I love and respect my own parents a lot. But not everyone is blessed with parents like mine. And so we have several related questions in the inbox from adults who are trying to figure out how to honor their parents. For many, this becomes more and more perplexing. As we grow into adulthood, we see our parents’ faults more clearly. And in the late-teen transition to adulthood, parental authority changes; it lessens. The relationship changes. It all leads to various questions, like this one: Can we honor our parents if we don’t respect them? The question was put in particularly clear and brief terms by one listener to the podcast, an anonymous twentysomething listener. “Pastor John, my question is rather simple: How can I honor my parents when I don’t respect them? Or does honoring them assume that you do respect them?” Pastor John, what would you say?
Yes, I don’t think there is a great difference between the terms honor and respect. Respect, I think, refers most often to our inner assessment of someone’s character or achievement, while honor more often refers to our various demonstrations toward them in words or behaviors that express our respect.
So, I think the real question is this: How do we honor or respect parents who, without any repentance, act in dishonorable and blameworthy ways? That’s the question. This is a very crucial question, not only because every Christian has to come to terms with the biblical command of Jesus in Matthew 19:19 to “honor your father and mother” — even though thousands of people have had parents who consistently acted in dishonorable and blameworthy ways — but it’s also a crucial question because the same issue faces all of us in regard to all people, because 1 Peter 2:17 says, “Honor everyone” — not just “honor your parents” but “honor all people” — “Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” And there are horrible people in the world who have done despicable things all their lives and have died viciously hating people and rejecting God and seemingly having nothing honorable about them.
Seven Grounds for Honor
Now, what I have found to be most helpful in thinking through this question about how to honor the dishonorable is to discover in the New Testament that there are at least seven overlapping warrants or reasons or grounds for honoring someone. And these different reasons or grounds for honoring people regularly call for different ways of honoring people. If we take all these into account, some of them will apply to honoring parents who have acted in disreputable or criminal ways — and we’re not going to twist any language to make that work. So, here they are — here are the seven overlapping warrants for honoring someone in the New Testament.
1. Image of God
First, there is honor that is owing to human beings simply because they are created in the image of God, and should be treated differently than the animals. For example:
With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9–10)
“The sheer existence of a human being in the image of God should call forth from us a kind of honor.”
In other words, the sheer existence of a human being in the image of God, the likeness of God, should call forth from us a kind of honor. So, when my students used to ask me, “How do you honor a child molester, a rapist, a murderer, a leader of a genocide?” one answer that I gave was “You don’t shoot them like a stray ox that gored your neighbor” (Exodus 21:28–32). You give them a trial by jury, just because they are human and not animals. That’s a form of honor, even if the trial is followed by execution.
2. Natural Relationships
There is honor that is simply owing to natural relations as God has established them. And here I’m thinking about “honor your father and mother,” because it is a natural relation that God has established, and gains its honorableness from his ordering of things — not just from the quality of the parents. Or you could add to that the honor that is due to age. Leviticus 19:32: “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
3. God-Ordained Authority
There is the honor that comes with God-ordained authority. Now, that overlaps with the second point, but this one is not rooted in nature the way that one was. In the secular sphere, Peter says, “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). In church, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, “Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord.” In other words, there is a God-appointed authority in the world and a God-appointed authority in the church, and there is a kind of honor that we should show just by virtue of the roles of authority that God himself has appointed.
4. Valuable Labor
There is the honor that people should get because of the worth of their work. In 1 Thessalonians 5:13, Paul goes on to say that, in the church, we should “esteem [our leaders] very highly in love because of their work.” In other words, the work itself is valuable and worthy of our respect.
It’s interesting that Paul mingles love with honor there in 1 Thessalonians toward the church leaders who do their work well. Here’s verse 13 again: “Esteem [your leaders] very highly in love because of their work.” In other words, there is a kind of respect or an esteem or an honor that is drawn out of us by our love for those who serve us, not just from the quality of their work.
There is an honor that should be drawn out toward weakness. Peter mentions this in the relationship between husbands and wives in 1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel.” In other words, in Christ, the response toward weakness is not exploitation or mockery or abuse, but honor.
7. Christlike Grace
This may be the most important with regard to what is distinctly Christian. There’s a kind of honor that is freely bestowed without reference to any quality or position or reputation or virtue or rank or demerit in the person honored. In other words, there is a way of honoring that, as it were, doesn’t respond to honorableness but bestows it. It treats a person as though honorable, as though worthy of our service, because we give it to them.
Paul roots this way of honoring people in the very mind of Christ, and in his sacrificial incarnation and sacrifice on the cross.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. . . . Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant. (Philippians 2:3, 5–7)
“There is a way of honoring that, as it were, doesn’t respond to honorableness but bestows it.”
So, there is a kind of honoring that we freely and graciously bestow on the undeserving. We treat them better than they deserve. We assume the position toward them of servants. And thus, in a way, we exalt them as though they were worthy to be served, when, in fact, they’re not worthy to be served. And thus, we bestow a kind of free honor upon them, which is called grace, the way Christ did to us, the way his sacrifice pours out onto us — honor as though we were honorable when we’re not.
To Whom Honor Is Owed
None of those seven reasons for honoring people, and none of those ways of honoring people, commits us to the hypocrisy of thinking others are honorable when they are dishonorable or praiseworthy when they are blameworthy. The Bible does not ask us to live a lie.
So in summary,
- some acts of honoring others are owing to the image of God,
- some to natural human relations that God has appointed,
- some to authority structures that God has put in place,
- some to the worth of the work that others do,
- some to the relationship of love that we have,
- some to a person’s weakness, and
- some is absolutely free, in order to display the freedom of the grace of God to others.
And among those seven, I would say at least four, and possibly as many as six, apply to parents who, at one level, have lived in dishonorable ways. And I’ll let you think through which of those apply to your situation.