Colossians 3:20 and Obedience of Children to Parents

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Covenant Joel

Puritan Board Sophomore
I have spending time lately studying exactly what these verses entail.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.

So I have a couple questions:

1) To whom does children refer biblically? Younger children, any unmarried person? Any unmarried woman?

2) When it says "in everything" does that literally mean "EVERYTHING?" If the parents tell them to do something that is the child would be morally wrong, should they do it anyway, trusting their parents are right? If parents bind children's consciences wrongly, should they still be obeyed?

3) If a father is truly provoking a child, what should the child (or older "child") do?

4) When parents (especially fathers) make decisions regarding their children's lives, are they obligated to give their children reasons (biblical) for their decision? Should they? Especially when these are decisions that affect the children's lives tremendously?

5) Depending on how 4 is answered, if the father refuses to give any biblical reasons, what is the child's responsibility?

These are questions that I am pondering deeply right now, due to a circumstance closely related to my life (but not from my parents, thank the Lord), so I would appreciate any helpful comments on these verses.



Puritanboard Librarian

It will help to compare Col. 3:20-21 with Eph. 6.1-4. I can provide some commentary from godly divines of old which may be of use. The Fifth Commandment may be violated by parents or children, though children are more prone to do so. In such a case as when parents exercise tyrannical authority, then it behooves the child, particularly the one who is of adult age though living at home, to seek counsel from their elders in the church.

John Calvin on Eph. 6.1-4:

1. Children, obey. Why does the apostle use the word obey instead of honor, 1 which has a greater extent of meaning? It is because Obedience is the evidence of that honor which children owe to their parents, and is therefore more earnestly enforced. It is likewise more difficult; for the human mind recoils from the idea of subjection, and with difficulty allows itself to be placed under the control of another. Experience shews how rare this virtue is; for do we find one among a thousand that is obedient to his parents? By a figure of speech, a part is here put for the whole, but it is the most important part, and is necessarily accompanied by all the others.

In the Lord. Besides the law of nature, which is acknowledged by all nations, the obedience of children is enforced by the authority of God. Hence it follows, that parents are to be obeyed, so far only as is consistent with piety to God, which comes first in order. If the command of God is the rule by which the submission of children is to be regulated, it would be foolish to suppose that the performance of this duty could lead away from God himself.

For this is right. This is added in order to restrain the fierceness which, we have already said, appears to be natural to almost all men. He proves it to be right, because God has commanded it; for we are not at liberty to dispute, or call in question, the appointment of him whose will is the unerring rule of goodness and righteousness. That honor should be represented as including obedience is not surprising; for mere ceremony is of no value in the sight of God. The precept, honor thy father and mother, comprehends all the duties by which the sincere affection and respect of children to their parents can be expressed.

2. Which is the first commandment with promise. The promises annexed to the commandments are intended to excite our hopes, and to impart a greater cheerfulness to our obedience; and therefore Paul uses this as a kind of seasoning to render the submission, which he enjoins on children, more pleasant and agreeable. He does not merely say, that God has offered a reward to him who obeys his father and mother, but that such an offer is peculiar to this commandment. If each of the commandments had its own promises, there would have been no ground for the commendation bestowed in the present instance. But this is the first commandment, Paul tells us, which God has been pleased, as it were, to seal by a remarkable promise. There is some difficulty here; for the second commandment likewise contains a promise,

"I am the Lord thy God, who shew mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."
(Exodus 20:5,6.)

But this is universal, applying indiscriminately to the whole law, and cannot be said to be annexed to that commandment. Paul's assertion still holds true, that no other commandment but that which enjoins the obedience due by children to their parents is distinguished by a promise.

3. That it may be well with thee. The promise is -- a long life; from which we are led to understand that the present life is not to be overlooked among the gifts of God. On this and other kindred subjects I must refer my reader to the Institutes of the Christian Religion; 2 satisfying myself at present with saying, in a few words, that the reward promised to the obedience of children is highly appropriate. Those who shew kindness to their parents from whom they derived life, are assured by God, that in this life it will be well with them.

And that thou mayest live long on the earth. Moses expressly mentions the land of Canaan,

"that thy days may be long upon the land which
the Lord thy God giveth thee." (Exodus 20:12.)

