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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






06 May 2009

Disobeying Sinful Parents


Q: In Romans 1:29-32, Paul lists sins deserving death, including insolence and disobeying one’s parents. But what if parents instruct one to be insolent, deceitful, judgmental, or divisive? Seemingly, either obedience or disobedience deserves death. Is the answer that putting him in this position forces him to go against God and thus becomes the greatest sin of all? How do we deal with the child and his parents if the parents have already instructed him in such sins? Is disobeying one’s parents not a sin if they instruct one to sin?

Holy FamilyA: You write of an extreme circumstance, one not normally seen. Even though not all situations may be so severe, it’s still good to understand the intent of the Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:12), especially as the New Testament interprets and applies it. So let’s open Scripture in order to free any consciences that may be bound by any conflict between obeying parents and God.

Is it ever wrong to do good or sinful to obey God? Of course not! Choosing between a sinful command and obedience to God is not choosing “the lesser of two evils.” There is clear evil and also clear righteousness. We’ll see later (from Acts 5) that obeying God always comes first.

So while God demands that we honor our parents, He first seeks our obedience to Him. If any authority commands us to sin, we must resist. Paul noted that those committing the sins listed in Romans 1 “deserve to die. (v. 32)” Yet death as a divine punishment (including eternity in hell) will not befall Christians who refuse to follow orders to sin. This doesn’t mean that death might not be an earthly consequence. Evil parents may punish, possibly even kill, a child who refuses to follow their ways and heed their will.

More likely, such a situation arises when government is the “parent.” History records Christians who refused to obey kingly commands and imperial edicts and who sacrificed their lives rather than rejecting their Savior. They did so even though God commands, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)”

Ephesians 6:1-9 helps us better understand the passages from Romans. God’s command is first repeated: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother ... that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ (vv. 1-3)” In verses 5-8, he similarly reminded slaves that God desired their submission to the will of their masters. We might extend this into our times by applying it to employees of any type.

However, even as He demands that those under authority obey their superiors, God also has commands for those who rule. To parents, He says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)” While Ephesians 6:6 says that slaves should be “doing the will of God from the heart,” we also read, “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master [or Lord] and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 6:9)”

Likewise, God ordains civil government. He keeps the world from descending into chaos not only through parental authority but also by means of “the sword. (Romans 13:4)” Therefore, He establishes rulers “not [as] a terror to good conduct, but to bad. (v. 3)” The ruler “is God’s servant for your good (v. 4)” and “the authorities are ministers of God. (v. 6)”

The New Testament has no command directed to earthly government as it does for parents and masters. We shouldn’t wonder, though. In Romans, Ephesians, and elsewhere, God addresses Christian children and Christian parents, also Christian slaves and Christian masters. However, while He speaks to Christian citizens, there was no corresponding “Christian” government — and many argue quite convincingly that there never has been.

Yet God used pagan Rome even as He had Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon before. Consider His planning: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son. (Galatians 4:4)” This “fullness of time” included setting Jesus’ incarnation and ministry in the midst of the Roman Empire. The very “sword” that threatened criminals — and sometimes killed “disobedient” Christians — also established safe travel on land and sea, allowing the Good News of Jesus’ birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection rapid spread around the Mediterranean and beyond.

However, the civil order that Rome provided forgave none of the sins of the Caesars. Nor do unbelieving parents earn eternal life by feeding, housing, and educating their children. Even the most enlightened employers cannot buy salvation by providing good jobs and bountiful benefits. God judges all according to their faith in Christ, as attested by their good works that follow.

When parents provoke them and insist they learn evil rather than the Lord’s “discipline and instruction” Christian children are not only excused from obedience — they must not obey. Believing workers whose employers want them to manufacture shoddy or dangerous consumer goods must resist — either forcing a change or quitting their jobs. And when governments command their people to sin, Christian citizens must stand firm in opposition.

We Must Obey GodOf course, there’s often a cost, notwithstanding God’s rescue of Daniel and the three young men. More likely, the believers suffer, perhaps even death. Stephen refused to reject Christ and was stoned. Thousands of Christians died during the Church’s early centuries rather than worshiping false gods. When the Temple authorities commanded them to stop teaching about Jesus, “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29)”

So also any Christian must reject orders to sin, whether from parents, employer, or state. In so doing, he does not sin — and any subsequent punishment by man is also praise from God. The High Priest and his followers “were enraged and wanted to kill” the disciples but then “beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go (Acts 5:33, 40)” Rather than discouraging them, their punishment left the apostles “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (v. 41)” They persisted in their “disobedience” to the authorities, for “every day ... they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (v. 42)”

Finally, even when parents, employers, or governments are “right,” God is sometimes “more right.” For example, Jesus practiced perfect obedience and never dishonored Mary and Joseph. When He stayed behind in Jerusalem and they returned, finding Him in the temple, they wondered why He allowed them such worry. In reply, “He said ..., ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49)” Then, however, even though “they did not understand,” Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. (vv. 50-51)”

Earlier posts on this topic include Honoring Dishonorable Parents and Obeying Bad Governments

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Newspaper column #573

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