On Leaving Father and Mother

by Derek Brown

Over the past three decades, our nation has seen a significant increase in the number of men living with their parents well into their mid-to late-twenties, and even early thirties.1 Sociologists have traced this phenomenon to several causes: relative education, socio-economic factors, and our culture’s general shift in expectations for men. The Church has also felt the effect of this turn in our nation’s culture. Christian men are living with their parents for much longer than was previously seen as acceptable, and they are waiting longer than in times past to get married. 

While some social commentators may view this as a harmless development, or, at least, something that is pragmatically acceptable for our current economic situation where jobs are difficult to find and homes hard to afford, Christian men cannot endorse this approach to manhood. Why? Because to do so would be to reject one of the primary aspects of our design as men.   

A Man Shall Leave Father and Mother
In Genesis 2:24, we find that immediately after God creates Adam and Eve, Moses reflects on the present reality of manhood and marriage (at his time) and makes this observation:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

The word “therefore” tells us that Moses is building his observation about the present state of manhood and marriage on his previous statements. In verses 22 and 23, Moses describes the creation of the woman from the man’s side and God’s presentation of the woman to Adam. “Therefore” or “for this reason,”—namely, the fact that God created the woman from the man—a man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. In order for the man and the woman to be joined as one flesh as husband and wife, the relationship with their parents must change fundamentally: the children must leave their parents in order to cleave to each other.

The word Moses uses here for leave is a strong word. In other contexts it can mean “forsake” even “abandon.” We know from how God addresses a child’s relation to parents later in the biblical narrative that Moses does not mean utterly forsake or abandon. Adult children are still called to honor their parents (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16), which implies a continuing relationship and concern for their welfare (note Jesus’ comments on this passage in Matt 15:1-9). Nevertheless, by using this word Moses means to communicate that the relationship between these two children and their parents has changed in a basic, fundamental way. Structurally and ontologically, the relationship is different. No longer are these children under their parent’s authority, supervision, or provision. They now make their own decisions pertaining to their individual lives and their life as a married couple. They are responsible to provide for themselves financially, and, while they may seek the counsel and wisdom of their parents, they are no longer under the obligation of obedience that characterized their relationship as young children.

But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. I have been speaking with specific reference to a married couple and how they are to come together as one flesh in the context of leaving their individual parents. With respect specifically to our discussion of manhood, two important observations must be noted in this text. The first is that Moses directly addresses the man but only indirectly addresses the woman. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). It is the man who is leaving and cleaving to his wife. Why? Because if the man does not lead his bride to walk in accordance with the new one-flesh reality that has been forged by marriage, it will never happen.

Men are tempted, in the face of intimidating responsibility, unhealthy financial dependence on parents, and a host of other factors, to fail to leave their parents. 

Moses probably already sensed among God’s people that passivity was a character trait that abounded among the men of Israel. Men are tempted, in the face of intimidating responsibility, unhealthy financial dependence on parents, and a host of other factors, to fail to leave their parents. The men in Israel needed to be reminded of their calling to lead their new family to live in accordance with God’s design. But there’s another observation that is often missed in this passage, and it is one that has become even more clear to me as a result of serving as an elder and shepherd in the local church. 

As I’ve had the opportunity talk intentionally with young men about their relationship with their parents, I have learned of situations where parents still hold significant emotional sway over their adult sons and expect to be party to their major decisions, including career decisions and romantic interests. Yes, these men may have graduated from college and may now be pursuing jobs many miles from their families, but vocational status and geographical distance have not deterred these parents from assuming that it is their calling as parents to direct their son’s life. In a few cases, I have been surprised to discover that these parents agree in the principle of leaving and cleaving, but they believe this event occurs at marriage, not prior to it.

