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“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. ‘Honour thy father and mother,’ which is a first commandment, given in promise,—‘that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.’ And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but nurture them in the chastening and admonition of the Lord.

“Servants, be obedient to them that according to the flesh are your lords, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto the Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers; but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the soul; with good will doing service, as unto the Lord, and not unto men: knowing that whatsoever good thing each one doeth, the same shall he receive again from the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye lords, do the same things unto them, and forbear threatening: knowing that both their Lord and yours is in heaven, and there is no respect of persons with Him.”—Eph. vi. 1–9.

The Christian family is the cradle and the fortress of the Christian faith. Here its virtues shine most brightly; and by this channel its influence spreads through society and the course of generations. Marriage has been placed under the guardianship of God; it is made single, chaste and enduring, according to the law of creation and the pattern of Christ’s union with His Church. With parents thus united, family honour is secure; and a basis is laid for reverence and discipline within the house.

I. Thus the apostle turns, in the opening words of chapter vi., from the husband and wife to the children 381 of the household. He addresses them as present in the assembly where his letter is read. St Paul accounted the children “holy,” if but one parent belonged to the Church (1 Cor. vii. 14). They were baptized, as we presume, with their fathers or mothers, and admitted, under due precautions,148148   We cannot absolutely prove infant baptism from the New Testament texts adduced on its behalf; but they afford a strong presumption in its favour, which is confirmed on the one hand by the analogy of circumcision, and on the other by the immemorial usage of the early Church. Titus i. 6 shows that stress was laid on the faith of children, and that discrimination was used in their recognition as Church members. to the fellowship of the Church so far as their age allowed. We cannot limit this exhortation to children of adult age. The “discipline and admonition of the Lord” prescribed in verse 4, belong to children of tender years and under parental control.

Obedience is the law of childhood. It is, in great part, the child’s religion, to be practised “in the Lord.” The reverence and love, full of a sweet mystery, which the Christian child feels towards its Saviour and heavenly King, add new sacredness to the claims of father and mother. Jesus Christ, the Head over all things, is the orderer of the life of boys and girls. His love and His might guard the little one in the tendance of its parents. The wonderful love of parents to their offspring, and the awful authority with which they are invested, come from the source of human life in God.

The Latin pietas impressed a religious character upon filial duty. This word signified at once dutifulness towards the gods, and towards parents and kindred. In the strength of its family ties and its deep filial reverence lay the secret of the moral vigour and the unmatched discipline of the Roman commonwealth.382 The history of ancient Rome affords a splendid illustration of the fifth commandment.

For this is right, says the apostle, appealing to the instincts of natural religion. The child’s conscience begins here. Filial obedience is the primary form of duty. The loyalties of after life take their colour from the lessons learnt at home, in the time of dawning reason and incipient will. Hard indeed is the evil to remove, where in the plastic years of childhood obedience has been associated with base fear, with distrust or deceit, where it has grown sullen or obsequious in habit. From this root of bitterness there spring rank growths of hatred toward authority, jealousies, treacheries, and stubbornness. Obedience rendered “in the Lord” will be frank and willing, careful and constant, such as that which Jesus rendered to the Father.

St Paul reminds the children of the law of the Ten Words, taught to them in their earliest lessons from Scripture. He calls the command in question “a first [or chief] commandment”—just as the great rule, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” is the first commandment; for this is no secondary rule or minor precept, but one on which the continuance of the Church and the welfare of society depend. It is a law fundamental as birth itself, written not on the statute-book alone but on the tables of the heart.

Moreover, it is a “command in promise”—that takes the form of promise, and holds out to obedience a bright future. The two predicates—“first” and “in promise”—as we take it, are distinct. To merge them into one blunts their meaning. This commandment is primary in its importance, and promissory in its import. The promise is quoted from Exodus xx. 12, as it stands 383 in the Septuagint, where the Greek Christian children would read it. But the last clause is abbreviated; St Paul writes “upon the earth” in place of “the good land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” This blessing is the heritage of dutiful children in every land. Those who have watched the history of godly families of their acquaintance, will have seen the promise verified. The obedience of childhood and youth rendered to a wise Christian rule, forms in the young nature the habits of self-control and self-respect, of diligence and promptitude and faithfulness and kindliness of heart, which are the best guarantees for happiness and success in life. Through parental nurture “godliness” secures its “promise of the life that now is.”

Children are exhorted to submission: fathers to gentleness. “Do not,” the apostle says, “anger your children”; in the corresponding place in Colossians, “Do not irritate your children, lest they be disheartened” (ch. iii. 21). In these parallel texts two distinct verbs are rendered by the one English word “provoke.” The Colossian passage warns against the chafing effect of parental exactions and fretfulness, that tend to break the child’s spirit and spoil its temper. Our text warns the father against angering his child by unfair or oppressive treatment. From this verb comes the noun “wrath” (or “provocation”) used in chapter iv. 26, denoting that stirring of anger which gives peculiar occasion to the devil.

