In November 1919, Frans Kafka wrote a letter to his father, Hermann, explaining why he feared him. This letter concludes by comparing their father-child relationship to the fight of “vermin, which . . . suck your blood in order to sustain their own life.” Perhaps you have first-hand experience of such parasitic combat.
In contrast, Ephesians 6:1–4 offers a vision of the sort of redeemed and symbiotic father-child relationship made possible by the gospel. As a new dad myself, I’ve been swept up by this Christ-centered portrayal of dads, and from this passage I glean a mini theology of fatherhood.
Simply, Paul calls on a dad to maintain embodied, purposeful involvement in the lives of his children, for the glory of God.
Ephesians 5:22–6:9 is the household code section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Some argue Paul wrote this section primarily to help churches express their faith in a culturally acceptable way (to aid evangelistic efforts), but this subordinates Paul’s moral imperatives to cultural expression and ignores Paul’s stark contrast between Christians (“children of light,” 5:8) and the surrounding culture (“children of wrath,” 2:3; cf. 5:7–8). In other words, Paul encourages Christians to be Christlike, not only in ways that culture is comfortable with but also in ways that challenge—or offend—culture.
A better explanation is that this code details how God’s people everywhere can enjoy transformed relationships as Christ-redeemed children of light amid a world of disobedience. This order, these roles, are universal principles that provide essential pillars for gospel-aligned communities.
Some may be surprised, then, by Ephesians 6:4, which addresses dad (not mom) as the point person for child rearing. The message here is that kids need both parents—mom and dad. In addressing the husband, Paul’s command can be applied to the wife as well. But it would be silly to speculate that in pointing to dad Paul only means to talk to mom. Dad is given the command, and it’s his responsibility as head to determine how to best fulfill it.
So the first tenet of this mini theology is that dad must be involved. But what should this involvement look like?
Ephesians 6:1–4 shows us that a biblical father is an embodied father. One way to see this comes from the Greek. The word for “bring . . . up” (ektrepho; Eph. 6:4) can be translated “nourish.” This word implies physicality; it’s the same word used for how a man “nourishes” (5:29) his own body (and thus how a husband nourishes his wife).
Part of what I mean by “embodied” is simply that a dad ought to be as physically present with his kids as possible. Paul’s quotation from the Ten Commandments (6:2–3) reminds us of the Deuteronomic father figure who teaches God’s law to his children continually, as occasions arise: “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). The picture here is of a man who is physically present with his family throughout the various activities of the day—sitting, walking, lying, and rising.
The lesson: the more time you spend with your kids, the more activities (however normal) you do together, the more opportunities you’ll have to teach and nourish them in creative, practical ways.
I once saw a man with his two sons. These boys were trying to snatch candy out of a vending machine by sticking their arms through the bottom slot. To my surprise, the dad turned to them and told stories of how he used to steal items from vending machines, explaining in detail how it could be done. He followed this confession by saying he wished he had not done so—for it was unkind to others and disobedient to God’s Word—and by encouraging his boys to live in a caring and faithful way.
This lesson would never have happened unless the man was there at the vending machine, physically present with his sons.
More than simply being reactive to occasional teaching opportunities, Paul calls on fathers to be proactive in raising kids in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Don’t merely wait for opportunities; establish a rhythm of family discipleship in your household.
For a dad to be an effective disciple maker, he must be a faithful disciple himself. So dad, study God’s Word, strengthen your prayer life, serve at church, and continue to walk with God in faith. Be purposeful in your own spiritual life with the intent of modeling that life for your kids.
Be purposeful too in joy. Go out of your way to encourage your kids by showing them your favor, your love, and your pride in them. Rash and angry behavior will “provoke your children to anger” (Eph. 6:4), and so will a cold demeanor. Kafka experienced this neglect, writing, “Not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching until he comes to the kindness that lies beneath the surface.”
Dad, don’t hide your kindness beneath a cold exterior. Be purposeful in joy.
The final and most important tenet of biblical fatherhood, as seen in Ephesians 6:1–4, is that this is all for the glory of God.
Biblical fatherhood is a faithful witness to God the Father. God the Father is involved in our ongoing maturation (John 15:1–2; Rom. 8:28), and therefore fathers glorify the Father as they imitate this behavior.
Biblical fatherhood also edifies Jesus’s bride—the church. First Timothy 3:4–5 shows that good dads make for good church leaders. Our culture looks for leaders with academic prestige, successful careers, and enticing charismas, but Paul asserts the church needs men who love their children and are great at nurturing them in the Lord (see Titus 1:6).
Dads, find joy and full life in being involved in an embodied, purposeful way in the lives of your children—all for the glory of God.
This article originally ran on The Gospel Coalition.