These conversations have made it clear to me that the failure to make one small observation in Genesis 2:24 will have massive practical implications in the lives of Christian parents and their adult children. The parents of these young men have mistakenly concluded that leaving and cleaving are one-in-the-same event: that a man does not leave until he cleaves. But this is to misunderstand Moses’ statement. Cleaving doesn’t create the leaving, just like beginning to work at new job doesn’t necessarily imply that you have left your old one. Rather, leaving comes prior to and creates the environment in which cleaving can actually occur. In other words, a man must first leave his parents before he can cleave to his wife. Leaving father and mother, therefore, occurs prior to marriage and is the necessary pre-requisite for it.

There are many grown Christian men who have yet to leave their father and mother and, for this reason, are not yet ready to be married. In many ways they are even disabled from pursuing marriage because they have not obeyed the calling to leave their parents. Some men may not even realize that they are still clinging to their parents in unhealthy ways so they are unable to diagnose their problem or even recognize that there is one. How does this failure to leave parents manifest itself in the life of a young man? I will suggest three ways.

(1) Dependence on Parents for Day-to-Day Expenses
It is the calling of all Christians—men especially—to provide for themselves. Young men who refuse to make their own way in the world by earning their own living and providing for their day-to-day expenses are compromising their manhood and have not yet left father and mother. This point certainly has implications for how long after college a man should live at home. I do not want to make any rules where Scripture is silent, and I am sure there are legitimate exceptions, but it seems fitting that once a man has been equipped to earn a living through college or technical school, he should leave the comfort of his parent’s provision and earn his own living. Yes, it will be tough to make ends meet, and yes, you will need to make sacrifices, forego certain forms of entertainment, and work a lot. But these are God’s tough yet wise means of spiritual maturity, and if you resist them in order to remain comfortable with mommy and daddy, you are regressing into childhood, not growing into manhood.   

(2) Dependence on Parents for Major Decision-Making
Just as serious but perhaps less perceptible is a man’s reliance on his parents for help in making major decisions. An adult man who honors and respects his parents will look to them for wisdom when faced with important decisions. That’s natural. But if a young man is not branching out to find other counselors in his life, particularly older men and women within the church, but rather is guided chiefly by the opinions of his parents, he has yet to leave father and mother. A man’s parents may know him well, but once he has left the home, there are other people—pastors, brothers in Christ, mentors, employers—who will know him better in some areas than even his own parents. This means that a man may make decisions that do not align with the wishes or counsel of his parents.

I am not talking about obvious sin issues, where to go against parental counsel is to violate clear biblical commands. The biblical counsel of parents should always remain tethered to the heart of Christian children into adulthood (see Prov 3:1-4). Rather, I am referring to matters like life-direction, romance, where to live, future employment, and how to navigate one’s relationships. No longer should parents hold sole authoritative sway in a young man’s life over these kinds of issues once he has left the home. God has designed that as he grows the man will carve out other channels of counsel so that he might make decisions that accord best with God’s will. Scripture teaches that there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors (see Prov 11:14; 15:22). Limiting oneself to a single source of guidance, therefore, may prove detrimental to a man in the long term. While I know some godly parents who are able to think objectively about their son’s potential decisions and point him in a biblical direction irrespective of their own desires, more often, parents—even the most faithful—are tempted to counsel their sons in ways that accord with their hopes and dreams rather than encouraging them to follow the Lord, wherever He may take them.

(3) Dependence on Parents for Emotional Approval
Similarly, a man has not yet fully left father and mother if he is reliant upon his parent’s approval for his major decisions. If a man is constantly making decisions that accord only with his parents’ wishes and counsel, it is likely that he is emotionally dependent upon his parents to approve what he does. Again, when we are talking about a Christian young man with godly parents, a man’s major life-decisions may often correspond with his parents’ desires. But if he is unable to make decisions without garnering the approval of his parents, he has not yet left father and mother. I fear that many Christian young men are not fulfilling their full potential in work, ministry, or family life because they are unable to venture out into the world on their own. They may have moved out of the house, but their heart is still wrapped around their mom and dad for comfort, support, and approval. Until a man is able to move this dependence away from his parents and onto Christ and the Church, he has not fully left father and mother. 

