Honor and Authority

The Fourth Commandment

Honor your father and your mother.

 

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God so that we neither despise nor anger our parents and others in authority, but instead honor, serve, obey, love, and respect them.

 

If there was one commandment that my confirmation teacher loved above any other, it was this one. She was determined that we, the sixth graders of the congregation, would learn to respect our elders, by which she meant that we should never question or challenge them, never disobey or disagree with them, and certainly never do anything that would lead witnesses to ask if we were raised in a barn. 

Since we usually teach the Ten Commandments to children, it isn’t exactly surprising that the focus of this commandment has been on telling kids to listen to whatever their parents tell them.* It’s certainly not wrong to teach children to obey their parents, but is that really all this commandment has to offer?

I certainly don’t think so. After all, the commandment is “honor” not “obey” your parents. It also doesn’t have a footnote directing it only to people under age 18. Consider this situation: an adult notices their parent’s health decline. That adult could sweep in, take charge, and make decisions without consulting their parent’s wants or needs. That adult could instead do nothing, with the justification that it’s not their job to take care of their parents. Alternatively, that adult could talk to their parent, find out what’s most important for them in their health and dignity, and work together to find a solution that works for everyone. Which one honors the parent?

Martin Luther took his understanding of the fourth commandment one big step further: not only should Christians honor, serve, obey, love and respect their parents, but they should extend the same consideration to all authorities. Now, we know from history that Martin Luther very often disagreed with authority figures. Respect and love don’t mean we never disagree, but that we do so in ways that treat others as equally deserving of consideration, respect, and dignity. 

Any time we speak to or about an authority, whether that person is a public official, a subject matter expert, or an institutional leader, we should ask ourselves: am I honoring this person in my actions and words? Or am I despising and demeaning them because I dislike them or what they represent? These are questions that apply just as much (or maybe more!) to adults as to children.

One final note on this commandment: the command to honor parents and those in authority carries with it a reminder to parents and other authority figures to be worthy of honor, to give good rules, to be loveable. All of us fail in one way or another, at one time or another, both in being honorable and giving honor. Even so, we strive to keep God’s commandment, knowing that it is good for all of us when we honor our parents.

Heavenly Father, you give us parents and other authorities in our lives. Help us to honor them as you have commanded us. Help us who are parents or authorities over others to live lives worthy of honor. Graciously forgive us when we fall short of this commandment. Amen.
 

*When I teach this commandment, I remind kids that they do not need to obey their parents if it puts them or others in danger. This is true for adults, too: if a person in a position of power commands something that is wrong, it is not appropriate to obey them. Your wellbeing is important to God.