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The Fifth Commandment

May 27, 2010

The Fifth Commandment reads this way in Exodus 20:12,

"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you."

A New Testament expansion of this is given in Ephesians 6,

(1) Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (2) Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), (3) that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. (4) And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

This Commandment establishes parental authority in a nation. It does not tell children to obey their government, because government did not procreate any children. In recent years government has sought to increase its power by licensing as many activities as possible. A license recognizes authority, and in this case a marriage license is a recognition of the authority of the state over the children. A license essentially makes government a third parent with two-thirds of the voting power.

Thus, government has essentially usurped parental authority on the grounds that parents often do not know how to raise their children without abuse. Government assumes that it can do a better job according to its own standard of morality.

God delegated authority to man in the beginning when he said, "Let them have dominion" (Gen. 1:26). Though man has long abused that authority, God has never taken it back, though He retains the right to hold man accountable. So it is with parental authority.

This does not mean that parents have absolute rights over their children. They do not have the right to put their children to death, as we often see among Muslims. If they believe that a child has committed a penalty worthy of death, they must bring the child to the judges to make that determination. And even then, the parents are not to put him to death (Deut. 21:21; 22:21).

This brings us to one of the most controversial laws in the Bible. Deut. 21:18-21 is the law of the rebellious son who refuses to obey his parents. The law says that he is to be brought before the elders (judges) and then stoned. Parents today are horrified by this law, not understanding it with the mind of Christ.

First of all, it is not a mandate to parents that they must execute their children every time they show some rebellion. The clear implication is that the child is continually rebellious and unrepentant. Of course, it is left to the parents to decide when to bring charges against the child. That is their right.

Secondly, just because they have rights under the law, it does not mean that they must exercise those rights. It simply says that if they reach the point where they believe nothing else can resolve the problem, then they have the authority to bring the child to the judges for legal action. In most cases, though, this would be a very extreme course of action, and for this reason we have no biblical examples of this law ever being enforced.

Yet suppose a teenage son is so filled with hatred that he plots to kill his parents or siblings. In such a case, of course, parents may fear for their lives or for the life of their other children. We see this with Ishmael's persecution of Isaac and with the conflict between Jacob and Esau. In both cases, the father had to act as judge, because before the time of Moses, the only judges in Canaan were the Canaanite judges who ruled by the laws of Nimrod. In both cases, the rebellious sons were separated, not executed.

Anyone who is called to be a judge in such a case would also have to question the parents to see if perhaps the father had provoked his child to anger. Fathers do not have this right, and so if the child has been abused or provoked unjustly, the judges would have to consider these circumstances. If a parent brings a child to the judges, the judges must judge justly and not simply assume that the parent has done his job in accordance with the mind of Christ. Like all trials, the judges must determine all the circumstances before rendering a judgment.

The law is often given in absolute terms, assuming something to be true. In this case it is presumed that the parent is right and that the child is truly rebellious without cause. But obviously, the judges must diligently inquire into the case to determine the truth of the matter before rendering a judgment.

This raises a larger issue of law that most people do not fully appreciate. The law is not an end in itself. What Jesus said of the Sabbath law is applicable to the other laws as well. Mark 2:27 and 28 says,

(27) The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. (28) Consequently, the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.

The purpose of the law is to serve the cause of justice. Justice is for the service of man. The law was not meant to do injustice. Thus, healing on the Sabbath is not a violation of the law (vs. 11), nor is picking some grain from the field in order to eat on the Sabbath (vs. 23). The scribes and Pharisees had turned the Sabbath law into an instrument of oppression, rather than an occasion of restoration and healing.

So also with the rest of the law. It is the standard of righteousness, and when an injustice occurs, the victim has certain rights to be compensated. The law will uphold the victim's rights, but the victim does not necessarily have to exercise those rights. For instance, if someone steals from me, the law will uphold my right to receive double restitution, but as a victim I have the authority to forgive the whole debt, part of it, or to demand all of it.

I should not look at the law and say, "It is my duty to collect the entire restitution payment." The judges have authority to determine guilt or innocence, and to determine precisely how much the sinner owes his victim according to the law. But the victim has the right to determine how much to receive. If the victim is self-serving, he may exact the entire amount with no regard to the situation of the sinner. If the victim has the mind of Christ, he will discern what is best for the sinner. At times, making him work off a debt may be very beneficial in teaching the sinner how to be a good citizen. If the sinner has already repented, the debt may even be forgiven entirely.

The point is that the victim has the right of forgiveness and is under no obligation to demand the full penalty of the law upon the sinner.

We see this principle also in Deut. 24:4, where we read of the laws of divorce and remarriage. Men and women are given the right of divorce if certain violations of the law occur. But no divorce is mandated. This is the option of the injured party. The writ of divorce ends the marriage and ends the husband's right over his ex-wife.

Thus, if a divorced woman is remarried, and her second husband dies or divorces her, the former husband has lost the right to claim her as his wife (Deut. 24:4). I used to think that it was unlawful for the woman in question to remarry her former spouse, but now I understand that the prohibition is upon the man, not the woman. If she wishes, she may remarry her former spouse. The point of Deut. 24:4 is to deny the ex-husband the legal right to claim her.

In the case of premarital sexual relations in Exodus 22:16, 17 the father of the woman has the right to demand marriage, or if he sees that such a marriage is not in the best interest of his daughter, he has the right to demand the price of a dowry (50 shekels of silver). Either way, it shows the right of the parent according to the Fifth Commandment.

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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones

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