[A13] Parental Responsibility (The Small Catechism)

To live means more than having food and shelter or any degree of material prosperity. Merely to vegetate, to exist, is not truly to live. To spend an existence of isolated selfishness is not really to live. A round of useless or silly pleasures is a poor, shallow, unsatisfactory kind of life.

Table of Contents

13. Parental Responsibility

“Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” — Eph. 6:4.

There is no commandment addressed specifically to parents. But no one can study the Fourth Commandment with discernment without seeing that there are many things required there of children which can have no existence without the discharge of a corresponding obligation on the part of parents. And in this sixth chapter of Ephesians St. Paul so connects this admonition to fathers with the Fourth Commandment as virtually to make it a part of it.

No doubt, those of us who are parents were glad to hear the Fourth Commandment explained and applied to the younger people. It is a subject which, it is widely recognized, needs to be given a new emphasis in our day. We no doubt hoped that it might be of personal advantage to us by way of reminding our children of their duties, and giving them a new impulse toward discharging them. But now we are going to turn the tables, and tell the parents of some of their duties. We shall speak on the subject of Parental Responsibility; its nature and extent, and the manner in which it is to be discharged.

1. The Nature and Extent of Parental Responsibility.

One of the first things parents ought to know is the nature and extent of their parental responsibility.

It is one of the greatest, one of the most responsible things in the world to be a parent. It means, in a certain sense, to take God’s place, to be God’s agent, in the perpetuation of the Divine mystery of human life. It is easily to be understood how people, who have no other light than that of nature, can worship this mystery, and its processes, as many of the wisest of the heathen have done. It is one of the greatest things in the whole round of human activities to take a human life, fresh from the hand of God, and be one of the decisive factors in fashioning it into a temple fit for the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit. It is a great thing, a great responsibility, to train a child for citizenship, — to give it the principles by which, ordinarily, it will be governed when it comes to manhood or womanhood.

In these days when men, and women, too, are going in crowds to colleges and universities, for the purpose of learning how best to raise livestock and poultry, it ought not need much argument to prove that it is a great thing, and should be considered one of the divinest things under the sun, to be a co-worker with God in the perpetuation of human life, and then to help train the lives of those who are to take our places, continue and improve our institutions, and finally move on, as we shall move on, to people another world, either of light or darkness. And yet there is plenty of evidence to show that there are any number of people who do not think as much of the real far-reaching problems of child-training as the average farmer does of raising pigs.

Let us imagine a crib before us, and in it one of those tender, helpless little flowers of humanity. It might be a perfect stranger so far as kith and kin is concerned. But at the sight of it there is not a woman worthy of the name in whose bosom there would not stir something of that mother instinct which, more than anything else, makes woman what she is — the most loving, and the best loved, creature on God’s earth. And there is not a man, in whose breast there beats a heart of flesh, who would not grow a little more tender, a little more thoughtful, as he stood in the presence of that greatest mystery of human life.

In that crib there lies a frail little body, so tender that a passing breeze might blight it. It is be sieged by enemies from which it must be lovingly shielded. The necessities of life must all be provided for it. Its body must be guarded and guided in its development, so that, if it please God, it may grow up into sturdy manhood or womanhood, and enter the lists as a capable contender for the legitimate prizes of life. There is in that little body an embryonic mind, with, probably, not a single clearly defined conscious thought. But who knows what the potentialities of that mind are? Under favorable conditions it may develop the powers of a Newton or a Webster, a Kant or a Luther. What ever is there, it is to be given its chance. Under the stimulus of interested and intelligent guidance it is to be encouraged to unfold. And in that little babe there is a soul. A soul so precious that before the worlds were God made plans for it. A soul so precious that for it the Son of God suffered and died. Yes, there is a soul there awaiting the trans 11forming, renewing touch of the breath of the Divine Spirit, and the guiding, developing contact of other awakened souls, to make it, possibly, a most effectual champion of human rights, a leader in the ceaseless crusade for truth and righteousness; at any rate, a polished gem in God’s eternal crown.

