What a happy, life-altering, exhausting, and intimidating thing it is to be a parent. There are moments of undeniable joy and laughter—holding your newborn, hearing him laugh for the first time, singing to her, teaching him to walk, experiencing her first words. Who doesn’t have fond memories of their child saying, “I love you mommy” or “Hold me da-da”? Who can forget the first time their small child discovered how to open the baby powder on their own, dug through their mother’s pocketbook without her knowledge, or bit into a slice of lemon unawares?
But joy and laughter are not the only thing our children “bring to the table.” From the time they are born and continuing on through adolescence (and even into adulthood) they are a great responsibility. Every bit of time we spend with them, every word we say to them, is a deposit in their memory banks. For that, the Lord holds parents accountable.
Conversely, the Lord holds children accountable for the way they treat their parents, not only during childhood but also as the child grows up to be an adult son or daughter. That is the primary—but not only—point being made in the fifth commandment, which reads, “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex 20:12). This commandment is repeated elsewhere in the Old Testament such as the Levitical instruction, “Every one of you shall revere his mother and father….” (19:3). It is also affirmed in the New Testament as, for example, in Paul’s instruction, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right….” (Eph 6:1-2).
To the fifth commandment, God adds the promise that children who honor their parents will enjoy a long and prosperous life in the promised Land. This command should not be absolutized, on the one hand, or downplayed, on the other hand. Sometimes the wicked prosper materially while the righteous do not. Sometimes the wicked live a long life while the righteous die young. But in general, when a person lives by God’s law, and especially when a person does something so basic as to honor his parents, is life will be a good one, a life well-lived.
How, therefore, should children honor their parents? In Hebrew, the word for honor is one that signifies “weightiness,” and we as offspring should honor our parents because God has chosen for them to carry weight in our lives. Thus, as J. Douma argues, there are four basic ways that children should honor their parents and ascribe to them the weightiness they deserve: heeding instruction, showing deference, loving them, and being faithful to them. These principles for honoring parents apply not only when the “child” is a minor but also when he or she is an adult.
Children should heed their parents’ instruction; a child who refuses to listen is signaling the greatest disrespect. Additionally, children should show deference to their parents. This can be done in ways as various as saying “yes sir” or “no ma’am” or by yielding to a parent’s preference on a given matter. Further, children love their parents. If we should love our neighbors as ourselves, we should certainly also recognize our parents as our “nearest neighbors.” Finally, children should be faithful to their parents. This means that we should heed their instruction and should show deference to them for the whole of their lives even as they grow elderly and begin to become feeble in mind and body.
Of course, this does not mean that a child—and especially an adult child—will always “obey” their parents. To God alone is owed absolute obedience. Although God puts parents over their children, God himself stands above the parents, and sometimes it is necessary for the child to choose God over their parents.
By way of analogy, this commandment also includes deference to other forms of authority. The Bible speaks of fatherhood in a broad manner, including many a “father” to whom we owe deference. It describes as “fathers” tribal heads (Gen 10:21; 17:4) and, similarly, heads of families and elders who exercised authority (Deut 5:23) and administered justice (Deut 22:15) in society. Similarly, the title of father is given to kings (1 Sam 24:12), military leaders (2 Kings 5:13), advisers (Gen 45:8), and religious leaders (2 Kings 2:12). Deborah referred to herself as a “mother” of Israel (Judg 5:7). Thus, even if we no longer refer to these authorities as fathers and mothers, the underlying principle is that we owe proper respect to them.
This implication will be especially difficult for those of us who are Christians in America. Western societies, including the United States, contain radically egalitarian ideologies and movements that seek as their ultimate goal not merely ontological equality for citizens, but functional and material equality as well. Yet, Herman Bavinck was right to argue that we cannot ever destroy hierarchy (authority and subjection,) because without order, humanity cannot flourish. Instead, we should seek healthy hierarchies, without the kind of adversarial quality hierarchies have often have.
It should be noted that there is a difference between power and authority. While power is the ability to do something, authority is the authorization to use that ability, to employ that particular type of power. An authority can lack the power needed to fulfill his or her office (e.g. during WWII, the French and Dutch political leaders had authority but Hitler had taken their power). Conversely, a person can usurp power while not having the office to rightly exercise that power (e.g. an angry citizen can engage in vigilante justice rather than allowing law enforcement agencies to do their jobs).
At creation, God created the world so that it would contain powers. So power is not inherently evil. Power is structurally good, but can be misdirected toward wrong ends. For example, the Bible commends Moses for being powerful in word and deed (Acts 7:22), but rebukes people and spirits for misuse of power. The proper relationship between authority and power is that God gives certain persons authority and appropriates to them the proper power for that task or calling. A person in authority should use his or her power to honor God and serve his or her neighbor.
Yet, just as there may come a time for a child to obey God and disobey a parent, so there may come a time for a citizen to obey God and disobey a civil authority. Governments can so abuse their office that we may need to cease obeying them. Scripture presents approvingly a number of instances of disobedience, including the midwives’ refusal to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill Israelite babies (Ex 1:17) and Israelite soldiers disobeying King Saul’s order to kill the priests of Yahweh from Nob (1 Sam 22:17).
Governments can also abuse their office severely enough that we are justified in overthrowing them. In a democratic republic, Constitutional rationales can even be found for revolutions; indeed, revolution can be justified if the government consistently and egregiously violates or suspends basic Constitutional rights, such as the free exercise of religion. Indeed, the government must follow the same codified law that citizens must obey. Furthermore, in a justified revolution, government leaders must be involved on the side of the revolution. Lower magistrates can be enlisted to topple higher magistrates. In Poland, Lech Walesa is an example. Finally, in order to attempt a revolution, there must be a reasonable probability of success so that the chance of bloodshed remains low.
It should be noted that, when we discuss civil disobedience, we are talking about public conduct that explicitly and consciously violates the law, and does so peacefully, for the purpose of changing certain unjust laws or regulations. On the negative side, civil disobedience often bypasses the legislative process and often turns into violence. On the positive side, civil disobedience might be a necessary and just action exercised by minorities who cannot make changes via the legislative process.
In summary, we should respect the authorities God has appointed over us. This begins in childhood, when we learn to honor our parents. It continues through adolescence and adulthood as we are instructed to honor our adult parents and other authorities under whom the Lord has placed us. May we be faithful to this command, as difficult as it is for Americans who have been raised in a society that stresses individual freedom and radical egalitarianism.