My mom and I were having a light argument in the kitchen recently. She had some leftover food that she wanted me to take home, and I said no. It wasn’t a serious argument at all, and as we went back and forth, she finally pulled out her trump card: “I’m your mother and the Bible says to honor your father and mother! So you have to do what I say!”
I (respectfully) stuck my tongue out and told her that I did not, because I am financially independent from them. (Reader, I definitely ended up taking home whatever leftovers she was offering.)
But who was right? Exodus 20:12 does indeed say that children should honor their fathers and mothers. So does that mean that my parents have a biblical right to make demands on me for the rest of their lives? Or was I correct, and once I took over the cellphone bill, I could do whatever I wanted?
What Is the Context of Exodus 20:12?
This command is one of the 10 Commandments, given to Moses by God Himself on Mount Sinai. The other 9 commandments are:
1. You shall have no other gods before the One True God
2. You shall not make idols
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain, as a curse
4. Keep the Sabbath holy, as a day of rest
5. Do not murder
6. Do not commit adultery
7. Do not steal
8. Do not lie
9. Do not covet your neighbor’s things
Among this list, the command to honor your father and mother seems a bit strange. Some commands – like not making idols and keeping the Sabbath as a holy day – make sense for honoring God. Others – like the commands not to steal, kill, or lie – just make for a healthy, safe community. So why is obeying your parents listed there too? Is it really that important?
God clearly took this whole list very seriously. Genesis 20:18 says that “when the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance.” This was no light request!
And in fact, it turns out the Bible has quite a bit to say about honoring elders.
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What Else Does the Bible Say about Honoring Our Elders?
“Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22).
“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).
“Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8).
The Apostle Paul echoes the commandment from Exodus, and explains that is the only one of the ten that comes with a promise: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise— ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’” (Ephesians 6:1-3).
This command to obedience is not just to cause children to suffer – it is to help them succeed and grow. Indeed, we see this theme of parental discipline and guidance throughout Scripture reflecting the way that God – our heavenly Father – disciplines and guides us. Just like a child may not understand why he can’t have dessert before dinner, we don’t always understand why God seemingly withholds good things from us. But, just like a loving parent, God’s plan for us is better.
The first command in the garden of Eden, to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) was a calling for men and women to raise up godly children. The expectation was for them to follow God in their parenting, which would benefit children to follow and obey.
Of course, because of the effects of sin and death, every child does not have a godly, compassionate parent to guide them. Even Christian parents are sinful and broken, and don’t do a perfect job of parenting. What then?
Do I Still Have to Honor Unloving Parents?
The short answer is yes. And I say that gently, knowing the deep, lasting pain that parents can leave on their adult children.
Know that if you suffered because of your parents, that God does not turn a blind eye to this. He sympathizes with your pain. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Jesus is walking with you. He understands what you are experiencing, and it grieves Him.
This article from Family Life explains that choosing to show love to a hurtful parent is not something we can do on our own. If it feels impossible, that’s because it is! But Christ can strengthen us and give us the needed peace to accomplish this task. Only the Lord can help us to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).
The article continues: “You may feel that by honoring your parent, you are excusing his behavior. But remember that no evil will escape God’s eyes or go unpunished. Romans 12:19 says, ‘Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.’ You need to honor your parents not because you think they deserve it, but because God asked you to.”
Sometimes following God means trusting in Him, even when we don’t understand. That can lead us to doing hard – sometimes impossible – things. But honoring His commands, and choosing to love even hurtful parents, is part of His good plan for us.
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How Long Do I Have to Honor My Parents?
So we return to my initial question: Is there a point when we “age out” of honoring our parents? First, we need to take a look at what “honor” means in the Bible.
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2).
First, we are called to honor authority. There’s a lot to unpack in these verses, but as it pertains to parents and children, it means that God has placed children in their specific family, with their specific parents, for a reason. And children are subject to their parents’ “rule.”
As children grow and become independent adults, they will move away from parents being authority figures, but they will still have other authority figures over them that they must honor in the same way. Bosses, landlords, mayors, senators and presidents are just a few authority figures that we will need to honor and respect in different ways.
As children, we aren’t subject to any of the people listed above. A child doesn’t care about pleasing the landlord. But as we learned to honor and respect our parents then, so shall we honor and respect these new authority figures in our lives.
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:9-11).
This next verse shows us that we are all, regardless of age, to be competing for honor. We are to outdo one another in being loving, honorable, and faithful. In a parent and adult-child relationship, this will probably look more mutual.
I was recently visiting my parents the day they were hosting a big party, and my mom asked me if I minded going out to pick up lunch and a few groceries for them. This wasn’t something I had to do, and if I said no, she would not be in much of a position to punish me for it. But I knew they were busy and needed help. So saying yes, and offering to help in whatever way they needed, was loving.
As grown children, and also parents of those grown children, we should always be looking for ways to love each other and help. “Be devoted to one another,” Paul says. That doesn’t mean parents expect unconditional obedience from their adult children, and it doesn’t mean adult children can abandon their parents. It means to look out for one another and be willing to step up when asked or needed.
Let’s look at one last verse:
“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. … Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him” (Ephesians 6:4-5, 7-9).
To my understanding, our modern equivalent for slaves would be closer to workers, or employees. Regardless, those in positions of authority are to be fair, compassionate, and understanding. Parents and employers are to follow the “golden rule,” and treat those under them well.
In the same way, children and employees should honor, obey and respect those above them. Even when no one is looking, they are to work diligently, because we know that God sees all that we do, and He is ready to reward obedience.
Once again, we see from these verses that there is no “aging out” of honoring others. We don’t reach a certain birthday and give up having to be respectful, obedient, and helpful – because these are characteristics of a humble and faithful heart.
So how long do we have to honor our parents? Until the day God calls them home to heaven. This relationship will look different between parents and young children, versus parents and adult children. But the fact remains that we should “be devoted to one another in love.”
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Bethany Pyle is the editor for Bible Study Tools.com and the design editor for Crosscards.com. She has a background in journalism and a degree in English from Christopher Newport University. When not editing for Salem, she enjoys good fiction and better coffee.