Beyond this the Jews could not conceive of any life more happy or desirable. But as the same divine blessing is extended to the whole world, Paul has properly left out the mention of a place, the peculiar distinction of which lasted only till the coming of Christ.

4. And, ye fathers. Parents, on the other hand, are exhorted not to irritate their children by unreasonable severity. This would excite hatred, and would lead them to throw off the yoke altogether. Accordingly, in writing to the Colossians, he adds, "lest they be discouraged." (Colossians 3:21.) Kind and liberal treatment has rather a tendency to cherish reverence for their parents, and to increase the cheerfulness and activity of their obedience, while a harsh and unkind manner rouses them to obstinacy, and destroys the natural affections. But Paul goes on to say, "let them be fondly cherished;" for the Greek word, (ejktre>fete,) which is translated bring up, unquestionably conveys the idea of gentleness and forbearance. To guard them, however, against the opposite and frequent evil of excessive indulgence, he again draws the rein which he had slackened, and adds, in the instruction and reproof of the Lord. It is not the will of God that parents, in the exercise of kindness, shall spare and corrupt their children. Let their conduct towards their children be at once mild and considerate, so as to guide them in the fear of the Lord, and correct them also when they go astray. That age is so apt to become wanton, that it requires frequent admonition and restraint.

Calvin on Col. 3.20:

20. Children, obey your parents. He enjoins it upon children to obey their parents, 2 without any exception. But what if parents 3 should feel disposed to constrain them to anything that is unlawful; will they in that case, too, obey without any reservation? Now it were worse than unreasonable, that the, authority of men should prevail at the expense of neglecting God. I answer, that here, too, we must understand as implied what he expresses elsewhere, (Ephesians 6:1) -- in the Lord. But for what purpose does he employ a term of universality? I answer again, that it is to shew, that obedience must be rendered not merely to just commands, but also to such as are unreasonable. 4 For many make themselves compliant with the wishes of their parents only where the command is not grievous or inconvenient. But, on the other hand, this one thing ought to be considered by children -- that whoever may be their parents, they have been allotted to them by the providence of God, who by his appointment makes children subject to their parents.

In all things, therefore, that they may not refuse anything, however difficult or disagreeable -- in all things, that in things indifferent they may give deference to the station which their parents occupy -- in all things, that they may not put themselves on a footing of equality with their parents, in the way of questioning and debating, or disputing, it being always understood that conscience is not to be infringed upon. 5 He prohibits parents from exercising an immoderate harshness, lest their children should be so disheartened as to be incapable of receiving any honorable training; for we see, from daily experience, the advantage of a liberal education.

See William Gouge, Domestical Duties, in particular Treatise 1 on Eph. 6.1-4; Treatise 5 on the Duties of Children to Parents and Treatise 6 on the Duties of Parents to Children.

For example, 5.35:

Section 5.35. Of Children's Conforming Their Judgments to Their Parents'.[7]

The Extent of Children's Obedience

The extent of children's obedience is only implied in this Epistle to the Ephesians, but it is expressed [Col 3:20] in these words, Children obey your parents in all things. A large extent, but not simply to be taken without any limitation: for the apostle himself notes a restraint in these words, In the Lord. [Eph 6:1] So far forth as children transgress not any of God's commandments, in obeying their parents, they ought to obey. This is to obey in all things, in the Lord.

Thus we see that parents' authority is very large: there is no restraint of it but God's contrary command, whereof a child must be assured, if he refuse to obey his parent in any thing.

Matthew Poole on Eph. 6.1-4:

Eph 6:1. Obey your parents; with inward reverence and promptness, as well as in the outward act. In the Lord; either, because the Lord commands it; or, in all things agreeable to his will: see Eph 5:21; Acts 5:29. For this is right, or just, every way so, by the law of nature, of nations, and of God.

Eph 6:2. i.e. A special promise annexed to the particular duty commanded. There being promises added to only two commandments, viz. the second and this fifth; that which is annexed to the second commandment is a general one, and which relates to the whole law, but this a special one, and which respects this commandment in particular.

Eph 6:3. That thou mayest live long and happily. This promise is still fulfilled to believers, either in the thing itself here promised, or in a better way, God's giving them eternal life.

