My wife and I like to tell our children when we review the ten commandments in family devotions that our favorite commandment is the fifth: “Honor thy father and thy mother….” (Exod 20:12).
The old divines, however, saw the fifth commandment as having to do with much more than the parent/child relationship but with proper respect for and submission to authority, station, and office. The catechism asks, “What is required in the fifth commandment?” and answers, “The fifth commandment requires the preserving the honour and performing the duties belonging to every one in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, and equals.”
In Thomas Watson’s study on the Ten Commandments, he applies the fifth commandment’s charge “Honor thy father” to five different kinds of fathers: the political (the civil magistrate), the ancient (the elderly), the spiritual (pastors and ministers), the domestic (the master or employer), and the natural (the biological parent).
With regard to spiritual fathers (pastors and ministers), Watson says that they should be honored “in respect of their office.” This honor should be given to ministers in three ways:
1. By giving them respect.
Watson states, “Many can be content to know their ministers in their infirmities, and are glad when they have anything against them, but do not know them in the apostles’ sense, so as to give them ‘double honor.’ Surely were it not for the ministry, you would not be a vineyard, but a desert.” Ministers are to be respected because God has chosen them to bring to God’s people the Word and Sacraments (Ordinances).
2. By becoming advocates for them.
Understanding well the inherent nature of pastoral ministry, Watson charges that this will include, “wiping off those slanders and calumnies which are unjustly cast upon them (1 Tim 5: 19). Constantine was a great honourer of the ministry; he vindicated them; he would not read the envious accusations brought against them, but burnt them. Do the ministers open their mouths to God for you in prayer, and will not you open your mouths in their behalf? Surely, if they labour to preserve you from hell, you should preserve them from slander; if they labour to save your souls, you ought to save their credit.”
3. By conforming to their doctrine.
Watson concludes, “The greatest honour you can put upon your spiritual fathers, is to believe and obey their doctrine. He is an honourer of the ministry who is not only a hearer, but a follower of the word. As disobedience reproaches the ministry, so obedience honours it… You cannot honour your spiritual fathers more, than by thriving under their ministry, and living upon the sermons which they preach.”
So is the part of the 5th that refers to the mother the only part we take literally?
Yes, Watson takes the admonition for children to honor parents literally (by the letter). This is the fifth of his five applications (duties toward the natural father or parent). He also offers an appropriate expansion of the fifth commandment's meaing. His method is typical of Christian interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Of course, we can trace this to the Master Himself who in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) taught that "thou shalt not kill" also covered unjustifed anger and "thou shalt not commit adultery" also covered lust. I am sure there were some Pharisees in the crowd who asked, "Doesn't he take the commandments literally?"
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