First Glance: Exodus 20:12

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“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

The very first of the ten commandments to deal directly with our relationship with others speaks of honoring those placed by God in authority over you. In particular, the command (not suggestion) is that we honor our parents. As the Heidelberg Catechism describes it, the fifth commandment means that “I honor, love, and be loyal to my father and mother and all those in authority over me; that I submit myself with proper obedience to all their good teaching and discipline; and also that I be patient with their failings – for through them God chooses to rule us.” (Q104)

As a teenager, I worked overtime to find exceptions to this commandment. I bristled at the implication that ‘honor’ entailed submission and obedience. I would argue that ‘Surely ‘honor’ doesn’t mean obey. If God had meant ‘obey,’ that’s what he would have said.’ I would also argue that Paul tells parents ‘not to exasperate their children’ (Ephesians 6, obviously ignoring the previous statements about the responsibility of children to obey their parents in the Lord). Whenever I could, I would seek to wriggle out from under the authority of my parents. I did this not primarily in order to misbehave or get into all sorts of sinful behavior, but to assert my own autonomy. My parents were neither harsh nor authoritarians. I simply did not want to submit to authority.

As I continued in my studies and delved deeper into Scripture, I discovered that this attitude was nowhere commended in the Bible. There is a place for resisting oppressive and unlawful authority and there is a place for civil disobedience when asked to violate God’s Word. Yet, there is no place for resisting authority simply because it is authority. My resistance to honor, respect, and even obey them was not a sign of maturity and independence, but of sinful pride and selfishness. The goal of life lived in the church, community, and society is not ‘having no one tells us what to do.’ Instead, we are called to honor the authorities placed over us, be patient with them, and seek ever and always to be obedient to God’s will.

This biblical posture does not imply complete and unquestioned obedience or a unthinking conservatism of the status quo (the history or Christianity would suggest otherwise). However, the command to “honor your father and your mother” does call for a distinct posture in relationship to those placed into authority over us. They were not placed there by mistake, but “through them God chooses to rule us.” I don’t like being ruled, but that has more to do with me than my parents. Our first instinct as Christians should not be to try and find the loophole and avoid obedience. Instead, we should begin by trusting the God who placed these people and structures in our lives.

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