How Can I Honor An Abusive Parent?

By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved

(This is written with the parent as male gendered, only because I had to pick one. It applies equally to male and female parents.)

How do I respect an abusive parent?

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Exodus 20:12

Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.
Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;)
That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

Gal. 6:1-3

Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.

Col. 3:20

The church teaches “children obey your parents” and “children honor your parents” – but if the issue of domestic violence in marriage is largely invisible in the church, you can bet the issue of honoring an abusive parent is even further off the radar. What do you do when your parent is abusive?

First of all, the situation is different if you are still a minor under their care or if you are an adult. If you are a child and under their care, you need to go to a counselor and tell them what is going on. That is not dishonor, as I will explain shortly.. If you are an adult, that parent does not have as much immediate dominance, and the power of the law, standing behind them.

So what is honor and obedience, in the context of a parent/child relationship?

Honor – to give weight, to promote (Hebrew kabad)
Obey – to hear under (as a subordinate), i.e. to listen attentively; by implication, to heed or conform to a command or authority:–hearken, be obedient to, obey. (Greek hupakouo)
Honor – to prize, i.e. fix a valuation upon; by implication, to revere:–honour, value. (Greek timao)

The church teaches children obey/respect your parents as a necessity for God’s blessing – after all it is the first commandment with a promise of long life! Who doesn’t want that? However, the way this is taught is shallow and takes no account of situations that are not quite cut and dried. This is particularly difficult for children with an abusive parent because our Christian culture has all eyes on children being obedient and respectful, and tends to easily accept the side of a parent who claims their child is disobedient and disrespectful.

Let’s look first at the word obey in the Greek verses. It means “…to listen attentively, to heed or conform to a command or authority…”

The verse says children are to obey their parents in all things. Does that mean in ALL things? If a parent tells a child to commit a crime, or expects their participation in criminal behavior, is that child supposed to obey his parent? If a parent tells or expects a child to participate in behavior which is clearly and directly against the Word, is that child supposed to obey his parent?

Stating the obvious, we cannot take one or two verses out of the context of the whole of the Word and make a doctrine out of them. The Word also says,

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Mt. 10:37

This principle is universal across Scripture. To put any human directive above God’s is idolatry. We can’t put the command for children to obey their parents above our primary focus on loving God. Wherever there is a variance between a parent’s expectations and God’s, the parent’s expectations cannot be met.

A child’s obedience would also be limited to the duration of his childhood, during which he was under his parent’s authority. Once he is no longer a child, but an adult, the directive has obviously expired. Obedience as a child does not extend into adulthood. It would be foolish to assume an adult must obey their parent in all things when they are living separate adult lives. However, this idea is used by abusive parents to extend their authority far beyond reasonable boundaries.

In these verses, obedience and honoring are obviously considered synonymous. However, the church seems to emphasize honoring as a separate action and attitude than obedience.

So, let’s look closely at the meaning the word honor, both in the Hebrew and Greek. Is there any indication or implication present to assume that a child is required by God to remain in relationship with an abusive parent?

I can value my parent as a person and as a person who gave me life, without being in any type of relationship with him whatsoever. Honoring a parent is about my attitude toward him – that is all that is required by the Word.

But honoring a parent does not mean I must accept unrighteousness. Honor will keep me from answering back in kind when someone is treating me inappropriately because, as a person created in God’s image, he does not “deserve” that, no matter his behavior. I respect God’s creation – it is not about the man or his behavior.

However, because I respect him as God’s creation, I will not and cannot enable him to continue in sin by doing nothing when he has persistent sin against me and against God that he will not address or acknowledge. I respect him enough to attempt to turn a sinner from the error of his ways. In a respectful manner.

Let’s take a quick look at what honoring is not:

  • Staying in relationship with someone who will hurt me or those for whom I am responsible.
  • Never saying anything to anyone about the other’s “faults.”
  • Enabling a sinner to remain in sin by my silence and inaction.
  • Thinking a person is “wonderful” when they are not.
  • Having feelings of love.

Giving honor is a choice, not a feeling.

That said, an abuser cannot expect not to have consequences for his/her behavior. Parents are not immune from consequences. When a parent has indicated a persistent pattern of abuse, it is fully appropriate to sever relationship with that person so they do not have the power to continue to cause pain and to continue in sin with the child’s blessing through ignoring or tolerating it.

The book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, by David Cloud and John Townsend is very helpful to learn to see what is and is not appropriate, and how to step away without dishonoring. It is both possible and appropriate to honor an abusive parent without remaining in relationship with that person if he refuses to respect appropriate relationship boundaries or attempts to insist on ungodly behavior. Again, honoring God takes precedence if the parent makes demands in violation of godliness.

In light of the prevalence of abuse in today’s church, this subject needs to be taught with more sensitivity and depth. Hitting the highlights without a deeper understanding has the negative side effect of piling guilt and condemnation on people who have an abusive parent in their life.

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7 Responses

  1. From discussions I have heard, I gather most foks would agree that a child should not steal or kill when a parent tells him/her to do so. What they do not seem to understand, is that the child also should not accept wrong-doing from the parent that is aimed at him/herself. This goes beyond rape and incest. It’s in the groping and mean-spirited pinches of the buttocks, (having nothing to do with punishment or correction) in the wrongful chewing-out, the put-downs, the name-calling. These are very common behaviors from abusers. Yet they are not acknowledged, and the children are given no “right” to protect themselves. It appears according to church teaching and the silence on this subject, that children’s “obedience” includes doing the will of the abusive parent, which means the child is to be available for the abusive parent to mistreat, speak ill of unjustly, basically to be the parent’s punching bag either physically or non-physically, and sometimes both.

