Lost World

Lost World August 7, 2018

The fifth commandment – Honor your father and your mother – is a counter-cultural demand.

Many in our time live according to the 1960s maxim, Question authority. It’s apparently an authoritative command, and it applies in the family as well as everywhere else.

But the counter-cultural character of this commandment runs even deeper. It’s not just the commandment itself that violates contemporary norms. The social picture assumed by the commandment has disappeared in many places.

The command to “honor” assumes a hierarchy. Some are in a high position and deserve our attention and respect. We live in an age of equality. We don’t defer to our betters because we find it offensive to think we have betters.

The command to honor father and mother assumes that unchosen relationships have a moral force. If there’s one thing that we don’t choose, it’s our family and parentage. In our age, choice is the foundation of all moral action. Nearly everything can be justified, so long as it’s sanctified by “consent.” Unchosen obligations can’t be binding.

The reference to father and mother runs against the grain of myths of self-creation. We believe in the self-made man, the buffered self, the isolated individual; every man is an Adam, without the belly button that bespeaks dependence.

We’re commanded to honor father and mother, both of them in the singular. The assumed situation is one where children have one of each sex as parents. Today, many families are constituted from the broken bits of other families; in any household, the children are “yours, mine, ours”; children grow up with multiple fathers and stepfathers, mothers and stepmothers.

Both parents are assumed to be present. Most of America’s children still live with two parents, but a quarter does not. In some sub-communities, the situation is far worse: Three-quarters of African American children are born out of wedlock.

More radically, the fifth word assumes a world where parenthood was a given, an unavoidable reality for every human being.

Reproductive technology has eroded that assumption. A couple can have a child that is genetically their child, but never carried by the mother; children can be manufactured from donated eggs and sperm, so that they have no connection with the parents. Family membership is being detached from biology.

And the changes in marriage law functionally universalize this. Children in same-sex families obviously can’t be biologically related to both parents, and so the relationship between parents and children is legal rather than biological. We’re used to this in adoption, but the changes in marriage law effectively universalize adoption. Adoption becomes the paradigm for all parent-child relations.

To keep the fifth word, we not only have to obey its literal force. We have to reconstruct the social situation that it assumes – two-parent families, the goodness of relations of authority, the limitations of choice and consent, the preservation of families through the whole lifetime of the father and mother. This commandment is foundational to forming a Christian counter-culture in our churches.

But these social changes also mean that we have a huge mission field around us. Families are under stress in all kinds of ways. The church has an opportunity to evangelize and disciple families, so that they become places where it’s possible for the Fifth Word to be obeyed.

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  • Alonzo

    I appreciate the primary premise of this article. My thoughts in this honor should consider its roots. Honor of parents and others came first, and people decided to be the counter to God’s command through rebellion. This rebellion began a culture of dishonoring God, because the command came from God. When people dishonor parents, they dishonor God and develop cultural characteristics that are counter to God. Therefore, the real counter-culture began with man in running counter to the primary command from God. As biblical Christians, God calls us to RETURN to him away from the resistance expressed in rejecting Him. God established the cultural norms, and man became counter-cultural in defying those norms. As Christians, our mission is to call people to return from counter-cultural ways to the God who set the norms of righteousness.

  • Dan

    The ideal of the two parent home has actually been an anomaly through out history. Step parents, mutiple wives, parents abandoning children, it has been that way for most of history.

  • Paul Serwinek

    This discussion brings up good thoughts about the radical change in “family” recently. I’d like to say the Bible is talking about ideal situations worth striving for. Similar to Jesus’ thoughts on marriage where he said throughout history there were accommodations made but the standard is one spouse. One of the problems in interpretation here is Ageism. And with Baby boomers, finally starting to feel the pinch, this discussion won’t be politically correct very soon. (That’s why I’m total apposed to PC since it refuses to allow for dialog.) Finally before we make any judgments here we need to look at the statistics. As a sociologist I know study after study shows the Biblical standard produces far better results for children, psychological considerations, on and on. I’d like to see more studies on blended families, gay families, single parent families but unfortunately in my field these studies are banned for fear they may “dishonor the supposed victim.” That has to change if we’re to talk meaningfully about the current upheaval. In the meantime I have to advise those I help by saying the standard that has stood the test of time is a better bet than a fad (fad, at the moment but maybe shown to be equally adequate with study when it’s allowed) which is only recently being suggested. I remember when I was a young parent and the scholars were all saying not to disciple your kids , let them experiment,etc. Fortunately I didn’t listen because there was no research to back up the assertions. Within 10 years the “scholars” were back pedaling. Too late for a lot of parents. Paul Serwinek, PhD

  • RevBill

    Honoring parents and questioning authority should not be regarded as opposites. What parent has not had their children question them? I would be distressed if a child of mine never questioned me. Do we want to raise children who are so subservient to anyone in authority that they will never question it? And of course how we honor our parents varies with age. My own children are now adults. I try to avoid giving them unsolicited advice. Occasionally I may offer a suggestion. My adult children honor me by being independent thinkers and responsible and compassionate parents of their own children, my grandchildren.

  • This highlights how even the 10 Words have to be read contextually as given directly for ancient Hebrew society. The Sabbath law e.g. could be enforced nationally in a theocracy but not in a democracy. The OT is Scripture but we have to receive it and apply it indirectly and wisely and creatively in the modern Church world.

  • Note that the Sabbath command is never given to the Church in the NT. Jesus only tells the Jews, naturally, to keep it.

  • TinnyWhistler

    “The command to honor father and mother assumes that unchosen relationships have a moral force. If there’s one thing that we don’t choose, it’s our family and parentage. ”
    Gee that sucks for adoptive families. Also, this is false. Do we not choose spouses? Are spouses not family either?

    “We’re used to this in adoption, but the changes in marriage law effectively universalize adoption. Adoption becomes the paradigm for all parent-child relations.”
    Your article doesn’t demonstrate 1) That this is true or 2) that if it is that it’s a problem.

    Seeing bio and adoptive parent-child relationships as fundamentally different doesn’t make sense. Why are you so leery of adoption?

    This whole article makes me think of people who advocate against separation and distance even in cases of abuse of spousal or child abuse. They claim that the “natural family” is best in all circumstances, and that any abuse experienced is a worthwhile price to pay for upholding the ideal of a natural family. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. Do you believe that?