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The Commandment We Forgot: Honoring the Dishonorable

The Forgotten Commandment

Today we continue this series on honoring our parents, the series that considers how we, as adults, can fulfill the fifth commandment. Behind it is the knowledge that few of us seriously consider the fifth commandment and how we can actively fulfill it, even after we have left our parents’ authority. We have been focusing on Deuteronomy 5:16: “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.” We have already seen that this commandment is not only for children. At every age, we owe our parents a debt of honor and this can can be expressed in a number of ways: forgiving our parents, speaking well of them, esteeming them publicly and privately, seeking their wisdom, supporting them, and providing for them.

Well and good. That’s straightforward enough when we have a good relationship with our parents, when they raised us well, when they loved and respected us. But what about people who were adopted and never knew their birth parents? What about people who had difficult or absent or abusive parents? What about people whose parents behaved in utterly dishonorable ways? Does this debt of honor extend even to them? In all the feedback I’ve received from this series, more has focused on these concerns than any other. “Do you really expect me to honor my parents? Let me tell you about them…”

I have approached this article with caution, with prayer, with Bible in hand. All the while I have been thinking about people I know and love, many of them in my own church, who have had to navigate excruciating situations. And as far as I can see, all children are to extend honor to their parents. There are no exception clauses. I acknowledge that in some cases honor will be extremely difficult. I acknowledge that in some cases damage runs very deep. I acknowledge some past traumas cannot and must not be overlooked. And yet I still believe there is a debt of honor we all owe our parents.

A Different Context For Honor

I want to begin by briefly changing our context. Parents are not the only people God tells us we must honor. They are not the only source of authority we may struggle to honor. In Romans 13, Paul writes about civil authorities and says this: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7). It is important to acknowledge that Paul wrote these words while under the reign of tyrannical Roman rulers. Yet even in this context he exhorted the believers of his day to honor and respect the government.

When we honor our rulers we honor God, and when we dishonor our rulers we dishonor God.

Douglas Moo points out that the history of the interpretation of this passage “is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning” and warns that “we must not obscure [its meaning] in a flood of qualifications.” The passages teaches that all authority is ultimately an extension of God’s divine authority delegated to human beings, for “there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1a). It also teaches that all authority is a display of God’s sovereignty, for “those [authorities] that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1b). There is a kind of honor we owe whether or not the other party has earned it. It is theirs by virtue of a God-given position. Moo concludes, “Government is more than a nuisance to be put up with; it is an institution established by God to accomplish some of his purposes on earth.” Therefore, when we honor our rulers we honor God, and when we dishonor our rulers we dishonor God.

From Government to Family

Much of what is true of civil authorities must be true of parents as well. Just as God’s sovereignty is displayed in elevating rulers to lead a nation, God’s sovereignty is displayed in choosing parents to give birth to a child. Just as God delegates authority and responsibility to government, God delegates authority and responsibility to parents. Just as God expects we will honor government as an extension of his authority and sovereignty, he expects we will honor parents as an extension of his authority and sovereignty. Just as honoring rulers is honoring God, so honoring parents is honoring God. We must give to our rulers and to our parents all that is owed them, including honor. There is no exception for bad governments or bad parents.

(For more on the connection between the fifth commandment and Romans 13, see The Shorter Catechism, question and answer 63, 64, and 65 as well as The Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 104.)

Honoring the Dishonorable

So how do we honor parents who have behaved dishonorably and abhorrently? This will sometimes be very difficult. This will often require us to exercise great wisdom and walk very fine lines. Without knowing individual cases, speaking broadly can be both difficult and dangerous. Thankfully, God puts us under the care of pastors and shepherds to help us navigate difficulties like these, and we do well to seek their care and counsel. I will offer some general suggestions, but I would also ask you to think and pray and approach others to gain their wisdom. In the specific case of abuse, Dennis Rainey offers wise guidance in his bookon the fifth commandment. In the meantime, here are some distinctions to consider.

Distinguish between honor and obedience. In an earlier article we learned that honor does not always include obedience. When parents demand what God forbids, we must defer to the higher authorities of God or government. When parents overstep their bounds and demand obedience of adult children, we may also refuse to obey them. But even while we refuse to obey, we can still give honor. Rather than exploding in anger or making a great show of defiance, we can respond with dignity, calmness, and respect, yet still with iron resolve. This may not make our parents’ response any better, but at least we will have been blameless in God’s sight.

Distinguish between the person and the position. Even if honoring our parents through a relationship would be impossible or unwise, we can still honor fatherhood and motherhood as positions. We can learn how the Bible describes God’s design for parents and determine that we will only speak well of them. The military demands soldiers respect the rank if not the man, and to some degree we can do the same with parents—honoring the position when we can’t find anything honorable in the person. The adopted child may have never known his birth parents, but he can still avoid speaking evil of them, and he can still speak well of motherhood and fatherhood.

Distinguish between honor and relationship. In some cases past actions have been so utterly deplorable that a child must break from his or her parents. For example, God does not demand that children who were sexually abused by their unrepentant fathers remain in close relationship with them into adulthood. Perhaps the best they can do to honor God in this situation is to refuse to dishonor their parents. In such cases, honoring God may mean honestly facing the trauma, leaving vengeance in his hands, and acknowledging before God that he made no mistakes in choosing the parents. It may mean extending forgiveness to parents (if they have sought it) or at least a willingness to forgive them (if they have not). It means letting go of bitterness, trusting God through the pain, and dwelling deeply on the display of his compassion on the cross. At the very least it is absolving God of all blame for what happened and trusting that these things did not happen apart from his sovereignty.

Honor can be extended in such a way that it is genuine, but still resolute.

Distinguish between honor and agreement. Some children are concerned that honoring parents means agreement with odious positions they hold. A child whose parents are racist may believe that honoring her parents indicates tolerance with those racist beliefs. Yet honor can be extended in such a way that it is genuine, but still resolute. After all, we are called to honor our pro-choice governments even while holding firmly to pro-life positions and challenging the government to change. Honoring our parents does not necessarily mean approval of everything they have done or everything they believe. I have been challenged here by Caleb Kaltenbach who, in his book Messy Grace, tells how he learned to honor and respect his gay parents without compromising his Christian convictions.

Distinguish between honor and enabling. Honoring your parents does not mean enabling their sin or sinful patterns. It does not mean covering up what they did or continue to do or hiding it from civil authorities. Those who were abused will do no dishonor to their parents if they make that abuse known and seek to have their parents prosecuted to the furthest extent of the law.

These are five distinctions that may prove helpful as we consider the hard cases. Yet we must be aware that they could also prove dangerous. We must take care that we don’t slip into a definition of honor so narrow as to be meaningless. As individuals convinced of the need to honor our parents, we need to meditate on Deuteronomy 5:16, Romans 13:1-7, and other key passages, then respond to God’s conviction. He will help us, he will guide us to all truth, to all obedience (John 16:13).

Honor to Whom Honor Is Owed

The more I read and study Scripture, the more I conclude that God asks impossible things of his people. At least, he asks things that would be impossible without his presence, his wisdom, and his power. In the hard cases, giving honor to parents may seem impossible. But still the call goes out: “Give to all what is owed to them: … Honor to whom honor is owed.” For many people this is the deepest kind of challenge. For all of us, it is a challenge for which we would desperately need the grace of God.


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