Odd as it may sound, a problem that appears in counseling is that one or the other mate has concluded that to honor the parents, the couple must obey the parents.
John and Mary1 were married about a year when she approached Pastor Mike in tears. “On Sunday night, John’s father told him to continue to practice birth control until he tells him otherwise. We had decided that I would come off birth control on our first anniversary, and we would start a family. He told his father, who told him in no uncertain terms, that we could not do that because we had not yet bought a home, and he did not want his grandchildren growing up in an apartment with other street brats. John told me I had to stay on them or else we would not be honoring his parents.”
Seldom is this problem as radical. Most often, it is very subtle and driven with innuendos. In either case, there is a twisting of the biblical injunction, “children obey your parents and honor father and mother.”
The Origin of the Problem
From whence come what seems to most of us such bizarre ideas? There are several sources.
A likely source is a father who is an extreme controller. These are not uncommon and seem to be more likely of religious zealot ilk. The most obvious is a rather malformed concept of patriarchal family structures. Many in the homeschooling community are well-adjusted folks who may tend towards a bit of overprotection but are not of this malformed patriarchal philosophy. However, there are a few well-meaning folks who embrace this thinking. I have also observed women who, while avowing submission, very cunningly manipulate their husbands into a patriarchal parenting mode.
This conception of family life can have a variety of responses. Girls tend not to develop into well-balanced young women capable of, in the proper sense, self-directed lives. Young men tend to rebel or become depressed because they can never satisfy their father’s demands and seldom receive affirmation.
Another source is the highly successful, hard-driving businessman. In this case, the father exercises a patriarchal role through his demanding solid personality. Daughters tend to mimic fathers or look for a husband in one of two extremes, like her father or nothing like her father. On the other hand, boys tend to talk about not being like their fathers but mimic him while vehemently rejecting him and his style.
In either case, the young married allows that parent to be in control, and the mate is confused. This confusion generates a variety of issues in the couple’s relationship.
Mark and Irene2 met in college hundreds of miles away from home. Both only spent a one-week Christmas break in the company of the other’s family. Everybody was on their best behavior. While they spoke to one another about their families, those conversations were, as you might expect, cherry pickings of the best memories. Irene was from mid-western Pennsylvania, a very religious conservative population. Mark hailed from San Diego. His mother grew up in Mexico, and his father was a first-generation German immigrant, and both were educated at MIT.
Mark and Irene came to know Jesus as sophomores in college, which resulted in their leaving the secular university. Irene fled to get away from her patriarchal father, and they transferred to The Master’s College. After graduation, they married, and Mark accepted a position as Youth Pastor in Harrisburg, PA, to get to know her family and enroll in an external seminary program. Not long into the marriage, Mark began to find it difficult to tolerate her father, and all those old hurts and desires of her childhood growing up began to surface. Mark’s attitude exacerbated these struggles with his attitude.
Yet, both found themselves frustrated with the tension between what they believed, “honor your father and mother,” and what they felt and did.
The Biblical Resolution of the Problem
There is biblical guidance that indicates it is not good practice for married couples to obey their parents (Ex. 20:12). That would be not to leave a father and mother. For a married couple to obey their parents would be to completely overlook the fact that something new is made in a marriage, “… a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24) including a new head of a new family in which each becomes the priority of the other, “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (I Cor 11:31).
However, we cannot forget the only Commandment with a promise, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20). What does it mean? That is an excellent question and one that many struggles to answer.
Here is my suggestion. Follow the example of Jesus. He was obedient till he came of age. Then he got on about His Father’s business. When they thought he had lost it, he did not rebuke them, he used it as an opportunity to teach them gently His responsibility, and He went on with business. When he was on the cross, He honored his mother by assigning John to care for her.
My son honors me by regularly engaging with me in various conversations. He gives me the honor of allowing me to speak into his personal, family, and business life. He sees me as a source of life-long-acquired wisdom and values my input. He does not obey me, and I do not attempt to demand he takes my input as “Gospel.”
- We listen respectfully as image-bearers of God
- We communicate respectfully
- We encourage one another
- We pray with one another
- We serve one another
- We treat one another as brother and sister in Christ
- We don’t interfere within each other’s family unless one or the other is radically off base and then do so with the assistance of others.
2 Not a real couple but a composite of several couples with whom I worked.