Does “Father” include “Mother”? (Ephesians 6:4) — Mondays with Mounce 231
I heard a Father’s Day sermon yesterday in which the preacher said Ephesians 6:4 applies to mothers and well as fathers, specifically that πατήρ can mean “mother.”
Paul writes, “And fathers (οἱ πατέρες), do not provoke your children to anger, but raise them up in the discipline and admonition of the Lord.” To his credit, he asked me afterwards if he was right, so here is my answer.
BDAG’s first definition of πατήρ is, “1. the immediate biological ancestor, parent.” Sub-definition a. is “male, father,” and b is ”male and female together as parents οἱ πατέρες parents. Under the later they give three biblical references, our verse, Col 3:21 and Heb 11:23.
Col 3:21 occurs in a similar household code; “ Fathers (Οἱ πατέρες), do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.“ This of course does not prove BDAG’s assertion about the meaning of πατήρ. Just because BDAG is a dictionary does not mean it is infallible.
Heb 11:23 is more helpful. “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents (ὑπὸ τῶν πατέρων αὐτοῦ).” Interestingly, in Exod 2:3, we read only of the mother actually hiding Moses, but the assumption from Heb 11:23 is that the father was involved.
We also know that πατήρ can refer to ancestors in general regardless of gender. BDAG says, “2. one from whom one is descended and generally at least several generations removed, forefather, ancestor, progenitor, forebear.”
Thirdly, BDAG includes, “one who provides moral and intellectual upbringing, <i>father.</i>” They list 1 Cor 4:15, but I would assume that under this category comes all the wisdom literature about a father-son instruction such as in Proverbs.
So can πατήρ include “mother”? Under the influence of Heb 11:23 you would have to say a tentative “yes.” This explains the NIV footnote, “Or Parents.” (No other translation makes this clarification, not even the NRSV or NLT.) But it certainly is not normal usage, and I would urge great caution at merely saying πατήρ can mean “mother” based on this one verse.
Note that the plural πατέρες is functioning differently in Eph 6:4 and Heb 11:23. In the former, it is referring to all the dads (traditionally understood). In the latter, it is referring to the singular mother and singular father. The verses are not exactly parallel in their use of πατέρες. I also suspect that the singular πατήρ cannot mean mother (I do not have access to BDAG’s extra-biblical references). Greek has its own word for her: μήτηρ.
Context also suggests that πατήρ in v 4 means just “fathers.” In v 1 Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents (τοῖς γονεῦσιν ὑμῶν) in the Lord, for this is right. γονεύς is the word for parents, and if Paul meant to say that fathers and mothers should not provoke their children to anger, he just used the word that would clearly say that.
And in v 2 Paul says, “Honor your father and mother (τίμα τὸν πατέρα σου καὶ τὴν μητέρα),” again distinguishing the mom from the dad.
Rather than asserting that πατήρ can mean mother (especially in the singular), I think it is much more persuasive to base the argument on culture. In Paul’s culture, in both Greek, Roman, and Jewish law/tradition, the father was the absolute head of the home, and as such was responsible for the education and discipline of his children (see Hoehner, 794ff.). What was true in that culture is just as true in today’s culture, which means that the parent(s), while respected by their children, should not use their positions of authority to drive their children to the point of exasperation and anger.
Unfortunately, mothers and fathers are both more than capable of demeaning children through constant nagging, degrading, neglect, and abusive words and actions. In the now-famous words of Bob Newhart, just stop it!
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
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