Leaving: More than Preparing for Marriage
So, leaving father and mother is about more than preparing for marriage, although it is a necessary prerequisite to marriage. In order to become the men God desires us to be, we must leave father and mother. For some men, fully leaving father and mother is difficult. There are situations where a man’s parents may not have raised him to eventually leave; they never actively sought to equip and encourage their son to embrace the challenge of living on his own, earning all of his living, and making difficult decisions without the safety net of mom and dad’s authoritative pronouncements. He is crippled from making progress in his life because his parents have, though probably out of good intentions, hindered his maturity and stunted his manhood.

If you recognize yourself in this description, you might begin to feel cheated, as though your parents have wronged you in the way they brought you up. I urge you: please confess your grief to the Lord and have mercy on your parents. We all stumble in many ways, and no parent is perfect. Besides, drudging up old alleged hurts is never the way forward. Rather than blaming your parents, begin to take strides, with the help of your church family, to becoming the man God has called you to be. You will probably need to have some difficult conversations with your parents as you express to them your desire to venture out from their protection and provision and remind them that it is God’s design that you do so.  

For other men, leaving will be and has been relatively easy. Not only have they been raised to leave the nest; they were gently nudged when the time came and they embraced the excitement of life away from home and parental protection and provision. Still others are naturally more eager to leave father and mother and make their way in the world. They look forward to moving away, making their own decisions, landing their own job, finding their own church, and earning their own living. These young men need to guard against the temptation to forget their parents (Prov 23:22) and be reminded that they will always have a responsibility to honor their parents (see Matt 15:1-9). But for the Christian, these obligations to one’s parents are now dependent on a more important obligation.

Following Jesus and Honoring Parents
When Jesus instructs His followers on how to prioritize family relationships, He draws a sharp line of loyalty between Himself and a man’s family. In fact, some of Jesus’ most startling statements are the ones He makes about family relationships in light of the kingdom of God. For example, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus claims that one of the very reasons He came to earth was to bring division among one’s closest relations.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matt 10:34-39

To what is Jesus calling His disciples with these difficult words? The immediate context provides the interpretational insight we need.

Just prior to these statements about one’s relationship with his family, Jesus had been preparing His disciples for future persecution (Matt 10:16-24). Jesus was maligned and treated poorly, so His servants cannot expect any better treatment (Matt 10:25). In order to help them persevere through such trials, Jesus mingles warning with encouragement. First, don’t fear your persecutors because there is coming a day when the reality of your faith will be revealed for all to see (Matt 10:26-27). Besides, you shouldn’t be afraid of those who can only kill the body, “Rather,” Jesus exhorts His followers, “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). In other words, it is infinitely better to be right with God who has the power to execute eternal judgment than to escape persecution from men who only possess the power of a temporal penalty.

Furthermore, you can have confidence that your Father in heaven cares deeply for your eternal welfare. God notices when even a little sparrow falls to the ground. For this reason, you can know that God cares for those whose worth is far more than little birds (Matt 10:29-31). Professing disciples, therefore, must keep these warnings and encouragements in mind as they encounter persecution so that they will not wither in the face of opposition and deny Christ. To consistently fold in the face of persecution and deny Christ is a sign that you don’t truly know Christ and will lead to Christ denying you at the final judgment (Matt 10:32-33). Those who walk in faithfulness, even amidst persecution, will receive Christ’s hearty acknowledgment before His Father in heaven.