Eph 6:4. Provoke not your children to wrath; viz. by unreasonable severity, moroseness, unrighteous commands, etc. But bring them up in the nurture; or correction, as the word signifies, Heb 12:6-8. And admonition; this denotes the end of the former; instruction in their duty must be, as well as correction to drive them to it. Of the Lord; the Lord Jesus Christ; and so it is either that admonition which is commanded by him, or whereby they are brought to be acquainted with him.

Poole on Col. 3.20-21:

Col 3:20. By children he understands both males and females. Obey your parents; he requires them to yield humble subjection to those that brought them forth, or have just authority over them; see Exod 20:12; Eph 6:1; paying reverence to them, Lev 19:3; Heb 12:9; observing their holy and prudent prescriptions, Luke 2:51; showing piety and kindness to them in all grateful offices, 1 Tim 5:4, and submitting to their parental discipline, Jer 35:6; Heb 12:9. In all things; in whatsoever is agreeable to the mind of the supreme Governor, who is absolute Sovereign, Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29. For this is well pleasing unto the Lord; and this upon the most cogent reason imaginable, because it is not barely pleasing, but well pleasing, or very acceptable, to the Lord, who arms parents with authority over their children, Eph 6:1-3.

Col 3:21. Fathers, provoke not your children to anger: and to moderate the parental authority, that they may exercise it Christianly, he allows not parents to do that which is in a direct tendency to irritate or move the passions of their children merely for their own pleasure, without a principal regard to God's glory, and their children's profit, Heb 12:10. Indeed, he seems here more strictly to guard fathers against maladministration of their power in this extreme than he doth elsewhere, when writing upon the same subject, Eph 6:4, considering the original word he here puts the negative upon, to engage them to lay aside rigour in their government, (as well as unwarrantable indulgence,) and that upon a very weighty reason, drawn from the end, viz. lest they be discouraged; lest some children, who might with a moderate hand be reduced to obedience, should be (as it were) dispirited, by the roughness of their father's discipline, and even pine away with grief, or grow desperate.

Matthew Henry on Eph. 6.1-4:

Here we have further directions concerning relative duties, in which the apostle is very particular.

I. The duty of children to their parents. Come, you children, hearken to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord. The great duty of children is to obey their parents (Eph 6:1), parents being the instruments of their being, God and nature having given them an authority to command, in subserviency to God; and, if children will be obedient to their pious parents, they will be in a fair way to be pious as they are. That obedience which God demands from their children, in their behalf, includes an inward reverence, as well as the outward expressions and acts. Obey in the Lord. Some take this as a limitation, and understand it thus: "as far as is consistent with your duty to God." We must not disobey our heavenly Father in obedience to earthly parents; for our obligation to God is prior and superior to all others. I take it rather as a reason: "Children, obey your parents; for the Lord has commanded it: obey them therefore for the Lord's sake, and with an eye to him." Or it may be a particular specification of the general duty: "Obey your parents, especially in those things which relate to the Lord. Your parents teach you good manners, and therein you must obey them. They teach you what is for your health, and in this you must obey them: but the chief things in which you are to do it are the things pertaining to the Lord." Religious parents charge their children to keep the ways of the Lord, Gen 18:19. They command them to be found in the way of their duty towards God, and to take heed of those sins most incident to their age; in these things especially they must see that they be obedient. There is a general reason given: For this is right, there is a natural equity in it, God has enjoined it, and it highly becomes Christians. It is the order of nature that parents command and children obey. Though this may seem a hard saying, yet it is duty, and it must be done by such as would please God and approve themselves to him. For the proof of this the apostle quotes the law of the fifth commandment, which Christ was so far from designing to abrogate and repeal that he came to confirm it, as appears by his vindicating it, Matt 15:4, etc. Honour thy father and mother (Eph 6:2), which honour implies reverence, obedience, and relief and maintenance, if these be needed. The apostle adds, which is the first commandment with promise. Some little difficulty arises from this, which we should not overlook, because some who plead for the lawfulness of images bring this as a proof that we are not bound by the second commandment. But there is no manner of force in the argument. The second commandment has not a particular promise; but only a general declaration or assertion, which relates to the whole law of God's keeping mercy for thousands. And then by this is not meant the first commandment of the decalogue that has a promise, for there is no other after it that has, and therefore it would be improper to say it is the first; but the meaning may be this: "This is a prime or chief commandment, and it has a promise; it is the first commandment in the second table, and it has a promise." The promise is, That it may be well with thee, etc., Eph 6:3. Observe, Whereas the promise in the commandment has reference to the land of Canaan, the apostle hereby shows that this and other promises which we have in the Old Testament relating to the land of Canaan are to be understood more generally. That you may not think that the Jews only, to whom God gave the land of Canaan, were bound by the fifth commandment, he here gives it a further sense, That it may be well with thee, etc. Outward prosperity and long life are blessings promised to those who keep this commandment. This is the way to have it well with us, and obedient children are often rewarded with outward prosperity. Not indeed that it is always so; there are instances of such children who meet with much affliction in this life: but ordinarily obedience is thus rewarded, and, where it is not, it is made up with something better. Observe, 1. The gospel has its temporal promises, as well as spiritual ones. 2. Although the authority of God be sufficient to engage us in our duty, yet we are allowed to have respect to the promised reward: and, 3. Though it contains some temporal advantage, even this may be considered as a motive and encouragement to our obedience.

