Children are not simply to submit to authorities, whether those authorities are parental or governmental.
Children are made in the image of God, not the image of their parents. As a result, children have a right to decide what they believe, to determine who they want to be, and to speak up about those things if they are different from their caregivers’ opinions—the very things that parental rights advocates find horrifying.[i] If children did not have this right, and if the Bible did not put children who act in this way in a positive way, then we would never have the stories of Joseph, Miriam, Samuel, and so many other important biblical characters. All these children were rebels and troublemakers through their prophetic acts. They refused to stand under their caregivers’ “umbrellas of authority.”[ii] They preferred to throw aside their umbrellas and run wildly through the rain—and God blessed them for their rebellion. Like young Jesus striking out on his own to learn in the temple (Luke 2:41-52), they were their own human beings.
The Bible speaks to the divinely established right of children to disobey their parents in Ezekiel 20:18-19. There we read God declare, “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.’” In these verses, God specifically commands children to push back against their parents in certain contexts. Yet how often do we hear pastors or Sunday School teachers preach on this passage? Hardly ever. Or in my case, never—and my experience is by no means unique.[iii] I never heard a sermon or lesson on this passage, yet I heard countless sermons and lessons on the message, “Children, Obey Your Parents in the Lord, For This is Right.” Yet Ezekiel 20:18-19 clearly indicates that there are situations where “Children, Disobey Your Parents in the Lord, For This is Right” is the more appropriate message.[iv]
Throughout history, respected theologians have affirmed this right of children to rebel against their parents in certain contexts. The Catholic saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, strongly believed that children could go against their parents’ wishes for numerous reasons: if their parents wanted them to marry someone they did not want to, if their parents were not letting them pursue a career, or if their parents wanted them to do something sinful. “If our parents incite us to sin,” Aquinas wrote, “and withdraw us from the service of God, we must, as regards this point, abandon and hate them.”[v] Additionally, “Thomas approved of conscientious disobedience. For older children as for all people of mature reason, the conscience…trumps other ostensible obligations.”[vi] Aquinas had faith that children could—like adults do—trust their consciences.
The Protestant reformer Martin Luther also believed in the right of children to self-determine over and against their parents’ wishes. Indeed, a “concern for self-determination and the respect accorded one’s decisions appears in Luther’s writings concerning the obligations of the parent-child relationship.”[vii] Luther grounded a child’s right to self-determine in the idea of Christian freedom: “His concept of Christian freedom, by which the believer is lord of all and servant of all, allowed children some means to counter their parents’ demands based on the Fourth Commandment.”[viii] Luther believed that Christian freedom, in fact, greatly limited what parents could demand from their children. “Parental authority is strictly limited,” Luther wrote. “It does not extend to the point where it can wreak damage and destruction to the child, especially to its soul.”[ix]
Another, more contemporary theologian who believed in the right of children to not mindlessly obey their parents is Karl Barth. Barth argues in his seminal work Church Dogmatics that, “It is an error to suppose…that the youngster is to behave merely as the object of parental wishes.” Rather, “parents must appeal to the child’s budding freedom and responsibility by way of the ‘higher court’ of divine jurisdiction.” In other words, parents are to appeal to children because of children’s already-existing relationship with God. Children should continually learn that they “must already render his own account to this higher court, engaging in personal reflection on the meaning and purpose of what his parents expect of him, treading in his own ways and making his own judgments.”[x]Children’s ultimate allegiance is to God, and parents do not have a right to intervene in God’s relationship with their children. While children are to honor and respect their parents, parents must also honor and respect their children. Part of that honor and respect for parents means creating space for children to speak out prophetically within the context of their families when children believe their parents are straying from God’s path. Families need to create an environment, therefore, where children feel comfortable being the sort of “conscientious objectors” that Aquinas envisioned.
[iii] Marcia J. Bunge, “The Vocation of the Child: Theological Perspectives on the Particular and Paradoxical Roles and Responsiblities of Children,” The Vocation of the Child, ed. by Patrick McKinley Brennan, Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008, p. 42: “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.”
[v] Thomas Aquinas, as quoted by Cristina L. H. Traina, “A Person in the Making: Thomas Aquinas on Children and Childhood,” The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 108.
[vi] Cristina L. H. Traina, “A Person in the Making: Thomas Aquinas on Children and Childhood,” The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 109.
[vii] Jane E. Strohl, “The Child in Luther’s Theology: ‘For What Purpose Do We Older Folks Exist, Other Than to Care for…the Young?”, The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 136.
[viii] Ibid, p. 138.
[ix] Martin Luther, as quoted by Jane E. Strohl, “The Child in Luther’s Theology: ‘For What Purpose Do We Older Folks Exist, Other Than to Care for…the Young?”, The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 155.
[x] Karl Barth, as quoted by William Werpehowski, “Reading Karl Barth on Children,” The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 397.
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