This context helps us to better understand what Jesus means in Matt 10:34-39. The issue in this passage is persecution. Jesus’ coming creates division among family members because He demands ultimate loyalty. In many families those who come to Christ will be surrounded by unbelieving family members, so Jesus is preparing His disciples to be ready to endure discord where there used to be peace. When such division occurs, a professing disciple might be tempted to soften his commitment to Jesus. Such compromise is not an option, however, for Jesus calls His disciples to love Him supremely, even more than a disciple’s closest relations. Those who consistently choose loyalty to family members over Jesus will find that they were never worthy of Jesus and that, while they may have gained familial peace, they lost their eternal soul (Matt 10:37-39). Those who are willing to lose even those earthly relationships that are most precious for the sake of Jesus and His gospel will find eternal life.

To love Jesus more than father and mother, therefore, means that the disciple is willing, at the moment of decision, to choose obedience to Christ over loyalty to family members, whatever the circumstance.

To love Jesus more than father and mother, therefore, means that the disciple is willing, at the moment of decision, to choose obedience to Christ over loyalty to family members, whatever the circumstance. Now that the Savior has come into the world, family is the place where true faith is either forged or surrendered.

What does this have to do with manhood? Everything. Although adult children are called to honor their parents, they are called to give Jesus Christ ultimate loyalty. A disciple of Christ now fulfills earthly obligations out of obedience to Christ, not in place of obedience to Christ. When the instructions and opinions of parents collide with the commands and wisdom of Jesus, loyalty to Jesus always prevails in the true disciple, even if that loyalty causes separation and conflict among family members.

It’s important to remember, however, that when Jesus said He came to set family members against each other, it is likely that He meant that the unbeliever is the one who would be against the believer, not the other way around. Disciples of Christ are those who are meek, gentle, humble, kind, and merciful. It is unlikely that loyalty to Jesus would put a disciple “against” other people in terms of outward animosity. Paul says, “if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18; cf. James 3:13-18).

We must also note that Jesus said that He would set a man against his family members. We do not do it; Jesus does it. The presence of Jesus in the life of His disciple is what will set the unbeliever against his believing family member. The disciple, however, will be ultimately loyal to Christ, not to the family member: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). We love our family members. But our love for Christ must be far greater than our love for our family members or we are not worthy of Christ.

Practically, this means that if you are living under parent’s roof and they instruct you in things that are contrary to the Word of Christ in the Bible, you must obey Christ over your parents. Obedience to Christ does not mean that you are disrespectful to your parents, or harsh in your words, or looking for a fight with them. But it does mean that you will obey and follow Christ, even if following Christ comes into conflict with your parent’s expectations, opinions, and counsel. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Nevertheless, you are still called to honor your parents (see Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16; Matt 15:1-7) so young men still living at home should honor their parents by patiently serving them, working hard to take care of the home, blessing them with thoughtful gifts, spending time with them and talking with them, and asking for forgiveness when they sin against their parents. You do not compromise on the truth in your discussions, but you also don’t go looking to stir up theological controversy at every turn (see Prov 15:23; 15:28; 25:15). Loyalty to Jesus is not angry and obnoxious toward others. It is steadfast, unwavering, gentle, patient, kind, and decisive.

Also, for the sake of obedience to Christ, it is best to become financially independent from your parents as soon as you are able. This will allow you to more easily break off from your parents’ control and expectations when it comes into conflict with the Word of Jesus, especially as it impacts your future plans.

The Example of Jesus Leaving Father and Mother
Leaving one’s father and mother is not a mere pragmatic decision that one makes in order to prepare for marriage. As we’ve seen, leaving father and mother is basic to our design as men and a matter of obedience to Jesus Christ. If we are truly going to be the men God commands us to be—if we are going to fulfill the character and calling of mature manhood—then we must leave father and mother.

We see the necessity of leaving father and mother for the sake of our obedience to God most vividly in the life of Jesus Himself.