Not that the father is forbidden to cross his child’s wishes, or to do anything or refuse anything that may excite its anger. Nothing is worse for a child than to find that parents fear its displeasure, and that it will gain its ends by passion. But the father must not be 384 exasperating, must not needlessly thwart the child’s inclinations and excite in order to subdue its anger, as some will do even of set purpose, thinking that in this way obedience is learnt. This policy may secure submission; but it is gained at the cost of a rankling sense of injustice.

Household rule should be equally firm and kind, neither provoking nor avoiding the displeasure of its subjects, inflicting no severity for severity’s sake, but shrinking from none that fidelity demands. With much parental fondness, there is sometimes in family government a want of seriousness and steady principle, an absence in father or mother of the sense that they are dealing with moral and responsible beings in their little ones, and not with toys, which is reflected in the caprice and self-indulgence of the children’s maturer life. Such parents will give account hereafter of their stewardship with an inconsolable grief.

It is almost superfluous to insist on the apostle’s exhortation to treat children kindly. For them these are days of Paradise, compared with times not far distant. Never were the wants and the fancies of these small mortals catered for as they are now. In some households the danger lies at the opposite extreme from that of over-strictness. The children are idolized. Not their comfort and welfare only, but their humours and caprices become the law of the house. They are “nourished” indeed, but not “in the discipline and admonition of the Lord.” It is a great unkindness to treat our children so that they shall be strangers to hardship and restriction, so that they shall not know what real obedience means, and have no reverence for age, no habits of deference and self-denial. It is the way to breed monsters of selfishness, pampered 385 creatures who will be useless and miserable in adult life.

“Discipline and admonition” are distinguished as positive and negative terms. The first is the “training up of the child in the way that he should go”; the second checks and holds him back from the ways in which he should not go. The former word (paideia)—denoting primarily treating-as-a-boy—signifies very often “chastisement”;149149   1 Cor. xi. 32; Heb. xii. 5, 11, etc. but it has a wider sense, embracing instruction besides.150150   Acts vii. 22, xxii. 3; Rom. ii. 20; 2 Tim. ii. 25, iii. 14. It includes the whole course of training by which the boy is reared into a man.—Admonition is a still more familiar word with St Paul.151151   1 Cor. x. 11; Col. i. 28, iii. 16; 1 Thess. v. 14, etc. It may be reproof bearing upon errors in the past; or it may be warning, that points out dangers lying in the future. Both these services parents owe to their children. Admonition implies faults in the nature of the child, and wisdom in the father to see and correct them.

“Foolishness,” says the Hebrew proverb, “is bound up in the heart of a child.” In the Old Testament discipline there was something over-stern. The “hardness of heart” censured by the Lord Jesus, which allowed of two mothers in the house, put barriers between the father and his offspring that rendered “the rod of correction” more needful than it is under the rule of Christ. But correction, in gentler or severer sort, there must be, so long as children spring from sinful parents. The child’s conscience responds to the kindly and searching word of reproof, to the admonition of love. This faithful dealing with his children wins for the father in the end a deep gratitude, and makes 386 his memory a guard in days of temptation and an object of tender reverence.

The child’s “obedience in the Lord” is its response to “the discipline and admonition of the Lord” exercised by its parents. The discipline which wise Christian fathers give their children, is the Lord’s discipline applied through them. “Correction and instruction should proceed from the Lord and be directed by the Spirit of the Lord, in such a way that it is not so much the father who corrects his children and teaches them, as the Lord through him” (Monod). Thus the Father of whom every family on earth is named, within each Christian house works all in all. Thus the chief Shepherd, through His under-shepherds, guides and feeds the lambs of His flock. By the gate of His fold fathers and mothers themselves have entered; and the little ones follow with them. In the pastures of His word they nourish them, and rule them with His rod and staff. To their offspring they become an image of the Good Shepherd and the Father in heaven. Their office teaches them more of God’s fatherly ways with themselves. From their children’s humbleness and confidence, from their simple wisdom, their hopes and fears and ignorances, the elders learn deep and affecting lessons concerning their own relations to the heavenly Father.

