The Fourth Commandment
“Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.”
(Note in our Catechism’s wording above the combination of the Old Testament citation in Exodus 20:12 and the New Testament revision of the “promise” in Ephesians 6:2–3 — without contradiction, both “given by inspiration of God,” I Timothy 3:16.)
Nowadays it has become quite common to observe children acting very disrespectfully to their parents in public—openly defying them, mocking them, and sometimes even ordering them around as if the parents were under the authority of the children. Such behavior is certainly shameful on the part of the children, but it is also a shameful thing when parents allow their children to act in such a way without correction. And even though Christian children should stand out as being much different in this regard from their unbelieving peers—all to the glory of their heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16, Philippians 2:13)— yet on account of their sinful flesh even Christians frequently break the Fourth Commandment and can benefit greatly from its consistent application in their lives. A nice outline of what the Scriptures teach concerning the Fourth Commandment is found in the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther, where he rightly points out that God requires children to give their parents honor, to serve and obey them, and to hold them in love and esteem.
To honor parents means to value them highly and respect them. They are to be honored as God’s own representatives—as the ones that He has specifically chosen to have authority over their children in the home. Children should be on guard against the temptation to follow the negative examples that they see on T.V. or in the world around them of children showing little or no respect at all for their parents. Christian children should understand that their worldly acquaintances, and even their fellow Christians on account of their sinful flesh, will sometimes show very bad examples that they should not emulate, because it would displease their Lord and Savior (John 14:15). It is also important to remember that the divine command to honor parents is directed to the heart of the children, not merely to their outward behavior. Obviously, children are not rightly honoring their parents if they only superficially submit to their authority while they are mocking or despising them in their hearts. The Lord commands: “Hearken unto thy father that begat thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22). And since God perfectly knows the heart of every individual, He knows exactly when children are breaking the Fourth Commandment in ways that are not even visible to human observers.
Likewise, in order for Christian children to serve their parents in a God-pleasing way, their heart needs to be cheerfully involved in that service. They should not look for ways to remain idle or disengaged from the service of their parents with the excuse that they have not yet been given specific orders from Mom or Dad. On the contrary, without first needing a command to do so, they should be moved by love to seek out ways of helping their mother and father—doing for them such things as contribute to their happiness, assistance, care, comfort, aid, and support. “Let them learn first to show piety [i.e., Godliness] at home and to requite [i.e., repay] their parents; for that is good and acceptable before God” (I Timothy 5:4). Such service should be carried out willingly and gladly by Christian children as part of their service unto the Lord.
Because God tells children to obey their parents, believing followers of God are minded, according to their new man, to conform their behavior to the express wishes of their father and mother—doing what they command and refraining from doing what they forbid. Children are not to think that they have the right to refuse obedience or to make their obedience contingent upon their own personal conditions being met—such as, obeying only if their parents ask nicely and say “please,” or obeying only if they can be convinced that the decision of their parents is the wisest or most fair course of action, and so on. It is important for children to be reminded (and also regularly to remind themselves) that obeying their parents “in all things” (Colossians 3:20) is part of their loving obedience to the Lord (Ephesians 6:1; John 14:15). Consequently, to disobey their parents would be to disobey the Lord God Himself, who also threatens to punish disobedient children. “The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it” (Proverbs 30:17). The only time when a Christian child should disobey his parents is when he is commanded by them to sin against the Lord (Acts 5:29).
Being required to obey their parents will not seem like such a heavy burden if the children truly “love and esteem” them “as precious gifts of God” (Catechism Q/A 57, D.). But the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh all seek to undermine such filial love, and instead promote an attitude of opposition, resentment, and bitterness in the heart of a child toward parental authority. Children can become quickly frustrated with their parents when they are required to do things that they really do not enjoy doing (such as homework), or when they are required to stop doing what they very much want to continue doing (such as playing video games). Resentment of the authority of their parents often leads children to act out in sinful ways unbecoming of Christians, and to long for the day when they will finally be free from the parents’ rules and control. Children should, instead, focus on the great blessings that the Lord gives them through their parents, and thus grow in their appreciation for mother and father. Ultimately, the way to increase true Christian love for parents is to direct the children to the boundless love of God in the Gospel of Christ. After they have been rebuked for their sins and rightly understand that they deserve eternal hell-fire on account of their numerous transgressions of the Fourth Commandment (as well as all the other Commandments), then their contrite hearts are to be comforted by the sweet Gospel of forgiveness through Jesus’ blood and righteousness. If that message of God’s grace is received in believing hearts and is truly appreciated by the children, they will love their Savior very much, and will also grow in love for their parents, who are the representatives of the Lord in the home.
