Paul’s emphasis in Ephesians 5:22–6:9 is on the submission of service and how believers fulfill the call to serve one another in love (Eph. 5:21; see Gal. 5:13). In today’s passage, the apostle addresses Christian children, his main audience consisting of kids who still live under their parents’ roofs. Adult children can certainly draw principles from Ephesians 6:1–3 for their relationship with their parents, but the primary instruction is for those who have yet to reach maturity.
Ancient Roman society, like most cultures throughout history, believed that children should listen to their parents and respect their elders. Indeed, no one can escape what the created order tells us about the propriety of kids obeying their mothers and fathers. Yet Scripture uniquely addresses children directly, commanding them as individuals with a moral sense of what they should and should not do. This elevates children from the status of mere possessions to persons, conferring upon them a dignity and worth not always given to them in unbelieving societies. Kids are not chattel who can be treated any way their parents like.
Addressing children this way presupposes that regenerate young people, especially if they are nearing adulthood, have the duty and ability to obey their parents wisely. No human authority, parents included, deserves absolute allegiance. Abusive, neglectful, and impenitently foolish parents are not to be honored in the same way as good parents. John Chrysostom, the ancient patriarch of Constantinople, addressed this issue, noting Paul’s qualification that youths obey parents “in the Lord.” Chrysostom says, “They [parents] are to be obeyed in whatever way they are not offending against God” (ACCNT 8, p. 191).
Obedience “in the Lord” qualifies the child-parent relationship, but it cannot excuse rebellious kids who disobey rules they do not like. God gives us parents for our benefit, and obeying their wisdom, besides being right, brings us many benefits (Eph. 6:2–3). In fact, children who impenitently disobey the godly instruction of their parents mark themselves off as unregenerate (Rom. 1:28–32; 2 Tim. 3:1–5). Yet children who profess Christ and render respectful love to their parents demonstrate the reality of their salvation, enjoying many other blessings as well.