Navigating the biblical command to honor one’s parents can create real challenges for adults. The exhortation from God’s Word is clear (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:2) but the application can be difficult. Some labor under memories of abuse or neglect from their parents. Some, who’ve had attentive parents, are simply engaged with the demands of their own family.
Parents ought to be a blessing in the lives of their married children, but this isn’t always the case. It’s not uncommon for me to hear about parents making demands of their married children, using the biblical command to honor one’s parents as leverage to get them to obey. The assumption is often made that “honor” and “obedience” are synonymous — but is that correct? Does honoring one’s parents mean you are forced to do whatever they ask?
Another common challenge occurs when unbelieving parents engage in inappropriate activities or toxic relationships. Grown children may feel the need to put distance between their young children and what they perceive to be a harmful influence. They understand that they are to honor their parents, but they wonder how to do that when those parents are negatively impacting their grandchildren.
These and other issues can be difficult to reconcile with the biblical command to honor your parents.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that marriage creates a separation from one’s parents. The Bible puts it this way: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife” (Genesis 2:24).
Notice the man is to “leave his father and his mother” and the implication is that the woman is to do the same. Together they form a new family. To be clear, leaving is not the same as abandoning. Having taken a wife, a man is now to “hold fast to his wife” (and the same for the wife holding fast to her husband) which means to make their spouse the primary focus of their time and efforts. But this can obviously create an internal struggle where parents are concerned. A man may observe the needs of his parents and, in a desire to be a blessing, go overboard and end up overlooking the needs of his own wife and kids. A woman, on the other hand, may yearn for the familiar dynamics and comfort of her original home life and end up spending too much time engaged with her parents.
The command to hold fast speaks of an entirely new family structure, which implies putting the needs of spouse and children first, listening to the advice of your spouse above extended family members, and prioritizing your time to make sure your immediate family is cared for.
Parents placing heavy demands on their married children’s time is wrong and needs to be lovingly moderated by the adult child. By the same token, the needs of the parents are not to be ignored but I would advocate wisdom, prudence, and balance. A couple may even want to seek counsel from others who have successfully navigated these kinds of challenges.
There is no roadmap to cover all of the implications of dealing with parents, but the blessing for us as believers is that we have the Holy Spirit to guide us and He knows all the challenges we face, and can give us the help and direction we need.