“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ this is the first commandment with a promise, ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.'”
Paul next speaks to the relationship between children and parents. It is quite significant that Paul includes children in his instruction on relationships. This reveals the radical difference between God’s view of children and that of the Roman Empire.
With regard to children, a callous cruelty prevailed in the Roman Empire. It was common for unwanted babies to be abandoned, and for weak and deformed babies to be killed. Even healthy children were regarded by many as a partial nuisance because they inhibited sexual promiscuity and complicated easy divorce.
Jesus clearly communicated his heart for children when he said, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God,” and again, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” The old song is entirely accurate: “Jesus loves the little children.”
Paul tells children to obey their parents. This differs from his instruction to wives in the previous chapter. Paul instructed wives to submit to their husbands, not to obey. Paul did not tell husbands to issue commands and for wives to obey.
A wife’s submission to her husband is something quite different from obedience. It is a voluntary self-giving to a lover; and the husband’s love and responsibility toward his wife is defined in terms of Christ-like care. Paul describes a wife’s submission to her husband as love’s response to love.
Children, however, are to obey their parents. Paul gives three grounds for the obedience of children: nature, the law and the gospel.
First, nature: Children, obey your parents …, for this is right, or righteous (dikaios). The obedience of children belongs to the realm of nature; in other words, this is a self-evident truth that reflects the way the natural world functions. It does not depend on special revelation; it is part of the natural law which God has written on all human hearts.
It is not confined to Christian ethics; it is standard behavior in every society. Pagan moralists taught it. Stoic philosophers taught it as “the way of things.” Even earlier in history, Confucius taught this principle in Chinese society. Indeed, virtually all civilizations have regarded the recognition of parental authority as indispensable to a stable society.
Second, if the obedience of children is part of the natural law which God has written on human hearts, it belongs also to the revealed law which God gave to Moses for the people of Israel. So Paul goes on: “Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.” In his quotation Paul combines the Greek text of Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16.
The honoring of our parents is our duty to God. During childhood our parents represent God to us and mediate to us his authority and his love. We are to ‘honor’ our parents, that is, acknowledge their God-given authority, and so give them not only our obedience, but our love and respect, as well.
It is because parental authority is divinely delegated authority that respectful obedience to parents was invested with such great importance in the life of God’s covenant people. Moses was commanded to say to Israel: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father … I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19). Reverence for parents was thus made an integral part of reverence for God as their God and of their special relationship to him as his people.
On Monday of next week, we will look at the gospel as the third reason for parental authority.