When Our Children Disobey

Disciplining children is one of the most challenging duties for a Christian parent. The methodology for discipline varies, usually branching off from a parent’s view on corporal punishment, and knowing the right times to discipline versus the right times to be lenient is difficult to balance.

But why do we discipline in the first place? Like so many other aspects of our lives as followers of Christ, we tend to jump straight to the doing without first considering the motivation, or the “why” of the action. And the “why” question is always a theological question.

I suppose the quickest and most obvious response for pondering the reason we discipline our children is simply to say, “because they disobeyed me.” That is certainly a valid response. Scripture repeatedly speaks of the goodness in obeying and honoring the instruction of a parent. But what is it about parents that makes a child’s obedience to them so important?

It seems that failing to understand the reason we have authority over our children can lead to two disciplining errors. First, if the motivation behind our discipline stops with the authority vested in us as the ones who gave birth to a boy or a girl, then our discipline will eventually turn into a type of revenge. We will take the offense of disobedience more personally than we should because, after all, “we brought them into this world and we can take them out again.” Parents can eventually feel they are inherently owed obedience or perhaps are even worthy of obedience because of who they are as the child-bearing ones. In this way, correcting a child is correcting a personal attack against you, the parent.

Second, if the motivation behind our discipline stops with the authority vested in us as parents, then we might begin to see our discipline as less and less important to the well being of the child. I recently read how some parents encourage a certain level of disobedience in order to foster “individual, free thinking” and “personal autonomy” in the development of the child. After all, since we the parent are the only ones who are offended, that can easily be shrugged off in the interest of helping a child think for themselves.

Among many others, here are two reasons why those thoughts are in error and disobedience must not be tolerated in a Christian home.

1. Requiring obedience is a gospel issue.
I think we sometimes believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that expecting obedience and disciplining in the light of disobedience is more of an Old Covenant concept. That the wrath of a parent will be poured out on those unfortunate children who dare to disobey. But obedience is a New Covenant, grace-filled, gospel issue. Obedience is not the opposite of grace. Obedience is not by default legalistic. Consider these gospel minded verses:

  • “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
  • “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of the nations.” (Romans 1:5)
  • “we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
  • “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14)

Thus, when we expect our children to obey our instruction as parents, we are teaching them something far greater and far deeper than simply respecting another human being who happens to be older than them and responsible for birthing them – we are teaching them a gospel mandated desire of God, a desire that brings him pleasure when fulfilled. The goal of parenting is not to raise independent children, but to raise children who are slaves to Christ. Parents should think “gospel” when struck with a disobedient child and not strictly personal disrespect.

2. A disobeying child is disobeying God.
The depths of concern for disobedience go even further. It is incomplete to suggest that a child needs discipline because they “disobeyed me.” All sin, every single one, is ultimately an offense against God and not ultimately an offense against humans. Humans, of course, are certainly capable of deeply hurting and deeply harming other humans, including the relationship of a child and a parent. I am not downplaying the pain and offense that can come as a result of a wayward child. And yet, that pain does not stop with us, but rather is more deeply an offense against the infinite moral purity of God. And unlike human parents who have a very narrow scope of judging and punishing, God will righteously judge with eternity in view.

Ephesians 6:1-4 makes this clear. Children are instructed to “obey your parents in the Lord.” Parents, likewise, are instructed to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” A promise of well-being and blessing for the child is connected with the premise of both instructing in the Lord and obeying in the Lord. God does not judge and correct solely because a parent was disobeyed. God judges and corrects because He was disobeyed. Although we might have a tendency to either discipline too hard because we feel a personal offence or not discipline enough because we are willing to overlook the offense, the more significant issue is how God will view the offense. And surely no Christian parent would want their child to be found in disobedience to God. When we speak instructions to our children, our own authority is really pretty worthless. We, like them, are rebellious sinners in need of a Savior. But our authority in Christ carries eternal significance, so much so that we dare not neglect the discipline of a child.

So, with whatever method parents choose to discipline their children, our first concern must be with the “why” of discipline. And that is both a gospel issue and an offense against God issue. Both of those are very much worth the difficult time it takes to discipline a child.

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