Last week a good friend of mine asked me for advice about his situation of caring for a widowed parent who for years asked my friend and his brother for money. Apparently, the money asked for is far above the normal support, otherwise my friend wouldn’t see it as a problem. Obviously this is a situation of overspending, and may be even addiction to spending he is dealing with. The problem gets worse when I mention that my friend has several children and he and his wife are committed to homeschool them. Homeschooling families, by the very nature of their commitment, are usually not awash in money, preferring to sacrifice on income in order to be faithful to the Biblical mandate to train their children in the Lord.
So my friend and his brother have a situation on their hands: In order to fulfill their obligations to their parent, they believe they are supposed to keep giving whatever the parents demands, above and beyond the normal level of support; but on the other hands, this gets in conflict with their obligations to their own families and with the Biblical command to leave inheritance to their children. Add to it the fact that the parent is a Christian – or at least claims to be – and the problem becomes quite complicated.
So he asked me: What is the Biblical position on this issue?
He is not the only one to have that problem. With the rise of Christianity in the last two decades, there are many Christians in their 30s and 40s who are facing a problem of unbelieving parents of the baby-boomer generation. Many of those parents may not be addicted to spending but they find other ways to be a burden to their children and their families: by constantly attacking and ridiculing their faith, or may be even trying to lead their grandchildren away from it when given the chance. (I have been in such a situation and I know how difficult it is to deal with it.) And yet, these parents expect to receive help and support and care from the same children whose life they make miserable. There are other situations as well where parents act in a way contrary to the Biblical laws for responsible parent’s behavior, and thus place their Christian children in situations difficult to resolve in a redemptive way.
With the small increase in renewed interest toward the Christian faith in America we had so far, the problem is great enough. When secular humanism’s ultimate impotence to save is completely exposed, and a wave of mass conversions follow, the problem may become even worse for the society in general, and the Christian community in particular. We are used to dealing with the case of believing parents and rebellious children. The opposite case – believing children and rebellious parents is much harder to resolve.
So what does the Law of God say about it?
Since the Bible doesn’t contain a specific injunction of how godly children should treat rebellious parents, we need to examine the nature of God’s Covenant with His people and draw conclusions from it. We should get the answers to several questions: (1) Who is the true center of all Biblical commandments, including the commandment to honor our parents? (2) How do we define the institution of the family which is central to the tasks of welfare and elderly care? (3) What are the responsibilities of parents to children and of children to parents? (4) What blessings should follow from obedience and what sanctions should follow from disobedience to the laws for the family? And (5) What should be the long-term vision and goal for a Christian family, both nuclear and extended, and who inherits?
For all human relationships and institutions, there is only one absolute starting point and commitment on which they all must be based: God and His Son, Jesus Christ. All relationships and all institutions must be defined through Christ. Every relationship we have, whether in the family or in the church, or in the culture, is only relative – not relative in the sense of being subject to relativistic ethics but always in relation to that ultimate loyalty that we all are commanded to have. Even the relationship between a husband and a wife is not direct, it is always in the context of their personal faith and walk in Jesus Christ – which is the reason Paul advises that a Christian can not marry a non-Christian. The responsibilities of parents to their children must always be subject to the covenant with God. Children must obey their parents, says Paul, but then adds the very important qualification, “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). If the relationships in that most basic institution, the family, are mediated by and are in relation to our covenant in Christ, the same would apply to the other institutions in the society: the church and the civil government, but also all the activities and practices in our culture. Even slaves are admonished by Paul to work for their masters “as slaves of Christ” and “as to the Lord” (Eph. 6:6-7). There are no direct, independent, absolute social relationships in a Christian culture; they are all relative, founded on the covenant with God, mediated through Christ.
Fallen men – and Christians very often as well – have always attempted to absolutize certain human relationships and make them foundational for their society, seeking for a humanistic social order that is alternative to God’s order. The best example we have in the Bible is the desire of Israel to have a king like the other nations. While the Law required honor to their political and social leaders (Acts 23:5), the Israelites, in their quest for a social order that would bring peace to the land, absolutized the political power and placed their hopes in it. Samuel warned them against it, and when they rejected his warning, God said to him that they have rejected not Samuel, but God Himself. Other human institutions and relationships have also been absolutized throughout history: the authority of the husband over his wife, or of the father over his daughters, or of the priest over his flock, or of the master over his slaves. The perfect social order has been sought in family clans or genetic lines; or in a free economic order without the restraining function of the Law of God. In pagan Rome and Greece, the father of the family had the power of life and death over his children even after they were of age and married and had their own families.
