Mailbag #64: How to Honor Exasperating Parents; Responding to an Excommunicated Member

Mailbag
10.13.2017

How should adult children respond to the unrealistic demands of their parents? »
An excommunicated member continues to come and participate in the Lord’s Supper. What should we do? »

Dear 9Marks,

Please give counsel on how adult children should consider the demands of their parents, especially when such demands appear controlling and excessive.

In South Africa, I regularly pastor young adults who navigate the difficult and traditional affairs that surround getting married in our culture. Most often, the parents require an excessive bride-price, which if paid would surely put the man in debt; otherwise it prohibits him from marrying. Most recently, I have seen a parent prohibit his young-adult son (25 years old) from marrying—just because this young man’s older brother is not yet married!

Are these cases of provoking your children (cf Eph. 6:4)? Surely children (especially when they are adults) are free to set aside the demands of their parents and yet still honor them, yes?

—Gus

Dear Gus,

Good question. I haven’t personally encountered parents requiring excessive bride-prices. But I have encountered parents making other unreasonable requests or demands on adult children, including demands about who they marry or don’t marry.

We know from Scripture that God gives authority to parents in order to train their children in righteousness and wisdom, and to teach children the way of the Lord (e.g. Deut. 6; Prov. 1:8). He gives parents the rod for purposes of discipline (Prov. 13:24), and he commands children to honor their parents (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:1–2). Indeed, under the Mosaic law, rebellious children faced a stiff penalty (Deut. 21:15–17). Yet is the authority that God gave to parents unlimited in breadth and duration?

To answer that, we might ask why God has given authority to parents. A parent’s jurisdiction is indeed broad, because it involves the forming of a person. A father will ask a young son to eat well, clean up his room, take out the trash, study hard, work hard, pay attention in church, tell the truth, don’t hit, and so on. Why? Because he means to fashion the son’s very character in the way of righteousness and goodness. It’s a broad jurisdiction.

That said, if the purpose of a parent’s authority is formation, then it would seem to come with a time clock. You can form a three-year-old. You can’t form a 23-year-old in the same way.

Furthermore, there’s always a danger of making human authorities absolute. Tyrannical princes, pastors, and parents want to treat themselves as possessing unlimited authority, both in jurisdictional breadth and in length. And when princes, pastors, or parents treat their jurisdictions as unlimited, they hurt and destroy the people under them. They don’t give the opportunity to grow and flourish.

All that to say, I believe there are times and places for subjects, church members, and children to say, “No, you have no authority over me here.” And I’m not just talking about places of sin. I’m talking about jurisdictional boundaries. My pastor, for instance, has no authority to tell me which dentist to use. I would feel no moral obligation to obey him if he did because he would be well outside of his biblically prescribed jurisdiction.

By this token, Gus, I don’t believe that adult children must obey their parent’s wishes about whom to marry. It’s just not clear to me from Scripture that parents have authority here. Some readers will disagree with my judgment on this matter. And, surely, I will give an account to God for that judgment on the Last Day. Yet that presently remains my judgment, and you as a pastor must make it, and every member of yours in this position must make it. If your member plans to go against parental desires here, he or she must do so with a clear conscience (see Rom. 14:23).

Furthermore, I don’t understand the institution of a “bride price.” Is it a form bribery? If it is, then a child certainly does not need to submit to its requirements. But I leave you to ask that question for yourself since you’re in that context, not me.

All that’s the first hand. Now let me give you a second hand. Children should always look for ways to honor their parents, whether they’re five or fifty. Just because someone makes an unreasonable request of us doesn’t mean we should exercise our right to ignore that request. Honoring doesn’t always require obedience, but it does involve living an honorable life—listening, forbearing, even deferring where possible. Will waiting six months or a year gain a parent’s favor? Then waiting might be worth it. It honors the parent. On some occasions an adult child might even decide to break off a certain relationship, though, honestly, I think this would not be the majority of the time. The question is, why is the parent discouraging the marriage? Is it for godly reasons or for worldly reasons?

To answer that, I would certainly encourage an adult child to speak to the elders of his or her church before acting one way or another. The parents might see something in a suitor’s character that is genuinely problematic. And the adult child would do well to listen. Seeking the counsel of a pastor will help the adult child to discern what’s behind the parent’s request. But notice how I’m framing the matter: I’m framing it as a matter for prudence.

Ultimately, here’s what I would say to any adult Christian whose parents are discouraging or forbidding a particular marriage: One day you will give an account to God for how you have honored your parents. Are the reasons your parents are giving godly and wise? If so, you should listen. If not, even then I want you to weigh the costs of going against their wishes. There will be costs—potential costs to your Christian witness; financial costs in the short term; costs to your ability to care for them as they age; relational costs for the extended family; and so forth. Then, considering those costs in light of what you know God values in his Word, are you prepared to pay those costs and give an account to God for them on the Last Day?

Also, Gus, I’m aware that going against parental desires in an African culture is far costlier socially and potentially financially than in the American culture. You as the pastor will be far better suited than I am to help your members assess those costs.

I pray he gives you wisdom and courage for the task.

Dear 9Marks,

A few months back, we excommunicated a member of our church. We asked him to refrain from participating in the Lord’s Supper until he repents. He responded by saying he would continue attending Sunday services and partaking in the bread and the cup. And he has been true to his promise.

We want him to be at Sunday services so that the Spirit might soften his heart. Yet we’re concerned about the statement his sharing in communion makes to other members. What counsel can you offer?

—Dave

Dear Dave,

As I understand it from Scripture, churches possess the power of the keys to make declarations (Matt. 16:19; 18:18–20; cf. 28:19–20). They don’t possess the power of the sword, like the state does, to forcibly constrain people (e.g. by sending someone to prison).

As such, my church’s elders would agree with your decision to welcome excommunicated individuals to the public gatherings of the church. We don’t possess the authority to physically move a body through geographic space. Plus, these gatherings are for Christians and non-Christians (as you can see in 1 Corinthians 14). (There are exceptions to this, as with a potential sexual predator, or when a church needs to take out a restraining order.)

It also means that you can’t do anything if an excommunicated member reaches out with his or hand and takes a wafer from the plate. You might speak to him one or two more times about it, but finally, you have to let him.

Now, if your church practices communion by people coming forward, the pastor might elect not to hand the bread and cup to the person. That’s fine. And an usher might decide to walk past a person’s row if the disciplined individual is the only person in the row.

Still, what you need to keep in mind is that church discipline is like evangelism. We speak the words, calling someone to repent and believe. But then it’s up to people to decide whether and how to respond. Our task is completed upon speaking the words and then praying to God.

I pray that’s useful.