    Thanks for bringing this subject up, Danni! We do need a teaching for children about when to “obey” and when not to obey. How to protect themselves as much as possible, which may mean staying away from the abuser as much as possible.

    Additionally, how is a child to behave when one parent undermines the other? Obviously, when Mom says “clean your room,” (and the room actually needs it: Mom is not being unreasonabe) Dad says “you don’t have to. Mom’s just being a shrew. Let’s go out for ice cream,” it would take a very strong child to choose the right thing instead of taking Dad’s bribe and “obeying” his “command” to disrespect Mom, and by extension disrespect the child’s own person and personal space. Yet, this is the type of obedience children of abusers should be taught–to obey what is right. But since the church does not acknowledge the problem, how can it address these issues?

    And what about abusers who work to drive a wedge between children and the non-abusive parent? If a child is obedient, he or she would indeed have to obey the abuser (the loudest, most insistent, most threatening and punishing parent) and despise and disobey the non-abuser. When the church does not address this, church leaders are in essense acting as co-conspirators in training children to do evil–the exact opposite of what the Bible teaches. The church should be addressing this issue and be very proactive in making the abuser leave the home until he or she makes major attitude and belief changes.

    Let me repeat: Instead of sending abused wives home to their abusive husbands, pastors should step up their teaching program to make it more likely that wives (or husbands) would confide in pastors about any abuse in the beginning, (hopefully before the abuse turns physical and before any children are born to the couple) so that the church can deal with the sin before it becomes so engrained in the abuser there is little chance for long-term transformation and before the abuser escalates his abuse and irreparably damages each individual in the whole family.

    • Waneta,

      Thank you for the amplification! That’s exactly what I am thinking – and didn’t ever get to those details in this piece. Those are perfect illustrations of the point and the principle.

      — Danni

  2. I recently read some clips which confirm something I have heard before about “honor”. As you mentioned in your post, Danni, the OT kabed/honor is “weight”. “Honoring” sees the other’s weight, their impact on us

    So when the Bible instructs us to “honor thy father and mother” this means that we need to acknowledge their “weight”, their impact on us, whether “experienced positively or negatively”.

    Because kābēd refers to the function of weight, however, it may be semantically ambivalent: the weight of something can be experienced positively or negatively.
    [and]
    “to honor,” i.e., “to lend someone weight” or “to acknowledge someone as weighty” in most passages. The Decalogue commands, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16; cf. Mal 1:6);

    Deuteronomy 5:16
    “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

    Ephesians 6
    2″Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3″that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

    We ALL had imperfect earthly parents. If we fail to weigh their impact upon us accurately, we fail at biblical “honor” and things may not go very well for us in our journey.

    So to HONOR them: acknowledge the impact they had upon you! the good, the bad, and the ugly… shedding light is good, healing. Darkness is not my friend. For me, it was not until my mid-40’s that I really weighed the impact my parents had upon me, rendering biblical honor to them them (gave weight to their impact). Before that, things were not going very well with me. I was blind to some generational issues and was mistakenly following some of the “futile way of life inherited from the forefathers” (1 Pet 1:18). Once the scales came off my eyes, I was able to pray spiritual warfare about generational strongholds, and God has wrought much deliverance.

  3. I’ve sat under a few sermons where the ‘honor your parents’ teaching was taught in a balanced way, with examples of where “honour” should include refusal to comply with the parent’s sin. Likewise, I’ve sat under a few sermons where balanced teaching was given about the wife’s relationship to her husband (honour, submit, and respect; but that shouldn’t extend to submitting to sin, or complying with sin).
    And I can also remember sermons where the subject was scannned lightly, with the damaging results described above. I was grieved by these sermons; because I imagined how every victim of abuse in the congregation must be feeling, and how some kids in the congregation were being set up to become victims.

  4. Sometimes simple country preachers with a sincere heart towards God and people can get it right without understanding about honor being “weight”.
    (Good insight, btw, Charis. I’m not undermining it, I’m just pointing out how one preacher was able to make a good point without the “weight” understanding of honor)

    But this preacher I knew said something along the lines of:

    If a robber came to you with a gun and told you, “Your money or your life,” you would give him your money because your life is the most valuable thing you have.
    Your parents, evil or good, gave you life. Without them you wouldn’t be here. If you can honor them for nothing else, honor them for the life they gave you.

    Then he went on to say the things you gals are saying.
    honor doesn’t mean obey, etc and that there are limits to obedience as mentioned in Ephesians.

  5. It helped me personally to understand the deeper meaning because my old assumption about the meaning of “honor” was really an unhealthy sort of “keeping family secrets”. “Shame on me if I exposed the bad stuff because that was ‘dishonoring'” Twisting “Love covers a multitude of sin” and “does not keep a record of wrong” into failure to respond appropriately to evil.

    ” For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile:” 1 Peter 3:10

    I practiced “guile” when I was stuck in denial.
    I had to learn to speak the truth in love and to confront evil instead of denying, excusing, or minimizing it.

  6. I have some mixed feelings about the whole honor thy parents bit. To often have I seen this used (much along the lines of the whole submission thing) in a harmful manner.

    My mother was a psychopath and even to this day one of the few things that still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth is when someone tells me that I should honor or respect her because she is my mother. Being a biological donor/giving birth to someone does not a mother (or father) make and it deserves no special respect unless that respect is earned.

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