One of the ways that God impressed upon His people in the Old Testament how much He hates the breaking of the Fourth Commandment was by setting forth severe punishments to be carried out by the civil authorities upon those who would blatantly dishonor their mother or father. For the child who would lash out violently against his parents, and for the child who would curse his parents, the punishment was death (Exodus 21:15, 17). That political law was to be followed as long as the Israelites were a theocracy — a government directly ruled by God even in political matters. Furthermore, the Lord showed the Children of Israel how much He values the keeping of the Fourth Commandment by attaching to it a special promise concerning future prosperity in the land of Canaan. “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12). In the New Testament, the promise was rephrased in order to have direct application for true Christians throughout the world: “Honor thy father and mother (which is the first [foremost] Commandment with promise); that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:2–3).
Because the Bible draws such close parallels between the duties of children to their parents and the duties of employees to their employers (Ephesians 6:5–8; Colossians 3:22–24), as well as the duties of citizens to their government (Romans 13:1–7; I Peter 2:13–14), these points are rightly categorized under the Fourth Commandment, which taken in a general way deals with all the authorities that God places over us in the various areas of life. Those who do not learn to respect God’s representatives in the home will likely not respect other authority figures either, such as those at school, in the work place, or in the state. This, obviously, will not benefit them when it comes to getting an education, holding down a job, or staying on the right side of the law. Thus even from a purely earthly standpoint, there are definite benefits for those who learn in their youth to honor their parents and apply those lessons as they progress through life. Not that God wants Christian children to be motivated purely by self-interest to follow the Fourth Commandment; but to help overcome the objections of the flesh, it can be profitable to point out earthly benefits associated with the following of God’s Commandments (as the Lord Himself does in Ephesians 6:3). No one should despise the divine promise, “that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth;” nor should anyone think that this promise is disproved by cases of Christian children who die at a very young age. Certainly the Lord may choose, in His all-wise and gracious providence, to afflict a Godly child with a physical cross that may result in an early death; and that, just like all the chastenings that the heavenly Father lays upon His beloved children, is to be regarded as a special manifestation of God’s love, specifically designed for the spiritual and eternal welfare of His elect (Romans 8:28; Hebrews 12:6).
Though not specifically addressed in the Fourth Commandment (which focuses on the children’s duties toward their parents), a related doctrine is what the Lord requires of parents toward their children. Immediately after children are commanded to honor their parents in Ephesians 6:1–3, the following command is given: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath; but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Likewise, immediately after God tells children to obey their parents in Colossians 3:20, He says: “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). Notice that the fathers (not the mothers) are specifically addressed in both of these sections, because they are the God-appointed heads of their households; but obviously the divine instruction that is here set forth applies equally to mothers and all with parental authority (guardianship) as well.
Sadly, sometimes parents are guilty of provoking their children to sin against the Fourth Commandment, when, for instance, they treat their children in a mean and unfair way that demonstrates contempt more than love. However, it should never be thought that consistent, loving discipline is to be blamed for provoking children to wrath. Sadly, physical discipline, such as spanking, is generally criticized and excoriated by most parenting “experts” nowadays—being regarded as ineffective and counter-productive (at best) or even abusive and immoral (at worst). But whether Christian parents choose to spank or use other forms of disciplinary correction, they should understand that the Bible does not discourage physical discipline at all, but rather encourages it in such passages as: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes [i.e. at times, occasionally]” (Proverbs 13:24); and again: “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (Proverbs 19:18); and again: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him” (22:15); and again: “Withhold not correction from the child; for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod and shalt deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:13–14). In this matter it is very important to remember that proper discipline is motivated by the parents’ love for their children and is compared to how our good and gracious heavenly Father chastens us in love—using afflictions to serve our good. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Hebrews 12:6–7; see also Job 5:17; Proverbs 3:11–12; Revelation 3:19).
It is most certainly good and proper for parents to insist that their children conform to Fourth Commandment principles and not turn a blind eye to blatant violations of this divine command. But when parents require their children to obey and honor them in obedience to the Lord’s Fourth Commandment, it is crucial that the parents themselves provide a consistent Christian example in their own lives. It is very offensive if the impression is given to the children that the only time Mom and Dad seem to care about the Law of God is when they are citing the Fourth Commandment in rebuke of the children. That would obviously appear to be very self-serving and hypocritical on the part of the parents if the Bible is only ever cited when it is convenient for them to use it in demanding compliance and respect from their children. On the other hand, if the children can clearly see that the parents, as genuine Christians, put their love for the Savior into practice in their lives and insist that the Lord Jesus and His Word be honored and followed in their home, then the children should be able to understand and appreciate the consistency when their parents insist that the children also submit in love and cheerful obedience to their Redeemer’s commands—including the command that father and mother be honored by them. And Christian children, according to their new man, will also themselves sincerely desire to follow the Fourth Commandment as a fruit of their faith.
May the Lord continue always to guide the children and parents in our Conference according to His holy Commandments and move them by His tender mercies in Christ Jesus to submit themselves in humble and loving obedience unto Him and to the authorities He has placed over them.
Oh, blest that house where faith ye find
and all within have set their mind
to trust their God and serve Him still
and do in all His holy will!
(TLH 625, v. 2)
—P. E. B.