14. Children and Parents, Employers and Employees (Ephesians 6:1-9)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Tissot, Pharoah welcoming Josephs Family to Egypt (1896-1900)
In the Bible we see Joseph as both child and father, slave and master. James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902), "Pharaoh welcoming Joseph's Family to Egypt" (1896-1900), watercolor. Larger image.
"1Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2'Honor your father and mother'-- which is the first commandment with a promise -- 3'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'
4Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
5Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
9And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him." (Ephesians 6:1-9)

This passage continues Paul's instructions on how to "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21). First, he discusses the delicate relationship between wives and husbands (5:22-33). Now he turns to the submission of children to their parents.

Children Obey Your Parents (6:1-3)

"1Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2'Honor your father and mother' --which is the first commandment with a promise -- 3'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'" (6:1-3)

Childhood is a period of constant testing of the limits. Of "psyching out" parents. Of wheedling. Of manipulating. Of learning to get one's own way. Yes, there are some children who are completely passive and let life happen to them all their lives. But most are pushing, testing. And that is how it should be. That is how growth takes place and maturity gradually takes the place of youthful stupidity.

But in the midst of this intensely active period, God gives one clear command to children: "Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." The verb "obey" is hupakouō comes from the root akouō, "listen." Hupakouō builds on this by combining the concept of listening with harkening to or responding to a command, "to obey."1 Notice that this obedience is "in the Lord," that is, obedience to parents is part of our obedience to the Lord. If my parent asks me to do something immoral, my first obligation would be to obey the Lord instead of my parent.

Honor Your Father and Mother

Paul supports his command to obey with several buttresses:

First, the command to obey one's parents is Number Five of the Ten Commandments -- "Honor your father and mother." Paul is paraphrasing the form of the command given in Deuteronomy 5:16. Obedience to parents is not only a manmade rule, it is given by God, to be built into the very fabric of our values.

"Honor" is timaō, from the idea of "to value, to deem worthy," then "to honor."2 Certainly we are to honor our parents when we are children under their care. But it doesn't stop there. Jesus quotes the Fifth Commandment when he castigates the Pharisees for creating legal ways to evade supporting their parents when they were aged (Mark 7:9-13). Proverbs is full of admonitions to honor parents both as children (Proverbs 1:8-9; 15:5) and as adults (Proverbs 20:20; 23:22-25; 28:24; 30:11, 17). We have a duty to honor, listen to, and care for them that extends beyond childhood.

But here Paul is admonishing children still at home. Why does he emphasize obeying and honoring parents? Because children have a natural tendency to ignore what parents say and do their own thing.

Promises to the Obedient

The command comes with two promises:

"That it may go well with you ..." is self-evident. Those who obey their parents stay out of trouble a lot better than those who don't. Childhood and teen years are a very self-righteous time. We know what's best. How could parents know?

I remember when I was in high school having heated arguments with my Dad at the dinner table about politics and issues of the day. I was very passionate in my arguments and he was equally strong in his. It surprised me, a month later, when discussing the subject with my friends that I was taking my Dad's position instead of the one which I had so hotly contended for. My sense of right and good still needed molding by his wiser insights. I thank God for my Dad. When I obeyed him, things went better for me.

The second part of the promise is more serious yet: "... that you may enjoy long life on the earth." Obedience to our parents is an invaluable protection that will increase our lifespan. If we don't learn from our parents how to get along with people, we can get killed. The culture of our inner cities is no less violent that that of Old Testament days. Obedience to our parents will keep us alive, now and in the future. It will also help us earn a living so we have enough food to stay alive. Our lifespan is directly dependent upon our willingness to obey.

For children to obey -- and for parents to enforce obedience -- is sometimes difficult. But children learn in "the school of the home" the vital ability to submit their wills to another. How can a child who doesn't learn to obey a parent when wills conflict, ever learn to obey God when self-will is propelling him beyond God's limits? Parents have a sacred task to teach obedience, for their children's spiritual and physical lives are at stake. Obedience to parents is directly transferred to obedience to our Heavenly Father.