St Paul’s instruction to fathers applies to all who have the charge of children: to schoolmasters of every degree, whose work, secular as it may be called, touches the springs of moral life and character; to teachers in the Sunday school, successors to the work that Christ assigned to Peter, of shepherding His lambs. These instructors supply the Lord’s nurture to multitudes of children, in whose homes Christian faith and example 387 are wanting. The ideas which children form of Christ and His religion, are gathered from what they see and hear in the school. Many a child receives its bias for life from the influence of the teacher before whom it sits on Sunday. The love and meekness of wisdom, or the coldness or carelessness of the one who thus stands between Christ and the infant soul, will make or mar its spiritual future.

II. From the children of the house the apostle proceeds to address the servants—slaves as they were, until the gospel unbound their chains. The juxtaposition of children and slaves is full of significance; it is a tacit prophecy of emancipation. It brings the slave within the household, and gives a new dignity to domestic service.152152   The word family (Latin familia) denoted originally the servants of the establishment, the domestic slaves. Its modern usage is an index to the elevating influence of Christianity upon social relations.

The Greek philosophers regarded slavery as a fundamental institution, indispensable to the existence of civilized society. That the few might enjoy freedom and culture, the many were doomed to bondage. Aristotle defines the slave as an “animated tool,” and the tool as an “inanimate slave.” Two or three facts will suffice to show how utterly slaves were deprived of human rights in the brilliant times of the classic humanism. In Athens it was the legal rule to admit the evidence of a slave only upon torture, as that of a freeman was received upon oath. Amongst the Romans, if a master had been murdered in his house, the whole of his domestic servants, amounting sometimes to hundreds, were put to death without inquiry. It was a common mark of hospitality to assign to a guest a female slave for the night, like any other convenience. 388 Let it be remembered that the slave population outnumbered the free citizens of the Roman and Greek cities by many times; that they were frequently of the same race, and might be even superior in education to their masters. Indeed, it was a lucrative trade to rear young slaves and train them in literary and other accomplishments, and then to let them out in these capacities for hire. Let any one consider the condition of society which all this involved, and he will have some conception of the degradation in which the masses of mankind were plunged, and of the crushing tyranny that the world laboured under in the boasted days of republican liberty and Hellenic art.

No wonder that the new religion was welcome to the slaves of the Pagan cities, and that they flocked into the Church. Welcome to them was the voice that said: “Come unto me, all ye that are burdened and heavy laden”; welcome the proclamation that made them Christ’s freedmen, “brethren beloved” where they had been “animated tools” (Philem. 16). In the light of such teaching, slavery was doomed. Its re-adoption by Christian nations, and the imposition of its yoke on the negro race, is amongst the great crimes of history,—a crime for which the white man has had to pay rivers of his blood.

The social fabric, as it then existed, was so entirely based upon slavery, that for Christ and the apostles to have proclaimed its abolition would have meant universal anarchy. In writing to Philemon about his converted slave Onesimus, the apostle does not say, “Release him,” though the word seems to be trembling on his lips. In 1 Corinthians vii. 20–24 he even advises the slave who has the chance of manumission to remain where he is, content to be “the Lord’s freedman.” 389 To the Christian slave what mattered it who ruled over his perishing body! his spirit was free, death would be his discharge and enfranchisement. No decree is issued to abolish bond-service between man and man; but it was destroyed in its essence by the spirit of Christian brotherhood. It melted away in the spread of the gospel, as snow and winter melt before the face of spring.

“Ye slaves, obey your lords according to the flesh.” The apostle does not disguise the slave’s subservience; nor does he speak in the language of pity or of condescension. He appeals as a man to men and equals, on the ground of a common faith and service to Christ. He awakens in these degraded tools of society the sense of spiritual manhood, of conscience and loyalty, of love and faith and hope. As in Colossians iii. 22–iv. 1, the apostle designates the earthly master not by his common title (despotēs), but by the very word (kyrios) that is the title of the Lord Christ, giving the slave in this way to understand that he has, in common with his master (ver. 9), a higher Lord in the spirit. “Ye are slaves to the Lord Christ!” (Col. iii. 24). St Paul is accustomed to call himself “a slave of Christ Jesus.”153153   Rom. i. 1; 2 Cor. iv. 5; Gal. i. 10, etc. Nay, it is even said, in Philippians ii. 7, that Christ Jesus “took the form of a slave!”

How much there was, then, to console the Christian bondman for his lot. In self-abnegation, in the willing forfeiture of personal rights, in his menial and unrequited tasks, in submission to insult and injustice, he found a holy joy. His was a path in which he might closely follow the steps of the great Servant of mankind. His position enabled him to “adorn the Saviour’s doctrine” above other men (Tit. ii. 9, 10). 390 Affectionate, gentle, bearing injury with joyful courage, the Christian slave held up to that hardened and jaded Pagan age the example which it most required. God chose the base things of the world to bring to nought the mighty.

