Teaching Students What “Honor Your Father and Mother” Does – and Does Not – Mean

In my journey as a clinician, specifically a Christian marriage and family therapist, I have wrestled with the teachings surrounding the verse, “Children obey your parents in the Lord. For this is right” (Eph 6:1).  This dates back to the Ten Commandments— “Honor your father and mother” (Ex 20:12)— the first commandment with a promise of blessing! These remarkable words have led the community of believers to value family and the elderly in an often counter-cultural way. Initially, the application of this Scripture seems so straightforward, but once the commandment gets “skin on,” its impact is a bit challenging.

For a youth leader, the question is when or how to intervene when your student’s emotional health and well-being appear to be threatened by unhealthy family dynamics. Perhaps you notice some yellow (or red) flags as a student describes controlling behavior or overly rigid rules at home. Or they may tell you about needy and/or disengaged parents who are manipulative or emotionally abusive. So what do you do? Approaching this commandment to obey from a “spirit of the law” rather than a black- and-white “letter of the law” approach, it is possible to begin exploring the intended purpose of these passages.

All human beings are created to be treated with dignity, which at times creates some tension: on the one hand, you want to teach your students the value and purpose of honoring their parents. On the other hand, it’s important that the image of God in them not be mistreated or overlooked. Careful contextualization of this command in the biblical narrative reveals that God desires people to celebrate and honor the Imago Dei, the image of God in us, while mutually standing against the sin that distorts his intended goodness in all people. No matter the brokenness of the world or the brokenness in ourselves, we were made “very good” from the beginning. The Imago Dei establishes our shared humanity and equality with one another. This isn’t something we age or wise into. It is out of this understanding that Paul applies “honor thy parents” to those he’s writing to in Ephesus.

By law, every first century Roman household had a code called the “Patria Potestas.” This code was addressed to the head of the house and made clear that others were to subjugate themselves to him. In Paul’s letter (Eph. 5:22-6:9), he takes the code a step further in light of the gospel, establishing that women, children, and slaves are to be dignified as well. In this, God’s heart for the vulnerable is made evident. In a counter-cultural move, Paul addresses the vulnerable directly, inviting a powerful adjustment to the Romans’ view of the world and revealing the Imago Dei of those who were normally perceived as lesser humans. He makes clear that obedience to authority is intended to be life-giving and protective rather than restrictive, abusing, or devaluing.

With this understanding, we lay the groundwork for how teens can honor God and obey with the awareness of the Imago Dei in themselves and their parents. Looking at Scripture in its entirety, God communicates His desire for Christian families to be different from the culture, to show the world what it looks like to love and act in a godly manner. God wants his people to thrive; the purpose of honoring authority is flourishing. In healthy families when children heed wise and loving instruction, it often lends to their well-being and maturation. The Father has given us a beautiful example in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Here the father is an authoritative, gracious parent. He is compassionate and kind with boundaries and expectations. Authoritative parenting creates connection through care, leading to emotionally healthy relationships. Often children respond in obedience because they know they are safe and that their parents are for them and about them.

Sadly, pain, trauma, and sinful desires often dictate parenting behavior rather than the truths of God. When teachings about obedience are taken out of context, the result is often authoritarian parenting.  Authoritarian parenting requires obedience from the child, but often the parent does not engage in responsive relationship with the child. The parent expects the child to behave or be respectful (i.e. emotionally regulated) even if the parent is not. Authoritarian parenting does not allow for any feedback, but if the child does push back, they are considered “rebellious,” which sends the damaging message that they are “too much.” In turn the child’s eyes glaze over as they sit under continual criticism and their obedience becomes dead. Other times this style of parenting may lead to a “good kid” who is super responsible, but often these kids are their parent’s emotional caretaker. Children in this situation also learn that they are “not enough” because this parentified role is too big for them.

