Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 39 - Honouring the Parents
- The fifth commandment:
Honour your father and your mother,
that your days may be long
in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
Question 104: What does God require
in the fifth commandment?
Answer 104: That I show all honour, love, and faithfulness
to my father and mother
and to all those in authority over me,
submit myself with due obedience
to their good instruction and discipline,
and also have patience with their weaknesses
since it is God’s will
to govern us by their hand.
In this commandment God is addressing the children. They are to honour their parents. We are all children. Which age group should we be thinking of? Someone argues that adult children and their elderly parents are meant. The “honour” would not indicate obeying the parents, but concretely taking care of them when they have become old and needy. According to this view, this commandment is primarily a social precept. The theme of authority and submission would not be at issue here.1Is the Catechism wrong in this regard?
What it is About
The honouring of father and mother certainly implies an obligation for older children to help their elderly, needy parents. However, this honouring begins at an early age with respecting parental authority at the time that the children are being nurtured.2 The law – including this commandment – is not meant “for adults only”. Moses commands it to be read aloud “to all Israel” and explicitly mentions the children as well. All of them are “to be careful to do all the words in this law”.3
The apostle Paul confirms this. In Ephesians 6:1,2 he writes that children are to obey their parents. He appeals for this to the fifth commandment. This apparently speaks of younger fathers and mothers having authority over their growing children.
Without hesitation, the Catechism extends this circle of parents to “all those in authority over me”. There are quite a few of them. We encounter people who have authority everywhere: the teacher at school, the boss at work, the consistory in church, the government in public life. Some do not look remotely like a good father or mother. Nevertheless, the Catechism takes them all together. What applies to each of these authorities is that God wants to govern us by their hand. This indicates the broader scope of this commandment.
Parents are the model for all those in authority. The list begins with them. This is not accidental. The commandment could not just as well have read: honour your king, or your teacher, or your boss. With the father and mother as examples, this commandment provides an excellent starting point for answering all kinds of current questions about authority, such as: where does authority come from? What is it good for? How should we deal with it?
How Parents Get Their Authority
The Catechism considers the word “authority” to be important. Father and mother are characterized as people, who “have received authority over me”. How do they get their authority?
Parents, by definition, are older than their children. On account of this they outrank them in wisdom and experience. In addition, their children are dependent on them for everything. This natural superiority makes it easy for parents to exercise authority over their children. Yet their authority does not rest on this head start, which, by the way, they are slowly but surely losing. Children will catch up with their parents. They become more critical and discover flaws in their educators. Are parents therefore increasingly losing their authority? Ultimately, the only basis for their authority is that they have received it from God. Any other argument for parental authority is debatable or subject to deterioration.
To honour father and mother means to “submit with due obedience”. That sounds old-fashioned, but the Bible is very clear about this. In addition to “honour” it uses the even tighter word “revere” or “to stand in awe”. Every child shall show respect to his mother and his father (Lev. 19:3).4 This same “fear” is used when, after violent thunderclaps, Israel is deeply impressed by Samuel — as a government person — and by the LORD.5
Of course, a child is in awe of a dear mother in a different way than of God, or of a policeman or teacher. The Bible can use the same word “fear” for all these different ways of respect. In each case, God wants children to show respect to their parents’ authority. Why does he insist on this?
God’s Intention with Parental Authority
When parents have nothing to say about their children, things become a mess at home. Because such children do not learn what authority is, they also often disrupt order in school and later in society. To that extent, this commandment is beneficial for all of society. Yet God wants more than families with obedient children. This becomes apparent when we read this commandment in light of the opening words of the law. In it, the LORD declares that he has freed these children — along with their parents — from slavery.
So we must not separate this commandment from this introduction. God does not call upon children to honour their parents without any further underlying motivation. For example, he did not give this commandment to the children of Egypt. They would only hear negative stories about him from their parents. Honouring their parents would not bring them closer to the LORD.
God gave this commandment to the children of his own people. He especially wanted them to get to know him as their deliverer. Their parents had to take care of this. Therefore he commanded them to listen to them: honour your father and your mother.
To honour someone means to consider him/her important.6 What made these parents so important? They could tell their children who the LORD was to them. This first generation of parents had then already been instructed to celebrate the Passover every year and to remember the exodus.7 Then their children were allowed to ask all kinds of questions. One might think of ready-made questions in the manner of our Catechism, but certainly spontaneous questions are also intended. There was plenty to explain. Why did a lamb have to be killed? Why did all the yeast have to be cleaned up so carefully? A father had to involve his children so closely in the celebration and in all the preparations that the questions would come naturally.8 One moment he would be talking about my exodus, then he would look at his son (and daughter) and say: the LORD has led us out of Egypt.9
Children and parents had escaped together from Egypt and were on a journey to the Promised Land. From henceforth, through their parents, they would come to know and learn to follow their great Travel Guide. In turn, they were to pass the message on to their children. It is with great earnestness they are exhorted to do so.10
This commandment returns with full force in the New Testament. “Children, obey your parents”. The difference is that the commandment is addressed not only to Jewish, but also to the Greek children of the church at Ephesus: ‘”Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’” (Eph. 6:1, 2). These parents too — in part former Gentiles — have been set free with their children by God. That is why he commands them to listen to their parents. The main motive is the same: through their parents they will come to know the God of the covenant.
