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