Honoring and Obeying Parents

Hypothetical person: Question 1.1

So, I know one of the ten commandments is to honor my parents, but they drive me crazy and want to pick out my life for me, even though I don’t want what they want for me. What should I do? Do I need to submit myself to them and do exactly as they say? Or can I “honor” them while still choosing my own path?

Steven’s response: Question 1.1

The Bible is very clear about the importance of giving our parents the respect they are due. It is never presented as “optional” or “just when we feel like it and it suits our purposes.”

Under the Law, arrogant disobedience of one’s parents was grounds for execution (the people of Israel, as God’s nation, were called out for exemplary conduct as bearers of an unattainably perfect standard):

Clearly, then, these things are not to be trivialized or taken lightly. In fact, it is more than just some vague notion of honor or respect that we are called to give our parents – we are called to obey them:

Ephesians 6:1-3 | NIV84

1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

Ephesians 6:1-3 | NIrV

1 Children, obey your parents as believers in the Lord. Obey them because it’s the right thing to do. 2 Scripture says, “Honor your father and mother.” That is the first commandment that has a promise. 3 “Then things will go well with you. You will live a long time on the earth.”

Colossians 3:20 | NIV84

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

Colossians 3:20 | NIrV

Children, obey your parents in everything. That pleases the Lord.

This is the testimony of scripture.

Obvious exceptions

If your parents tell you to do something that goes against our charter as Christians, then you have an obligation to obey God not them, of course. (Compare the circumstances under which we ought not submit to government authority: Daniel 6:6-12 as an example of the principles overriding Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17; if our parents forbid us from praying, we should carry on and ignore them). The only opinion we ought to truly value is God’s – what does God think of our actions?

Incidentally, those verses about government obedience above also give rise to a second exception: if our parents order us to do something illegal (and it is not something analogous to praying in Daniel’s situation), then we should obviously not obey them.

Abuse

Christians are called to provide for those in their house (1 Timothy 5:8). If parents are so deficient as to not only not adequately provide for their children, but instead become abusive towards them (whether physically, emotionally, etc.), the relationship has already been severed. Children in this situation owe their “parents” nothing at all – and would be best served cutting ties and minimizing contact, if at all possible. Forgiveness is mandatory for us as Christians, but that doesn’t mean continued contact or trust is mandatory. To use a visual analogy, anybody who wrongs us terribly is free to approach us to ask forgiveness (and it is right and proper for us to give it to them – and mean it), but they ought not be surprised to find the business end of a shotgun aimed squarely at their chest the entire time. Forgiving does not mean foolish.

Sidenote

Domestic abuse and divorce

Incidentally, the above holds true not just for children, but also for women who are victims of domestic abuse. The Bible may not directly mention domestic abuse as valid grounds for divorce as it does infidelity – compare Matthew 19:9 – but if women are already allowed to sever contact with husbands not willing to honor the marriage bed, it is inconceivable that God’s Will is that women suffer years of terrible abuse at the hands of men worse than unbelievers, as 1 Timothy 5:8 puts it.

My counsel for all women who are victims of domestic abuse is to make every effort to leave (heads high – the shameful behavior of their abusive husbands is not their fault in any way) so as to protect themselves and any children in the equation.

In such situations, women have every right to divorce and leave. (…duh). Just because reconciliation would be ideal does not mean it is mandatory, and it is especially reprehensible to force such a position upon women who already have to deal with abuse from the very people that are supposed to love and cherish them.

It blows my mind that there are teachers (or rather, “teachers”) who teach and promote points of view along the lines of “the Bible never makes an abuse exception for divorce, so women have no right to leave, and if they do divorce their abusive husbands, they can never get into any other relationship without committing adultery.” Matthew 18:6 comes to mind – such gross and hypocritical legalism, especially coming from people who ought to know better, will in no way go unpunished. (Compare James 3:1).

God is the one who decides what abuse is

Questioning and being overly skeptical of victims of abuse is problematic for obvious reasons. But it is also true that some parties feel like shouting “abuse!” at the top of their lungs should be an escape-consequences-free card – and this is improper.

