“Honor your father and your mother.”
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God, and so we should not despise our parents and superiors, nor provoke them to anger, but honor, serve, obey, love, and esteem them.
Our Roman Catholic siblings in the faith talk about the domestic church. It’s a nice turn of phrase that captures the importance of having Christian parents. As co-creators with God, parents not only bring children into the world. In obedience to God’s command to make disciples of all people by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, parents bring their children for Holy Baptism and make promises to raise them as children of the Light.
As we will discuss in a later blog, Luther quotes the warning from Exodus and Deuteronomy that the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited to the third and fourth generation. This means that bad behavior modeled by the previous generations of parents tends to get repeated until, by God’s grace and mercy, someone finally says: “Enough!”
Which takes us back to the promises made on the baptismal day when parents promise to bring the child to the services of God’s house, teach the child the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the 10 commandments, to place in the child’s hands the Holy Scriptures, and to provide for the child’s instruction in the Christian faith, so that living in communion with the Church, the child may lead a godly life until the day of Jesus Christ!
The antidote to bad parental behavior is Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead. When a parent or parents have had bad parental modeling (abuse, infidelity, indifference to God) or bad genes (the tendency to addiction, chemical imbalance affecting mood and behavior), that parent may well need the reparenting guidance of a self-consciously Christian (or Jewish) counselor. But the key is the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ regularly sustaining and strengthening that parent through Word and Sacrament. The parent may well benefit from the regular use of private confession with a pastor who self-consciously practices the care of souls. She or he may also greatly benefit from the mutual conversation and consolation of the brothers and the sisters that happens in self-consciouly Christian friendships (koinonia). In the case of addictions, participation in a 12 step group may be a good supplemental kind of reparenting (not all 12 step groups do a good job of that; one must be selective).
Having said all of that as a way of answering in advance the “yes, buts”, God intends parents to be godly and not rebellious parents. This is sadly why marriages often collapse. Some people persist in their rebellion against God. Of course, rebellion against God spills over into all areas of life and especially marriage and family. Sin is, as Luther said, the heart curved in upon itself. The rebellious spouse is selfish. The rebellious parents are selfish. They are too much in the center to let God be God, and they deprive their children of spiritual development and nurture. This is why a godly spouse rarely sees the conversion of her or his spouse and risks having children that follow the modeling and example of the rebellious parent.
God wants parents to be godly. This means that it matters who we are, and it matters who we marry. People do not come from identical backgrounds. But in choosing a spouse, one should look for someone with a complimentary background. Parents need to create a common culture, so it matters that one’s spouse is able to have a shared culture. Keeping God as center means that having an interfaith marriage is highly problematic and frustrating. Coming from such different worlds, it is impossible to create a shared culture in which God is center particularly because they cannot agree on who God is!
We learn through pain. I learned in my 20s that you can love someone passionately, but if she does not want to share a culture in which God is the center, the relationship will not work. I learned in my 40s that you can love someone deeply, but if she does not want to share a culture in which God is the center, the marriage will not work. It’s heart-breaking stuff that can best be avoided in advance by seeking out carefully and slowly a person who is capable of creating a shared culture in which God is the center, because, after all, that is the family culture from which she or he has come.
Godly parents teach us how to be godly people. Rebellious parents teach us how to be rebellious people. Because we are simultaneously saints and sinners, we are all, at best, works in progress; however, living within the communion of the Church we have the Word and Sacraments, and the encouragement of the saints (living and living with God) to help us with our old Adams and Eves.
Godly parents are God’s representatives in the domestic church. They teach us by word and deed how to be godly people. They model for us growth in discipleship. They show us how to ask for and to give forgiveness. They show us how to be godly spouses. They show us the necessity of godly authority and help us to recognize rebellious and ungodly authority. Godly parents do not pretend to be their children’s friends, an abdication of parental authority. Godly parents teach us how to grow up to form our own godly families.
Christians know that all authority belongs to Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:16). Godly authority recognizes Christ’s ultimate authority. Rebellious or ungodly authority is demonic. It denies that God is God, and, thus, its source is located in the old enemy who asks, “Did God really say?”
Godly parents teach their children to be street-smart and wise in the ways of the world. Along the way, children will spend more and more time away from home under the authority of others. Wise Christians learn to grant authority, even when the people in authority are rebellious and ungodly. This is a necessary bit of learning so that naive Christians do not sabotage their well-being by foolishly refusing to recognize the authority even of those that are rebellious and ungodly. Wise Christians remember that God will be God, and the rebellious and ungodly will have to answer for their poor stewardship of God’s people and things! Occasionally, we all get a bit of schadenfreude, when bad authority gets its just rewards.
Elsewhere Luther reminds us that this is the only commandment with a promise attached (that you may live long in the land). The history of Israel is, as with the history of the Church, a history of rebellion. Because Israel failed to honor godly parents and authorities, they rebelled against God and lost the land (the Assyrian dismantling of the northern kingdom of Israel and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and ensuing exile). By not heeding Moses’ final sermon in Deuteronomy, the Israelites did not keep the covenant God graciously made with them at Sinai (Horeb). In the words of the old rock-n-roll song, they had fun, fun, fun til Daddy took the T-bird away. God owned the land, and He took it away.
It should be noted that Jesus’ parable of the wicked vineyard tenants makes the same point. If Christians persist in rebellion, God will take what is His own and give it to those who will be faithful. This is a warning that too many bishops, pastors, professors, parents, and other Christians are presently failing to heed. Rebellion against God’s good and gracious will clearly expressed in Scripture will result in the loss of authority, churches, and life itself. Again, James warns that not many should aspire to be Christian teachers for they will be judged more severely. Caveat emptor!
God wants us to obey godly parents and authorities, because they are His servants who shape and mold present and future generations to do His good and gracious will. Godly parents and godly authorities are gifts to be treasured. Through their faithful witness and modeling, we learn who and Whose we are as children of God!