The Bible warns against such absolutizing of human relationships, and often the warnings are directed against that most basic and strongest of all institutions, the family. The law in Deuteronomy 13:6-10 is stated in very strong terms; it declares that in case of treason against God family relationships must be considered null and void, and the family must act in vengeance against the one who broke the covenant. The parents of a grown up son who was a glutton and a drunkard had to deliver him to the authorities for execution (Deut. 21:20). In the New Testament Jesus states it in milder terms but the message is the same: Even family relations must be secondary to the covenant in Christ. He declares that his true family is not His blood family but His spiritual family (Luke 8:19-21); and He also declared that a man must forsake his family to follow Christ (Luke 14:26). The family was important to the covenant but it was not the only covenant; and same applied to every other institution or social relationship. Even the closest family tie had to be renounced and broken when the covenant with God was broken.
Therefore, when we get to the question of the responsibilities of children to their parents, we need to realize that these responsibilities can not be absolute. As we can glean from Jesus’ words mentioned above, there can be situations when the responsibilities to our parents can get in conflict with our responsibility to God. In that case, as Jesus said, we must unquestionably put aside any human relationship and obey and honor God first. It is not a decision that can be made lightly and casually, especially when honoring the parents is commanded in the Ten Commandments; but in a fallen world, we should expect that our human responsibilities may get in the way of our obedience to God, and act according to our covenant with God, not according to human laws.
The Nuclear Family
Man was originally created a family, and he was given the Dominion Mandate – to fill the earth – as a family. It was Adam who was charged with the task to take dominion, but only as the head of his family, not as an independent agent who also happened to have a wife, and later children. Therefore, the family as a unit fulfills all the tasks that are essential to the task of dominion. It is indeed centered on the calling of the head of the family, the husband, and his calling is given to him before he finds a wife. But except in the rare cases where a man is given the special gift to remain unmarried, his calling can only be fulfilled when there is a wife who is a helpmeet, and works with her husband in his calling. This doesn’t mean that women do not have their own callings under God, or that the women’s part in the task of dominion is inferior to men’s. Every woman has her own calling also, but in the family, the wife’s calling must always be in the context of the husband’s calling. It is his specific individual calling that places him directly under God, and his wife under him (1 Cor. 11:3), not some perceived institutional, intellectual, or spiritual inferiority of the woman.
This brings us to the issue of how the family is defined. Like everything else, fallen men throughout history have tried to re-define the family in many different ways, away from its Biblical meaning. We are witnessing today attempts to re-define the family as a marriage of man to man or woman to woman; or the family is legally defined today as simply cohabitation and a sexual relationship. We have attempts to turn the civil government into a surrogate family which inherits and also takes care of the children and the elderly people. In Communist propaganda, the nation, or the people as a whole are defined as a family, and thus children’s loyalty to their parents is discouraged in order to instill in them loyalty to the state. In Nazism and the various racist and kinists groups, family is re-defined as genetics and a mystical relationship between all people of similar genetic composition or of specific skin complexion.
A common pagan definition of the family in the past was the clan, the extended family of blood lines and master-slave relationships. It was present in a very strong form among the Celts. The social organization of the Greek and Roman societies was based on the clan, as De Coulanges’s excellent study, The Ancient City, demonstrates. The clan in an extended form was the concept of the family for the pagan societies of the Incas and the Aztecs; the tribe was the ultimate social unit for the North American Indians. Today, the cultural organization of the clan characteristic to the ancient Celts and Romans can be seen among the Gypsies in Eastern Europe. In the clan, the family is centered on the father of the clan, but the other men in the clan do not have their own individual callings outside of the clan. A young man who has a wife and children only serves the purposes of the clan, and is under the direct authority of the father of the clan. His responsibility is not to God but to his earthly father, even if he is an adult and has his own family. At the death of the father of the clan, the oldest son or the nearest male relative takes over and becomes the head of the family, and the rest of the men remain in their position of subjection and servitude.
This is not the Biblical pattern. The Biblical dominion is entrusted not to extended families and clans but to the nuclear family. While the extended family is important when mutual help is necessary, it is not the foundation of social order. It is in the nuclear family where God places the seat of responsibility for the fulfilling of the Dominion Mandate, and it is the individual married men and their wives who must work to fulfill it. God made that clear at the very beginning when he said that “man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Gen. 2:24). In the social order of God, the individual family stands directly before God, and the individual family – a man and his wife – must be the center of social activity, as well as the center of social responsibility and meaning and purpose. Any social relationships that diminish the nuclear family in functions or importance, or that create obstacles before the fulfillment of its task of dominion, must be put aside, and the Biblical pattern of dominion through the nuclear family must be followed.
A common characteristic of the fallen man’s culture is the war between generations. Parents are irresponsible and do not provide for their children nor leave them inheritance, preferring instead to spend their resources in self-indulgence. Children in response grow selfish and alienated from their parents, and abandon them in old age. When grown up children and parents live together, there are quarrels and disagreements. When a child becomes a Christian, he changes his attitude to his parents and now he obeys them, honors them, and cares for them even if they are still unbelievers and therefore are still selfish and irresponsible. But sometimes the pendulum swings too far, and a son ends up helping his parents over and beyond what is helpful for his own family. The Bible commands us to honor our parents; but that responsibility can not be allowed to become detrimental to the purpose of our own nuclear families in the task of dominion. The Biblical definition of a family is a husband and his wife, and their specific purpose in the Dominion Mandate; it is not a man and his parents, and it is not even a man and his children, however important children are in the fulfillment of the task of dominion.
