by Matthew Raley
The ten commandments get plenty of evangelical attention if they are engraved on courthouses. But tucked away in Exodus 20, not so much. The reason, I think, has to do with evangelicals’ informal hermeneutic: the parts of the Bible that are “culturally specific” do not apply today because “culture has changed.” Like other people with the issue of ethics, evangelicals preserve their wiggle-room.
So, some parts of the Decalogue fare better than others. The command against murder is still cited, as is the command against bearing false witness. The commands against coveting or breaking the Sabbath are usually ignored. The other commands receive lip-service, like the command against making idols, but only scant consideration.
The command to honor your father and your mother is in this last category. Groups of children are guaranteed to hear that they should obey their parents, and they will also hear Paul’s comment about an attached promise in Ephesians 6. But there’s a little detail you’ve probably never heard — just a bit of trivia, I suppose, but I find such arcane matters entertaining. The original audience for this command was composed chiefly of adults.
The idea was that every grown-up would honor his father, and not just while his father lived, but also in memory. In this way, children would be taught by example, not just homily, that an elder is to be treated with reverence, deference, and attention.
I bring this up because I’m thinking through the political alliance evangelicals have maintained with the conservative movement. I’ve noted that there are three strains that constitute the movement, and that each one needs fresh biblical evaluation so that evangelicals can reform their view of citizenship. We’ve looked at the Bible’s broad teaching about the state, and about the concern of the libertarian strain of conservatism for property, work, and profit.
A second strain of conservatism is traditionalist. As I’ve already written, these conservatives are primarily concerned with the preservation of inherited ways of life, and of the union of generations.
This kind of conservatism grew out of biblical soil.
Consider what it meant practically for an Israelite man to honor his parents. In the first place, the God his father and mother worshiped would remain his God. The fidelity his parents maintained — fidelity to God, to each other sexually, to truthfulness and the rights of others to their lives and property — he would continue to foster in his own heart and in the hearts of his children. Doing so, he would ensure “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
In other words, the command to honor father and mother is the command to pass on the Decalogue itself, and to reform practices that have departed from it, as an expression of familial loyalty. It is a command to guard the comprehensive inheritance you have received, materially and spiritually. It creates a society that measures itself from the past forward, not from the future backward.
There is no way to keep this command on the surface of your life. It can’t be done with postmodern irony. It can only be kept from the depths of your heart.
Further, this is not a “culturally specific” item that can be discarded. It is essential to the ethical world of the Bible. A society that has “outgrown” this command is a society we must defy.
Here’s what bothers me.
Evangelicals have devoted vast resources to political battles for conservative policies. They have poured money into state referenda, gaining majorities on councils, and electing candidates for national office, all with a rhetoric that calls for “traditional values.”
But if you look at the local churches evangelicals have built, you find no emphasis on honoring your father and your mother — the molten core of biblical civics.
Indeed, evangelical churches have transformed into youth-oriented, age-denigrating activity centers. Bill Hybels and his ilk have spent the last three decades railing against “dead traditions” and effacing the inheritance of symbols, songs, and doctrine from public worship. Most churches will not consider pastoral candidates over 50 anymore. I know a man in his 60s who has led international organizations, whose churches have grown, and who is wiser than ever, but whose resume cannot attract attention. The Christian psychology industry, when it is not busy advising divorce, is telling adults to cut off their parents.
In politics, traditional rhetoric. At church, wisdom-deleting practice. I am not denying the many complexities of staying flexible in a changing society, but the degree of evangelical refusal to pay honor to elders is hypocrisy — or lunacy.
For churches truly to advance traditionalism, they would have to teach and practice the 5th commandment. And that would turn their operations upside down. Instead of age-segregation, they would mix generations. Instead of dumbing down their preaching, they would restore accurate measures of greatness — the measures of biblical history, not youthful fantasy.
The Bible teaches that the ethics of the people rule the nation. And the fruits of evangelical rule are . . . ?