Grace for Dysfunctional Families
How can the fifth commandment be applied in situations of family dysfunction?
For instance, how does it apply when either the children are living in rebellion against the authority of the parents, and/or when the parents are failing to carry out their task according to direction of Scripture? By ‘dysfunctional family,’ we mean a family whose structures and relational roles do not accord with the norms of Scripture in serious and sustained ways.
In such difficult situations, we are grateful to rely on the steadfast love of God and the sure wisdom of his Word. Here I suggest five principles drawn from Scripture.
1) Maintain the obligation of children to give honour to their parents.
When confronted with the complexities of applying God’s law, it is natural to prefer simple—and sometimes simplistic—answers. In a situation of domestic rebellion, our visceral response might be black-and-white: children must obey dad and mum, full stop. This simplistic approach can be unhelpful if it doesn’t take into account the context of the situation.
Nevertheless, we have to grapple with the weight of the commandment. God entrusts to parents a role that is imbued with authority. The failure of a parent to relate to a child in a way that is consistent with the Lord’s commands doesn’t take away the child’s obligation to think through this commandment carefully and to strive to obey it diligently. Says Ursinus on this commandment, “The office must be distinguished from the persons who are invested with it; so that whilst we detest the wickedness of the men, we should nevertheless honour their office, on account of its divine appointment.”[i]
In its explanation of the fifth commandment, Lord’s Day 39 includes a realistic and most helpful phrase with a key bearing on our question. In speaking about the honour that I should pay to “my father and mother and…all those in authority over me,” the Catechism also instructs me,
to have patience with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.
Parents will fail, yet children should still maintain honour, love, and faithfulness. Christ himself modelled this submissive behaviour toward harsh authority during his ministry (1 Pet 2:18-24). Even so, this commandment is not to be considered absolute, as we’ll see shortly.
2) Maintain the obligation of parents to fulfill their baptismal vows.
According to Scripture, believing parents have the weighty obligation to bring up their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:2). This obligation is echoed in the baptismal vow in Reformed churches, when parents promise to “instruct your child in this doctrine … and to have him/her instructed therein to the utmost of your power.”
Once again, we shouldn’t take a simplistic view of the expected outcomes of fulfilling this obligation. Russell Moore points out that we sometimes have a “transactional view” of childrearing, that it is roughly equivalent to raising cattle or programming code into a computer.[ii] That is, if we teach and model this creed and conduct, we will be assured of this good result. Christians might regard Proverbs 22:6 as an absolute promise that God will save their child: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
But Proverbs 22:6 speaks of a general principle; namely, that the parents’ direction of their children is usually formative for the rest of their lives. It does not mean that every child raised in a covenant home or sent to a Christian school and summer camps will become a true believer. The pain and regret over unbelieving children are all too real for many parents. Nevertheless, this text underlines the importance of parents striving to fulfill this God-given calling in his strength and by his Spirit, despite our many weaknesses.
3) In the home, uphold the Lord’s command to live at peace.
It is God’s will that there be peace in our churches, marriages, friendships, and in among our families. While Jesus does bring a sword of division which sometimes splits up families (Matt 10:34-37), there is a substantial difference between legitimate division over the true gospel and the division that we perpetuate because of our own sinful and selfish choices. Says J. Douma, “Problems between parents and children are rarely of the kind where a choice ‘for or against Christ’ is required.”[iii] Instead, household conflicts often centre on less significant issues.
In the regrettable situations where conflict arises in the home, parents and children must heed God’s call to peace. Christ pronounces a blessing on peacemakers (Matt 5:9), and his Word calls believers to “pursue peace with everyone” (Heb 12:14). Even if parents and children aren’t certain what is a God-pleasing resolution to the tension being experienced between them, they ought to avoid those behaviours that are clearly wrong. For instance, in their interactions with each other, parents and children alike must reject unrighteous anger, physical or emotional abuse, participation in slander, or the nurturing of grudges and hatred. Such actions and attitudes will only perpetuate conflict.
Instead, when parents and children speak in gentleness, listen carefully, and make opportunity for healthy interactions, this provides a peaceful context for the needed resolution.
4) Acknowledge the priority of obedience to God above parents.
The principle that is implied in Acts 5:29 is well-known, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” If parents command something that is contrary to God’s revealed will, then children are obligated to disobey their parents.
Giving honour to a creature (such as a parent) must always be subservient and secondary to the obedience and worship we present to God. Think of how Abraham left his father’s house, how Ruth left her parents and country, and how Hezekiah rejected the upbringing of his godless father Ahaz. Nevertheless, the Scriptural norm of the authority of parents means we must not reject entirely the parents’ authority. Douma says: “One must not seize too quickly the possibility of denying obedience to one’s parents. Saying no to them at one point, no matter how serious that point, does not imply total rejection of one’s parents.”[iv]
And as a fifth principle for applying the fifth commandment in dysfunctional families:
5) Recognize the church context of a covenant family.
To borrow (and modify) an adage from Hillary Clinton: “It takes a church to raise a family.” A family of believers-and-their-children belongs to the body of Christ. This gives the church an important supportive role, both when family life is stable, and also when it is severely challenged. Think of the blessing we can gain by humbly seeking the advice of other godly and experienced parents, by having regular workshops or book discussions about wise parenting, and by involving the church leadership (earlier rather than later) when are family tensions.
The reality is that our families so often exist in isolation. Even in a Christian congregation, a family can be insulated from meaningful contact with other church members. The walls of a home can conceal much. We are naturally reluctant to share our messiness and dysfunction with the community of believers or with the church leadership.
Our preference is to deal with any problems ‘in house.’
From my perspective as a pastor, it is unfortunate that the church is not always a welcoming place for families that are dysfunctional at some level. The unspoken expectation is that every family in the church is healthy and thriving, while those that aren’t are viewed with suspicion or disdain. Consequently, some families silently endure untold pain and hardship, going without the blessing of much needed community support.
God’s own willingness to work with prodigals like us (Luke 15:11-32) should motivate us to care graciously for the prodigal children—and the prodigal parents—who can always be found in our congregations.
There is grace for them, and grace for all of us, as the family of God in Christ.
[i] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, tr. G.W. Williard (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1985), 576.
[ii] Russell Moore, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2018), 248.
[iii] Jochem Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, tr. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 177.
[iv] Douma, Ten Commandments, 176.