With each passing year, I’m more and more convinced that Father’s Day (like Mother’s Day) is a really important occasion in our national calendar; that it’s healthy and helpful for us, as a society, to take time to celebrate fatherhood, to honour our own fathers, and to acknowledge the significant role that fathers play—including adoptive fathers, step-fathers and foster-fathers.

I’m more and more convinced that Father’s Day (like Mother’s Day) is a really important occasion and that it’s healthy and helpful for us to take time to celebrate fatherhood

What’s more, most human beings have thought similarly for, at least, the last 4,000 years. For, contrary the claim that Father’s Day was introduced early last century in the US, European celebrations of fatherhood are known to date back at least to the Middle Ages, where March 19 was the day of celebration because it was the feast day of Saint Joseph (the adoptive father of Jesus). We even have archeological evidence from twenty centuries BC of a Father’s Day message written on a card made out of clay by a young boy named Elmesu, wishing his Babylonian father good health and long life. So this is a tradition with deep roots and one that has stood the test of time.

This doesn’t mean that Father’s Day is easy for everyone. While all of us have a father, many have lost their father, some may never have known their father and others, perhaps even more tragically, may wish they had never known their father. Added to that, after nearly half a century of no-fault divorce and a dramatic rise in single motherhood, many social commentators are now claiming that the western world is in the grip of a fatherhood crisis. As Pope John Paul XXIII famously put it: “It’s easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father.”

Moreover, a fatherhood crisis means a childhood crisis. As over twenty years of statistics confirm, children who grow up without a father are –

  • 5 times more likely to commit suicide
  • 8 times more likely to go to prison
  • 9 times more likely to drop out of school
  • 10 times more likely to abuse substances
  • 20 times more likely to have behavioural problems
  • 32 times more likely to run away
  • 33 times more likely to be abused

These are sobering realities with no easy solutions. But one place to start is by reflecting on the meaning of the fifth commandment (focussing on the fatherhood aspect), as well as the challenge it presents to our contemporary world.

1. The meaning of the fifth commandment

The fifth commandment first appears in Exodus 20, but is then reiterated (and slightly expanded) in the following form, in Deuteronomy 5:

Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut 5:16)

The commandment immediately raises two questions. First, what does it mean to honour our fathers? In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin helpfully explains that honour includes three elements: reverence, obedience and gratitude (by which he means financial and material help). In his Large Catechism (1529), Martin Luther provided a fuller answer:

[It means] that they be held in distinction and esteem above all things, as the most precious treasure on earth. Furthermore, that also in our words we observe modesty toward them, do not accost them roughly, haughtily, and defiantly, but yield to them and be silent, even though they go too far. Thirdly, that we show them such honour also by works, that is, with our body and possessions, that we serve them, help them, and provide for them when they are old, sick, infirm, or poor, and all that not only gladly, but with humility and reverence, as doing it before God.

Later, the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647) would parse out the honour owed to fathers in terms of …

… due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority (Answer to Q.127).

In short, to honour appropriately is to rightly esteem in attitude and action.

It’s not as if there’s no connection between obeying God, honouring our fathers, and some measure of prosperity and longevity. Scripture certainly suggests as much … and a mountain of empirical research confirms it.

The second question asks what are Christians to make of the two-fold promise attached to this commandment: long life and prosperity in the land. The land refers to Canaan—the territory promised to Old Testament Israel. As such, that aspect of the promise doesn’t directly apply to Christians now. As members of the new covenant, our promised inheritance is cosmic—“we await a new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet 3:13). For similar reasons, the promise of a long and prosperous life ultimately translates to a promise of resurrection life in the world to come, rather than health and wealth in this one.

Having said that, it’s not as if there’s no connection between obeying God, honouring our fathers, and some measure of prosperity and longevity. Scripture certainly suggests as much (see the book of Proverbs), Paul happily affirms it (Eph 6:2-3) and a mountain of empirical research confirms it.

