Honoring Dishonorable Parents | John Diff (2023)

As covered in The Marriage Commandments, the fifth of the Ten Commandments states:

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you." (Exodus 20:12)

This command is stated unequivocally and without qualifiers. It offers no exceptions. Stated plainly, if you are one of God’s people, you are directed to “honor your father and your mother.”

Sometimes, that’s easier said than done.

What if your parents are evil? What if they’re dishonorable? What if God calls you to something apart from the will of your parents? How then are you to honor your father and mother?

Parents are human. We’re all dishonorable at times. We all make mistakes. Some mistakes are more significant than others. But what should our response be toward parents when they’re dishonorable? What should be our expectation of our children’s decisions when we fall short of the will of God? How can we keep the commandment when the circumstances and people involved are less than ideal?

Here, I hope to shed some light on this seemingly simple, but often tedious, commandment and provide a framework through which all may be able to understand and keep this commandment.

The Question of Parental Obedience

The fifth command is often used as moral drill to drive children into submission. It’s routinely quoted by parents, grandparents, and others when their offspring go against their wishes. And for some, it seems to marry well with a couple of Paul’s directives:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” (Ephesians 6:1)

“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:20)

In Ephesians 6, Paul himself even follows up his instruction for children to be obedient with a restatement of the fifth commandment. But while “obey your parents” and “honor your father and mother” are both worthwhile instructions, Paul never states that they’re the same thing. In fact, Paul doesn’t even join the sentences with a conjunction. He explicitly lists them as two separate sentences. They’re separate things that children ought to do. (Paul often writes lists of various instructions to various groups throughout his letters.) For the sake of clarity and proper understanding, each statement should be regarded as a unique instruction:

But the fifth commandment wasn’t relegated to children. It was applicable to all of God’s people, without exception. This means that even elderly adults must honor their parents. Paul, of course, knew this and never instructed anyone to the contrary. But in his brief edicts for the children in Ephesus and Colossae, Paul rightfully reminds them that the fifth commandment of course applies to them as well. So while Paul says nothing new regarding the fifth commandment, his instruction regarding obedience deserves its own inspection.

At face value, Paul’s remarks about obedience are explicitly addressing “children” — not adults. That point is reinforced by his immediate next statement which is addressed to “fathers/parents” in which Paul tells them to not provoke or exasperate their children (see Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21). The context is obvious: Paul is talking to children and their parents who are raising them. Paul is addressing household order and recommending that kids obey their parents and that parents not be overbearing.

Some misinterpret this verse and demand that all people obey their parents, regardless of age. But to do so requires one to add a lot to the plain reading of Paul’s instruction. It also requires a lot of doctrinal gymnastics. (Not the least of which would be the assumption that a human, in this case, Paul, had the divine authority to legislate or modify the definitions of sin.)

For Paul, it was a simple statement about how children should behave toward their Christian parents. For us to apply it as a general rule, it’s a little more complicated than that.

In Paul’s Jewish culture, children were routinely considered to be adults by the time they were 13. They were often married and leading their own households in their early teens. In contrast, here in the 21st century, we have parents still trying to wrangle and “raise” their 24-year-old children. I often hear from frustrated parents who are struggling to “raise” their adult children. They typically seem incredulous when I suggest that maybe they should consider retiring from the job of parenting of their adult offspring.

For me, it seems fair to interpret Paul’s obedience directives as applicable to children, especially those with Christian parents. But applying that same rule to people who are no longer children is a bit tenuous. Especially when we consider the totality of Scripture…

Hating Your Parents

Yeshua (Jesus) said a lot of difficult things. Not the least of which is:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

The meaning of this passage is generally understood to be that one’s love and devotion to Yeshua should be so great that, by comparison alone, it would seem as though one has disregarded their parents, other family members, and even their own wellbeing. We are to be fully surrendered to the will of God, regardless of our ties to others. And that’s said irrespective of the decency of the parents. Restated, Christ expects that even when his followers have great parents they are to esteem their parents as significantly less important than God’s will. So what about bad parents?

One of the most iconic parental clashes in the Bible occurred during the reign of King Saul. Against the backdrop of David’s looming threat to Saul’s throne, Saul’s own son, Jonathan, shines as a hero. Going directly against the wishes of his king and father, Jonathan helps David hide and escape. This infuriates Saul to the point that he attempts to kill Jonathan on the spot. For his Godly act of treason and parental disobedience, Jonathan is regarded as one of the very few spotless heroes of the Bible.

Generations later, even Yeshua frustrated his parents. After traveling to Jerusalem for Passover, 12-year-old Yeshua decided to simply go AWOL and remain in the Temple without his parents’ awareness or permission. This went over so poorly that Mary said, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you” (Luke 2:48). Yeshua, while not overtly disobedient, caused anxiety and feelings of mistreatment within his own parents. He offended them. He didn’t please them. Why? Because his love for the Father was greater than his regard for his father and mother. He was doing God’s will — even though it went against the will of his parents.