The first and most evident parental responsibility is that of providing for one’s children, especially in their earlier years, with shelter, sustenance, and protection. And with respect to this the Scriptures say that he who does not do it “Hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8). There are parents so completely lacking, not only in parental love, but in the milk of common human kindness, that they fail in this first obligation. But there are more who seem to think that this provision discharges all their responsibility. There are not a few who so pet and pamper their children that they give them the impression that the only purpose their parents are to serve in this world is to be slaves for them, and that the supreme object of the child’s existence is to eat, wear good clothes, and have a generally good time.

The whole sphere of the higher responsibility of parents may be summed up in the one word “training.” “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). This Word of God expresses the judgment of ancient Israel, which, as a people, trained its children more admirably than any other nation. When we, today, speak of training, we generally have in mind the process of education. And, rightly understood, it is correct. But education means much more than the mere impartation of the facts of knowledge. It means the development of character, the cultivating of a life. It means giving sane, wholesome views of life, the world, and human relations.

We believe in educating the mind, a belief that ought to be shared by all parents worthy the name. But let us get away from the idea that all education must be for professional life. An education which will enable one to appreciate the beauties of literature and art should not make one ashamed to be a good carpenter or mason, a good clerk, book keeper or housekeeper. When education makes people proud and ashamed to work with their hands, and inclines them to live by their wits, at the price of honesty and the welfare of others, it is not a blessing, but a curse. The honest man, with a noble spirit, though he has but the rudiments of an education, as we ordinarily understand the term, is a gentleman and a prince in comparison with the polished loafer and trickster. Parents, let us not forget this while educating our children.

The high, far-reaching duty of parents is set forth in our text:

“Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath; but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

Before defining and applying our text in so far as it sets forth the duties and responsibility of parents in the training of their children, let us emphasize what it implies with respect to the position and conduct of the parents themselves. To bring up a child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord means more than mere obedience to implicit instructions. It means that in this work we are the Lord’s representatives. It ought to have a most salutary effect upon parents to remember that we are not privileged to do as we please with our children. Here, as everywhere else in life, we are but stewards. The absolute ownership of our children rests in the Lord. The absolute will in conformity with which our children are to be reared is the Lord’s will. In all positions of authority and responsibility, in the Church, in the State, in the family, the incumbents are God’s representatives. And they have to give account of their conduct, not only to their fellowmen, but to God. But in no position of authority is man so wonderfully, so directly, so vitally God’s representative as in the parental office. What God is to us older people, lover and law-giver, provider and controller, that we are to be under Him, to our children. Fathers and mothers! let us not lose sight of this consideration. It will do much to give us the clear-sightedness, and warm-heartedness, the firmness and perseverance, so necessary to the proper discharge of these holiest of duties. One of the first, most abiding, and life-controlling thoughts of every parent should be that expressed by mother Eve when the first born of the sons of men rested on her bosom. She said: “I have gotten a man from the Lord” (Gen. 4:1).

In the light of these thoughts, let us consider the divine admonition of our text: “Bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” We will pass by those primary duties which pertain to body and mind, already referred to, and which are, in our day, to most people self-evident.

God has given us children to be trained, not only to make a living, but, which is much more, to live. To live means more than having food and shelter or any degree of material prosperity. Merely to vegetate, to exist, is not truly to live. To spend an existence of isolated selfishness is not really to live. A round of useless or silly pleasures is a poor, shallow, unsatisfactory kind of life. The real measure of a man’s life is the measure of his approach to the Divine ideal of what life should be. We live in proportion as we find our true place in the great complex of Divine and human activities, and fit ourselves, or allow ourselves to be fitted, into the harmony of this ordered system. In other words, we truly live only as we find, and consciously pursue, the true aims of life. Only thus, my brethren, can men have happiness. And happiness, rightly understood, happiness in its highest and holiest form of blessedness, is man’s highest good, the end of his creation, in the possession and appreciation of which he most truly glorifies God.

This, parents, is the stupendous task to which God has put our hands, our minds, our hearts. We are to help God to mold human lives, to develop human character. Under Him we are to train our children to have the right outlook on life, to fulfill their part of the task of making this world a more livable place, and finally come to the right end of earthly life — eternal life.

