Note from Aunt Dara: Following is a condensed version of a long letter that was sent to me from a young woman whose parents disapprove of her boyfriend. To protect the writer’s confidentiality, I have edited her letter for content and eliminated multiple details that could possibly be identifying factors. I also edited my own response that was sent directly to her so that nothing in my published response could be used for identification purposes. I realize that this column has a world-wide readership and that cultural expectations regarding parent-child relationships vary. However, the author of this letter is over 21 years old and lives in a country where adult women have full rights and freedom to make their own decisions without any cultural expectation of needing to have parental knowledge, permission, or approval. Therefore, I tried to set aside my own personal bias, opinions, preconceived ideas, and things that I have been taught previously, and I studied this issue anew, focused on one thing only—what does the Bible actually say?
Dear Aunt Dara,
Jonathan and I met through a mutual friend. As we got to know each other, I soon realized everything he is was everything I have been praying and asking God for in a husband. We both prayed about it and promised to honor God in our friendship/relationship. I remember asking God countless times to show me signs and give me answers as to whether or not Jonathan was the right one for me, and each time God told me he was the one.
However, when my parents found out about us, they made us break up. They insist that we stop talking and that they will NEVER accept him. I feel pulled into different directions. When I read my Bible and spend alone time with God, everything makes sense, but when my parents start "speaking into my life," nothing makes sense and I feel confused. Several ministry leaders have told me I should leave my parents and follow God's plan for my life. But my parents say if I don't listen to them, I'm not listening to God because the Bible says, "Children obey your parents." My parents keep telling me to stop talking to Jonathan, but I feel God telling me something different. If Jonathan truly isn't the one for me, I want to see the answers for myself and for God to reveal it to me, not reveal it to my parents and then I have to take their word for it, because right now I don't trust my parents. I’m trying to honor them, but it's hard because God is telling me a different plan for my life.
First of all, thank you so much for trusting me enough to ask my advice. You are doing the right thing by seeking counsel in this matter, and I commend you for having already consulted several ministry leaders.
First, I would like to address Ephesians 6:1 and Colossians 3:20, which are the only places in the Bible that say that children are to obey their parents. There is absolutely no question that children are to obey their parents. However, you are not a child. So, at the heart of this issue is the question: Do adult children have to obey their parents? Since I am not an expert in Greek, I cannot speak to the meaning of the Greek word which is translated “children” in these verses. Therefore, I have compared various translations of the Bible, consulted Bible commentaries, and read on-line discussions on the meaning of these verses and whether or not these verses apply to adult children.
Here is what these passages say:
Colossians 3:20-21: Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Ephesians 6:1-4: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. (The KJV says “nurture and admonition of the Lord.”)
If Ephesians 6:1 is taken in its context, it would seem that Paul is not referring to adult children because in verse 4 he instructs fathers on how to bring up their children. Adults have already been brought up. Also, I noticed that the Bible never tells children to obey their parents without immediately issuing a command to the parents. So, that prompted me to consider the question, “How should parents treat their children?” The Bible says that parents should instruct their children (Proverbs 4:2), train them (Proverbs 22:6), and teach them (Deuteronomy 4:10; 11:19). I speak as a mother and grandmother when I say that our children are gifts from God. We do not own them; they belong to God. As parents, our job is to teach our children the skills that they need to become responsible, independent adults who love and obey God. In the process, we are to model godly behavior to them and treat them as God treats His children—with love, kindness, and compassion. We are not lord over our children, and our adult children are not our subjects who have to submit to our arbitrary wishes that are contrary to their own will and desire. Therefore, if we as parents would obey God by treating our children the way God instructs us, there would be no need for anyone to ask if adult children must obey their parents. Boundary issues would not be a problem.
It then occurred to me that perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, “Must adult children obey their parents?” perhaps we should be asking, “Do parents have authority from God to issue commands to their adult children?” I explored this in scripture, using different keywords that mean “command” and I found only two verses (Genesis 18:19 and Deuteronomy 32:46), and both of them are in reference to commanding our children to keep the way of the Lord and obey the words of God’s law. Significantly, there is no verse in the Bible anywhere that says that parents have authority from God to command their children otherwise, or to issue orders (reasonable or unreasonable) to their adult children.
Finally, I asked myself, “Do parents have authority from God to punish, discipline, or chastise their adult children?” There are several verses in the Bible that speak of parents disciplining or chastising their children, but I ran into the same problem of trying to determine if this means children who are minors or children of any age. Hebrews 12:9-10 offered the clue that I needed. It says, “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.” I compared more than a dozen versions of the Bible, and every one of them used past tense when referring to discipline from human fathers, and every one of them said that discipline from their human fathers was “for a few days” or “for a short time” and some versions actually say, “while we were children.” This tells me that discipline, chastisement, or punishment of children ends when childhood does and does not carry on throughout adulthood. (Therefore, your parents do not have authority from God to punish you.)
So, how should parents and adult children treat each other? Children should honor and respect their parents. Always. Forever. (Note, however, that “obey” does not have the same definition as “honor” or “respect.”) Parents should offer advice (when asked) and share their wisdom. However, parents should not try to control an adult child. Parents should be considerate and respectful to their adult children by allowing them to make their own decisions. The son or daughter who is of age is now responsible for their own actions and choices. They have the right to self-determination, to make their own decisions regarding friendship, marriage, career, what to buy, where to live, where to work, what to wear, etc., while submitting to God’s authority and leading. The Apostle Paul said in I Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” If I may pretend for a moment that I am Paul’s mother, I think she could have said, “When my son Paul was a child, he was not old enough to make his own decisions, he needed my guidance and direction as his parent and I expected him to obey me; but now that he is a man, I have stopped treating him as a child.”
To answer the question about who you should obey—God or your parents—the Bible is clear that God has authority over all and that we are to obey God (Acts 5:27-29). The question now is, “Who is truly hearing from God, you or your parents?” How do you tell what is from God? Is God speaking to you by the answers that you are receiving to your countless prayers, or is what your parents say God’s word for your life? First, examine everything from what God has already revealed in his word, the Bible. God will never contradict His written word. Then look at the means through which you are receiving the messages (see Matthew 7:15-20 and James 3:1-18). In other words, is the person who is speaking the word to you consistent in living a holy life, holy in speech and behavior? If not, that should tell you something.
I really believe that your parents think that what they are doing is in your best interest. For some reason they think that Jonathan is a threat to you and they are trying to protect you. Listen carefully to what they say and take it into consideration, but weigh everything they say against what you know to be true in God’s word. Remember, your parents are not your enemies. Satan is your enemy and he is a deceiver. Your parents need your prayers so that they can be delivered from the tricks of the devil.
Finally, I feel an ethical obligation as a social worker to let you know that your parents’ behavior toward Jonathan and you is spiritual abuse, emotional abuse, and verbal abuse. From your description of your father’s anger, he might even be capable of physical abuse also. Threats, intimidation, harassment, accusations, aggressive behavior, lack of forgiveness, condemnation, hatred, cursing others, and uncontrolled anger are not from God! Your statements sound very similar to those of countless abused women whom I have counseled. I would encourage you to get some assistance from a Christian counselor and advice from someone whose specialty is domestic violence so that you can be safe when you do leave your parents’ home.