Ever since I worked in youth ministry, I regularly have been faced with the issue of how do adult children relate to their parents. I guess it is obvious that everyone has to deal with this question at some point, since everyone is either a parent, or a child at some point in their life.
Ephesians 6:1-4 is a good starting point for the discussion. Although children are told to obey their parents in these verses, the word for children in verses one and four generally refers to family relationship and not specifically to age. In other words, a 40 year old man is still a child of his father, because that is their relationship. However, the context of both verses indicates that the specific emphasis is on young children and their relationship to their parents.
Young children are commanded to be completely obedient to their parents. An important thing for parents to understand is that they are God to their children. Unless children learn to obey and be submissive to their parents at an early age, children will never learn to obey and be submissive to God.
Although God’s commands to young children are straightforward, what about the relationship between adult children and their parents? Does Ephesians 6 still apply to adults? When does a child becomes an adult? What if one’s parents are not Christians? All of these questions can form complicated scenarios, and need to be thought through.
Although we can’t talk in detail about each possible scenario, I want to give three broad, practical helps for thinking through parental relationships with their adult children.
1. There comes a definite time in a child’s life when he or she is no longer under the direct authority of the parents.
Although this time varies (see #2), Genesis 2:24 speaks of a man and woman leaving their parents and joining together to create a new family unit. They are now responsible before God together as one flesh. Now, obviously in the ancient world they would not often leave with regard to proximity. But the point is that they have established a new covenantal priority to each other through marriage.
In addition, Numbers 30 states that a man must be accountable for himself in the oaths he makes. The same chapter describes how a woman goes out from her father’s authority and joins with her husband and he has the authority to veto or accept her vow. Both situations infer a transferring out from the authority of parents.
2. The time when a child comes out from under the authority of his parents can vary.
There is not a “one size fits all” answer to when a child is out from the authority of his or her parents. As long as one’s parents are sustaining him with food, a home, and financially, there ought to be at least some recognition of authority. Yet, there ought to be a clear transition to being out from under the authority of the parents.
My transition out from the authority of my parents happened gradually, and I still remember asking my dad for permission to go somewhere, and he told me something to the effect, “You are old enough to go to jail for your decisions, you can decide this one” (there may be a bit of authorial license in the quote, but you get the point). Eventually, parents have to give up their authority. I know it’s not easy for parents to let go and start handing the reigns over to their children, but in reality parents are to train their children to be their own God-honoring persons.
3. The child must always honor the parents.
Although there comes a time when the parent does not have the right to demand obedience of the child, children have the timeless command to give honor to their parents (cf. Exod 20:12; Eph 6:2). The idea of honor is that of weight. Adult children should always give proper weight to the advice and desires of his or her parents. This does not mean obedience necessarily. However, it does mean giving appropriate consideration and evaluation.
In addition, the idea of honor relates to financial provision and care. Elders are said to be worthy of double honor (1 Tim 5:17), which in context refers to financial provision. Similarly, Jesus argued very strongly that the command to honor one’s parents implies that children should take care of their parents (cf. Mark 7:9-13). A very important way to give honor to one’s parents is to provide for them. And of course to not do that makes one worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim 5:8).
What about unbelieving parents? The command to honor one’s parents is without distinction between saved and unsaved parents. Because of the role parents play in society and in the lives of families, God commands that we honor them (admittedly, even if they have done harm). An unsaved parent may not give good advice, or may feel hurt by a Christian child who does not obey their wishes. Yet, God commands that honor be given as best as possible, even in situations like that.
In sum, adult children dealing with parents can be a difficult issue. There is a transition time for children in which they come out from the authority of their parents, and that is not always a black and white line. Further, it can be difficult for parents to relinquish that authority. Despite the clear teaching in Scripture of the transition in authority from parent to child, children are always commanded to give their parents honor and to treat them with the love and respect that their position deserves.