On this foundation of a generally well-developed character, which, of course, is progressive, and continues through life, parents are to bend their energies to the building up of a symmetrical and useful active life. The virtues of industry and frugality are to be inculcated. Children are to be taught, not only to make a place for themselves in the world, but to stand in right relation to other people. They must learn, not only to respect the rights of others, but to have regard for the feelings of others, and to respect the needs of others. The kingship of self-control must be taught. In early life, we should begin the process of teaching the child that man is differentiated from the mere animal by this that he acts, not on the promptings of impulse or appetite, but as the result of reflection, on the dictates of an en lightened conscience, following the choice of a divinely cultured will.

This brings us to a point which needs a special emphasis. The Fourth Commandment, so far as the duties of children are concerned, rests on the principle of authority. Our boys and girls and our men and women need to learn that they are not, that they can not be, free lances in this world. This world is not built on the principle of do-as-you-please. Peace, progress, and prosperity are bound up with order. And authority begins in high heaven, at the throne of Almighty God, and runs down, step by step, through all the institutions and relations of men. We are living in an age when this lesson needs emphatically to be learned. Anarchy is in the air. In only too many instances it has invaded the home, the very first place where reverence for authority should be taught and established. Parents, it is not only our Divine right, but our Divinely imposed duty, to be the source of authority in the home and to make it such a sacred thing that it must be reverenced. Where it is not reverenced, and thus freely obeyed, there the sting of disobeyed law must be felt. We do not inculcate the rule of force in the home. In most cases the law of love is mightier than the rule of the rod. But where people, whether young or old, are proof against the allurements of love, there forcible measures must be used. The Divine Word itself says that there are instances when “He that spareth his rod hateth his son” (Prov. 13:24).

There are many other specific parental duties which might be mentioned, and which will not be overlooked by the wise Christian parent. But there is one duty requiring fuller elaboration and emphasis. It is the duty toward which all others are to lead, into which all others are to merge. If we are Christian parents we know that our children have been given us to be trained for heaven. Christ tells us that we ourselves are to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. And the first great good we are to seek for our children is to make them members of God’s Kingdom, and to train them to live as consistent members of it. No parent has discharged the full measure of pa rental duty, whatever else may have been done, until the child entrusted to that parent’s care has been taught to look up from the earthly parent, and to add to the words “father” and “mother” the words: “Our Father who art in Heaven.” We may be able to give our children but a start in the training of the schools; we may not be able to give them a rich dowry of material things, we may not be able to leave them the memory of parents signally distinguished; but if in these things we have done the best we could, and, by the grace and help of God, have brought our children to become heirs of the riches of God’s Kingdom, we have done well by them. And God Himself will say: “Well done.”

Someone may be thinking to himself, “This part of the Fourth Commandment does not concern me; I have no children, I am not even married.” But I say, not so fast, my friend. You cannot excuse yourself so easily. If you never do get married, if you never become a parent, you can not be excused. We learn from the Fourth Commandment that the obedience of children is not to be limited to parents in the strict and narrow sense of the word, but includes all those who are, in any way, in authority. The younger child owes something to the older one, especially if that older one is a true brother or sister — loving, consider ate, helpful. It owes something to its teachers of every kind and class. It owes something to older people in general. If this be true, and it is founded on good sense, as well as thoroughly Biblical, then it follows that all older people have a responsibility with respect to all younger people. There is no one-sided responsibility in this world. It is all reciprocal.

You older brothers and sisters owe something to your younger brothers and sisters. You owe to them to second the efforts of your parents in their behalf. You owe to them to set a good ex ample for their imitation. You owe to the little ones to treat your parents and one another as you would have them treat your parents, now, and when they grow up to be your age. You owe to the younger ones of your family to be the ideal into which they should develop. I ask you — you who are older brothers and sisters, are you such young men and women that you can be satisfied, without a prick of conscience, to have your younger brothers and sisters take you as the ideal of what a young man, or a young woman, ought to be?

And you teachers, whether in the church-school, or any other school; you teachers, who occupy one of the most responsible positions on earth, next to a parent, are you mechanical, uninterested, phlegmatic dispensers of information; or are you the incarnation of the living principles of truth, and righteousness, and love, without which the facts of history, the mastery of arithmetical principles, and all the other subjects with which general education deals, are but as dry bones? Is there in you, radiating from you, that warmth of life, that loving sympathy, that lively appreciation of the worth of all human life, which is not only the most effective element in arousing dormant mental faculties; but, which is still better, is the most potent factor, next to the grace of God, in penetrating to the oft-hidden fount of the best and noblest possibilities of the human soul, and arousing them to action?