II. The duty of parents: And you fathers, Eph 6:4. Or, you parents, 1. "Do not provoke your children to wrath. Though God has given you power, you must not abuse that power, remembering that your children are, in a particular manner, pieces of yourselves, and therefore ought to be governed with great tenderness and love. Be not impatient with them, use no unreasonable severities and lay no rigid injunctions upon them. When you caution them, when you counsel them, when you reprove them, do it in such a manner as not to provoke them to wrath. In all such cases deal prudently and wisely with them, endeavouring to convince their judgments and to work upon their reason." 2. "Bring them up well, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, in the discipline of proper and of compassionate correction, and in the knowledge of that duty which God requires of them and by which they may become better acquainted with him. Give them a good education." It is the great duty of parents to be careful in the education of their children: "Not only bring them up, as the brutes do, taking care to provide for them; but bring them up in nurture and admonition, in such a manner as is suitable to their reasonable natures. Nay, not only bring them up as men, in nurture and admonition, but as Christians, in the admonition of the Lord. Let them have a religious education. Instruct them to fear sinning; and inform them of, and excite them to, the whole of their duty towards God."

Henry on Col. 3.20-21:

II. The duties of children and parents: Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing unto the Lord, Col 3:20. They must be willing to do all their lawful commands, and be at their direction and disposal; as those who have a natural right and are fitter to direct them than themselves. The apostle (Eph 6:2) requires them to honour as well as obey their parents; they must esteem them and think honourably of them, as the obedience of their lives must proceed from the esteem and opinion of their minds. And this is well-pleasing to God, or acceptable to him; for it is the first commandment with promise (Eph 6:2), with an explicit promise annexed to it, namely, That it shall be well with them, and they shall live long on the earth. Dutiful children are the most likely to prosper in the world and enjoy long life. And parents must be tender, as well as children obedient (Col 3:21): "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged. Let not your authority over them be exercised with rigour and severity, but with kindness and gentleness, lest you raise their passions and discourage them in their duty, and by holding the reins too tight make them fly out with greater fierceness." The bad temper and example of imprudent parents often prove a great hindrance to their children and a stumblingblock in their way; see Eph 6:4. And it is by the tenderness of parents, and dutifulness of children, that God ordinarily furnishes his church with a seed to serve him, and propagates religion from age to age.

Jamieson Faussett Brown on Eph. 6.1-4:

1. obey--stronger than the expression as to wives, "submitting," or "being subject" (Eph 5:21). Obedience is more unreasoning and implicit; submission is the willing subjection of an inferior in point of order to one who has a right to command.
in the Lord--Both parents and children being Christians "in the Lord," expresses the element in which the obedience is to take place, and the motive to obedience. In Col 3:20, it is, "Children, obey your parents in all things." This clause, "in the Lord," would suggest the due limitation of the obedience required (Ac 5:29; compare on the other hand, the abuse, Mr 7:11-13).
right--Even by natural law we should render obedience to them from whom we have derived life.

2. Here the authority of revealed law is added to that of natural law.
which is . . . promise--The "promise" is not made the main motive to obedience, but an incidental one. The main motive is, because it is God's will (De 5:16, "Honor thy father and mother, as the Lord thy God hath COMMANDED thee"); and that it is so peculiarly, is shown by His accompanying it "with a promise."
first--in the decalogue with a special promise. The promise in the second commandment is a general one. Their duty is more expressly prescribed to children than to parents; for love descends rather than ascends [BENGEL]. This verse proves the law in the Old Testament is not abolished.

