Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Authority, Part 1)

January 8, 2019

by Peter Amsterdam

Parental Authority

In the previous three articles, we looked at the first four of the Ten Commandments, which primarily address people’s relationship with God. The focus of the next six commandments switches to relationships between people. As explained earlier in this series, each commandment acts as a directory which contains a number of subdirectories that address various applications of the commandment.

The fifth commandment addresses human authority. It teaches the honor we are commanded to give to our parents. This commandment also touches on all human authority—parental, governmental, church, workplace, school, etc.

This commandment is found twice within the Old Testament, the first time in the book of Exodus when God spoke the commandments to Moses.

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.1

It is stated a second time in Deuteronomy, when Moses spoke the commandments to the people of Israel. Here, he included an additional motivational clause for obedience—that it may go well with you.

Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.2


To give honor to someone means to respect, esteem, and highly regard them; to give them deference; to treat them as worthy of significance. It is an attitude which expresses reverence, respect, and obedience. Honor is something we give to God:

To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.3

He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.4

Jesus said, I honor my Father.5 It is also something God commanded His people to give to their parents.

Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father.6

Honoring one’s parents was a serious matter in Old Testament times. Recalcitrant, disobedient, and rebellious offspring, or those who cursed their parents, could be put to death according to the Laws of Moses. The New Testament doesn’t repeat, and therefore doesn’t condone, this severe punishment, but it does reiterate the command to honor and obey one’s parents.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”7

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.8

Along with the command came the promise of reward for those who obeyed it. These promises are consistent with many others throughout Scripture which teach that those who obey God receive His blessings.

When Children Are Young

Younger children are under their parents’ care and are responsible to obey them. We see an example of Jesus’ obedience to His parents when He was twelve years old. We’re told that when His parents left Jerusalem to return home after the feast, Jesus stayed behind. His parents at first thought He was with other members of the group they were traveling with. When they couldn’t find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, and after searching for three days they found Him in the temple sitting among the teachers, listening and asking questions. When His parents found Him, he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.9

Adolescents are also under their parents’ care and are called to obey their parents. However, this obedience doesn’t take priority over obedience to God. If one’s parents command them to sin—for example, to steal—one is not bound to obey. The apostle Paul wrote, Children, obey your parents in the Lord,10 which conveys that loyalty to God takes priority over obedience to parents and over a command they might make to sin.

Adult Children

As children grow into adulthood, they make a gradual transition from being a small child to an adolescent to a full adult. At first, the relationship with their parents is a child-to-adult relationship in which the child continually obeys. Over time, the relationship changes to where it eventually becomes an adult-to-adult relationship, often with the grown child leaving the parents’ household and forming a separate household. We find this referred to as far back as the Genesis account.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.11

The understanding is that when children become adults, whether they marry or not, they are no longer responsible to submit to their parents’ authority.

Of course, adult children should continue to submit to their parents’ authority when it comes to the parents’ own household if they are living there or when they visit. While visiting, adult children should respect the authority of their parents in matters of conduct within their household, but that authority doesn’t extend to other matters of the adult child’s life.

The way we honor our parents changes as we grow older. As children, that honor is shown mostly by submission and obedience. As we grow into adults ourselves, we aren’t bound to continue to obey our parents. However, we can still show honor and submission by the way we interact with them, the respect and deference we show, how we listen and respond, the gentleness we use when we disagree with them—in short, how we lovingly interact with them. As children become adults, the fifth commandment no longer applies in the sense of obedience to their parents, but it does continue to apply in regard to respect and reverence, both in public and private, throughout their lives.

Elderly Parents

The early church faced the challenge of how to care for elderly women whose husbands had died and who were not able to take care of themselves financially. Paul said that the church should help care for such widows, but that before the church steps in, the children of the widows should do their part.

Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.12 

A few verses later Paul stated:

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.13

Paul made it clear that believers should care for an aging relative. The amount of care and help a parent might need will differ from person to person. For some, it might mean financial help; for others, it could mean taking a parent into their home or helping them move into an assisted living facility or getting them set up with home care. Other parents might not need physical assistance, but would need regular visits, phone calls, emails, and fellowship. Each situation is different, and the solution for the care of parents will differ according to what each family decides. In families with more than one child, caring for elderly parents is a shared responsibility between all of their grown children.

Another aspect of honoring one’s parents has to do with honoring what belongs to them. As long as a parent is alive, their ownership of their possessions should be respected by their children. Scripture speaks positively of parents leaving an inheritance to their children and even grandchildren:

A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children.14

However, until the parents pass away, their possessions remain their own, and their children should respect that and shouldn’t act as if they are entitled to them or presume that they belong to them. We read of such a scenario in the parable of the prodigal son, where the younger son asked his father for the portion of the inheritance he would receive upon his father’s death.

At times, adult children will be given access to their elderly parents’ finances, often when the parents are in their care, or they are in a care facility. The purpose for their access is to pay their parents’ expenses and to properly manage their finances. Having such access, they can be tempted to misappropriate the funds and use them for themselves, which is stealing. Scripture condemns this.

Whoever robs his father or his mother and says, “That is no transgression,” is a companion to a man who destroys.15

Another aspect of honoring one’s parents is to respect their wishes and value their independence. Even if they are infirm, if they wish to live independently and have the means to do so, we should respect their wishes. Of course, children should keep a watchful eye on how their parents are doing and be willing to step in if needed. If it becomes necessary for a parent to move into a nursing facility, the children should help them choose between the alternatives in order to find a place that will care for them with compassion and treat them with dignity. Children should visit often if possible and offer emotional support, as well as regularly praying for their parents.

Parents should consider making an “advance directive” and “end of life” plans, so that their wishes are known in case they develop dementia or go into a coma. With such documents, their children and their doctors know the parents’ desires in regard to medical decisions as well as end of life decisions, including their burial wishes, which can then be respected and honored.

Parents raise and care for their children when they are young and need care. They love, nurture, support, and guide them, progressively giving them more freedom and autonomy until they become adults. Some parents are better at parenting than others, some can provide better than others, some are able to cultivate better relationships with their children than others, but every parent is the mother or father whom God gave to their child. We may not always agree with our parents or the choices they made, but we would not be alive if it weren’t for them. As believers, God calls us to honor our parents, to treat them with respect and gratefulness, to obey them when we are under their care, and to respect and show them reverence when we no longer are. Scripture teaches us to give our parents honor, care, love, and prayers.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Exodus 20:12.

2 Deuteronomy 5:16.

3 1 Timothy 1:17.

4 1 Timothy 6:15–16.

5 John 8:49.

6 Leviticus 19:3.

7 Ephesians 6:1–3.

8 Colossians 3:20.

9 Luke 2:51.

10 Ephesians 6:1.

11 Genesis 2:24.

12 1 Timothy 5:3–4.

13 1 Timothy 5:8.

14 Proverbs 13:22.

15 Proverbs 28:24.