Oh, yes, teachers, you have a great, a far reaching responsibility with respect to the young. Do you recognize it? Are you living up to it? Are you yourself the pattern into which the plastic material of the young lives entrusted to your care is to be wrought?

And you, aunts and uncles, and others who come within the charmed circle of that larger family life, made up of all those kin to us and kind to us, do the eyes of the children brighten, do their hearts beat faster, when you are near? Or do they run away and hide when they hear you coming? Do you take a kindly interest in their affairs? Have you a word of counsel and encouragement for them? Are you adding a good part, though it may be a very small part, to the children’s growing ideal of what human life should be? You, too, have your share of responsibility.

And you, who are only neighbors, casual acquaintances, who pass the children of the neighborhood only occasionally on the street, do not forget that you are adding your little part to the children’s growing consciousness of what the men and women out in the larger world are. You, too, have your responsibility. By a casual word, by the smile or frown you habitually wear, by the very way in which you carry yourself, you are helping, though it be but in a small measure, to make or mar the life of the men and women of the next generation.

2. How can parents properly discharge the great obligations they owe their children?

If the responsibilities of parents are as great as they have been represented, this is one of the most important of questions. Nor can it be too strongly pressed home to the consciences of parents. Napoleon was once asked what he considered the great need of France, and he unhesitatingly answered, “Mothers.” That is true of every nation. What America needs, what every land needs, is true fathers and mothers. Not merely progenitors, but fathers and mothers in the full, tremendous meaning of the words. More than tariff laws, more than a merchant marine, more than a plethoric national treasury, more than armies and navies, do we need fathers and mothers, God-fearing, humanity-loving, far-seeing, carefully-planning fathers and mothers. With these our future is secure; without them we face doom, and nothing can stem its tide.

To discharge the grave responsibilities resting on us parents we must, of course, carefully instruct our children. They come into the world with latent possibilities. They must be developed. For the more successful prosecution of this work we have our schools and our specially trained instructors. But, in spite of all this, the home, especially in the child’s earlier years, is the chief school. Here, more than any other place, the ideals are set. Here should be the fount of inspiration. And the parents are the chief factors in it.

Parents should study their own children. They are not all alike. They do not all need, they will not all stand, the same treatment. They have their individuality, their personal traits. Do we parents know our children? Do we know the best way of reaching the heart and conscience of each one individually? Do we know to what treatment they will most readily respond? Let us not think that we are wise parents till we have learned somewhat how to act along these lines.

The same principle applies to the religious education of our children. We have turned this over largely to the Sunday school. If we had adequate Church schools there would be more reason in this. No school which meets but one day out of seven, and for but an hour and a half on that day, can meet the full requirements of a child’s religious training. Think of it! five days a week, and five or six hours a day, nine months of the year, and this continued for from seven to ten or fifteen years to get ready for fifty years work. And one hour a day, one day of the week, for a varying term of years, to get ready for eternity. Oh, parents! here is the weakest place in all the provision made for our children; and if we truly love them, it cannot fail to concern us much. But even if we had the most ideal arrangement for having our children instructed, that would not discharge our obligations. Instruction in the Word of God by any one measurably qualified for the task, no matter where imparted, will not be in vain. But it will never bear its full measure of fruit unless the family circle is a church of the living God, with father and mother as priest and priestess ministering at the home altar in holy things, and with brothers and sisters as acolytes bearing the censers filled with the sweet incense of prayer and praise.

In moral and religious matters, especially, too many children simply grow; they are not reared, not trained. You have seen vines and trees which were never trimmed. Sometimes there is a riotous profusion of branch and foliage, but generally a noticeable scarcity of fruit, and that of inferior quality. So human life is inclined to grow. There are always showy nothings to attract the young; they are easily picked up, and after a while hard to be discarded. The child should be taught to distinguish the shoddy from the real, to love the one, to dislike the other. There are always evils the young need to be warned against. And they should not only be forbidden, but their true nature should be pointed out. The snares and pitfalls which beset the young along the path of life must be discovered to them, and their consequences so portrayed, and it can be done without exaggeration, that the young will recoil from them.