How do we teach our students to obey authoritarian parents? Perhaps, in encouraging our students to love like Christ, they will learn to look for the Imago Dei in their parents. Healthy boundaries allow the student to name unjust treatment that devalues their humanity and join with Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings as they seek to obey their parents. It is important to remind your student that in Christ, he or she is already pleasing to God, even in the midst of not directly “obeying” demanding or unreasonable requests from their parents. When teens grasp this truth, they can challenge their parents while speaking from a place of respect, without needing to please them.

Loving, respectful pushback from a teen in an unhealthy family dynamic can look a lot like giving feedback about unfair treatment and expectations. This does not mean that this child is being rebellious or ungodly, but rather that they are speaking out against sin and wrongdoing with patience and humility, perhaps breaking destructive cycles. It is also valuable for youth workers to normalize anger in teenagers, as anger is an important emotion that acknowledges when boundaries have been crossed or when mistreatment or emotional manipulation has occurred. Teens often have a sense of their Imago Dei and recognize that everyone is deserving of being treated with kindness no matter their age.

Boundaries can be confusing and hard to apply, but you can walk a teenager through some statements that can help diffuse the power struggle. “Dad, when you yell at me I don’t think I am capable of hearing what you want me to hear. Can we talk about this when things are more calm?” Or  “Mom, when you start to cry like that it makes me feel like my thoughts don’t matter.” This is an effort to begin reducing enmeshment, stating which treatment feels unfair. You can help the teen find the easiest way for them to communicate with their parents. This could happen face-to-face, via text or letter, or even in an email outlining what feels okay and not okay and requesting concrete changes. This could include listing a few things that are particularly hurtful that the child would like to be put to an end.

Fighting back in love and with forgiveness can set a boundary that allows for emotional space between the teen and their parent. When a teen reaches out for support you can help them explore ways to protect themselves from being manipulated or used by their parents. Parents cannot raise their children on their own and the church can provide a buffer to protect (on some small level) the relationship from being damaged.

Sometimes it may even be appropriate to meet one-on-one with the parents or with the student and their parents to help facilitate a discussion on healthy expectations for a teen. This can be the beginning of building a team for the student, a partnership with, rather than against parents. Unfortunately, this does not always work and there may be times when the church may need to further support the student in setting healthy boundaries with their parents. Inevitably, there will be parents who are very set in their ways, unable to take feedback and unwilling to change their viewpoints, and it can feel like your only option is to emotionally support the teen.

It is delicate and nuanced, but as a youth leader you have the unique opportunity to speak into these kids’ lives. Let them know that when their parents fight like crazy, this is not what God intended for marriage or the family. When you recognize that a parent’s identity is based on their child’s success, you have the chance to let your student know that their performance does not define their worth and that God is more concerned with their heart. This is a great opportunity to discuss with teens the idea of emotionally healthy spirituality—God cares about all parts of them; not just how they behave or what grades they get.

Familial relationships can be a beautiful place for our students to be connected to the gospel and reveal Christ in the way they conduct themselves with their parents. There are ways to honor God by honoring parents while also honoring the Imago Dei in them. You can help a student think through how this is possible. Discussing boundaries in general at this age is vital and will be something that parents are perhaps unsure how to model to their kids, let alone teach them.

You may become aware of a more serious issue that may need more intervention than you alone can provide. If there is abuse, this will need to be reported appropriately. If this feels intimidating, I would strongly encourage reaching out to your supervising pastor for support and guidance, as these are tricky dynamics to address and could possibly create some emotional fallout. It may be determined that family therapy or individual therapy for your student can be the supportive environment needed for the teen to work through the complicated dynamics in their family.

We know as believers, when something is veiled in darkness it can grow and fester, but when it is brought to the light it can be healed. Healthy relationships allow the Imago Dei and the Biblical intention of obedience to shine with love and meaning in a dark world while protecting the most vulnerable.

Kellie Currin is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma counseling and is passionate about emotionally healthy spirituality. She is married to her best friend, Hank, who is a middle school youth director at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church. They have a 2.5 year old daughter who is the light of their lives and keeps them on their toes and they are expecting a son in February.

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