"Do not withhold discipline from a child," the Proverbs instruct us. "If you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death" (Proverbs 23:13-14).

At what point does the command to obey our parents give way to the underlying command to honor them? From the very beginning of the Bible we read, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). There is a time of forming a new family, of leaving the old. At that point the obligation of obedience becomes obsolete. But we are always to honor our parents and care for them. We have that obligation until death.

Q1. (Ephesians 6:1-3) What kind of obedience and honor is appropriate for adult children to show towards their parents? What might be the exceptions? How do respect and forgiveness figure in this relationship?




Fathers (6:4)

"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (6:4)

Just because we are parents, however, does not give us the right to rule with the "divine right of kings." Yes, parents are to enforce discipline in the home, but they are to do so wisely.

"Fathers, do not exasperate your children" (vs. 4a, NIV) or "provoke" them (KJV, NRSV). The verb Paul uses is Greek parorgizō, "make angry,"3 "to rouse to wrath, to provoke, exasperate, anger."4 Of course, when wills clash there is anger. That's a given. But Paul is directing fathers not to deliberately provoke anger by badgering or turning an incident into a power game. This is a fine line and it has to do with a father's own humility and attitude. Fathers who try constantly to make themselves feel better at the expense of their children are neurotic. While anger is part of a conflict of wills, fathers are not to enflame it needlessly.

A closely related passage in Colossians 3:21 offers some insight: "Fathers, do not embitter (erethizō) your children, or they will become discouraged (athumeō)" (NIV). Erethizō means "to cause someone to react in a way that suggests acceptance of a challenge, arouse, provoke," mostly in a bad sense, "irritate, embitter."5 Purposely provoking our children doesn't produce good fruit. The result is either outright rebellion or discouragement. Athumeō means "to become disheartened to the extent of losing motivation, be discouraged, lose heart, become dispirited."6 The word is compounded from the prefix a, which means "not" + thumos, "spirit, courage." The idea is "to be disheartened, dispirited, broken in spirit."7

The purpose of discipline is training and directing the child's spirit, not breaking that tender spirit. Of course, not only fathers, but mothers, too, must keep themselves in check, so that in their diligence to discipline they do not bring hurt.

Training and Instruction (6:4b)

The alternative to provoking the child only to crush him is a very positive commission to parents: "Bring them up in the training (paideia) and instruction (nouthesia) of the Lord" (NIV) or "the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (KJV).

The Greek noun paideia (from which we get our words "pedagogy" and "pediatrics") means "upbringing, training, instruction," chiefly attained by "discipline, correction"8. Nouthesia means "counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonition, instruction, warning."9 Both of these words can include punishment, but that is not their thrust. "Training and instruction" involve example, maintaining discipline, diligence, teaching, instructing, showing, giving responsibilities, and then supporting them as they learn to keep them faithfully. Warning and admonition are included, too, along with correction.

But what makes this particularly Christian rather than merely parental are the words "in the Lord." Our "training and instruction" are part of our service to Christ. Our children belong to God and we are raising them for him. We are told to "bring them up (ektrephō) in the Lord." Ektrephō means "to provide food, nourish," then "to bring up from childhood, rear."10 We are to "nourish" our children in the Lord.

So to children Paul says: obey your parents. To parents he says: train and instruct your children in Christ without breaking their spirit.

Q2. (Ephesians 6:4) What kind of behavior by fathers (or mothers, for that matter) can embitter or cause a child to lose heart? What do you think the "training and instruction of the Lord" involves?





Slaves (Employees) (6:5-8)

"5Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free." (6:5-8)

The Bible does not promote slavery as American Southern plantation owners believed a century and a half ago, so let's not import that understanding of slavery into Paul's words here. If you look carefully, you'll see the seeds of full freedom and equality (though I won't discuss that topic here). Rather, Paul is dealing with slavery as a fact of life among the people to whom he was ministering.