Good Instruction and Discipline
In Ephesians 6:4 Paul exhorts the fathers not to provoke or embitter their children. He will be thinking of fathers who forcefully impose their will and show no understanding of their children’s questions. Such children will easily clam up and become despondent or perhaps rebellious. On the other hand, fathers may not let their children have their own way. They need to teach them.
According to Paul, this education consists of “discipline” and “instruction” (KJV: nurture and admonition). When we think of discipline, we think of training.11 A father trains his children in how they are to behave. At times this may require a good talking-to or even some form of punishment.12 When it comes to instruction, the father is more like the teacher who teaches his children the law.13 All in all, a Christian father should not be dictatorial, but neither should he be a slacker. He has to use his authority to shape and to teach his children. Education in the sense of nurturing is different from giving a course to volunteers.
Paul appeals to an Old Testament commandment, but he also points to New Testament gains. The youth of the church at Ephesus are being brought up in the teaching “of the Lord,” which is the Lord Jesus. Just as parents in the past used to tell of the LORD who delivered them from Egypt, they now tell of Christ who delivered them from the power of sin and death. The youth of the church may know that none other than the mighty Lord Christ stands behind the “good instruction and discipline” of their parents. All this gives Christian education a unique dimension.
Christians use their authority to lead their children along the only right path. Do they thereby do justice to their children’s freedom of choice? Many parents claim that they allow their children to be free in determining their philosophy of life. That sounds generous, but what does it amount to? They act as if they are dropping their children off at a traffic circle, where they are then free to choose their own exit. In fact, these parents first take their children a long way in their own direction. Just by their behaviour and example they exert an enormous influence. If they remain silent about God, that is their choice, but they take their children along in that direction. As far as they are concerned, their children will never find the proper turn. Christian parents draw their wisdom from the gospel. That does not get old. Therefore, at the baptismal font, they promise to instruct their children the doctrines of the Old and New Testaments. They do not ask God if their children will adopt their ideas, but if he will continually rule them by his Holy Spirit. Then the education begins. And God commands: honour your father and your mother, for by their hand I want to govern you. Therefore I gave you these parents.
“Received from God’s hand...” That is how many birth announcements start off. It is at least as important that children can say the same of their parents: received from God’s hand. Every baptized child receives his parents or educators from God. The children addressed in this commandment are especially privileged. They have the most trustworthy educators in the world. They are fathers and mothers who know the way to true happiness. There are no better guides. It pleases God to govern us by their hand, even though they are anything but perfect.
Patience with their Weaknesses and Shortcomings
The Catechism generously admits that parents have “weaknesses and shortcomings”. There is no question of condoning this. The youth attending Catechism classes should also take this to heart.
The flaws of parents are hidden even less in the Bible. Isaac favoured his son Esau because he provided game that his father enjoyed. Rebekah, on the other hand, had a special fondness for his twin brother Jacob.14 Father Jacob gave beautiful clothes to his favourite son Joseph and this aroused jealousy on the part of his other sons.15 Those fathers did not act properly — and the disastrous consequences are described in detail.
And yet these fathers — Isaac and Jacob — served as proper guides for their children. Both are listed with honour in the list of true believers.16
The Catechism is also thinking of parents who are good educators — in spite of their flaws. After all, it speaks of “their good instruction and discipline”. That is the starting point of this commandment. That is what all parents should keep in mind.
A Long and Happy Life
The LORD attached to this commandment the promise of a long and happy life in the Promised Land.
What did this promise represent? Not every Jewish child who honoured his parents and followed their faith received a happy life. Does this imply that everyone simply had to wait and see whether this great promise was meant for them? This explanation falls short. This promise is not something that could be found somewhere in the fine print. There is nothing to suggest that they were not to count on it too strongly. Therefore, we look for the solution in a different direction.
The promised life will be enjoyed “in the land that the LORD your God is about to give you”. The special thing about that land (Canaan) was that it meant nothing less, but also nothing more than an advance on the new earth. Even centuries ago, Abraham did not stare blindly at the good life in that land. He expected “a better homeland”; “a heavenly country”.17 Children who follow the example of their parents’ faith will surely experience the complete fulfillment of this promise.
