It is fairly well known that one of the Ten Commandments in the Bible states “Honour thy father and thy mother. . .” (Exodus 20:12, King James Version).
The verse is commonly misunderstood as a command to obey your parents. However, the King James Version and all but one of eight more modern English translations I checked use the word “honor” in that commandment in Exodus 20:12. The remaining modern version, the Good News Bible, uses the word “respect.”
If translators of the Bible into English intended to write “obey,” I think they would have chosen that word.
We bring honor to our parents by doing the right thing, by being obedient to righteous guidance. Blind obedience to parents who are providing incorrect instructions can be dangerous (as can disobeying them in the wrong way).
The true story below (perhaps described too fully) from my childhood discusses a disagreement that arose from a Sunday School teacher’s interpretation of this commandment and my reaction. (Note: Both my parents are now members of a church and both also demonstrated their love for me in numerous ways during my childhood.)
A Sunday School Teaching on Obeying One’s Parents
One day a children’s Sunday School teacher taught about the commandment that states “Honour thy father and thy mother. . .” (Exodus 20:12, King James Version).
The teacher told the children that they should always obey their parents. One boy (this author) replied something to the effect of “Which one should we obey? When your dad tells you to do one thing and your mom tells you to do another, it is impossible to do both.”
The teacher said something like “obey one, then obey the other.”
I responded by stating that sometimes both parents wanted me to do their particular thing right then. I was perhaps being smart-alecky and stubborn in disagreeing with my teacher — but I prefer to use the terms precocious and steadfast to describe my behavior.
The teacher then asked me which of my parents brought me to Sunday School?
I replied that neither did, that I came with neighbors and that my mom and dad didn’t attend church.
The teacher told me she didn’t believe me and I shouldn’t ever lie at all, but especially not in Sunday School class. She added that she was going to follow me to the church auditorium after class and talk to my mom and dad.
I told her she could follow me if she liked but my mom and dad were not there.
At the end of class, as I walked out of the classroom I looked back to see if my teacher was following me. I didn’t see her.
But as I entered the church auditorium and met the couple who took me to and from Sunday School, my teacher walked up behind me.
The teacher asked the couple if they were my parents. When the lady replied they were not, the teacher asked if they knew my parents and could they point them out to her if they were there so she could talk to them.
The woman stated something like “His parents are not here. They don’t come to church. He comes with us. But if he’s doing something wrong, if you tell me I can tell them. His mom asked me to bring him to church because her husband doesn’t like to come and she doesn’t want to come without him.”
Then the woman’s husband stated to his wife something like “Don’t go making the boy’s dad look bad. He’s a fine man. I work with him five or six days a week. Sunday is the only day he has to sleep late. And I would not come myself if it weren’t for you. Church is mostly for a women’s social club and for children.” His loud voice was probably heard by at least a few other people.
Soon afterward the Sunday School teacher excused herself and walked back toward her classroom. But as she was leaving she stopped and turned around to look back. She seemed to convey inaudibly to me the spiritual thought that she couldn’t do two things at once either, the thought that I probably would never again attend her Sunday School class, and that not coming back to it might be the best decision for me since many of her teachings would probably not be helpful for me.
I did not attend a Sunday School class again for a long time.
Reflection and Recommendation
After I became an adult and was baptized, one day I reflected on the same commandment regarding one’s parents and prayed. I heard an inaudible voice I attributed to God conveying the thought that the commandment was not to obey my parents, but to honor them.
I opened a particular English translation of the Bible (and later some other versions) to check whether that was true. I found that in the King James Version, as well as the other English versions of the Bible I looked at, the commandment regarding one’s parents did not use the word “obey.” This made me (this author) feel better.
When one reads the Bible prayerfully and interprets it properly, I am confident one can gain guidance from God’s Holy Spirit. If I had been reading my Bible prayerfully as a boy, I likely could have gotten the answer I needed much sooner.
However, properly interpreting a Bible passage is sometimes difficult. Even answers to prayer need to be tested to make sure the answer is coming from the Holy Spirit rather than a false spirit. And in this author’s opinion, the New Testament is much more positively focused than the Old Testament. Some of the Old Testament teachings are difficult to understand — at least for me. If one has easy access to a knowledgeable human mentor and/or other written material besides the Bible that provides very constructive guidance, that can help immensely in deciding what is the right thing to do in a particular situation.
In the majority of cases children do right by obeying their parents. But for most (all?) children, there are at least a few occasions when parents disagree with one another or both give the wrong instructions. All families are dysfunctional to some extent. There are no perfect parents or perfect children.
Boys and girls have an obligation to seek to obey God and not their parents when they know God’s directions differ from their parent(s)’ instructions. However, sometimes it isn’t easy for children to recognize that their parents are wrong. And even when children do recognize their parents are wrong, children many not know what the right alternative is — or the best way to implement that alternative.
Therefore, parents ought to prayerfully seek to reach agreement on how to instruct their children. If moms and dads can’t decide the right thing to instruct their children, how can the children be expected to have the wisdom to do so? Divorces, remarriages, foster parents, adoptive parents, etc., can complicate matters even more.
But help is available. Teachers, religious leaders, community leaders, neighbors, friends, and others can help provide basic guidelines and maybe even intervene on behalf of children and parents to help resolve problems. Perfect guidance for parents (and children) from other humans is not available, but very good guidance frequently is.
All God expects is for us to sincerely seek to do our best. If we do our best, God through the Holy Spirit can provide perfect guidance — and the needed aid to follow that guidance! Seeking to do our best involves seeking to do good. Helping one another is more important than legalistically “obeying” a particular scripture. Far too many false teachings, incorrect interpretations, and harmful divisions exist within families and within churches. And there are many nonChristians who seem to follow the intent of the Ten Commandments better than many “Christians.”
But, if we all seek to listen, learn, help others, and to be “. . . speaking the truth in love. . .” as Ephesians 4:15 (King James Version) states, the world will be much better off.
One way children honor their mom and dad is by obeying them, unless there is a good reason not to. But it is more important to honor one’s parents by obeying God!
As children (and parents) obey God, the highest righteous authority, God works things out for the best. Let’s all seek to discern and follow God’s perfect leading.
Note: This article was last revised on March 17, 2011.)
Sources: (The Bible in various versions)
King James Version
Good News Bible: The Bible in Today’s English Version, Thomas Nelson, Inc.
The New International Version, New York International Bible Society
The Living Bible, Tyndale House
Revised Standard Version, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America, Zondervan Publishing House, licensee
The New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, Inc.
New American Bible, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine
The Jerusalem Bible: Reader’s Edition, Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd and Doubleday & Company, Inc.
The Modern Language Bible: The New Berkely Version in Modern English, Revised Edition, Zondervan Publishing House