In other words, teenagers do not get to selectively disobey rules their parents set by declaring them “abusive.” Curfews, forbidding underage drinking and premarital sex, and punishments like grounding are not “abuse.” A girl being beaten half-to-death and sexually assaulted by her father is abuse. People should be scorned any time they try to paint the former as in any way comparable to the latter, as it does actual victims of the latter a grave disservice.

Not everything is so cut-and-dry as this though. There certainly are parents out there who emotionally damage their children and undercut their self-confidence to such a degree that it is absolutely abuse – even if it doesn’t leave physical bruises.

Should we step in if people aren’t parenting how we would?

As long as what we perceive does not seem to cross the lines of actual abuse (i.e., that which would be reportable to the authorities), then it is not really for us as third parties to try and step in and meddle – it’s none of our business (compare 1 Thessalonians 4:11-2, 2 Thessalonians 3:11-13, Romans 14:4). Moreover, there are plenty of factors that make getting a true “read” of situations difficult:

  • Parenting is hard and parents are just imperfect human beings too, so sometimes they may come down too hard on their kids without any malevolent intent. In fact, their intent may be completely pure even while they end up being overly harsh: they want to discipline and correct their kids for their own good. Most parents hate punishing their kids as much as their kids hate the punishment – if not more.
  • Kids (even relatively young kids) can be manipulative and only present a skewed version of things to outside parties if they think it will help them get what they want.
  • Sometimes our own views as to what is or is not proper are very much culturally conditioned (compare physical punishment of children à la Proverbs 13:24) – and even unconsciously so. Things are further complicated by the fact that certain brash, headstrong children may need a good bit more punishing to get the point through their thick heads, while you might just look at a quieter child the wrong way and they’ll burst into tears. In other words, what might in fact be cruel treatment for one child will be entirely necessary to discipline another… but since they aren’t our kids, there is no way for us as outsiders to know the one from the other.
  • Etc.

The parties involved know the realities at hand, as does God. If a child is arrogantly resisting their parents’ legitimate authority, God won’t let it stand. He also won’t let actual parental abuse stand.

Back to the main thrust of the question

So what of situations when our parents aren’t really being abusive per se, but are also being a bit unreasonable (at least as it seems to us)? For example, what if our parents think it is their right to determine our career path, marriage partner, and even what we spend our independently-earned money on?

In general, such matters fall between the explicit scriptural directives to obey our parents and clear-cut situations of abuse or improper/illegal commands on the part of our parents. This would put such things in the realm of application (hence why most of the rest of this response is in an application section).

Note, however, that scripture is strong enough in its exhortations to obey our parents that always obeying our parents should be our default mindset. There’s no two ways about it.

Application
Please note: application is personal, depending upon individual circumstances. Therefore, it is not proper to turn anything in this section below into hard-and-fast rules. What is right for one person may not be right for another.

Cultural context is important

There are collectivist cultures in the world wherein it is normal for the leader of a family/clan (typically an older male) to decide the affairs of everyone in the group (children being just part of the collective). This typically horrifies certain individuals from Western cultures (“what do you mean her father gets to pick who she marries?!”), but then again, most of these horrified individuals did not grow up in the society in question. By putting themselves in the shoes of the person they feel has been wronged and projecting their own culture, self-righteous condemnation comes all too easily.

Now, I’m not saying that it is not possible that some of these situations are not in fact problematic – I have no doubt some (and perhaps even many) are. The point is that unless it is really us in these circumstances, it is once again none of our business.

On the other hand, if, for example, my American parents suddenly decided that they ought to get to pick out who my wife will be without my say, this action, here in America, would be considered strange. As a matter of application, even if they positively commanded me to marry someone, it would not be at all unreasonable for me to question things rather than meekly submitting to such a directive.

It is only our own personal circumstances that matter

To generalize this a bit further: the fact that you can think up hypothetical outrageous situations regarding unjust parents (or even actual ones halfway across the world) does not mean you have grounds for ignoring your parents.

Things are different if you are still living at home

If you are still living with your parents and financially dependent upon them, the relationship is different than if you are out on your own and independent. It is right and proper for people to be able to run their households with authority – and if you don’t like it, well, God surely has a reason for you being there.

