The family is the place where the reality – or not – of a Christian profession is shown. Whatever a man or woman is in their family; that is what they are. No bad father and bad husband was ever a good Christian. A man who has unruly children in his home is never called by God to be a pastor. The most gifted preacher who is also a tyrant in his own home is nothing more than a gifted hypocrite.
These sound like strong words! But in saying this, we are not simply giving a human opinion. This is the Word of God (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1-5, Titus 1:5-7). In modern Kenya, family life (by which we mean households where a man and wife live together, with children if they have them) often suffers deep neglect. If we take the Bible seriously, we will see that the need for change here is enormous. What, then, does the Bible have to say about love within a family? We will look at this subject beginning first of all with husbands and fathers. God-willing, in a future issue we will look at wives and mothers, and then with children.
Paul teaches clearly that the first duty of a man in his family is not to be the “bread-winner”. Certainly, that is one of his duties – but only one of them, and not the most important. The first duty of a man is to love his wife. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives”. What does this mean? Many Kenyan men today will say “Of course I love my wife – I live with her!” or “You can tell I love her – there is always food on the table!” But there is a great difference between these things and the Biblical standard.
Paul goes on to explain what he means, by saving that husbands are to love “even as Christ also loved the church”. The great standard for authentic love from a husband is the love of Christ – the love which Christ had towards the church. Paul continues, “Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it”. What did Christ do in his love for the church? Did he simply provide us with some food or shelter we need? It is much more than this; he did not give some gift or present from outside himself. He gave his actual self, when he offered himself up on the cross. He laid down everything that he had for the church – even life itself. He paid the highest possible price; all that he had. This is how Christ has loved us.
Paul then shows us (verses 26-27) what Christ’s goal was in this – “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself as a glorious church, without any spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” Christ gave all that he had, to make us all that we could possibly be: to lift us up and to glorify us. He wanted to bring us the greatest benefit possible, and was willing to pay the greatest price to achieve it.
A command, not an ideal
This is the standard for all Christian husbands. Notice that Paul does not simply say that this is an ideal to aim for. He actually commands it of every married Christian man, with no exceptions. We have no excuse, because Christ does not allow any excuses. He is holy, and we are sinners – and yet he did all this for us. Nothing our wives ever do can be an excuse for failing to love them. Christ forgives us and treats us kindly again and again, after every failure. It is impossible for our wives to do any wrong to us that is even remotely comparable to how we have treated Christ. If we refuse to accept this Biblical standard, then our Christian profession is empty and worthless.
Christian men, then, are commanded to put the needs of their wives first in every situation. They have a ministry to their wives, to see them grow and mature, going forward as women of God. This is the man’s responsibility. This cannot be done by staying late at work every evening. This cannot be done simply by providing money to look after the house. It is a work which needs a lot of time spent. It needs self-sacrifice. It needs a man to spend less time with his friends, and more with his wife. It needs self-discipline and continuing faithfulness. It means opening the Bible together and reading it. It means spending time listening to his wife’s thoughts and concerns – before then praying about them and doing what he can about them. It means helping her with the endlessly many duties involved in running the house and looking after the children, especially when she is tired. Notice that Paul does not hand over this responsibility to a woman’s mother, or sisters, or home-help. We might be grateful for help from these people, but the responsibility to see that our wives are helped is the man’s.
Marriages are meant to be living demonstrations of the gospel. As a man sacrifices himself for his wife’s benefit, a message is being preached. The man tells the world how much Christ loves the church. He shows the world that no price is too big to pay, for his wife’s sake! We cannot say that we know the love of Christ, and be mean, self-centred leaders in our families. If we believe the truth, this is how God commands us to respond.
God has blessed many husbands with children. In doing this, he has given them an extra responsibility to answer for. As well as being loving husbands, they must also be loving fathers! Being a loving husband is actually the way to start in being a loving father. As a man honours and brings blessing to his wife, he is teaching his children. The best earthly gift a child can have as it grows up is parents who are committed to loving each other. This gives a strong foundation to every home. What else, though, must a father do?
Paul very briefly summarises what a father must do in Ephesians 6:4. In just one sentence, he says “And, you fathers, do not provoke your children to anger: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” It is a short command, but very full! The father is here given the ultimate responsibility for the bringing up of his child. Mothers, grand-parents, school-teachers, churches and many other people may be involved; but the responsibility is all on the shoulders of the father.
The word which Paul uses first to describe this bringing up is “nurture”. The Greek word used means literally “tutorage”, or “training”. It refers to a course of instruction, in preparation for the rest of life. A father must love his children by taking total responsibility for the whole course of their upbringing, with a view to preparing them for their adult lives. From before the day they are born, until they are ready to make their own way in the world, he is to be providing leadership. This teaching is also contained in the word “admonition”, which means to give a rebuke or correction. What kind of training, though, is it? What things are to be corrected? The answer is again very easy; it is the nurture and admonition “of the Lord”. A father’s chief responsibility is to see that the child is learning how to please God. They must, like Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15-17), be taught from the Scriptures about how to be saved, and how to become fruitful believers. They must be warned against false teachings and wrong behaviour. At all times they are to be guarded and guided by the Father’s loving oversight. Like a shepherd, he must care for his flock – his children – feeding them, protecting them, leading them into green pastures. No absent father, who neglects his children or refuses to monitor what they are being taught and experiencing when away from him, is loving his children in a Biblical way.
A great danger
As he does this, Paul wants him to be aware. There is a particular danger he must avoid! Paul says, “do not provoke your children to anger”. Children are like tender plants. They are young, and need to be handled delicately. Men spend a lot of time out in the world. They deal mostly with other men, and sometimes this dealing is tough. In a world full of sin, this toughness sadly often is seen as a permanent part of a man’s way of life. He has no tenderness, no sympathy, no gentleness or kindness. When this happens, his children suffer. Children do not respond well to the hard, “man ways” from out in the world. Men who are unyielding, harsh or unfeeling will have frustrated, angry children.
This anger can also be provoked in other ways. He might rule the household with an iron rod – ruling by fear. He might ignore problems in his children’s behaviour when he is feeling happy, but punish them very harshly when he is tired or angry. The standards might change between one day and the next day. None of these things are the way of the Lord, and they will lead to frustrated children. If, then, we want to be loving fathers, we must carefully watch how we behave towards our children. What responses does our behaviour provoke in them? How do they see us? What do they think of us? Are they always relaxed, and happy to be with us? Do they really know us in a close way, as a child should know his or her father? Or is there a distance, that has been caused by our failure to fulfil this Biblical duty?