In general, such matters fall between the explicit scriptural directives to obey our parents and the clear-cut situations of abuse, improper/illegal commands on the part of our parents, and so on. This would put such things firmly 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.
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 man) 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 impossible that some of these situations are 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 children’s 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:
- 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 on 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!”).
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 strong-arm 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 humbly and respectfully 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. Thus, 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 completely 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 (as you should be), 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 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 actually called to be a good influence in that person’s life?
Aside from the avoiding negative influence bit, there is with friends also the potential 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 child 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 evangelism 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.