The promise includes a shorter or longer life in the earthly Canaan, and by extension of it, eternal life. Paul supports this explanation. He repeats this commandment, along with the promise and all, in the church of Ephesus. For the Christians there — whether Jews or Greeks — the earthly Canaan had long since ceased to be the Promised Land. The interesting question is what then remains of the promise — a long life in the land that God had pledged to them. The answer delivers a surprise. Paul writes: “Honour your father and your 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” (Eph. 6:1-3). The promise is maintained and even given extra emphasis, for this is “the first commandment with a promise” or rather “an important commandment through the promise”.18
The Old Testament promise has lost none of its relevance. Only the limitation of the past has been lifted. “The land that Yahweh your God is going to give you” has been broadened to “on earth”. The promise can now be enjoyed worldwide. It does not matter, whether you travelled through the wilderness with Moses as an Israelite or whether you lived in Ephesus as a Greek in Paul’s time, or perhaps whether you have an apartment in a close city today. Those who honour their parents according to the fifth commandment have the promise of a long life that begins “on earth” and that continues on the earth he is about to give.
All Those in Authority Over Me
You also have to deal with authority relationships outside of the family. In school you are a student or a teacher, in business you are an employee or an employer, in church you are a member of a congregation or an office bearer, in politics you are a citizen or a government official.
Each type of authority is different. The elder does not give work orders like the boss does. The manager does not hand out fines like the government. The Catechism does not get into the nitty-gritty of all these differences. Of all the people who have something to say about us — whether in church, state or society — it says: “it is God’s will to govern us by their hand”. This is true even of those who exude nothing typically paternal or maternal in the exercise of their authority. Thus David maintained to the very last that Saul, who persecuted him, had received his authority from God.19 King Nebuchadnezzar, who deported the people of Israel, received his power from God.20 Therefore, “we are to view the most iniquitous tyrant as occupying the place which the Lord has honoured him.”21“Let us doubt not that on whomsoever the kingdom has been conferred, him we are bound to serve. Whenever God raises any one to royal honour, he declares it to be his pleasure that he should reign.”22 Peter and Paul call for submission to pagan government officials. While they assume that these will do what is right, they leave no room for resistance.23 Scripture does not encourage anyone to resist, either politically or socially. It has been rightly pointed out that even Revelation 13 — which refers to an anti-Christian government — does not call for resistance to it.24 And as for authority in society, Paul returned a runaway slave — Onesimus — to his master Philemon.25 Yet there is more to say...
Obey Under All Circumstances?
“We must obey God rather than men.”26 That is obvious. But how long should you submit to tyrants or people who exploit you while for the rest they allow freedom in matters of faith? Where is the limit?
This is the right time to remind ourselves that this commandment is important precisely because it is through the promise of a blessed life. Parents who destroy the happiness of their children’s lives therefore lose their authority. When this promise turns into a form of mockery, this commandment begins to lose its wholesome power. The commandment and the promise belong together! At some point the right of resistance and revolt comes in view.27.
It is a different question whether this right of revolt can be utilized at all times. Patterns of authority are hard to resist. In practice Christians often do not get very far with the right to rebel. They have no choice but to resign themselves to the situation.
Fortunately, Paul offers these people something more than a right to rebel. He gives them a liberating view of the slavery of his day and age. Nowhere does he defend slavery as an institution of God. The “authority” of such a slave-owner cannot be compared to that of a father or mother. That is why the apostle thought it was fine when a slave seized the opportunity to be set free in a legal way.28 There is to be no misunderstanding about that.
However, no one, waving a letter from Paul in his hand, could unleash a slave revolt. His message to the Christian slaves was not “make sure you get your freedom,” but “you are free!” For such a slave did not belong to his master, but to Christ. And conversely, his Christian master was in reality a slave of Christ.
Thus the apostle put into perspective the position of both slaves and masters. This acted as a lubricant in the existing social structure and slowly but surely challenged slavery.
Slaves are free when Christ is their Lord. And masters are slaves, when Christ is their Lord. Therefore, believing slaves should not be concerned about their social position. For those who are in the service of God, it makes no difference in principle whether they are slaves or not. As they exhaust themselves for their master, they are to realize that they are doing so “as slaves of Christ”. In fact, they are rendering service with a good will as to the Lord”.29Therefore, “their humble, and sometimes even hard service, is nothing less than service to their heavenly Master. Their lords are instruments through whom Christ orders them”.30
This attitude does not cause their struggle against all kinds of injustice to be superfluous, but their freedom no longer depends on the success of this struggle. Christians are in the service of the God of the exodus. He rules them. He does this very directly and transparently through the hand of Christian educators, government officials, and office bearers. He does so less recognizably through a harsh government or a snarling master. But it is Christ who governs them, through whomever he puts in place. They are his and he promises them a long and happy life on the earth he is going to give them.