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Should We Still “Honor” Those Who Abuse Their Authority?

honor-thy-father-and-motherOnce, while in the ministry, I received a letter from a woman who’d been sexually and emotionally abused as a child by her parents. At the time, she was a relatively new believer, growing steadily in her faith. Until she encountered this verse:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. — Exodus 20:12 (RSV)

It threw her for a loop. How does an abuse victim “honor” the people who abused her? Or maybe a better question is, Should an abuse victim honor the people who abused her?

The above verse would seem to suggest “Yes.” I mean, there’s no qualifiers: “Honor your father and your mother IF… they were good parents.” So honor and respect appears unqualified.

But how can this be? How can someone hold an abuser accountable while still “honoring” the office they occupy or respecting their biological connections? On what grounds does someone deserve respect before earning it?

It’s a question I’ve struggled a lot with over the last 15-20 years. Mainly because of the bigger issue of “authority,” how the Bible frames that issue, and the experiences I had in the ministry. You see, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of the misuse of pastoral authority.

Nevertheless, I still honor, respect, and submit to pastoral authority.

Here’s another one of those “problematic” authority verses:

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.” — Romans 13:1-2

Oftentimes, you will hear someone of a certain political persuasion say, “I respect the office of the President. But…” Then they will go on to slam the President. So how are you respecting the office of Presidency while slamming the President?

This verse, like the previous one, seems to suggest that the very office, whether it’s being used or abused, is invested with God-given authority. Parents, pastors, governing authorities, etc. “are appointed by God.” I don’t take this to mean that every individual authority, including the worst of tyrants and dictators, was hand-picked by God. Rather, “government” (in a generic sense) is reflective of the larger order of the universe. There are authorities — human and angelic — the greatest of which is ultimately God.

As such, all “rebellion” against authority can be traced back to Satan, who defied the Ultimate Authority and tempts us to do likewise. If this is true, then dishonor and disrespect of authority is a microcosm of Satan’s original defiance.

Of course, there are times to “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), where “submission” would be downright disobedient. Nevertheless, you have the above verses (and more), which tell us to honor, respect, and submit to individuals in authority over us.

The trend nowadays is to “question authority.” Which seems just the opposite of what the Bible teaches. In this mindset, respect is earned, not given. The sentiment goes something like this: I will honor or humble myself for no one until they prove they deserve it.

But this kind of thinking is problematic. We become the arbiter of who deserves our respect. If someone impresses us or meets our personal criteria, i.e. earns our respect, we will honor them. If my parents were good parents, by my standards, they’ve earned my honor. If my pastor is a good pastor, they’ve earned my respect. If the President aligns with my politics, they’ve earned my respect. And if someone doesn’t, they don’t.

But is this really the attitude, the posture of heart, God requires?

Scandals and abuses of power should make us more cautious and suspicious. Human authority cannot be unchecked. However, in all our testing and questioning of authority, we must be careful not to mimic the Original Rebel who shook his fist at the Ultimate Authority.

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Margaret Mills October 4, 2013, 7:03 AM

    Good post. I’ve wrestled with this as well, both in a church setting and in personal life. My ex-husband suffers from a mental illness and his behavior at times became abusive to me and to the children. In that situation, what does it mean to “submit” to a husband’s authority, and what do you teach your children about honoring their father? Ultimately, since he refused treatment or medication, we left and I divorced him, primarily for safety. I tried, and taught the kids, to honor his position while having compassion about his illness (he’s sick, not evil). Because his behavior is erratic, it is easy to become frustrated with him or even to laugh and mock (as some of his relatives do). His own kids, as adults, have developed sweet, compassionate and respectful relationships with him – as much as is possible. They express love for him while keeping a distance and not denying his problems. Where someone was just evil – mean and abusive – I think it would be harder to walk that fine line. The key seems to be extending grace to the less-than-perfect authority figure while resisting and protecting yourself from the evil of their wrong actions.

