How to Honor Legalistic Parents
Written by Phylicia Masonheimer | September 3, 2016
The children of legalistic parents are caught between a rock and a hard place: The Bible tells us to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12) and for “children to obey their parents” (Ephesians 6:1). But at what point is a child no longer bound to the dictates of her parents? Is it possible to honor a legalistic parent, but not obey their demands?
Recognize the Difference Between Honor and Obedience
In the Old Testament, the word for “obey” is shama: to hear or heed. It comes from the root quol, which means “sound” or “voice.” This is the word used in passages like Exodus 21:18-19: “…a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother.”
In the New Testament, the Greek word for “obey” is hupakouo: to listen or attend to someone’s words. This is the word used in the well-known verse Ephesians 6:1: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”
But the word “honor” carries a different connotation. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “honor” is kabad: to be heavy, weighty or burdensome; to attribute value or worth. To honor a person is to recognize the weight of their value; to treat them according to their worth.
In the New Testament, “honor” is timao: to fix the value, or to price. Similar to the Hebrew word from which it was translated (at least in Ephesians 6:2, a direct quote from Deuteronomy), honor indicates active attribution of value and worth.
This word study reveals that obedience and honor are not the same, but they are interconnected. It’s possible to obey without an honorable heart, and it’s also possible to honor our parents without obeying them—the latter becoming our responsibility once we reach adulthood.
But the pivotal word in these passages is not honor or obedience, but children. In both the Old and New Testaments, the word “children” designates a person not yet “of age,” living in willing dependence upon her parents. Further research revealed that in Jewish, Greek and Roman culture, “of age” was deemed complete at the approximate age of 18 (with the exception of Judaic religious maturity, for boys at 13 and girls at age 12). Young Roman men were often drafted into the military for two years after their 18th birthday. Greek and Roman boys became citizens of the state, and men and women in all cultures were able to marry at age 18, often younger.
When a child reaches adulthood (based on context, the age of 18) and is no longer “living in willing dependence” upon her parents, her responsibility to obey becomes a responsibility to honor. This transfer to independent behavior is the entire purpose of parenthood.
The Purpose of Parenthood
The point of parenthood is not to raise fear-driven rule followers. The point is to raise free-thinking adults who choose God’s way of their own accord. This cannot be accomplished through the use of fear and control. God has directed parents to “train up a child in the way he should go.” This indicates the child must at some point be released to go that “way.”
This does not mean rebellion is ever justified. God knows the motives of the heart, and we have the responsibility to check our motives against the spirit of His Word. But the family structure designed by God is a design of freedom. It’s designed to equip children to become free-thinking, Christ-following adults.
What Do We Do?
No matter how unreasonable the parent, rebellion is never justified. We answer for the motives of our own hearts regardless of who provokes them. It is inadvisable to move away from your parents simply because you “can’t stand it anymore.” Address your motives and open your heart to the Lord, who will expose the desires therein.
Also, in order to have a fruitful conversation with your parents about the freedom you should have as their adult child, you must approach them with compassion and understanding. Most parents control because they deeply care.
If every discussion with your parents descends into an emotional fistfight, they won’t see you as the adult that you are. In order to express your desire to be trusted with your own decision making, you must evidence the kind of maturity that deserves it.
The responsibility of parents is to lead children into such a grace-driven obedience. Our responsibility as children is to honor our parents, and is housed within our greater responsibility to love the way God does.
Read more about honoring legalistic parents on Phylicia’s blog.