Once you are your own person more, your parents have less justified say in what it is you do. None of the Bible passages make this distinction in particular (i.e., they don’t seem to explicitly make considerations in the relationship a function of childrens’ independence), but it is more or less common sense.

We never outgrow the obligation to respect our parents and act deferentially towards them.

Our duty to God can help shed light on some of the possible areas of contention

Sometimes we really will have to weigh the input of our parents and decide whether or not it is something that we are called and obligated to follow. While it does always ultimately boil down to specifics only knowable by individuals and God, there are some common things that people clash with their parents on. In no particular order:

  • Career
  • Choice of significant other
  • Choice of friends
  • Spiritual approach

Sometimes we can gain insight into the proper path of action by considering the spiritual dimension, and whether or not what our parents want for us really squares with what God wants for us.

As a rule of thumb, if put on the scale, God’s Will for us outweighs parental preference every time. However, you actually have to have some conviction of what it is God wants for you for this to hold (and you can’t just use it as a convenient excuse – “God wants me party and live it up in college, so I don’t have to listen to you and study!”).

Career

Parents generally want their kids to live a better life – becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers and so forth rather than blue-collar day laborers like themselves (e.g.). One less-meddlesome approach parents can take is to just highly encourage education and self-discipline and leave their kids to work out the specifics.

Problems can arise when kids aren’t interested in the things their parents think are best. For example, if Mom and Dad want you to become a doctor but you want to study history and become a professor at a quiet rural school (a job with a much lower salary and much less prestige), what should you do when Mom and Dad start trying to strongarm you into applying to Med School (by, e.g., threatening to cut off all financial support)?

Well, what does God want you to do? If the answer is “history professor,” then quietly disagreeing with your parents’ choice for you is not inappropriate. But if the answer is in fact “doctor,” and you spit in your parents’ faces despite their reasonable guidance, who do you think is going to be on the hook for that?

Choice of significant other

As with career, parents generally want the best for their kids. The issues typically arise when your parents don’t think someone you like is good for you.

For us as Christians, marriage is always the primary end goal of dating… so parents making comments regarding the marital eligibility and suitability of significant others (even without explicit requests for such) is not really all that strange on balance.

Marriage is an incredibly important decision for us as Christians, largely because it is permanent (or at least it is supposed to be). There is little more disastrous in life than marrying the wrong person, or even marrying the right person at the wrong time. So if there is any one decision in your life where you might want to get some external opinions for perspective, this is it. Your parents should be a natural place to turn.

Since parents are, as a general rule, wiser and more experienced than their children, it usually behooves children to listen closely to their parents’ observations on the character of others rather than blowing them off. They can help you avoid common traps that might ultimately lead to pain and heartbreak for you (such as Mr. Charming Swindler, Ms. Self-absorbed Beauty, and Mr. Bad Boy Leather Jacket – as generalizations).

On the other hand, due to the long-term consequences of marriage (as above), this is a decision for which you really do not want to outsource your free will. Unfortunate as it is, sometimes parents evaluate potential spouses by measurements that in truth have very little import in a properly-weighed appraisal of things. For example, they might want you to marry someone with a high level of income or someone from a family with lots of power and connections. If you, on the other hand, are prioritizing the spiritual maturity of your partner above all else, you might end up interested in someone that doesn’t look so good from such material perspectives – someone your parents thus won’t approve of. Ignoring their disapproval would here be the correct course of action.

Usually things won’t be so clear-cut. The main idea is to take your parents’ opinions into consideration rather than treating them dismissively, while at the same time ensuring that doing such does not cause you to lose sight of God’s guiding hand in this critical life decision.

Choice of friends

Since friendships are much less set-in-stone than marriages, the stakes here are lower; however, many of the same considerations apply. Parents are naturally going to want to steer their children away from negative influences.

While anyone who remembers their teenage years can likely sympathize with the perspective of children (the sentiment of righteous and indignant outrage regarding parental authority “overstepping its rightful bounds”), it is important to note that scripture directly calls out bad company in 1 Corinthians 15:33. To the extent that your parents disapprove of your friend(s) on these terms, to that extent there is actually little room for you to argue.