Elsewhere in Scripture, there are countless examples of righteous people going against authority figures, including monarchs and religious leaders. Figures such as Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul, and others modeled the importance of following God even when it comes at the cost of defying seemingly natural or even divinely anointed authority figures. Moreover, Scripture is filled with stories of righteous people doing Godly things, presumably apart from the will of their parents. Moses defied his royal adoptive family, ultimately destroying his parents’ Egyptian kingdom. Joshua and Caleb stood for the promises of God against all of their own people. Gideon destroyed his father’s sacred spaces. Timothy’s father and grandfather were either dead or not substantively supportive of his faith. And we never hear much from the parents of any of the Apostles apart from Mary.

When it comes to righteousness, the pattern of Scripture is clear: When forced to choose between the wills of God and others, we are to always follow God’s. As this pertains to real-world application and parental submission, I see no difference. Obey your parents in the areas wherein they are aligned with the heart of God, but follow God when your parents don’t. For some in the “blind obedience” crowd, this may seem like parental heresy. But it’s essential.

We live in a world where some parents are simply evil. Many are misguided. Others are confused. (And fortunately, some are wonderful.)

In our broken society, some parents pimp their children. Other children are raised to steal. Some are commanded by their parents to use drugs, smuggle contraband, and engage in sexual immorality. Even some seemingly “righteous” kids in “Godly” families face backlash, scorn, and punishment for holding Scriptural convictions apart from those of their parents. I know young people who have to “disobey” their parents to keep the Sabbath. I’ve witnessed the heartbreak of monogamous, celibate young couples whose parents want them to have more intimate “experience” before marriage.

We’re all flawed, and we’re inevitably going to miss the mark at times with our children. If we think that the “all have sinned” bit doesn’t still apply to us as parents, we’ve lost sight of the Gospel altogether. The fruit of righteous parenting should be children who are strong enough in the faith to challenge our authority when we usurp God’s will.

And it doesn’t stop at any age. Every serious believer I know has had to face, is facing, and will face decisions, convictions, practices, and doctrines outside the tradition and preferences of their parents. It’s never easy, but it’s always essential. The love of God compels us to obey Him and to follow our convictions, even at the risk of disobeying or displeasing those we love.

So How Do We Honor Our Parents?

If honor stands apart from obedience, yet honor is a universal expectation, how are we to honor our parents? Can we honor our parents even if we don’t always obey them? Can we honor our parents if our parents are evil?

I think the answer is yes. For a few reasons…

First, all of God’s commands are doable. He would not give us an impossible hoop to jump through. So if God says that we are to honor our parents, then it must be possible for us to honor our parents, regardless of the quality of our parents.

Second, we have to understand what it means to “honor” someone. When I talk to people about this topic, it’s almost universally apparent that people have no idea what it means to honor someone, especially from a Biblical perspective. For the sake of definitions, it’s important to know what honoring is not:

Those can all be awesome things, but they’re not inherently the same as honoring. While some of the behaviors mentioned in that list may come as a result of honor, they’re not necessarily or universally tied to honor.

So what does it mean to honor?

In the original Hebrew, the word used for “honor” comes from the word for heaviness. That is to say that it’s the opposite of being light. As such, the fifth commandment is not a statement that we must always please, obey, compliment, enable, etc. our father and our mother. Rather, it is a requirement that we must not regard them lightly. Our parents carry a tremendous amount of gravity, and we ought to regard their impact as meaningful.

When we honor our parents, we regard them as substantive — not meaningless. We evaluate them judiciously — not flippantly. We acknowledge their force in our lives as immense — not irrelevant. And our regard for them is expressed with full weight — not dismissed lightly. Because we value their substance and recognize their impact on our lives, we are thoughtful about, humble toward, and utterly concerned with our parents. While we may not always be in a position to obey or please our parents, we never dismiss their gravity in our orbit. That’s what it means to truly honor them.

And in the areas where our parents fall short — and the areas where we will fail our children —the best way that we can show honor is through lives lived righteously.

In the story of Jonathan and Saul, Jonathan demonstrated true honor toward his father. By risking his own life to prevent his father from killing David, Jonathan honored Saul. His righteous treason, defiance, and honesty were the ways in which he demonstrated honor toward his father. He understood the full weight of his father’s evil desire and the consequences of such an action, and Jonathan chose to jeopardize his own life to keep his father from sin.

Likewise, a child who steals her alcoholic mother’s keys is honoring her mother. A son, who worships God despite the desires of his atheistic father, honors his father. The child who surrenders to the calling of God, even when it contradicts their parents’ desires, is honoring their parents.

The true test of whether or not one is living up to fifth commandment is not the degree to which parental figures are happy. Nor is it inherently tied to even a desirable relationship — that depends on factors beyond any one person’s control. But whether or not one is honoring their father and mother is found in the gravity of their regard and the righteous acts that stem from that regard.

As a son and a parent, I have mixed emotions writing this. It’s a terribly difficult topic. Selfishly, I’d love to assert my will and train my children to worship me. But their blind reverence would ultimately undermine their ability to accurately weigh my life and my influence on them. Ironically, it would make it impossible for them to truly honor me. Instead, I want my children to watch me and to evaluate me. I want them to seriously consider the trail I’ve left for them. I hope that they will walk in my footsteps in the areas where I pursued God. But even more so, I hope that they will divert from my path in the areas where I’ve failed to follow God. Ultimately, I’ll be more honored if they follow God than if they follow me.

— John

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