How to honor the dishonorable father

It's Father's Day. I live down south. Fathers are big around here. There are many Facebook posts going up which honor Daddy and Husband. I like to see those, even when they're not during Father's Day. I love to see photos of happy families, children loving their Dad.

Respect and honor to the father is commanded in the Fifth Commandment. It is the first Commandment that comes with a promise, too. In listening to RC Sproul yesterday on RefNet radio, he explained The Fifth Commandment by saying the first four commandments define man's relationship with God. Obeying the first four teaches us the magnitude of His power and name so that we can properly worship Him. The fifth commandment is the first of those that regulate man's relationship with other human beings.

"Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16)

I'm glad for those children who have or have had great fathers, and for the wives who honor their husband as the father of the family. But when of the people who have not had a great dad? Who had one who was a divorcer, philanderer, adulterer, fornicator? Who was not saved by grace and sinned mightily with anger and violence within the family? One who was mean with words and chose to be aloof from the children, considering them a drag on his high life? Who absolutely and with finality repudiated all his children? Who was a vicious alcoholic? Abuser?

Here is Ligonier with an excerpt from a short essay about the fifth commandment:

Honor the Dishonorable
Intractable lovers of self, we find honoring others too difficult—actually, we find it impossible. So we cast about for a way out. Many have good reasons. An anguished young man once asked me, “How am I supposed to honor my father after what he’s done to my mother?” It was a good question. I knew what this father had done. He’d run off with another woman, leaving his pregnant wife to pick up the pieces of the domestic disaster created by his profoundly dishonorable behavior. Nevertheless, God tells this young man to honor his father.

The Pharisees thought they had landed on the ultimate exception clause to honoring parents. They had cooked up a tradition that said when they declared their resources given to God, they were off the hook on the fifth commandment. Jesus exposed the fraud: “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’ ” (Matt. 15:6–8).

Only hearts that have been brought near to God in Christ can truly honor mother and father, even parents who have acted dishonorably. Just as “children obey your parents” does not include obeying their sinful commands, so “honor your father” does not include honoring his dishonorable behavior.

Clearly, if Peter can urge first-century believers to honor everyone, including Emperor Nero (1 Peter 2:17), then the command to honor parents isn’t made void by having a dishonorable parent, any more than the command to love our neighbor is void when we have a neighbor who lobs beer cans over our fence. God’s commands still apply in a broken world of imperfect neighbors and dishonorable parents; they were gifted to us by our gracious heavenly Father for just such a world.
Yes, but how? Something that was helpful in the Sproul sermon The Fifth Commandment was this anecdote-
"At the heart of this idea was the dimension of respect." ...

Then Sproul explained when he was in Pittsburgh he worked with a man in labor mediation in the steel industry. Sproul was at one point in a room with people from all different political and spiritual stripes. He and this man had developed a labor-management program based on three principles: love, dignity, and respect. Sproul asked one question to the assembled people in the room:

"How many of you want to be treated with dignity?" And every single person would raise their hand. I could not get a crowd that big to have complete, unified agreement on any other topic, I don't think. Some were Democrats, some were Republicans, some were Pirates fans, others weren't. But what they all wanted was to be treated with dignity. And to be treated with respect. Nobody likes to be insulted. Nobody likes to be demeaned.

What we're talking about here is honor. Because to honor someone is to be respectful of them, to show respect to them. Now this respect in the Decalogue begins with how children are to behave toward their parents. Honor your father and your mother. That's where the whole concept begins with showing respect to human beings, and respect toward Divinely constituted levels of authority. It is an acknowledgement that God has delegated to parents a certain authority, by which the home is governed.
Then Sproul goes on for a while, then returns to this concept: adult children.
After a child is grown and is not expected to offer slavish obedience to parents, and no longer lives under their roof, at what point in our lives does the mandate to honor our father and mother end? Never. If you look at Israel in the ways the children showed respect to the matriarch or patriarch, whenever the father or head of the house walked int he room, it was the custom of all the children, even the adult children, to rise. They stand in the presence of the father or of the mother, to show respect and honor.
Sproul asks the question, what if my father is not honorable?
God doesn't say 'honor your father and mother only when they're honorable. Theirs is a position. They hold an office. And even if they are unworthy of that office, the office itself is still to be honored.

If your father was a dishonorable person, abusive even, when you think of him, don't think of the person. Think of the office of father. Honor the office. If it helps, if it is too hard to honor the father who sinned so greatly in adultery, alcoholism, abuse, rejection or abandonment, whatever it is, because you certainly don't honor sins, but if it helps, honor the office. That way you will be honoring your Father in Heaven, God.


  1. Amen. That is how I understand it too- we are commanded to honor, it is not an option. I am sorry for the pain you went through as a child!

  2. Well spoken. We once fostered two girls, sisters, neither of whom knew their fathers due to their mothers promiscuity. They had such a hard time understanding the concept of God the father, until I realized they knew not any earthly father.....

    Our care of the girls came to an end after several years. One followed the Lord, the verdict is still out on the other sister, though I pray for her each day. I will always be thankful that I had a godly father, who as he lay dying, the nurses refereed to him as a "holy man". When I asked why, the nurses said they sensed holiness even before they entered his room. I marveled over their observation, as Daddy loved the Lord with a whole heart. And to think as he lay unconscious, his love for the Lord defined his dying hours....


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