Responsibility Is a Two-Way Street
Since the family is important but not primary, then it must be defined by the central relationship man has – the covenant with God. The family plays a specific part in that covenant: it is a guardian of the wealth that is transferred to future generations. Since God’s covenant works itself out in history, there has to be a generational transfer of covenant wealth – spiritual, intellectual, material. The family is charged with giving the future generation the knowledge of the Lord and His salvation (Gen. 18:19). It is also charged with giving the children professional knowledge in order to make a living and support their families when they grow up. And the family was obligated to leave as an inheritance to the next generation the material wealth accumulated by previous generations. The family is a trustee in the plan of God, a trustee of wealth, and it is responsible before God for the way the wealth of knowledge and material resources is transferred to the future generations.
This stewardship includes many tasks, and they are mainly economic. It’s main expression is, of course, the command for a man to grow his capital throughout his productive life (Matt. 25:14-30). This capital, as I mentioned above, may be spiritual, intellectual, or material, but there has to be growth. Out of that growth, a man has responsibilities to his children but also to his parents. In his most productive years of his life, his productivity must triple: to provide for himself, for his parents, and for his children. His responsibilities are as a husband, a father, and an adult son. He can not abandon any of these three responsibilities; he must fulfill all three of them for the family to function properly under God. In the Bible, the family is charged with the children’s education and upbringing; it is charged with the elderly care; and also, the husband is forbidden from leaving his wife without her necessary maintenance. Also, the family is charged with taking care of those of the extended family who are unable to care for themselves (1 Tim. 5:8), and that means widows and orphans.
But, as Rushdoony says in his Institutes of Biblical Law, “Responsibility is not a one-way street.” The Biblical standard for social relationships is two-way responsibility, not a unilateral self-enslavement of one to the needs and wants of another. As we saw above, the family relationships must always be in the context of the covenant with God. Therefore, if all responsibilities toward our fellow human beings must be in the context with that covenant with God, to glorify and obey God, there must be a corresponding responsibility by the receiving side to that same covenant with God, to glorify Him and obey Him. The husband has obligations to his wife, and she has obligations to him – to be his helpmeet in his calling. The father has obligations to his children but they too have obligations to him – to obey him. As we saw above, a failure of a son to honor his parents can lead to breaking the covenant bond and even the execution of the son. Similarly a son has obligations to his parents but they too have obligations to him. When he was young, their obligations were to nourish him and teach him to obey the Lord. When he is grown up, his responsibility to support them must be matched by their responsibility to help him with advice and encouragement in his calling. Older men are valued for their wisdom, for their ability to help younger men shorten the learning curve and thus accelerate the process of growing the family capital. In the Biblical social system, elderly people are not supposed to sit idly around in “retirement”; the function of the elders is to teach and share experience. If nothing else, they should not be an obstacle to their children’s callings before God. When a parent has become such an obstacle, he has broken his covenant with God, and therefore his covenant with his children. Even when talking about taking care of widows in 1 Tim. 5, Paul makes sure he lays down the rules for who can be lawfully considered to be a true widow. The position of true widow does have its own responsibilities, and a woman whose husband has passed away is not entitled to support just automatically but only after she has fulfilled her own obligations to the church.
In his Institutes (1973 ed.; p. 482) Rushdoony gives several examples of such broken covenants. A daughter who assumes responsibility for her sick father when the brothers rejected their responsibility. The father is interested only in his sons and grandsons who would carry on his name but he disinherits his daughter and treats her and her family as non-entities, without even a word of gratitude. Or a mother who is a militant liberal lives with her daughter and her husband who are devout, orthodox believers. She regards their faith with contempt and never misses the opportunity to speak against it, even in front of their children. Or a disabled young man who is angry at life for his condition, who treats his parents and sisters with hateful contempt and rage. The examples can be multiplied. In all these cases, we see examples of one-way responsibility; one of the parties in the covenant bonds willfully enslaving themselves to the other without any corresponding fulfillment of obligation from the other side.
Of course, the case might be more complicated when the parent is formally a believer but, as in the case above, their actions do not testify to a redeemed and sanctified heart. In this case, again, no matter what the formal profession of faith is, it is the actions that testify to the true faith of the person (James 2:14-26). The responsibility of the parent is even greater in this case because with the formal profession of faith comes a higher responsibility for obedience to the Law of God.
In any case, when it comes to the ethics of the family relationships, responsibility is always two-way. A one-way relationship is against the principles of the Law of God and therefore it can not be lawfully maintained in a Christian culture.
We will continue on this issue in the next article.