Families in Dysfunction
The fifth commandment is familiar: “Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12).
But how can this commandment be applied in dysfunctional families? How shall children honour parents who are negligent in their task? And how shall parents exercise their authority in situations of domestic rebellion?
Definition of Dysfunction
The term ‘dysfunctional family’ is a familiar one, even in a society that holds traditional notions of family in low esteem. Dysfunctional families and their misadventures have provided endless fodder for TV shows that purport to be humorous and entertaining.
While familiar, the term is ill-defined. By ‘dysfunctional family,’ I mean: a family whose structures and relational roles do not accord with the norms of Scripture in serious and sustained ways.
To understand ‘dys-function,’ we need to be clear on what is the right function of a Christian family. What are God-pleasing structures and roles for the home? Dysfunctional traits are contrary to what can be considered proper behaviours.
Now, perhaps it is true that every family operates at a certain level of dysfunction. Every covenant child will struggle to obey his parents lovingly and humbly. Every parent knows about failure in carrying out the special task given by God and vowed at baptism. What ought to be one of the most secure elements of a Christian’s identity—his or her family—can be a place of deep fracture and failure. A family can face tensions in their daily conversation and interactions, while some families also face the traumas of abuse or divorce. Family struggle is widespread.
Where Are all the Happy Families?
Somewhere I read the claim: “There are no happy families in the Bible.” That’s an argument from silence, of course. For while the Bible certainly describes numerous families in a state of dysfunction, it doesn’t necessarily have occasion to say explicitly things like: “And it came to pass that Azariah and his wife had ten sons and four daughters and they all lived at peace together for many years.”
But it is true that Scripture includes many examples of what we might term dysfunctional families. Consider how Isaac and Rebecca played favourites with their sons Jacob and Esau, how Jephthah’s daughter suffered because of his rash behaviour, how the priest Eli allowed his sons to persist in godlessness, how Samuel’s sons were wicked men, or how even King David’s house was tormented by the antics of rebellious children. This hard reality is reflected in Proverbs 17:25,
A foolish son brings grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him.
Scripture never airbrushes away the struggles of faithful family living. Even so, the label ‘dysfunctional’ should not be applied to every family as they face the struggles of home-life. ‘Dysfunctional’ is a loaded term that puts into focus the duties and failures of children and parents, where in serious and sustained ways they do not live according to the norms of Scripture.
The Duties – and Failures – of Children
In the fifth commandment, God requires children to honour their father and mother. In ancient cultures, to honour someone was to acknowledge his importance and value. To honour someone is to demonstrate through daily interaction that this person is substantial or weighty in the direction of one’s life.
The requirement of children’s obedience to their parents is seen throughout the Old Testament. Besides the fifth commandment, we refer to Leviticus 19:3, “Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God” (cf. Prov 1:8; 23:22).
We find the same in the New Testament. The command in Ephesians 6:1—“Children, obey your parents”—was consistent with the expectations of the Roman world, where the father exerted near total control over the life of his family.
What sets apart the New Testament instruction is the addition of the phrase, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (v. 1). Everyday life in marriage, family, and society is shaped by our life in Christ. The gospel of Christ changes the purpose and the motivation of children’s obedience, for they strive to obey because it is well-pleasing to the Lord.
If the duty of children is to honour and obey their parents, then rebellious attitudes and behaviours are a serious failure. Showing disrespect is treating something ‘weighty’ as if it were inconsequential. Because of the close connection between honour for God and honour for parents, cursing one’s parents was tantamount to cursing God. So the penalty for speaking ill of one’s parents was death (Exod 21:17; cf. Prov 20:20). By his law, God sought to preserve the integrity of a covenant home.
Christian homes are sometimes marked by the dysfunction of rebellion: household rules broken without fear, disrespectful speech to the parents, elevated tensions, abrupt departures from the home, and more. We grieve the shocking lack of respect for authority in our culture, and how this impacts Christian homes too. While serious, Scripture indicates that this is actually to be expected.
In Romans 1, in the company of many other heinous sins, ‘disobedience to parents’ is an example of sin run amok (cf. 2 Tim 3:2). In family dysfunction we come up against the pervasive brokenness of sin.
The Duties – and Failures – of Parents
In the fifth commandment, God lays an explicit requirement onto those under authority, with an implied obligation for those in authority. God calls a father and mother to give their children instruction in the ways of the Lord. Think of the mandate in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 for parents to let God’s Word saturate the life of the home (cf. Ps 78:1-4). In Proverbs 22:6, parents are exhorted:
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
The spirit of this instruction is clear from Proverbs 3:12, “The LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” That verse highlights the unbreakable connection between the LORD’s love and his treatment his children: because he loves, God corrects and instructs and disciplines. Such is the heavenly norm for earthly parents: a godly parent must love his or her children, care for them tenderly, and discipline faithfully.
In Zacharias Ursinus’s Commentary on the Catechism, in connection with Lord’s Day 39, he offers a helpful summary of the duties of parents.[i] Of parents, it is required:
1) to nourish and cherish their children (Matt 7:9)
2) to defend their children from injury (1 Tim 5:8)
3) to instruct them (Eph 6:4)
4) to govern them by good discipline (Prov 13:1)
Conversely, the faults of parents generally correspond to these duties:
1) not to seek or provide the support and nourishment necessary for their children, or to bring them up in luxury and extravagance
2) not to protect them from injuries, or not to accustom them to patience and gentleness
3) not to educate their children, or to have no care to have them educated according to their own, or their children’s ability; or to corrupt them by their own evil example, or bad instructions
4) to raise their children in idleness…or not to correct them when necessity requires it; or to chastise them with greater severity than duty or the nature of the offence demands, and so to alienate their affections by too great severity and cruelty.[ii]
These categories give some colour to the idea of parental dysfunction. And just as Ephesians 6 outlines the core duty of children, it does the same for parents. Notably, Paul begins with a warning against misapplied parental authority: “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath” (v. 4).
In the first century, when a father held absolute power over his family, verse 4 was startlingly counter-cultural: “Fathers, do not provoke your children.” Parental domineering should be foreign to a Christian home. Parents may demand obedience from their children, of course, but well-intentioned rules can grow into a heap of unnecessary regulations. Parents can also slip into a habit of nagging, always finding another thing to criticize and rarely speaking a word of praise. And if we’re harsh with them, if our rules are arbitrary, if we are insensitive to our child’s particular needs and character, we’re going to cause frustration.
Scripture shows that misapplied authority can have an ugly result. Colossians 3 has a close variation on the command in Ephesians, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (v. 21). A sure outcome of parental dysfunction is domestic discouragement. Scripture teaches that if parents often provoke their children to exasperation or frustration, they will find it difficult to accept parental instruction. A frustrated child is not a child ready to learn the ways of the Lord.
Next time we’ll consider some ways in which God helps dysfunctional families.
[i] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, tr. G.W. Williard (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1985), 577-78.
[ii] Ursinus, Commentary, 578.