There is, however, the issue of legalism. If you take a look at Jesus’ circle of contacts, you do find prostitutes and tax collectors… or rather ex-prostitutes and reformed tax collectors. And we are not Jesus of course. The point I am making is that people on the upswing need friends too – people that are a good influence on them rather than an influence likely to drag them back into their old habits. (And it is a mistake for us to talk about “these people” entirely in the third person – we are these people, all of us, at least to an extent: Romans 3:23).

As you might have been able to guess, there is a middle road to be walked here as well. If your parents forbid you from associating with someone who is not going to be dragging you down spiritually – even if this person made poor choices in the past – then should you listen to them? Well, what does God want you to do? Are you called to be a good influence in that person’s life?

Spiritual approach

Aside from the avoiding negative influence bit, there is with friends also the possible area of parental disagreement regarding how much spiritual dedication is expected among those we associate with, and of exactly what sort (i.e., do friends have to belong to the specific religious group or subgroup as your parents to gain their approval?).

This consideration is a subset of our spiritual approach in general. While many children end up adopting the religious practices of their parents without a great deal of scrutiny, there may come a point when they break with their parents on some or even many spiritual matters.

This is most apparent when parents are unbelievers and a child is a believer, or parents are believers and a child professes unbelief. However, even in the case that all parties are (self-professed) Christians, tensions in this area can run just as high as they run in conflicts over career path, if not more so.

Any time there is a wide gap in beliefs – Catholic vs. Mormon, traditional mainline Protestant vs. Charismatic, Mega Church vs. Independent Evangelical, anything vs. Cult – there are bound to be times when parents push for a certain course of action that their kid will oppose on spiritual grounds.

Conflicts in this regard really boil almost entirely down to the individuals in question and God. While it is tempting to make age a proxy for spiritual maturity (and it is, to a very limited degree), the truth of the matter is that spiritual dedication and/or commitment (a measure of “red-hotness”) is a much better predictor of spiritual maturity. I know of some people who have “been Christians” their whole lives with little to show for it, and others who already had a full ministry of their own just several years after being saved, dedicating almost all their time to the Lord. For this reason, there is little basis for giving parents’ spiritual approaches higher weight simply on account of their age.

Recap and summary

The four areas touched on in this subsection – common areas of disagreement between parents and children – help highlight the best path to take in all situations that are shades of gray rather than black-and-white: trying to figure out exactly what God would have you do, and then acting according to His Will.

This may seem like intensely unhelpful advice (…well of course that’s what should be done!), but it really is the only way to consistently “get things right” when confronted with the messy and complicated situations of this life – here specifically whether or not to listen to your parents’ wishes in less-than-clear circumstances.

Prayer is a powerful tool, all the more so for those who have taken the time to study and grow in the truth of the Word. If we seek out God’s guidance and act with pure intent according to what we believe He is calling us to, then even if we end up occasionally stumbling, it can be said that we upheld the command to honor and obey our parents… even if we don’t end up doing exactly what they say we should. In this there is no contradiction, for the commands to honor and obey our parents are necessarily secondary to the commands to honor and obey God.

Hypothetical person: Question 1.2

You didn’t really answer my question. Do I have to obey my parents’ wishes for me or not? Yes or No?

Steven’s response: Question 1.2

It’s not that simple. As discussed above, a third party has no possible hope of knowing the full picture, and for that reason, should refrain from weighing in on specifics.

Have you figured out what it is God is calling you to? Perhaps the simplest way to come to a Yes-or-No answer in matters like this is to figure out what you are called to. If you are reasonably certain about what God would have of you, then it’s just a matter of comparing your parents’ wishes against what you feel like you are supposed to do. If the two don’t align, then you are not out of line if you follow God’s hand rather than obeying your parents’ word, as long as you ensure that you maintain a respectful and deferential attitude toward your parents. (Even and perhaps especially if they are not worthy of it).

The tricky bit then is figuring out what God would have of you, but that’s ultimately a topic for a different time. Humility and prayer are both critical elements in listening to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit (compare 1 Kings 19:11-13).