I spoke to their children and told them, “Don’t be like your parents. Don’t make yourselves filthy with their filthy idols. Don’t follow their laws or obey their commands. I am the Lord. I am your God. Obey my laws and keep my commands. Do the things I tell you.”
I cannot tell you how many times I heard, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” while growing up. Adult sermons, children’s sermons, Baptist church, nondenominational church—this lesson was everywhere. Children were constantly told that, apart from obeying God, the main commandment for children was “Obey your parents.” It was in my homeschool curriculum. It was in AWANA. It was in Vacation Bible School. We spoke it. We memorized it. We even sang it.
This makes sense to some extent because the Bible does exhort children to honor and obey their parents. This command is seen in both the Tanakh and the Christian epistles. It dates back to the Fifth of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
But I can count on one hand the number of times I heard a pastor or Sunday School teacher talk about Ezekiel 20:18-19, where God explicitly commands children to ignore their parents and disobey their commands. I can count that on one hand because it never happened, not even once. And not only did I never hear a sermon or lesson on that passage, I also never saw the biblical command to obey my parents in certain circumstances at least get balanced with the other, opposite command to disobey my parents in other circumstances. I grew up never knowing that God specifically commanded me as a child to push back against my parents sometimes. I grew up never knowing that children have the right—and the God-given duty—to challenge authority. While I was given plenty of instruction on when and how to obey parents and other authorities, I was never given the slightest bit of instruction on when and how to disobey.
My experience as a child is not unique. Dr. Marcia J. Bunge explains that this absence of dialogue among Christians about the biblical command to disobey one’s parents is ubiquitous. In The Vocation of the Child, Bunge writes,
Although almost all theologians today and in the past would emphasize that children should honor and obey their parents, they often neglect a third and corresponding responsibility of children that is also part of the tradition: children have a responsibility and duty not to obey their parents if their parents or other adult authorities would cause them to sin or to carry out acts of injustice (p. 42).
I think that Ezekiel 20:18-19 points us to an important reality: that parents are not the owners of their children and children owe their parents neither unquestioning nor immediate obedience. This is contrary to the message many children heard growing up in the conservative evangelical world. There, many teachers promote the idea of first-time obedience: that if a child does not immediately obey their parent(s), the child is directly rebelling against God. The corollary belief is that parents owe their child no explanation or justification. An example of this belief comes from “child training” guru Reb Bradley. Bradley writes in Child Training Tips, “We are the ones in charge of the home. We owe no apologies for the exercise of our authority. We are not answerable or accountable to our children” (emphasis in original, p. 44).
Ezekiel 20:18-19 highlights how this idea is flawed: if children are taught simply to jump at their parent(s)’ command, they will not learn to discern whether the parental command is just, merciful, or right. Ezekiel 20 is, after all, a cautionary tale: the children of Israel ended up obeying their parents (“they worshiped the filthy idols of their fathers”), and this led to their destruction. If parents are not answerable or accountable to their children, or if children are not empowered to challenge their parents, then their children will not know how to demand answers or accountability. Yet Ezekiel 20:18-19 identifies these very actions as part of being a moral child. This suggests that parenting should be less about procuring obedience and more about empowering children to make their own decisions on their own terms.
One significant problem I have with fundamentalist parenting models is that most of them deny children, either implicitly or explicitly, the right to their own decisions on their own terms—even with regards to deeply personal, spiritual matters. Most of them, for example, deny that children have a direct, one-to-one relationship with God. The majority of evangelical and fundamentalist parenting gurus — from Michael Pearl to Tedd Tripp to Bill Gothard to John MacArthur — believe children stand under an umbrella of parental authority that interrupts the child-God relationship. These gurus believe that, until children reach adulthood, parents serve as some species of demi-God: God’s official voice to children, the children’s representative to God, or even an earthly metaphor for God. The child cannot obey or serve God as God; rather, the child obeys or serves God by obeying or serving the demi-God, the parents.
We can find this idea in book after book: Michael Pearl declares that, “The parent’s role is not that of policemen, but more like that of the Holy Spirit”; Tedd Tripp tells parents that, “You exercise authority as God’s agent… You must direct your children on God’s behalf”; J. Richard Fugate writes, “Parents are the symbol and representative of God‘s authority to their children”; John MacArthur says, “The parents stand in the place of the Lord”; Larry Tomczak claims that, “The father is the priest of the home” who “represents his family to God”. All of these are top-down, authoritarian models, where the parent is the superior and the child is the subordinate. There is no room for the child to rebel in a godly way except for the direst of circumstances.
I think Cindy Brandt gave an excellent alternative to these systems last Monday: “When it comes to God, we are not their teachers, we are co-spectators of God’s glory.” In this alternative vision, I would argue that the adult does not interrupt the child-God relationship, nor does the adult act as God to the child. Rather, the child — as all human beings do — has a direct, unmediated relationship to God and their own spirituality. “The Kingdom of God” already “belongs to the little children” (Luke 18:16). The adult walks alongside the child as a guide. In relationship to God, both the child and the adult are peers. In relationship to each other, the child and adult are not peers but neither are they stuck in an authoritarian, top-down system. Instead, the adult guides the child as the adult has more life experiences and is more emotionally, mentally, and physically developed. Authority symbolizes the evangelical models, as Tedd Tripp says: “Authority best describes the parent’s relationship to the child.” Guided partnership symbolizes this alternative model: parent and child are, as Brandt so eloquently stated, “co-spectators of God’s glory.”
Some might interpret what I am saying as encouragement to never teach one’s child to obey parents or other authorities. But I am not suggesting that. I think that, just as it is important to teach children to respect authority, it is equally important to empower children to fight against authority. Just as it is important to teach encourage children to obey parents, it is equally important to encourage children to be their own persons and follow their hearts.
What I would like to see are sermons that consider passages like Ezekiel 20:18-19—or the Apostle Paul and Timothy’s command in Colossians 3:21 to fathers to “not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged”—with the same seriousness that the Fifth Commandment receives. Can we get the occasional sermon on Ezekiel 20:18 entitled, “Children, Disobey Your Parents in the Lord, For This is Right”? We already have parenting classes on getting children to obey; can we have parenting classes on what it means for children to disobey in godly ways? And how can we encourage that? Can we rethink how we approach teenage rebellion? Perhaps it is more God-breathed than some have thought.
Ultimately, I think these issues are relevant beyond the sphere of parenting and thinking theologically about children. Walking the line between obeying and disobeying is the heart of what it means to be made in the image of God.
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