Should Christians honor an abusive parent?

Posted: June 8, 2014 in Christian Living
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The Bible tells us many times that we must honor our parents. (Deut. 5:16; Gen. 18:19; Ex. 20:12; Matt. 15:14) At no point does it limit this command to parents who are honorable. God ordained parents to raise their children, teach them about God and His laws, (Psalm 78:5) and not to exasperate them. (Colossians 3:21) We all live in a fallen, sinful world, and many people live this out through their parenting. So how does this affect God’s command to honor our mother and father?

This dilemma weighs heavy on the hearts of many children of abusive parents. Certainly none of us wants to break God’s commandments, but the idea of rewarding abusers with honor seems completely contradictory to just about everything else written in the Bible, where evildoers are never honored, but are punished and suffer the consequences of their actions. (Galatians 6:7, Job 4:8)
The Hebrew word for honor in Exodus 20:12 is chabad. The Greek word for obey in Ephesians 6:2 is timao. Both calls for people to give their parents the respect and honor that is appropriate for them. It could be paraphrased to say, give parents the weight of authority that they deserve. Next to God, parents were to be highly valued, cared for, and respected.

How can we honor an abusive parent?

Our abusive parents would have us think it means letting them get away with murder, but this is already refuted in numerous Scriptures. Do they want us to believe that we have to obey them unquestioningly even if what they want is evil? I think we each need to find a definition of what “honoring” means that agrees with Scripture. To some, it might mean limited contact, an occasional card, or a brief visit. To others, it might mean letting your abusers live their lives in peace and be who they are, while you live your life in peace on the other side of the country.

It does NOT mean not calling the police and having your parents arrested for child abuse, molestation, neglect or any of the other crimes committed against many children of abusive parents.
Honoring your parents does not mean that you have to tolerate their abuse. Honoring does not mean that you never confront, or set limits on someone’s behavior. Even if you must divorce your parents and never see them again, it doesn’t mean that you’re dishonoring them. It just means that you accept that they are the way they are and that they’ll never change, which in truth is honoring them as people whose right it is to be everything they want to be; and that you still feel love for them, but you just can’t stick around for it anymore. Given the unfortunate reality of their innate hatefulness, you can still choose to set limits on them or have no contact with them, because they are destructive people. You can honor them by accepting them for who they are, not expecting change, and letting them live their own way in peace, but at the same time honor yourself and your own right to live in peace as well–Which means choosing NOT to be in their presence if they are intent on abusing you.

One of the best ways to honor someone is to help them be the very best person that they can be. The Bible gives us a few specific ways in which this applies to abusive parents:

Forgive: Matthew 18:21-22 tells us to forgive others. There is no exception for those who are abusive. Forgiving them does not absolve them of their sin in God’s eyes. It only keeps us empathetic toward them so we don’t harden ourselves against God. (Matthew 6:14-15) Some think that forgiveness means we must automatically reconcile with the one we have forgiven. The result of forgiveness may allow us to be open to reconciliation—but ONLY if the other person truly repents of their behavior. If someone broke into my house and killed one of my children, I would have to forgive them; but that doesn’t mean that I let them in so they can kill another child!
Pray: Matthew 5:44 is pretty clear: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Only the Holy Spirit can heal an abusive heart. Praying for an abusive parent with a right attitude could bring hope that he or she can come to know Christ, be changed and be the parent God designed them to be.

Love: Jesus exhorts us to love our enemies. (Matthew 5:43-48) 1 Corinthians 13 is often referred to as “The Love Chapter”. It tells us that “Love is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Some of these are extremely hard when dealing with an abusive parent. This is agape love; the love that we can only show if Jesus lives in us. He does not expect us to be able to do this on our own.

The Bible also gives us counsel on how to protect ourselves and our hearts from ungodly people—including abusive parents:

Don’t be unequally yoked: Second Corinthians 6:14 basically means that we are not to have very close relationships with unbelievers. This also applies if our Christian parents act like unbelievers. (Matthew 18:15-20) Our priority is always to God, and He does not want us unduly influenced by ungodly people.

Seek godly counsel: Ask God for wisdom. (James 1:5) Recruit the advice of mature believers. (Proverbs 15:22) Share your trials with others with the intent of receiving comfort and support–Not encouragement to become resentful. (Galatians 6:2)

Let God handle them: God’s command to honor even abusive parents does not in any way mean that we should not report the abuse of a child to the appropriate authorities. Civil authorities can be used by God to provide justice, protection, and healing. Reporting abuse is required of certain professionals and may serve to save the life of a child. But there may come a time when civil interaction is not possible. If so, the most loving thing to do may be to back away and let God handle things. Allowing a sinful person to reap his own rewards may be the most gracious course of action we can take.

These are hard steps to take. Many of them will require a great deal of spiritual maturity and a fair amount of emotional detachment. It is loving and honoring to take whatever action is necessary to prevent the sins of abuse and hateful feelings. Remember that it is God who works in us, (Philippians 2:13) and if we follow Him He will complete the necessary work to enable us to honor our abusive parent.

Many of us still love our abusers, but because it is not safe to be with them, we have learned to love them from a distance. The same is true of honoring. If your parents refuse to respect your boundaries and choose to continue mistreating you, then you can limit or end, if necessary, your time with them. We can “honor” them from a safe distance and still be obedient to God’s Word.

“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 14-15)  “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8: 32)

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