3. long on the earth--In Ex 20:12, "long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee," which Paul adapts to Gospel times, by taking away the local and limited reference peculiar to the Jews in Canaan. The godly are equally blessed in every land, as the Jews were in the land which God gave them. This promise is always fulfilled, either literally, or by the substitution of a higher blessing, namely, one spiritual and eternal (Job 5:26; Pr 10:27). The substance and essence of the law are eternally in force: its accidents alone (applying to Israel of old) are abolished (Ro 6:15).

4. fathers--including mothers; the fathers are specified as being the fountains of domestic authority. Fathers are more prone to passion in relation to their children than mothers, whose fault is rather over-indulgence.
provoke not--irritate not, by vexatious commands, unreasonable blame, and uncertain temper [ALFORD]. Col 3:21, "lest they be discouraged."
nurture--Greek, "discipline," namely, training by chastening in act where needed (Job 5:17; Heb 12:7).
admonition--training by words (De 6:7; "catechise," Pr 22:6, Margin), whether of encouragement, or remonstrance, or reproof, according as is required [TRENCH]. Contrast 1Sa 3:13, Margin.
of the Lord--such as the Lord approves, and by His Spirit dictates.

JFB on Col. 3.20-21:

20. (Eph 6:1.)
unto the Lord--The oldest manuscripts read, "IN the Lord," that is, this is acceptable to God when it is done in the Lord, namely, from the principle of faith,and as disciples in union with the Lord.

21. (Eph 6:4.) It is a different Greek verb, therefore translate here, "irritate not." By perpetual fault-finding "children" are "discouraged" or "disheartened." A broken-down spirit is fatal to youth [BENGEL].

Matthew Poole on Jer. 35.19:

But it is a question of more moment, How God promiseth a reward to these sons of Jonadab for obeying the command of their father, and whether they had sinned if they had not obeyed this command of Jonadab; which brings in another question, Whether parents have a power to oblige their children in matters which God hath left at liberty. To which I answer, 1. God might reward these Rechabites for their reverence and obedience to Jonadab their father, though these were not strictly, by the Divine law, obliged thus far to have obeyed him; as he rewarded David for his thoughts in his heart to build him a house, though it was not God's will that he should do it; so as God's promise of the reward doth not prove their obedience in this particular to have been their duty. Admit that it remained still a matter of liberty, yet the general honour and reverence they testified might be rewarded by God. 2. Unquestionably parents have not a power to determine children in all things as to which God hath left them a liberty, for then they have a power to make their children slaves, and to take away all their natural liberty. To marry or not, and to this or that person, is matter of liberty. Parents cannot in this case determine their children; Bethuel, Gen 24:58, asketh Rebekah if she would go with Abraham's servant before he would send her. 3. In matters of civil concernment they have a far greater power than in matters of religion. All souls are God's, and conscience can be under no other dominion than that of God. 4. In civil things parents have a great power, during the nonage of children, and after also in matters which concern their parents' good, as to command them to assist them, to help to supply their necessities, etc. 5. Parents being set over children, and instead of God to them, as it is their duty to advise their children to the best of their ability for their good; so it is the duty of children to receive their advice, and not to depart from it, unless they see circumstances so mistaken by parents, or so altered by the providence of God, as they may reasonably judge their parents, had these known or foreseen it, would not have so advised. But that parents have an absolute power to determine children in all things as to which God hath not forbidden them, and that children by the law of God are obliged to an obedience to all such commands, however they may see their parents mistaken, or God by his providence may have altered circumstances, I see no reason to conclude. Jonadab had prudently advised his sons as before mentioned; they were things they might do, and which by experience they found not hurtful to them, but of great profit and advantage, and that with reference to all the ends of man's life: herein they yield obedience, and pay a reverence to their parent; this pleaseth God, he promiseth to reward them with the continuance of their family, according to what he had said, Exod 20:12, in the fifth commandment, which the apostle calleth the first commandment with promise.

Further recommended reading relating to Eph. 6 and Col. 3 includes:

B.M. Palmer, Family Aspects, Chap. 4, Authority of the Parent
Westminster Larger Catechism, 123-133
Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Fifth Commandment
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