When should a child be obedient to their parents? When should they step out on their own and take on the responsibility for their own life? It is interesting how many young people go off to college, graduate and get a job, but still end up back at home with parents living in the same room they occupied as teenagers. Is there a time in a child’s life when they are responsible for their own actions or lack of them and shouldn’t be allowed to come back home?
Let’s think through one of the clearest statements of the Bible on this theme. In Ephesians 6:1-3 Paul wrote, “Children, obey your parents because you are Christians. This is the right thing to do. ‘Honor your father and mother that everything may go well for you, and you may have a long life on earth. This is an important commandment with a promise.” This quote is from the God’s Word Translation. They have given an interpretation of the first sentence instead of an exact translation but I believe their interpretation is correct.
Through the years there has been lots of discussion about what the phrase “In the Lord” meant in these verses. It is certainly true that Paul normally uses this phrase to refer to those who are in a personal relationship with God or Christians. Strangely this phrase has brought on confusion in this verse. Many have taken it to mean that they only have to obey parents if they are in the Lord or Christians. Others have said it means that children are to obey their parents as long as what they tell you to do is in harmony with the Lord’s teaching. Now I agree that such is the over all teaching of the Bible. But I question whether that is the point being made here.
It seems to me that the best answer is the one given in the God’s word translation. If children are Christians or in the Lord, they ought, as a part of their Christian duty, be obedient to their parents. Certainly, with Christians obedience to any authority is limited by what God says. If a parent or governor or president or king tells us to do something that violates what God has said in His word we ought to obey God rather than men. But with that exception, children are to be obedient to their parents in daily living.
This text makes the clear point that children who become Christians are still children. While God doesn’t account our sins to us as when we are small children and unable to determine right from wrong. There is a point in a child’s life when they begin to feel the guilt that comes on them as the word of God becomes more and more real to them. At the point of accountability they need to submit to God and obey His word to be saved. But becoming a Christian doesn’t make them mature or cause them to be treated as adults. Becoming a Christian means that they still are subject to whoever has authority over them.
Paul declares that “this is right.” Think of the different relationships dealt with in this context. We are to submit to one another according to Ephesians 5:21. Wives are to submit to their husbands. Children are to obey their parents. He will continue here in Ephesians 6 to tell slaves who have become Christians that they must still obey their masters on the job. Christianity doesn’t change our normal relationships. It only makes us into better family members, better workers on the job and a better child to my parents.
In the next phrase in Paul’s words he quotes from the Ten Commandments. “Honor your Father and mother so your days may be long on the earth.” This is the first command with a promise. What does that mean? If you go back to Exodus 20 in the giving of the Ten Commandments, this is the only one that attaches some kind of promises to obedience of the commands. The Children of Israel were being delivered by God from the Egyptian bondage they are under. They were to enter the Promised Land that God had Abraham to walk over and live on during his time. God promised them that if they were obedient and honored their parents they would live a long time in the land where they were being taken. That promise was specifically for the Israelites. It has specifically to do with their staying in the Promised Land that God had given to Abraham. They would continue as a nation so long as they honored parents.
But Paul took the promise and pulled it out of the Jewish context to give it a more general application. He said it we honor father and mother “Everything may go well for you and you may have a long life on the earth.” Certainly he isn’t promising for each individual that if you honor your parents God will give you a long life. But the principle is clear that as a group our honor for parents will lead to longer life and the general well being of the people.
Think about three applications made of this principle of honoring parents in the New Testament. In Matthew 15 Jesus and his disciples were called into question about the failure of the disciples to wash their hands before eating. It wasn’t about just being clean. It was about following the standard ritual the Jewish leaders had set for them. Jesus turned their question back on them by asking “Why do you break the commandment of God because of your traditions?” He noted the command of God to honor father and mother, but said that they had set aside the law of God by saying that if one pledged their wealth to the temple they no longer had obligation to take care of their parents. In doing so they were setting aside the law of God by their traditions. He noted that in it useless for one to worship God when we are teaching as commandments the traditions of men. A powerful principle is laid down that we mustn’t look for ways to get around God’s law, but for means of carrying out even the implications of His law.
A second application was made by Paul in I Timothy 5. He talked about honor for God and for people in need but then turns to one providing for their own family when they are in need. In verse 8 he said if a person doesn’t provide for his own, especially his own family he denies the faith and becomes worse than an unbeliever. He noted that if a person had family who could take care of them the family should do so. But if there was no family and the person was a devoted Christian and too old to care for their own needs the church should step up to meet the needs. So the principle here is that honor for father and mother means to take care of family when they are in need.
Then in the text in Ephesians 6 that honor for parents involves children obeying them. When we show honor to father and mother it will bring God’s blessings on us as a people so that we may live long on the earth.
How would you feel today if your children grew up to show the very same kind of honor for you that you have demonstrated before them for your parents or grandparents? If the thought doesn’t encourage you, there may need to be some changes made.