Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
In Romans 1:28–32, the Apostle Paul goes through a litany of offenses committed by those who don’t see fit to acknowledge God. Many of the charges make sense, including that such people are “full of envy murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness” (v. 29). Yet there is one offense that might seem out of place: they are “disobedient to parents” (v. 30).
This phrase tended to make an impression on the teenagers with whom I used to work. It’s easy to say that we are not murderers or filled with malice. We might protest that we are not “gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil” (vv. 29–30; although we might have a hard time credibly denying the first two). But who has never disobeyed his parents? We might think that disrespectful children are a uniquely modern phenomenon, but the problem certainly existed in Paul’s day. The law of Moses even prescribed death for intractably rebellious children, a penalty that seems unspeakably harsh to people today (Deut. 21:18–21).
Clearly, the Bible takes obedience to parents seriously. The fifth commandment tells us, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12). Let’s explore why this commandment is included among the Ten Commandments and what it means for us.
The fifth commandment is the first on the so-called second table of the law. The first table has to do with our duties toward God, while the second table has to do with our duties toward our fellow man.
It may seem strange that a command to honor one’s father and mother is the first of the commands regarding man. But it makes sense. The first commandment begins the first table of the law by telling us that we are to have no other gods before God (Ex. 20:3). God is setting up a structure of authority: He is God, and we are His people. We are to have no other Gods. We are to recognize His authority alone and to act accordingly. In the same way, God has set up authority structures on earth, and so He begins the second table of the law by addressing the most basic of these structures, the family—one man and one woman for life, together with their children. In this context, children learn what authority is, and they learn to obey. In the same way that we are to recognize and abide by our heavenly authority, we are to recognize and abide by earthly authorities.
Recognizing this parallel, the Westminster Standards expand the meaning of the fifth commandment to encompass our duties in all of our relationships. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that the commandment requires “the preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to every one in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors or equals” (WSC 64). The reference here is not to superiors and inferiors in terms of dignity or value but in terms of authority. The Westminster divines understood that while fathers and mothers are the first and most basic authorities in our lives, they are not the only ones. The divines also included authorities in the church and the state; we might add authorities in the classroom and the workplace.
In each of these contexts, we have various relationships. Sometimes we are superior, sometimes inferior, and sometimes equal. In each case, we have various duties and are liable to commit certain sins, and the Westminster Larger Catechism expands at length on these duties and sins (WLC 123–33). In so doing, the Larger Catechism unfolds the meaning of honor as paying what is due to them—to superiors, reverence, prayer, obedience, imitation of their godly virtues, maintenance of their dignity, and bearing with their infirmities (WLC 127); to inferiors, love, prayer, instruction, rewards, correction, and protection (WLC 129); and to equals, recognition of their dignity, deference, and rejoicing in their advancement (WLC 131).
To fail to honor those around us, whether superiors, inferiors, or equals, is to engage in rebellion against God. Especially in the case of our superiors, casting off earthly authorities is tantamount to casting off our heavenly authority, the One who placed those earthly authorities over us. This is why rebellion against parents was such a grievous sin under the old covenant and why Paul included disobedience to parents among the grave offenses committed by the ungodly.
As God is due honor by virtue of His being our God, so our fellow man is due honor by virtue of His being God’s image bearer, and so also our superiors are due honor by virtue of their having authority “by God’s ordinance” (WLC 124). When we honor our fellow men in their several relations, we honor the God who placed us all where we are.