Family of Origin, Family of Faith
by Jen Wilkin
The church is the family your family of origin could not be. In the Gospels, Jesus applied familial language to his followers: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:49–50). Because of their controversial faith, first-century believers could not rely on natural family relationships. Many indeed had to leave father, mother, and brothers to follow Jesus.
The church became their spiritual family, the network of love, honor, and accountability that they needed for spiritual, emotional, and even physical support. Familial language pervades the New Testament Epistles. The Epistles address their hearers as brothers and sisters. Paul instructs Timothy to relate to younger members of his church as siblings. We will need a deep appreciation for spiritual siblinghood to navigate the remaining five commands. But for the fifth command, we must pay attention to the parent language of the New Testament. Paul instructs Timothy to relate honorably to older members as spiritual mothers and fathers (1 Tim. 5:1–2). He says to the church at Corinth, “For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). He even honors a spiritual mother of his own when he sends greetings to the mother of Rufus “who has been a mother to me as well” (Rom. 16:13).1
This expansive application of honoring parents was not lost on earlier generations of the church. Who are we to honor in the fifth commandment? The Westminster Larger Catechism, written in 1647, responds:
By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.2
Put another way, respect your elders in the broadest sense.
Note that, in alignment with the language of the Epistles and the fifth command itself, the catechism places equal emphasis on the honoring of both fathers and mothers. A healthy family is one in which both father and mother are valued for their wisdom and contributions. The family of God, like any healthy family, should strive to show such value to both fathers and mothers in the church. If one parenting presence is minimized or neglected, the family risks all manner of dysfunction. How beautiful is the household of God when both mothers and fathers receive the honor they are due!
Note that the catechism includes those “superior in age” under the parent umbrella. Leviticus 19:32 says, “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord” (NIV). It is not just aging biological parents we honor, but the elderly in general. Here is a clear way to live honorably among unbelievers. In a culture that is obsessed with worshiping youth, the fifth command offers Christians a simple means to be light in the darkness.
Rather than adopt the common mantra that the elderly are adorable, irrelevant, burdensome, or expendable, we instead show them honor as full image bearers, filled with a kind of wisdom that only the passage of time can impart. By seeking out and valuing this wisdom, we honor the giver and we gain from the gift. Psalm 90:12 asks the Lord to “teach us to number our days / that we may get a heart of wisdom.” How very likely that God answers this prayer through the wisdom of a saint who has numbered more days than we.
Note that the catechism further includes governing authorities under the parent umbrella, echoing Paul’s admonition to give “honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7 NET). The fifth commandment reminds us that the one who holds all authority has delegated some of that authority to human rulers. By honoring those in authority over us, we fulfill the fifth command.
An Expansive Obedience
The broad application of the command grows clear: honor elders, wherever you encounter them, as far as it is possible with you. But we do so with discernment. Ephesians 6:1 helps us remember that we are to obey parents “in the Lord,” or, insofar as their authority is exercised according to his will. We are not called to honor or obey elders bent on injustice or harm.
Injustice. Harm. Abuse. Abandonment. Too often, these are the practices of our elders. We rightly see them as challenges related to practical application of the fifth command, to be sure. But we must guard against seeing them as excuses. We must ask God for grace to show honor as far as it is possible with us.3
Maybe your mother didn’t do everything right. If you’re a parent yourself, you have probably learned already to extend the gracious proposition that she did the best she could. If she is living, show honor by telling her a favorite memory of her from your childhood. If you have children of your own, repeat the story to them as well. And think hard about which other stories they need to hear. Giving your children the gift of relationship with a grandparent unweighted by the baggage of your own childhood can be a way to show honor. Sometimes we honor our parents by demonstrating forgiveness in what we leave unsaid.
Maybe the father who raised you was a father in name only. Maybe he caused or allowed harm to you. Look to show honor where you can. Who acted as a father toward you? A teacher or coach? A grandfather? A pastor? A stepfather? Express your gratitude to the person or people in your life who looked beyond the boundaries of biology to demonstrate fatherly love in tangible ways. Make a donation to a cause that helps fatherless children to thrive.
Maybe your parent was the kind for whom the entire greeting card aisle was written. By all means, take your time finding the perfect card and writing the perfect sentiment on their day of honor. But also feel the weight of your privilege. To be raised by a mother or father who consistently places the needs of others above their own is no common thing. Show honor by being that kind of parent to your own children. But don’t stop there. Turn your eyes to those you know who are physically, emotionally, or spiritually orphaned and be a parent to them according to their need.
Because the church is the family of God, we need be at no loss for fathers and mothers to honor. Nor need we be at a loss for spiritual orphans to parent. If your family of origin was a painful one, the family of God can be a haven and a recompense. If your family of origin was a happy one, how much more so the family of God?
In the record of the life of Jesus, we see honor given to earthly parents, the elderly, and those in authority. In the hour of his death, we see Jesus tenderly entrusting his earthly mother, Mary, into the care of his spiritual brother John. Certainly he did so out of love. But he also did so because he, of all people, understood that to honor our parents is to honor God. Because he understood his true sonship, honoring his earthly parent was a reflexive act.
The birth narrative of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke holds many memorable witnesses to his nativity. But it pointedly honors elders, as well. When Jesus is presented on the eighth day in Jerusalem, an elderly pair greets his arrival with joy. Simeon and Anna, whose days have been long upon the land, crowned with the wisdom of their white hairs, rejoice to see the Savior at last in the temple of the Lord. Their aged presence whispers a redemptive parallel to a youthful Adam and Eve cast out from the garden temple, longing for the serpent crusher to be born.
Simeon and Anna are honored fathers and mothers in the house of the Lord. And so should be all who wait expectantly on the faithfulness of God to keep his promises, even into the twilight of their years.