The Ten Commandments: The Fifth

The Fifth Commandment is weighty.  The finger of God inscribed it this way, “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” In the Westminster Larger Catechism, the commandments are typically explained by asking what the duties of a command are and what does that command forbid.  Sometimes there is a question that asks about the reasons annexed to a particular commandment. The fourth commandment even asks two additional questions for a total of six questions in all regarding that commandment. But when we come to the fifth precept we find a staggering number of questions. Eleven questions are enlisted in the elucidation of this divine statute which is almost double the amount employed by the divines in the fourth commandment.

Well, this article cannot cover everything but it must cover some of the essentials.  First, we must consider the role of the parent.  The parent is a teacher.  From the child’s earliest days he is to receive instruction from his parents.  Yes, he is taught to walk, eat from a spoon and say “please” and “thank you.”  But along with these sociological essentials he must be taught the commandments of God.  Deuteronomy 6:1-4 could not be clearer.  A parent is to talk about the Lord, His promises and precepts from the earliest days and the parent is to do so regularly.  I would be remiss if I failed to say that fathers must lead their family into family devotions on a regular basis in order to fulfill their role as parent not to mention worship on the Lord’s Day.

What is more, a child must honor his parent.  The Hebrew word is kabod and means heavy.  In other words, the person who is to be honored must be accorded weight. Now, it helps if a parent actually has weighty things to say!  You can see how the role of the parent and the honor a child is to give work in tandem.  The parent has weighty things to say and the child honors those weighty things.  Inevitably the question will arise regarding parents who do not fit this bill but this is the ideal.

But here is the difficult line that a parent must walk. A mother and father must change or moderate their rule over time.  Whereas when their son or daughter was very young they were authoritarian in their rule.  For example, “No, you may not touch the stove top.”  Or “No, you may not approach that dog.”  However, as the child grows the wise parent exercises the most weight by teaching the child how to think wisely for himself.  Instead of “No” the wise parent asks, “Knowing what you know what do you think is wise?” We must teach our children that our words have weight but we must teach them to apply wisdom on their own.  We must go from dictator to coach in the few short years we have our children.

However, parents often struggle with this last stage.  It is hard for them to relinquish control.  It’s easy to be a dictator when they are two but it’s difficult to allow freedom when they are twelve.  Parents are especially afraid when it’s time for their child to go off to college if they have not allowed the child to make his own decisions while still under their roof.  This transitional stage is sometimes painful but good for both parent and child.  The parent can help the child transition from dependence to making his own decisions and the child can gain confidence while still under his parent’s roof. What is more, this transition keeps us parents from exasperating our children. 

But there is something else at play in our fears as parents. When we refuse to allow a child to grow beyond the bounds of our authoritarian rule then we are showing them that we have not come to fully trust God with their lives.  We forget that He is the one who decides how long their days shall be.  As we reflect on the fifth commandment let us reflect on the One who has all rule and authority.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He has recently been appointed Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.