strength. It’s when we’re fair and follow through on warnings. It’s when we’re OK with our children railing against us and pushing the boundaries—when we hold on to the boundaries and calmly allow them to see we love them anyway. And the key to it all, just as in the rest of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, the gospel shows us that we’re children first and fathers second. When we remember that we are dearly loved children of God (Ephesians 5:1), forgiven through Jesus and secure in our relationship with our own loving heavenly Father, it gives us the power to love others, including our children. And it gives us the power to be the kind of people Paul has described in Ephesians chapters 4–5, for example: “All bitterness and rage and anger and shouting and slander should be put away from you, along with all malice. Become kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God also forgave you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:31–32). The more we come to our own loving heavenly Father through Christ, the more we will find that love and security to love others, especially our own children.
Paul also says fathers should “nurture” their children. This means caring for them and paying attention to their needs. There’s a goal to fatherhood: to bring our children up to maturity. We need to act towards our children in such a way that we desire them to grow and flourish and mature—for their sake, not just for ours. This involves “feeding” them—not just providing them with physical food (though of course this is a parents’ responsibility!), but with all they need to grow and mature.
That means the most basic job of a father is to keep his promises to stay married to mum and stay committed to the family. But it’s easy for fathers to be “absent” in various ways, isn’t it? We can be absent both physically—by spending a lot of time away from the family—and emotionally—by not actually “being there” with our family even when we’re physically with them. In some situations, of course, both father and mother need to work really hard and in difficult conditions just to make sure the family survives. But sometimes, our expectations for our families are so high that we work harder than we really need to, at the cost of actually just being there for them.
So fatherhood is a long-term commitment, it’s hard work, and it’s sometimes pretty complex. Yet there’s more here than just general instructions about earthly fatherhood. There’s a particular kind of “nurturing” that Paul wants to focus on: our nurturing is to be “in the training and admonition of the Lord”. What does this mean?
Training and admonition
“Training” is a word for education. Fathers, along with mothers, are meant to be educators! The idea of education includes “discipline”. Discipline isn’t simply about punishment. It’s about helping children to learn and grow. Training and education involves being there for our children, because learning moments come at unexpected times. We need to be available, and we need to set up the conditions so that when our children want to come and talk to us about something, they feel safe and they know we’re there for them. That’s true for fathers of young children, but it becomes even more important as they grow into teenagers.
“Admonition” is a word that means warning and correction. We all make mistakes. Children, as they learn and grow, make mistakes constantly. This isn’t bad; it’s an important part of learning and growing. So children need to be told when they’re not doing something right, as well as praised for doing the right thing. Admonition is normal, and in fact necessary! But of course it needs to be done lovingly, always with an eye to a child’s wellbeing and growth, not harshly or in a way that provokes them (e.g. in public, or turned into a joke at their expense for the entertainment of others, or holding it over them, etc). When we admonish them rightly—letting them know when they’ve done something wrong, but loving them at the same time, and praising them when they get it right—it’s a powerful learning experience. That’s why we fathers have a responsibility to ensure that our homes are a safe place to fail, and a happy place to make mistakes and learn.
Of the Lord
But it’s the final phrase that makes all the difference: “of the Lord”. This is what should guide all of our nurturing and training and admonition: not simply the world’s latest educational values, but the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. As fathers, we have a responsibility to teach our kids and lovingly guide them from God’s word. This is what we need to be “nurturing” them in most of all. And Christian fathers need to take the initiative in this area! We should be keen to read the Bible together with our families and pray with them. In our own home, we try to do this at dinner times, when we’re together as a family. It’s one of the hardest things I do in my day! That’s not because our family is particularly recalcitrant. It’s just because there’s always other things we can talk about at mealtimes that seem more fun, and less weird. But I know as a father that it’s important to keep God’s word central in our family. I don’t think I do this amazingly. I just try to be consistent and insistent. And slowly, over the years, my wife and I can testify that it makes a real difference.
But it’s not just about what we say. It’s about how we live—how we “walk” day by day (see Ephesians 4:1). Our children won’t always learn to do what we say, but they will learn to love what we love. So what we love matters. This means, first and foremost, we need to be taking the initiative to love and be committed to giving ourselves to our wives (Ephesians 5:25–33), and to be actively committed to church, caring about “speaking the truth in love” in Christ’s body (Ephesians 4:14–16). If you’re not committed to church, then no matter what you say, your children will learn that it’s not important. That’s why it’s important to take an active role in sharing God’s word with our children—not just leaving it up to the children’s and youth ministry leaders, or leaving it all to our wives, but being an active partner with our wives in the task of sharing God’s word and our lives with our children.
This can seem like a hard ask, can’t it? But that’s why we need to remember God’s fatherhood in all of this. God is the one “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14–15). He is the perfect Father, and we are all far from perfect. God’s fatherhood is why we need to pray: to pray with our children, and pray for our children, coming before our own loving heavenly Father and asking him for what we need to do this job. It’s why we need to look to God, and how he relates to his Son Jesus Christ, as our perfect model to understand what fatherhood is all about. God’s fatherhood is one of grace and forgiveness and patience and kindness and love and generosity and wisdom and faithfulness. This is a great comfort—because we will all fail, and we’re not always strong. Often we’re weak, and we need to come back to the true Father who is always strong. So we need to continue to learn Christ ourselves (see Ephesians 4:20–21): to model to our children what it means to have purpose and hope, to think rightly, to value the truth, to have soft hearts open to God’s correction, to restrain our wrong desires, to be filled with new godly desires, and to live pure lives.
Fatherhood: it really matters. There’s much more that could be said about it! If you’d like to look at more biblical reflection and practical wisdom on this topic, you might like to check out Tony Payne’s book, Fatherhood.
Human fathers are never perfect. How does God’s perfect fatherhood help you in the midst of failure by earthly fathers? (either failures by your own father or absent father, or your own failures as a father).
“Fathers, don’t provoke your children, but nurture them in the training and admonition of the Lord.” If you’re a father, what is one concrete step you can take to follow this instruction more closely?
 Tony Payne, Fatherhood. 2nd ed. Matthias Media, 2017.
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
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.