Crash Course Philosophy has more than 5 million subscribers, making it one of the most popular YouTube channels. They recently shared a video titled “Family Obligations” in which they explain the view of American philosopher Jane English that grown children have no obligation to their parents and should feel no duty to care for them or even to remain in relationship. Essentially, because children do not choose to be born, they bear no obligation toward the people who chose to conceive them (or, at least, to keep them). Good parents give love unconditionally with no expectation of reciprocation. The more appropriate model to govern relationships of parents to their grown children is friendship, says English. Friendships are freely chosen and allow children to care for their parents out of choice rather than obligation.
Such a view sounds harsh, but while few people would explain it in such blunt terms, it is common in the Western world. We assume that parents should raise their children to be independent and that children should then be free of further obligation, especially when it comes to finances. As Christians, we need to look beyond philosophy and look instead to the Bible for our guidance.
An Obligation of Honor
According to the Ten Commandments, children are obligated to honor their parents. “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16). This honor is demanded of young children, of course, but equally of grown children. It is an obligation that never ends. But does honor include financial provision? The Bible makes it clear that it does. We can see this by a brief examination of two relevant passages.
Make Some Return
In 1 Timothy 5, Paul writes to Timothy to explain how the church is to care for older widows who are no longer able to provide for themselves. He explains that the church has an obligation to care for them, but that this obligation is secondary to that of her family. “Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:3-4). The church is to care for a widow only when her family is unwilling or unable to do so.
Why must the family take primary responsibility? Paul offers a list of five reasons. First, it is a display of godliness for a Christian to care for his own family members. That generosity of time, attention, and money displays that the person is living for the good of others rather than the good of self. Second, it is right for children to “make some return” to their parents for the care and provision they once received. As commentator William Barcley says, “The raising of children requires tremendous sacrifice and it is only right that children make sacrifices for parents in return.” Third, it pleases God. The God who so carefully and intimately cares for our needs is pleased when we give loving attention to the needs of others.
In verse 8, Paul adds a sobering fourth reason: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Here, Paul makes an appeal to natural law. Even unbelievers know that they are to care for their parents, for God has written this on their hearts (Romans 2:15). Christians know this twice—once by natural law and once by God’s revealed law in the Bible. The Christian who refuses to heed both forms of law has denied the practical implications of the faith and, in that way, made himself worse than an unbeliever.
Finally, he provides a fifth reason: To relieve the burden on the church. “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows” (1 Timothy 5:16). If the church can release the burden of care to the family, it frees resources that can now be used to care for those who have no family.
Making Void the Word of God
The second relevant passage is in Mark 7 where Jesus challenges the religious authorities for rigidly adhering to a man-made law that contradicts the law of God.
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:9-13)
These religious leaders were declaring their possessions “Corban,” vowing to dedicate them to God so that after their death all they owned would become the property of the temple. Yet in doing so they were making two grave errors. First, they were neglecting a primary responsibility in favor of a secondary one. Giving their wealth to the temple may have been a good thing to do, but it was less important than their duty to provide for their parents. Second, they were deliberately withholding support from their parents out of anger or spite. T.W. Manson explains it like this: “A man goes through the formality of vowing something to God, not that he may give it to God, but in order to prevent some other person from having it.” Mark Strauss concludes, “Jesus condemns this use of qorbān, not just because honor for parents supersedes vow-taking, but because the selfish motives behind such traditions are contrary to the heart of God and the true spirit of the law.”
Honor and Provide
Let’s conclude with five points of application.
First, children have an obligation to give life-long honor to their parents, and this honor includes financial provision when necessary. This is backed up by the weight of biblical scholarship. Douglas Milne says “When the children are dependent on the parents, it is right that the parents should provide for the children, but the roles are reversed in later years when the parents become dependent on their children.” Stott echoes, “when parents grow old and feeble, it is then that roles and responsibilities are reversed.” Hughes adds, “Christian sons and daughters are responsible for the [financial] care of widows and, as the text expands it, of their helpless parents and grandparents.” MacArthur says much the same: “[Children] owe a debt to those who brought them into the world, clothed them, fed them, housed them, supported them, and loved and nurtured them.” Honor is more than provision, but not less than provision.
Second, a church has the duty to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. This is not a general duty to all humanity, but a specific duty to its own members. This care will require a close study and contextualization of 1 Timothy 5, but whatever the church leaders conclude, they are responsible to contact family members and to explain that family bears the first responsibility. The church should delight to hand off care to family members.
Third, a church may need to consider beginning the process of discipline against a member who refuses to care for his parents or close family members. The person who will not take on this responsibility has “denied the faith” and made himself “worse than an unbeliever.” These are serious charges that are unworthy of one who claims to follow the Savior who was sure to provide for his own mother (John 19:27).
Fourth, it would seem that a child’s highest financial priority should be caring for his parents instead of giving to his church. Ideally, he should do both. But if only one is possible, it would seem from the text in Mark that providing for parents would take priority.
Fifth, there may be extenuating circumstances that are best handled within the context of the local church. Some forms of provision may actually enable addiction or abhorrent behavior. Some parents may demand financial help when they are still capable of providing for themselves. Prayerful, biblically-informed elders can help bring clarity to such complexity.
God requires that just as parents provide for their young children, children provide for their old parents. There are financial obligations that extend from parents to children and, later, from children to parents. And, like all obligations, this one is made joyful, not burdensome, by the gospel.