Last week we distinguished discipline from punishment. That initial distinction was that discipline is corrective and punishment is concerned with retribution. But once we have accepted the duty of administering parental discipline, we discover that discipline falls naturally into two categories—corrective and formative.
“And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Summary of the Text
The charge here is given to fathers. Taking all of Scripture together, we know that both father and mother are engaged in this crucial task, but it is worth noting that the central charge is here delivered to the father. The father is responsible. He is responsible in the first instance not to be a provocation to his children. If he stumbles them into wrath, his sin is prior to theirs, and is much more grievous (Luke 17:2). Instead of this kind of provocation, he is required to provide them with a Christian education and upbringing. The words underneath nurture and admonition are paideia and nouthesia. Taken together they encompass and necessarily require a Christian education. What we mean by education is not as big as this charge, but is necessarily a critical component of it.
Raw requirement without instruction is a form of provocation. Don’t allow requests for explanation to displace obedience, but if your child routinely hears nothing more than “because I said so,” something is wrong. The two phrases in this verse are connected.
Two Kinds of Discipline
So what is the difference between the kinds of discipline I mentioned above? When something has gone actively wrong, corrective discipline puts things back on track, restoring the fellowship between parent and child. This kind of discipline fixes something that has gone wrong. The second kind of discipline prevents things from going wrong in the future. The second kind of discipline instills character, against the challenges of a future day. It is corrective in anticipation.
The first kind of discipline would occur if mom told her son that she wanted him to get his math homework done before playing any video games, and she then discovered that he had done nothing of the kind. When the consequences fall on him that would be a sample of the first kind of discipline, a corrective discipline concerning an incident in the past. The second kind of discipline is the exercise of having to do the math homework in the first place. That is equipping him for a future day, it is hard in the meantime, and that is formative discipline. It is corrective also, but it is preventative correction.
One writer has helpfully noted that education is not about information, but rather formation. Education, done right, is a character-building process. One of the grand mistakes that parents often make is that of opposing academics to character issues. They are not in opposition. Learning to do the kind of work that children have learned to do for millennia is not opposed to character formation, it is character formation.
If a group of boys were working with shovels to dig a big ditch, and the father of one of the boys came out and pulled his boy aside to spend the morning doing anything other than digging, this would not be an example of “focusing on character instead.” It would be an example of declining to do so.
The word that Paul uses here—paideia—is an enormous word. Every language has common nouns, like chair or shoelace, and every culture has large, all-encompassing words. In our culture, an example of one of the large words would be democracy. You wouldn’t be astonished to find a three-volume study of that word in a used bookstore. But if you found someone had done the same thing with a common noun, studying shoelaces through history, you would begin to suspect deep personal problems. I say this because the word paideia was one of the ancient world’s “all- encompassing” words, and what it meant was this. It referred to the process of enculturation. It was the education of the citizen, preparing him to take his responsible place in the polis. The apostle Paul saw our participation in the commonwealth of Israel as an exercise in the glorious citizenship of the heavenly city.
Now Paul requires fathers to provide a Christian paideia, and he required this before there was such a thing as a Christian culture for the children to be “enculterated” into. In order to fulfill his requirement here, the early Christians had to build such a culture—which they went out and did. We are privileged to have significant aspects of what they built still functioning as part of our heritage. We don’t have to start from scratch, but we still have a lot of rebuilding to do.
Stop Experimenting on Children
When children are little, parents can fall prey to the “grip of an idea.” They may have all kinds of fantastical notions about education stratagems, health weirdness, child discipline, food phobias, and so on. For much of this stuff, we can (and should) say with Paul, “Let every man be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). But we should also make a point to note that those who compare themselves with themselves are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12).
If you have never seen this kind of example, spend some time seeking it out. But be careful. We learn by imitation, but we also envy that way. You have to learn to copy without comparing.
This is important because one of the great truths I discovered while building my house concerned the nature of concrete work. The one bright spot was that a couple hours after the pour, no matter what, you were all done. Now your children are that wet concrete.
This does not obligate you to a particular course of action, but it does obligate you to a certain demeanor. Your people surrounding you have taken a vow before God to help you in the Christian nurture of your children. You are not obligated to do “whatever” anybody says, but you are obligated to be willing to hear about it without getting your back up (Ps. 141:5). This is because certain sins and blunders run out ahead of you, but others trail behind (1 Tim. 5:24). Parental folly is the kind of thing that has a long fuse. “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov. 12:1, ESV).
Preparation of Launch
So fathers are given the charge to educate here, but the charge flows out (necessarily) past the boundaries of the family. There is a feedback loop here. The children are being prepared to take their place among their people, and their people are preparing to receive them.
In bringing up children, success is found in them going away. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis comments on a kind of “need love” that doesn’t want to let go. That is not what we are after.
And what happens in the Christian school family or homeschool family is not supposed to be happening in isolation. Part of the reason this is such a challenge is that “our people” are often sinful and unreasonable. That is precisely why they need us, and why we need them. Hiding from the sin out there won’t protect us from the sin in here. And this brings us back to the touchstone of grace. The only place to hide from sin is in Jesus Christ.