The relations of servant and master will endure, in one shape or other, while the world stands. And the apostle’s injunctions bear upon servants of every order. We are all, in our various capacities, servants of the community. The moral worth of our service and its blessing to ourselves depend on the conditions that are here laid down.

1. There must be a genuine care for our work.

“Obey,” he says, “with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto the Christ.” The fear enjoined is no dread of human displeasure, of the master’s whip or tongue. It is the same “fear and trembling” with which we are bidden to “work out our own salvation” (Phil. ii. 12). The inward work of the soul’s salvation and the outward work of the busy hands labouring in the mine or at the loom, or in the lowliest domestic duties,—all alike are to be performed under a solemn responsibility to God and in the presence of Christ, the Lord of nature and of men, who understands every sort of work, and will render to each of His servants a just and exact reward. No man, whether he be minister of state or stable-groom, will dare to do heedless work, who lives and acts in that august Presence,—

“As ever in the great Task-master’s eye.”

2. The sense of Christ’s Lordship ensures honesty in work.

391 So the apostle continues: “Not with eye-service, as men-pleasers.” Both these are rare compound words,—the former indeed occurring only here and in the companion letter, being coined, probably, by the writer for this use. It is the common fault and temptation of servants in all degrees to observe the master’s eye, and to work busily or slackly as they are watched or not. Such workmen act as they do, because they look to men and not to God. Their work is without conscience and self-respect. The visible master says “Well done!” But there is another Master looking on, who says “Ill done!” to all pretentious doings and works of eye-service,—who sees not as man sees, but judges with the act the motive and intent.

“Not on the vulgar mass

Called ‘work’ must sentence pass,

Things done, which took the eye and had the price.”

In His book of accounts there is a stern reckoning in store for deceitful dealers and the makers-up of unsound goods, in whatever handicraft or headcraft they are engaged.

Let us all adopt St Paul’s maxim; it will be an immense economy. What armies of overlookers and inspectors we shall be able to dismiss, when every servant works as well behind his master’s back as to his face, when every manufacturer and shopkeeper puts himself in the purchaser’s place and deals as he would have others deal with him. It was for the Christian slaves of the Greek trading cities to rebuke the Greek spirit of fraud and trickery, by which the common dealings of life in all directions were vitiated.

3. To the carefulness and honesty of the slave’s daily labour he must even add heartiness: “as slaves 392 of Christ doing the will of God from the soul, with good will doing service, as to the Lord and not to men.”

They must do the will of God in the service of men, as Jesus Christ Himself did it,—and with His meekness and fortitude and unwearied love. Their work will thus be rendered from inner principle, with thought and affection and resolution spent upon it. That alone is the work of a man, whether he preaches or ploughs, which comes from the soul behind the hands and the tongue, into which the workman puts as much of his soul, of himself, as the work is capable of holding.

4. Add to all this, the servant’s anticipation of the final reward. In each case, “whatsoever one may do that is good, this he will receive from the Lord, whether he be a bondman or a freeman.” The complementary truth is given in the Colossian letter: “He who does wrong, will receive back the wrong that he did.”

The doctrine of equal retribution at the judgement-seat of Christ matches that of equal salvation at the cross of Christ. How trifling and evanescent the differences of earthly rank appear, in view of these sublime realities. There is a “Lord in heaven,” alike for servant and for master, “with whom is no respect of persons” (ver. 9). This grand conviction beats down all caste-pride. It teaches justice to the mighty and the proud; it exalts the humble, and assures the down-trodden of redress. No bribery or privilege, no sophistry or legal cunning will avail, no concealment or distortion of the facts will be possible in that Court of final appeal. The servant and the master, the monarch and his meanest subject will stand before the bar of Jesus Christ upon the same footing. And the poor slave, wonderful to think, who was faithful 393 in the “few things” of his drudging earthly lot, will receive the “many things” of a son of God and a joint-heir with Christ!

And, ye lords, do the same things towards them”—be as good to your slaves as they are required to be towards you. A bold application this of Christ’s great rule: “What you would that men should do to you, do even so to them.” In many instances this rule suggested liberation, where the slave was prepared for freedom. In any case, the master is to put himself in his dependant’s place, and to act by him as he would desire himself to be treated if their positions were reversed.

Slaves were held to be scarcely human. Deceit and sensuality were regarded as their chief characteristics. They must be ruled, the moralists said, by the fear of punishment. This was the only way to keep them in their place. The Christian master adopts a different policy. He “desists from threatening”; he treats his servants with even-handed justice, with fit courtesy and consideration. The recollection is ever present to his mind, that he must give account of his charge over each one of them to his Lord and theirs. So he will make, as far as in him lies, his own domain an image of the kingdom of Christ.

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