  • Janet October 4, 2013, 9:04 AM

    Hi Mike,
    I was radically saved 17 years ago, and grew up in an unbelieving family. I used to wonder how to apply the Scriptures to my own unbelieving family; it was confusing. Through much study, I came to understand that all the Scriptures are given to BELIEVERS. Therefore, the context of Honor your mother and father, is in the context of a believing family with mom and dad acting on God’s teachings. And as unbelievers, I give my parents and siblings (as Scriptures says) general respect and civility. But I cannot honor their requests to me, if it falls outside of who I am.

    When I was about 5 years into my walk with Jesus, my dad gave me an ultimatum. And I told him straight out – “if you make me choose between you and God, I choose God.” Now there are people in the world who use ‘good’ to explain things without ever defining what it means, and they would say to me, ‘you said that to your dad, how disrespectful, how awful of you. You should treat your dad better, he is your dad afterall.’ But my dad is thinking, living and demanding things outside of God. And I am a child of God first and foremost. I am a new creature in Christ Jesus and my biologically ties don’t matter anymore. This is the qualifier.

    Who is your family? Jesus said, those that do the will of God are my brother and my mother. So, I think part of the problem is how we think about these teachings/commandments in relation to the context. I find that many Christians use the ‘how to live the life’ Scriptures to speak out to the world at large, when in fact they are meant for the Christian community.

    As for ‘pastoral authority’ – what is your definition of this? What does it look like in practice? And how are people questioning it – do you have some examples. I am trying to understand what you mean.

    The scripture you give is not referring to any pastoral authority, but worldly authorities – countries, nations, governing authorities of cities and states, etc. So I am not sure what you are talking about, when speaking about ‘pastoral authority’.

    What do you mean by it?

    Sincerely,
    Janet

    • Mike Duran October 5, 2013, 7:30 AM

      Janet, “pastoral authority” is an issue I’ve wrestled quite a bit with. If you haven’t already, you might want to check out my post Questions About Spiritual Authority and Submission where I go a little more into detail about my experience and understanding. One Scripture that influences my perspective is Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” The idea is clearly that individuals are bestowed God-given responsibility to “keep watch over you.” To these shepherds, we are required to “obey” and “submit to their authority.”

  • Samuel Choy October 4, 2013, 11:37 AM

    So how does one honor an abuser in authority? I don’t think respecting authority means that we have to suffer abuse by them. If we stay in an abusive situation, we are enabling them to continue sinning against both us and God. I don’t think that is honoring them. I can’t imagine staying in a church where a pastor was actively and repentantly abusing me or my family. Nor can I imagine staying in a relationship where active an unrepentant abuse was occurring.
    Also, honoring someone, either a past or current abuser doesn’t mean we have to keep a relationship with them. Even if we forgive them, there are some breaches of relationship that can never nor should ever be repaired. We can honor them by praying for them. But for some abusers, I can’t imagine that God would expect us to stay in relationship with them.
    I believe I have biblical precedent for this. For example, Saul’s men directly disobeyed Saul from killing Jonathan after Saul wanted to kill him for disobeying Saul’s order to fast until his enemies were defeated. Jonathan disobeyed Saul when Saul wanted to kill David. Also, after Nabal insulted David, Nabal’s wife, Abigail, disobeyed Nabal to David from slaughtering them.
    Just my opinion.

    • Mike Duran October 5, 2013, 7:33 AM

      Great thoughts, Samuel. King David is good example of this confliction. He respected the king enough to not slay him when he had a chance. But he also did not ‘submit” by just laying down his arms and surrendering. David ran!

  • R. L. Copple October 4, 2013, 12:33 PM

    I’m not sure honoring an authority and respecting their decisions are exactly the same thing. There is overlap, to be sure. But I could, for instance, honor my parents as my parents while not respecting their decisions, wisdom, intelligence, etc.

