Are Christians expected to honor an abusive parent? How can we honor an abusive parent?
The Bible tells children many times that we must honor our parents. 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 are in a fallen, sinful world, and many people live this out in their parenting. So how does this affect the honor children are required to show?
The Hebrew word for honor is kabad (Exodus 20:12). Among other things, it means to be heavy, hard, burdensome. The Greek word is timao (Ephesians 6:2), which means to set the value of. Basically, it means we are to hold our parents in high priority. However the Bible tells us to treat other people, we are to do so even more for our parents. There are 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 (Acts 7:60). Forgiving them does not absolve them of their sin in God's eyes. It keeps our attitude toward them soft and ensures we don't harden ourselves against God (Matthew 6:14-15).
Reconcile: Romans 12:18 says, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." The Bible does not allow us to respond to abuse with more abuse. The purpose of forgiveness is to make sure we are open to reconciliation if the other person repents of their behavior.
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. A right attitude toward an abusive parent would be hope that he or she can change, come to know Christ, and be the parent God designed them to be.
Love: Jesus exhorts us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Whatever 1 Corinthians 13 tells us about love, we are to apply that doubly to our parents. Some of these are extremely hard: "love…is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." 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.
Provide: In Mark 7:9-13, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for supporting ministry over the care of their own parents. Nowhere does the Bible absolve children of caring for their elderly parents who cannot care for themselves. Scripture does not insist that elderly parents get everything they want, but we are still responsible for their basic needs as far as we are able (and as far as they allow us).
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 applies even 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 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: There may come a time when civil interaction is not possible because of a parent's sin. If so, the most loving thing to do may be to back away and let God handle things. First Corinthians 5:5 suggests that allowing a sinful Christian 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. But the nature of abuse often precludes either. If the abused child is unable to interact with the parent in a confident, proactive way, the child's priority should be seeking the emotional stability and spiritual maturity needed. It is loving and honoring to take whatever action is necessary to prevent the sins of abuse and hateful feelings. God does not expect instant maturity in His followers. 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 (Philippians 1:6).
Please note that God's command to honor even abusive parents does not in any way mean that an abused child should not report the abuse 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.
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