In the Mediterranean world of Paul's day there were citizens, freedmen, and slaves. And a great many of the people most open to the Christian message were the poor and oppressed -- slaves. If Paul had taught slaves that they were free, and enflamed them to rise up against their slaveowners, as John Brown did just before the American Civil War, the message of the Gospel would have been eclipsed by the issue of slavery. Instead, Paul teaches Christians how to live within the evil system in which they find themselves.

I've found it profitable in our day to substitute the word "employee" for "slave," and "employer" for "master" (kurios), though they aren't fully equivalent. But the instruction Paul would bring in our situation of employees and employers would be very similar. These are his instructions:

Obedience (hupakouō, as in 6:1). Employees are to do what their employers tell them to. Notice that Paul says "earthly masters." He is reminding the slaves that it will not always be so. Their masters are only in power here on earth and their authority is neither universal nor eternal.

Respect. The obedience is not just to be to the letter of the employer's directives, but is to include respect, literally "fear and trembling." This isn't cowering terror, but respect. The phrase refers to "a proper spirit of Christian reverence,"11 "an attitude of due reverence and awe in the presence of God, a godly fear of the believer in view of the final day."12 We are to be God-fearers and to show due respect for our employers. We are not to despise them in our hearts; we are not to hate the boss. Notice how Paul brings attitude in, rather than mere legalism.

Sincerity of Heart (NIV), literally "singleness of heart" (NRSV, cf. KJV). The word here is haplotēs, used of personal integrity expressed in word or action, "simplicity, sincerity, uprightness, frankness." More than respect, we are to offer conscientious, careful service. Years ago, Avis rental cars launched its "We're number 2, we try harder" advertising campaign to get people to switch from Hertz. Service, they were saying, is better when it is motivated by the right attitude. "Sincerity of heart" is the flip side of "eye-service" (6:6).

As to Christ. Sometimes it's hard to see our work as direct service to Christ. But it is vital that we bring our love for Christ right into the midst of every important relationship of our lives, and work is certainly one of those. We are to serve our employers with the same attitude with which we serve Jesus. Our conscientious work is part of our service to Christ, whether we are slaves, or employees, or entrepreneurs serving clients.

Not with "eyeservice as menpleasers" (KJV). NRSV renders it, "... not only while being watched, and in order to please them...." The NIV puts it, "... not only to win their favor when their eye is on you...." "Oops! The boss is coming. Don't let him see you doing that." Christians are to be faithful to their employers even when no one is there to see. Our Christian work ethic is based on integrity, not impressing the right people.

As Servants of Christ. We are Christ's representatives, no getting around it. When we work, we work as Christ's servants. Our labor may "belong" to our master or our employer, but our underlying motivation is not just money, but "as servants of Christ."

Doing the Will of God from the Heart. Here is heart attitude again. God not only wants to change our actions; he wants to change our attitudes as well.

But what if our employer asks us to do something illegal, immoral, or sleazy? Are we to obey? No, at the cost of our jobs sometimes we must be servants of Christ first, and then servants of our employers second. They don't pay us enough to compromise our consciences.

We can leave and hopefully find another job. Just think how hard it was for a slave to stand up for his or her faith when commanded to compromise! We must be careful to choose our battles wisely, however. Some issues aren't worth dying for, but others are vitally important to our integrity.

As If You Were Serving the Lord, Not Men. A few years ago, a man objected to me quoting a Bible verse in my free business e-mail newsletter. "Religion and business shouldn't mix," he said. I strongly disagree. No, we normally can't be overtly evangelizing on our employer's time. But we are to bring our Christianity all the way into our businesses. If business does not mix with religion, then it rapidly becomes greedy, exploitive, and oppressive. Your employer may be paying you for your time, but all the time you are at work, you are to work "as if you were serving the Lord, not men." It's an attitude thing. It also relates to our understanding of our true reward.

Knowing that the Lord Will Reward. Our employers may be mystified by our good nature and faithful, conscientious service. But God will be pleased and will reward us for our faithfulness to our employers. (And, conversely, punish us for defrauding and despising our employers.) Paul uses the verb komizō, here, "receive as recompense,"13 to contrast man's wages with God's eternal reward.