    Rather, what I think you are getting down to is obedience to them as your authority. The Scripture is pretty clear we are to be under authority and respect that authority. But there is a hierarchy of authority as well. Ultimately God, but also to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, obey an authority unless doing so would violate a higher law of loving God and each other.

    I detail that aspect in relation to infidelity in a recent blog post on developing self-esteem through humility:

    http://healinginfidelity.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-path-to-self-esteem.html

    The real sticky point comes in when we erroneously classify something as violating that higher law when it doesn’t, to justify not obeying an authority figure. I’ve seen that often employed, like back in the 80s a church installed loud speakers to let the neighbors in on their music and services, then cried fowl when the city forced them to take them down, claiming it was a violation of freedom of speech, an attack on the church and God, and the freedom of religion. No, even God would have had them taken down because what they were doing was unloving to their neighbors and didn’t hinder their ability to worship.

  • Lex Keating October 5, 2013, 5:52 AM

    This post nicely illustrates the question, but where’s the answer? As an evangelical Christian raised in the church by God-fearing parents, I have gone to considerable trouble to honor my parents and be submitted in Christ from my childhood. The raw sewage of abuse that has poured out of my family in response to this, especially in my adult years, has not been pretty. I have spent years demolishing my pride and seeking forgiveness (both to give and to receive) and attempting to reconcile with people who are unrepentant and unchanging.

    In the last year, desperation had me throwing myself before the Lord and saying, “I will do whatever you say.” His response? “Run.”

    The day I cut ties with my family was the day God opened a door for my first book contract. And every time since then, when my family pops up or I am tempted to try to fix things with them and resist, God provides another blessing. Freak miracles, like new cars and supernatural inspiration, that suggest disavowing the God-given authority structure of my family unit is more than okay with God. (My Heavenly Father and I are currently working our way through the concepts of forgiveness and judgment, so that I do not hold on to any insults or pain or self-righteousness. He seems to really know what He’s doing, so I’m following wherever He leads…)

    None of that changes the fact that I firmly believe that God gave us the building block of family to teach us to submit to authority. But what those of us outside of a safe, healthy authority-subordinate relationship would like to know is HOW exactly do we live out honorable attitudes when we encounter corrupted leaders/elders/etc? Not what not to do, but what should we model our behavior after? If we have a parent, pastor, or governing person/body who we don’t respect enough to follow when we disagree, what steps ought we be taking to ensure that God still be honored?

    • Mike Duran October 5, 2013, 7:53 AM

      Lex — I don’t think there is a set answer. The woman I mentioned in this post was also involved, not coincidentally, with a physically abusive husband. I counseled her to immediately leave the house. This got me in hot water with the husband. Either way, wrestling with her past abuse revealed an ongoing cycle, one in which she confused submission and respect with compliance and obedience. That was the distinction I encouraged her to consider. One can be respectful of the king and still choose to disobey his edict to follow God. So I think this comes down to attitude. We can call pastors out or critique spiritual leaders without hating, becoming bitter and vengeful. It’s a struggle, and I’m not suggesting there aren’t times to get angry. But I think it’s more of an attitudinal posture than cut-and-dried compliance.

  • D.M. Dutcher October 5, 2013, 7:28 AM

    I think people are taking something and trying to make it fit the worst abusive case.

    Like we are all taught in the USA to drive on the right side of the road, not the left. This is kind of like asking “What if someone is barreling towards us in the right side from the opposite direction? Should we stay in the right side then?”

    The answer would be no, you do what you can to avoid the oncoming car, be it swerve into the empty left lane, swerve to the shoulder, etc. But then, as soon as the danger is passed, you go back to driving in the right lane. and for 99% of your life, this is what you are commanded to do by law.

    I’m not saying the commands of God are entirely like the rules of the road, but I think people are trying to take a general command and make it fit the few situations where abuse happens. Honoring our mother and father should be the default way we live our lives, but if abuse or danger prevents this, we should do all we can to ensure safety, and then revert to that command as much as possible in our lives.

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