When Moses came down from the mountain, he brought with him some excellent advice. It has proved hard to apply. It goes against habit and apparent self-interest. Still, it is worth a listen.
Here is one countercultural bit:
“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
A pair of American secular holidays would seem to remind us of this priority. Historically, we in the Reformed tradition try to apply it year round, and much more broadly.
The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, asks what we learn about God’s will in this commandment. It answers,
That I honor, love, and be loyal
to my father and mother
and all those in authority over me;
that I submit myself with proper obedience
to all their good teaching and discipline;
and also that I be patient with their failings —
for through them God chooses to rule us.
Clearly our rascally reformers were stretching the meaning of the biblical text –the same way Jesus did about murder and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount. In the command they saw a principle: We need to honor all kinds of people under whose authority we find ourselves.
Relationships in our workplaces and our political life are relevant here. And relationships within our denomination would surely apply.
Lest our post-modern sensibilities prompt objections too quickly, our constitution does not here call us to “unquestioning” obedience, but “proper” obedience. We are to submit ourselves to “all their good teaching.” That leaves some room for conscience. But we are to be patient and loving toward them, not revile them.
I am convinced that it needs to be stretched a tad further.
As David Steinmetz of Duke University noted, church historians must apply this command rigorously, listening to past generations to learn all they have to teach us. But really, all Christians need to honor their parents, learning from others who loved God faithfully.
This idea of honoring of our forebears – listening to and respecting the church of the past – diagnoses an ailment in today’s Christianity and provides a treatment plan.
It is also the most countercultural application of the commandment of all. We have grown accustomed to thinking that the church of the past is a problem to be solved, an embarrassment to be fled. Haven’t we, in our scientific age, seen farther?
Yes and no. We know more science. We know less Christianity.
We need to give some ongoing attention to the shape of our Reformed forebears’ faith or we will just absorb the assumptions of our culture – as happens regularly. I see it when I teach ruling elders from across the country in our CRE program and I see it in each class of seminarians. Even leaders in the church don’t know much about their faith.
So here’s a summer reading idea that will also help us love our parents in the faith.
- Step one: Get a copy of the Book of Confessions. You can even download it for free from the PC(USA) website.
- Step two: Put it where you drink your morning coffee.
- Step three: Pick one document in the book. I recommend either The Heidelberg Catechism or The Confession of 1967. Both organize and summarize the whole of biblical Christianity in winsome and accessible ways.
- Step four: Every day, coffee in hand, slowly read a paragraph. Think about your own views on the issue under discussion. Compare them with the church’s teachings. Talk to God.
Make it part of your devotions. Think of it as a conversation with your slightly curmudgeonly older relatives. Think of it as honoring your father and mother.
GARY NEAL HANSEN is the award-winning author of “Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers.” He is associate professor of church history and the 2014-2015 Chlapaty Research Chair in Church Renewal at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He blogs on the Heidelberg Catechism and other topics (and gives away free books) at GaryNealHansen.com.
Editor’s note: Benedictory columns are a premium subscriber-only feature. This column is offered as a preview for all of our Web readers. Subscribe now for access to all Insights columns and archived content!