"Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and your mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:1-4).
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.
God threatens to punish all who break this commandment; therefore we should fear His wrath and not disobey or dishonor our father or mother. But He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep this commandment, and even that we may live long on the earth; therefore we should also love and trust in Him, and, for His sake, honor our parents and gladly do what they command.
Some of Dr. Luther's best theology is confessed in his Large Catechism, wherein his explanation of the Fourth Commandment is surely one of the highlights. The whole thing bears re-reading often and again (it's easy enough to find in any number of translations and editions). For the time being here, for my own benefit, I want to recall and rehearse in my own words what I can remember from that catechesis of the first commandment with a promise:
The Lord has set our fathers and mothers next after Himself in authority over us, and we are to honor and obey them for His sake. His Word adorns them with a hidden majesty, which far and away surpasses all the accolades and achievements of man. What is more, it is not contingent on any quality or performance on the part of our parents. We honor them in the Lord, and for the Lord's sake, whether or not we agree with them, and irrespective of whether they are right, wrong, ridiculous or sublime. We must stop short of disobeying the clear Word of the Lord, even at the command of our parents, because their authority over us derives from Him, from His Word, and remains always under His divine authority. Even in such cases, however, we do not cease to honor our parents; our conscientious disobedience, for the Lord's sake, extends and continues only so far as the Word of the Lord requires. Meanwhile, we continue to honor our father and mother, because that, too, the Lord has required.
There are no time limits on the Fourth Commandment. We never do outgrow it. As a young man leaves his father and mother to cleave to his wife, and as a young woman is given by her father to another man as wife, the nature of the parent-child relationship changes, as does the character and content of the honor that is due to father and mother. But honor is still due nonetheless. The honor that once required ready and willing obedience may next require patience and respect, and then attentive care and provision. So, for example, St. Paul writes that, "if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:4,8). Nowhere does the Lord suggest that the honor of father and mother is to cease. If anything, greater age calls for greater honor. So, by way of instructive example, pastors are admonished to deal with an older man, not with sharp rebuke, but as with a father (1 Timothy 5:1).
It pleases God when we honor our father and mother (Colossians 3:20), because it honors Him and His Word. All manner of self-invented "good works" are as nothing but offensive rubbish by comparison to this Fourth Commandment, which is given pride of place after those pertaining to the Lord Himself. Indeed, in Leviticus 19 reverence for father and mother is even more closely intertwined with the first three Commandments. To honor father and mother is better than sacrifice, and it may not be set aside on the pretext of "serving God" apart from His Word (St. Matthew 15:4-6). The seriousness with which God intends us to honor our parents is thus demonstrated by the priority of this Commandment over His prohibitions of murder, adultery and theft. Positively speaking, His promise of long life in the land is not simply a consequence of pragmatic propriety, but an indication of His grace and every blessing, because the honoring of father and mother is in accordance with the good and acceptable will of God.
By the same token, the Lord requires (in the Law of Moses) that, "if any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city . . . and all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst" (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Thanks be to God that we have forgiveness for our disobedience for Jesus' sake, who has taken the punishment of all our sin upon Himself. Yet, His free and full forgiveness is not a license to do that which is reprehensible and offensive to the Lord; nor should we suppose that He will leave unpunished in this life, or without any temporal consequence, those who refuse to honor their father or mother.
As the Lord has established the authority of father and mother in next place after that of His own, it is from this parental office that all other temporal authority on earth derives. The authority of the Gospel, by which the Office of the Ministry is ordained and constituted, derives from that of Christ and His Cross (and parents participate in the exercise of that authority for their children, as well), but all temporal authority begins with and depends upon the authority given by God to father and mother in the Fourth Commandment. Thus, the government has a paternal authority and responsibility, and school teachers stand in loco parentis, assisting parents in the task that the Lord has entrusted principally to them. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon all other earthly authorities to respect the primary authority of parents for their own children, and to intervene only where necessary for the sake of sparing and protecting human life from mortal harm.
It is particularly instructive for children, especially as they are making the transition from youth to adulthood, that the Lord chiefly conveys His will to them through their parents. Thus, a young person should by all means give special attention and a heavily weighted deference to his father and mother in determining the way he should go, whether with respect to higher education, future occupation, or prospective spouse, or in whatever other decisions may be at hand. For in hearing and heeding and trusting his parents, the child is exercising fear, love and trust in the God who has commanded us to honor father and mother.
None of this parental authority entitles fathers or mothers to neglect or abuse their children. Far from it! The Fourth Commandment bestows upon them a sacred trust and stewardship, which is a solemn responsibility. They are to act on behalf of their children in the name and stead of the Lord Himself, according to His Word and in conformity with His gracious good pleasure. They are to bring up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, always aiming at repentance and faith toward God and love toward the neighbor. Children, for their part, are to honor their father and mother for the Lord's sake, notwithstanding the flaws and weaknesses in their parents. Fathers and mothers are likewise to exercise their authority with fear and trembling under God, dealing with their children as the Lord deals with us all (Colossians 3:21). It is His good and gracious will that we should see an image of Him in our earthly fathers, and an icon of His holy Church in our dear mothers. For by Him all fatherhood on earth is named (Ephesians 3:14-15), and no man has God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother in Christ.
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