The good and the true must not only be urged upon the young; but their profitableness made so apparent, and their beauty so attractive, that they will want to achieve them, not as a matter of dull duty, but of eager desire. And the view children get of these things in their early years, the atmosphere they breathe in the home-life, the things their parents love and desire, will be a decisive factor in influencing the choices of the child.

I am speaking to Christian parents, to those who, while not despising other things, believe that Christian character is the most important thing in life. We believe all life, all endeavor, is to be dominated by distinctively Christian principles. To achieve this, nothing worthwhile, nothing permanent, can be accomplished without God’s help. “Without me,” Christ says, “ye can do nothing.” Assuredly we ought not to undertake a task which is to show results for the eternal ages without His helping presence. God’s presence and help, for spiritual ends, are conditioned for us largely by the use of His Word. This Word is His power unto salvation to everyone that believeth (Rom. 1:16).

How we Christian parents ought to use this Word that we ourselves may be made wise and strong! And how wisely and lovingly we ought to apply it in the actual training of our children! The power which has tamed the fiercest savages, which has been the bulwark of the finest civilization, which gives a new heart to all who do not reject the Spirit who accompanies this Word — shall this power not be the most essential and beneficent factor in molding the lives of our children?

No doubt, if we parents prayed more for and with our children we should soon see the result. We are taught that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. What burden of prayer should be expected to come so naturally from our hearts as that in behalf of our children? And what prayers would be more pleasing to God; for are they not His children also? Monica prayed forty years for a wayward son, and won him, and the Church has the history of St. Augustine as the result. No doubt, if we prayed more faithfully we should keep more children from going astray.

So far I have spoken chiefly of active effort in the training of children. That is all very well. We can never entirely dispense with it. But it is not enough. We must illustrate what we teach by what we are. Fathers and mothers! we must be the pattern of what we want our boys and girls to be. We may fail even when we teach by both precept and example. The chances are many times greater that we shall fail if we have only the teaching and lack the example. Children are great imitators. They are all the time absorbing influences.

When we are urging character upon our children, telling them that they should love and choose the good and beautiful in life, that they should always tell the truth, and be pure in word and deed; we should be the concrete illustration of what all this means. When we urge them to shun the things which are little, and low, and mean in life, our lives should be the living commentary on what it means to be above stooping to deeds that Christ does not approve. As we have seen all along, this commandment hinges largely on the recognition of authority and obedience. By our own lives we can make properly constituted authority a thing to be reverenced, loved by our children; or we can make it a hideous nightmare. And it will depend more on our example than on our teaching.

With double force does the principle of illustrating by our lives the precepts we teach by words apply to the religious training of our children. How much importance will the child attach to our preachments about the importance of God’s Word if they never see us use it? What will they think of our urging them to go to Sunday school and church services if we are indifferent, and easily find excuses for remaining away? And so through the whole category. We must honestly and earnestly practice what we preach. Children cannot long be deceived.

With our best intentions, and most honest efforts, parents will still make mistakes. That goes with human nature. In child-training one of the most common faults of the well-meaning is aloofness. Too many parents never get close enough to their children. Many a father who means well by his children, is a stranger to his boys, so far as real comradeship is concerned. And the same is sometimes true of mothers. While this condition exists, boys and girls will not take parents into their confidence. And they lose one of the best opportunities of being able to counsel and guide in the most critical affairs of their children’s lives.

Another mistake often made by parents is in not making home the real center of attraction for their children. This cannot be done by mere ornamentation or wealth of furnishings; it is done by the cultivation in the home of the affections, tender comradeship, sweet Christian graces, — these make home the most attractive place on earth.

With the expenditure of the greatest possible wisdom and effort we shall meet with discouragements. There will be some failures. But such work given in God’s name, and supported by His grace, will never be wholly in vain. It will be hard for the child reared in this way to go wholly to the bad. And if one should become even a prodigal or a Magdalen, the influences set to work in happier days may still bring them to their senses before it is too late.

Happy are the parents rich in the love and respect of godly, obedient children. If they have not succeeded in their efforts at child-training as they should have liked, they will at least be relieved of an intolerable burden if they have a good conscience, a conscience which tells them that they did what they could for their children’s welfare. Most blessed of all are those parents who can come before the great white throne, and say to the King — Here we are, and the children Thou didst give us.

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0