Here’s how it is: You’re the only Christian in your family. You’re an active member of your church. But there’s a clash! Your parents have booked a restaurant for Wednesday night to celebrate your brother finishing his HSC exams. They know that you have growth group on Wednesday nights. You’ve been taught well from the Bible about putting Jesus as number one in life, and being committed to growth group. What do you do?
Situations like this can lead to enormous tension within families, and even to outright conflict. Oftentimes, the situations are far more serious than simply a one-off clash. Maybe you’ve been asked to lead at youth group, but that means giving up a part-time job, which your parents want you to keep. Perhaps you’re thinking about training for ministry, but your parents want you to finish your studies and then enter the workforce.
In fact, these kinds of situations don’t only happen in families with unbelievers in them. Sometimes, the same kind of struggles arise in Christian families as well. In some ways, though, there are unique challenges when your folks see no value whatsoever in serving Jesus. How do you balance respect for your parents, and your devotion to Jesus and his church….in real life?
Does the Bible offer a clear answer on this?
It’s a tricky question, because on the one hand, the Bible couldn’t be clearer about the importance of treating our parents well. You’ve got the fifth commandment to honour your parents (Ex 20:12), which is reiterated by Paul (Eph 6:1-3; Col 3:20). And disrespect or disobedience of parents is condemned in very strong terms (Ex 21:15,17; Deut 21:18-21, Rom 1:30; 2 Tim 3:2). Paul even says that failing to care for our ageing parents is like denying our faith (1 Tim 5:3-8).
Yet on the other hand, Jesus repeatedly speaks of his unparalleled importance and his claim to allegiance in our lives. By comparison to our allegiance to him, he says our relationship with our parents will look like ‘hate’! (Luke 14:26). He brings division to families (Matt 10:34-37, Mark 13:12, Luke 12:49-53), and even rebukes prospective disciples for wanting to attend to family matters over and above following him (Lk 9:59-62). What do we make of all this? Jesus’ comments emerge in the context of his call for radical discipleship. By setting himself in competition to family ties, Jesus is showing what it means to follow him as our King.
So, when we survey the Bible we’re left with two genuine, but potentially opposed, objects of our loyalty. One might have primacy, but this doesn’t mean we can ditch the other. I’ve found two principles helpful, as I’ve tried to balance these interests.
We accept but don’t promote conflict
If we’re seeking to put Jesus and his kingdom first, tension with those who see differently will be inevitable. If we recognize this reality as a sign of the eschaton – that we’re living in the last days, there is contentment, rather than guilt, knowing that we aren’t culpable for all painful family conflict.
However, we don’t want to pursue conflict. As Christians we are called to humility, graciousness and peaceable living (Rom 12:18, Phil 2:3, Col 3:12, 1 Pet 5:5-6). For Christian children, this might mean being aware of our parents’ cultural or personal backgrounds which have given rise to their particular attitudes. We should never exhibit an arrogant or dismissive attitude towards our parents’ priorities, even if we disagree with them.
Being peaceable might also mean adopting a circumspect attitude towards diverging from our family’s direction. Moments of tension aren’t opportunities to pridefully assert that Jesus is now our first priority. Rather they are situations which call for care and wisdom. If we can display godly character, consistently, across a range of situations, we will represent Jesus well. Any conflict that does arise should be because of our master, not our manner.
Childhood as a vocation
The other principle that has helped me is the doctrine of vocation. The word vocation, literally means, calling. The idea is that Christians aren’t called to serve God only in spiritual activities like going to church and serving in ministry, but we’re called to serve God in whatever situation we’re in. The 16th century reformers, reacting against the medieval understanding of the sacred and profane realms, rediscovered this truth. Martin Luther, for example, wrote: “If I am to do good and holy works, I know of none better than to render all honor and obedience to my parents, because God has Himself commanded it.”
When we think like Luther we remember that God is interested in the way we live in all spheres of life, not merely whether we turn up for church and read our Bible. Oftentimes, honouring our parents is constitutive of obedience to Jesus, rather than opposed to it.
Remembering the doctrine of vocation also recasts our challenge in positive, rather than negative terms. Rather than asking, “When is conflict with my parents appropriate?”, we now ask, “How can I honour my parents as a way of glorifying God?” This may mean meeting our parents’ emotional needs through frequent contact, or showing them respect by seeking their advice on something. If we’re doing a good overall job at relating to our parents, then conflict over Jesus won’t be the defining theme in the relationship.
I hope these two principles help shape your thinking as they have mine. God knows I’ve stuffed up in this area. Serving Jesus against your family’s wishes is a tricky and narrow road to travel! But if godly character is our guide, I’m sure it’s a wider road than we think.
 Martin Luther, Large Catechism (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1529), 20. Cited 9 October 2017. Online: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/largecatechism.pdf