An Obligation to Honor
Though parents may quote it to small children, the primary audience of the fifth command is adult children. It is found in the middle of a list of commands clearly addressed to adults, targeting issues that are, developmentally speaking, primarily the concerns of adulthood. Small children, though certainly sinners, do not generally carve graven images, plot murderous acts, or bear credible false witness against a neighbor. Note the clue to the audience in the blessing that accompanies the command: longevity of life. We might paraphrase the fifth commandment as “Adult children, honor your aging parents whose days have been long upon the land, that your days might be long as well.”
The command bears weight on the entire length of our relationship with our parents–not just the days we lived as children in their homes. It speaks to our obligation to honor them into old age, as elaborated in Proverbs 23:22: “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.”
As we noted at the outset, God’s laws allow us to live in community. It is good for the community when children honor their parents by caring for them and treating them respectfully into their old age. But it is not always easy. If it were, there would only be nine commandments. Those of us who are blessed with healthy and happy relationships with our parents can still find it difficult to trade the role of cared-for for that of caregiver.
Aging is, among other things, the steady progression of relinquishing one’s decision-making authority. It requires deep courage, and can cause strain in even the healthiest families, as the dignity of the aging parent becomes more challenging to preserve. Under the best of circumstances, the fifth word can ask much of us.
And under hard circumstances, it can feel absolutely crushing. Those who have suffered physical, emotional, or spiritual neglect or abuse at the hands of a parent may feel at a loss as to how its requirements can (or should) be met. Here, as in all things, there is good news for those with ears to hear: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Ps. 27:10 NIV).
Family of Origin, Family of Faith
The church is the family your family of origin could not be. In the Gospels, Jesus applied familial language to his followers: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:49—50). Because of their controversial faith, first-century believers could not rely on natural family relationships. Many indeed had to leave father, mother, and brothers to follow Jesus.
The church became their spiritual family, the network of love, honor, and accountability that they needed for spiritual, emotional, and even physical support. Familial language pervades the New Testament Epistles. The Epistles address their hearers as brothers and sisters. Paul instructs Timothy to relate to younger members of his church as siblings. We will need a deep appreciation for spiritual siblinghood to navigate the remaining five commands. But for the fifth command, we must pay attention to the parent language of the New Testament. Paul instructs Timothy to relate honorably to older members as spiritual mothers and fathers (1 Tim. 5:1—2). He says to the church at Corinth, “For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). He even honors a spiritual mother of his own when he sends greetings to the mother of Rufus “who has been a mother to me as well” (Rom. 16:13).1
This expansive application of honoring parents was not lost on earlier generations of the church. Who are we to honor in the fifth commandment? The Westminster Larger Catechism, written in 1647, responds:
By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.2
Put another way, respect your elders in the broadest sense.
Note that, in alignment with the language of the Epistles and the fifth command itself, the catechism places equal emphasis on the honoring of both fathers and mothers. A healthy family is one in which both father and mother are valued for their wisdom and contributions. The family of God, like any healthy family, should strive to show such value to both fathers and mothers in the church. If one parenting presence is minimized or neglected, the family risks all manner of dysfunction. How beautiful is the household of God when both mothers and fathers receive the honor they are due!
Note that the catechism includes those “superior in age” under the parent umbrella. Leviticus 19:32 says, “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord” (NIV). It is not just aging biological parents we honor, but the elderly in general. Here is a clear way to live honorably among unbelievers. In a culture that is obsessed with worshiping youth, the fifth command offers Christians a simple means to be light in the darkness.
Rather than adopt the common mantra that the elderly are adorable, irrelevant, burdensome, or expendable, we instead show them honor as full image bearers, filled with a kind of wisdom that only the passage of time can impart. By seeking out and valuing this wisdom, we honor the giver and we gain from the gift. Psalm 90:12 asks the Lord to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” How very likely that God answers this prayer through the wisdom of a saint who has numbered more days than we.
Note that the catechism further includes governing authorities under the parent umbrella, echoing Paul’s admonition to give “honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7 NET). The fifth commandment reminds us that the one who holds all authority has delegated some of that authority to human rulers. By honoring those in authority over us, we fulfill the fifth command.
- Portions of the following first appeared in my article, “The Church Is Not a SingleParent Family,” ChristianityToday.com, November 23, 2016, christianity today.com/ct/2016/december/church-is-not-single-parent-family.html.
- Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 124; Larger Catechism: Questions 121—130, Reformed Forum, April 21, 2008, reformedforum.org/podcasts/larger-catechism -questions-121-130/.