Q3. (Ephesians 6:5-8) What are the characteristics called for in a truly Christian employee, according to Ephesians 6:5-8? How can these attitudes help us in difficult work situations?




Masters, Employers (6:9)

"And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him." (6:9)

Employers are to treat their employees with the same kind of respect, faithfulness, integrity that God expects of employees.

Some employers rule by threats and carry them out ruthlessly. The better ones, however, lead by example and from a position of respect. Yes, they may need to exercise discipline from time to time (Proverbs 29:21). They may need to fire or let an employee go (one of the hardest tasks employers have to do!), but they must do it with honesty, justice, and integrity.

To masters (and employers) who have lost perspective, Paul gives two warnings:

  1. You have a Master in heaven who will hold you to account. You cannot be an absolute tyrant, you yourself are under God's authority. You may be a master (kurios), in a position of authority, here. But ultimately you are a servant of your Heavenly Master (kurios), and are just as accountable as your slaves or employees.
  2. God shows no favoritism in his judgment. "Respect of persons" (KJV), "partiality" (NRSV), and "favoritism" (NIV) is prosōpolēmpsia, "partiality, the fault of one who when called on to requite or to give judgment has respect to the outward circumstances of men and not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers, as the more worthy, one who is rich, high-born, or powerful, to another who is destitute of such gifts."14 God will not give you a better reward because of your "class" or "station" than he will a slave or employee. He expects exactly the same kind of behavior of each of you. You will be judged by how you have acted in this life, not by the position you held.

The Bible has much to say about God's requirements for employers -- considerateness (Leviticus 25:42); justice and fair pay for poor and immigrant workers (Deuteronomy 24:14; Proverbs 22:16; Malachi 3:5), prompt and full payment of wages (Deuteronomy 24:15; Leviticus 19:13; Romans 4:4; James 5:4), payment of decent and fair wages (Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18), and days off for rest (Deuteronomy 5:14). If you are an employer -- or on a church board that sets salaries and working conditions for your pastor or church employees -- God holds you responsible for how you act towards those over whom he has placed you.

Q4. (Ephesians 6:9) How should Christian employers conduct themselves towards their employees? How should church boards conduct themselves towards church employees? How do you determine a just wage -- not merely the one you think you can afford?




Disciple Lessons from Ephesians, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All the lessons are now available as an e-book or printed book for your convenience.

This concludes Paul's teaching on submission which began in 5:21. Marriage has its moments of despair for both husbands and wives. No one said that being a parent or child is easy. Being a faithful employee or a fair employer is fraught with frustration and difficulty, as well. But in our respective roles, God expects us to live as his servants, with our hearts and attitudes trained by his Spirit. Only as Christ's life is being worked out in our own are we fully and truly Christian.


Father, we find ourselves as both children and parents, and in the various seasons of our lives as both employers and employees. Help us to live out our lives for you with joy and integrity no matter where you have placed us for now. Lord, I'm inclined to complain about my circumstances and whine. Forgive me. Help me to live and serve as part of my service to you. And thank you for your immense grace towards me and each of us. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." (Ephesians 6:1)
"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)
"Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free." (Ephesians 6:7-8)


  1. Gerhard Kittel, akouō, ktl., TDNT 1:216-225.
  2. Johannes Schneider, timē, ktl., TDNT 7:169-180.
  3. Parorgizō, BDAG 780.
  4. Parorgizō, Thayer 490.
  5. Erethizō, BDAG 391.
  6. Athumeō, BDAG 25.
  7. Athumeō, Thayer 14.
  8. Paideia, BDAG 748-749.
  9. Nouthesia, BDAG 679.
  10. Ektrephō, BDAG 311.
  11. Bruce, p. 400, n. 18.
  12. O'Brien, p. 450.
  13. Komizō, BDAG 557.
  14. Prosōpolēmpsia, Thayer 551.

Copyright © 2020, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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