And yet, as Scripture also repeatedly reminds us (especially the book of Job), life in this world is not always neat or predictable. In this life, then, the promise will only be fulfilled “as far as it shall serve for God’s glory and [our] own good” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Answer to Q.133). This explains why a godly and diligent dad can still have a delinquent child, and a godly and obedient child and still have dishonourable dad!

2. The challenge of the fifth commandment

This fact foregrounds the first part of a two-fold challenge posed by this commandment. For the sad reality is that countless fathers have let their children down badly. Many have behaved selfishly or recklessly, some abusively or even criminally. This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. The Westminster Larger Catechism expands on the sins of fathers (and other authorities) in the following terms:

… the neglect of the duties required of them, an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of inferiors to perform; counseling, encouraging, or favoring them in that which is evil; dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good; correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger; provoking them to wrath; or any way dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior. (Answer to Q.129)

Today we have an additional problem. As Barack Obama put it in 2008,

… what too many fathers are is missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.

So the failure of many fathers is one part of the challenge to obey this commandment.

The second part of the challenge is due to the disparagement of fatherhood that’s rife in western culture. In fact, according to Dr Mark Stibbe, for the last fifty years or more there has been a sustained (and well documented) campaign “to present fathers as peripheral or even redundant figures in the home.”[1] This has been accomplished through both scholarly and popular writing, and especially TV advertising (think of the numerous idiot dad ads) and TV programs (think of Homer Simpson). The effect has been a serious devaluing of fatherhood and an increased distrust of actual fathers.

… what too many fathers are is missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.

—Barack Obama

So how should Christians respond to this twofold challenge? First, we need to recognise that when a father seriously fails to be what he ought to be, it profoundly impacts his children. Consequently, there will be much that needs to be forgiven and, tragically, some wounds that won’t easily be healed. Nevertheless, Luther counsels that fathers “are not to be deprived of their honour because of their conduct or their failings.” That is (as is often said in the army), you can still salute the rank, even if you can’t salute the man. That doesn’t mean that a father who acts wickedly should not be held to account. But it does mean that he remains a father nonetheless, and can be honoured because of his office, even if not for the way he has discharged it.

Second, as to the conscious campaign to present dads as dolts or deadbeats, we can be thankful that groups like ‘Fathers4Equality’ and ‘Dads Against Discrimination’ are beginning to push back against this trend, as we can for the many organisations that are trying to help dads do better. For the fact is that every human being needs the love of a father. So Christians ought to affirm the importance of fatherhood whenever we can do so; praise good fathering whenever we see it; and provide the help and resources dads need so that they might not exasperate their children, but “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).


But the focus of this article is not on dads doing a better job of fathering, but on children doing a better job of honouring them. For the fifth commandment has not gone away. It remains binding on new covenant believers (Eph 6:2). Keeping it, therefore, is one of the good works that we have been “created in Christ Jesus to do” (Eph 2:10). This, of course, will not always be simple in practice and for some of us it will be very, very complex. And for all of us, it will require constant rethinking—as it is bound to take different shape in different seasons and at different points in life’s journey. It’s for this reason that I appreciate Lewis Smedes’ wisdom:[2]

The Fifth Commandment does not remove uncertainty for people who try to live up to it. There is no single way to honour parents; there are a thousand ways to dishonour them. Within the conflicts of faith, life-style, and duty, honour will have to be improvised out of the creative resources of imagination and discernment. Each family will have to find its way to live honourably with its old generation. And each society must find ways to make it possible for all to keep their parents in honourable circumstances. For the people that loses its will to honour its aged eventually loses its humanity (L. Smedes, Mere Morality, p. 96).

So whether he’s living or deceased, doting or difficult, each of us has been called by God to learn how to honour our earthly father that, according to the measure God allows, it may go well with us and we may enjoy long life on the earth.

[1] Mark Stibbe, I Am Your Father: What Every Heart Needs to Know (Monarch, 2010), p. 83.
[2] Lewis Smedes, Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Eerdmans, 1983), p. 96.