We see the necessity of leaving father and mother for the sake of our obedience to God most vividly in the life of Jesus Himself. Consider for a moment if Jesus had yielded to His mother’s desires for His life. Despite her godliness, it is unlikely that Mary would have gladly endorsed Jesus’ plan to walk into a public execution. Not even Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, was able to fathom such an idea (see Matt 16:22). Even during His earthly life and ministry it appears that Jesus’ mother wasn’t able to accurately interpret all of His actions (see Mark 3:21; Luke 2:41-51) or fully comprehend His mission (John 2:4).2 In order to fulfill the task with which His Father entrusted Him, Jesus’ love for His heavenly Father had to surpass His love for His mother. Jesus had to decisively leave His father and mother so that He could complete the mission His heavenly Father had given Him.

Mary could have interpreted this act of decisive leaving and Jesus’ plan to give Himself over to an unjust execution, not as an act of love, but as an act of hatred. “How can you claim to love me and still leave me while intentionally yielding to an unjust execution without even a hint of legal recourse? You are abandoning me!” If Joseph had already died by the time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the potential pain of abandonment would have been acute.

As it turns out, Jesus’ departure from His parents and His death on the cross were the most loving acts Jesus could have accomplished for His mother. What appears to be hatred for one’s mother (see Luke 14:26) was actually love in its purest form (John 15:13). Yet, even though Jesus was committed to obedience to His Father and therefore maintained a course that required Him to leave His mother, He never neglected His earthly obligation to honor her. Even as Jesus is dying upon the cross, He makes sure that His mother—now without the provision and care of an eldest son—will be cared for by another capable man. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:26-27). In Jesus we behold the perfect symmetry of love for God and love for one’s neighbor, each kept in their right order and proportion. Jesus fulfills His earthly obligations, not in place of obedience to His Father, but because of it. 

Should All Men Leave Father and Mother?
The growing trend in America of men remaining at home under the care, supervision, and provision of their parents is not a trend that Christian men can join or endorse. The Scriptures are clear: a man shall leave his father and mother. Leaving one’s father and mother not only prepares a man for marriage; it is essential for full obedience to Jesus Christ.

But there may be times where it is appropriate for a man to remain home with his parents. One situation in which it would seem legitimate for a man to remain at home is to care for sick and dying parents. The Christian life is, fundamentally, a life of sacrifice and self-denial. It may be that you must, out of obedience to Christ, set-aside your dreams of marriage and family for a season while you care for your ailing parents. But these circumstances cannot be used as an excuse to remain fastened to one’s parents for the sake of safety or provision.

A man may also need to remain at home with his parents permanently because of severe physical or mental handicaps. None of what has been said in article is meant to imply that those with significant physical or mental handicaps are expected to leave father and mother in the same way that a man without these limitations is expected to leave father and mother. For some men, obedience to Christ and the fulfillment of their manhood may take shape in smaller, yet just as significant ways while they remain dependent upon their parents for care and provision.

For most men, however, the call is to leave father and mother. And we must be wary of legitimate sounding reasons for why we have yet to fulfill this call on our lives. Financial concerns often carry significant weight in a man’s decision to remain within the comfortable confines of his parents’ home. Rent-free or close-to-rent-free living certainly helps pad the savings account, but it robs a man of something far more valuable: character forged by sacrifice, deferred desires, simplicity, and the God-ordained satisfaction of providing for oneself. And we’ve already touched on this above, but a man who has left his parent’s financial oversight may still be unwilling to leave the comfort of his parent’s spiritual and emotional guidance. We must ask the Lord to search our hearts and reveal where we might be hiding fear and cowardice behind a guise of what we’ve come to call “wisdom” or “preparing for the future.”

Becoming the men God has called us to be requires that we leave father and mother. We may be faithful to church, regular in Bible reading and prayer, and committed to discipleship, but if we are not willing to leave father and mother, we will never grow into the men we were made to be. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that is less and less likely to uphold this requirement for men. It is far more acceptable now for men to remain at home with their parents into their late-twenties than it was even twenty years ago.

The call of Genesis 2:24, therefore, may be unsettling, even offensive, for some Christian men. At least, it won’t seem very compelling in light of what the culture currently values and respects. To boldly take upon oneself the responsibilities of manhood in one’s late teens and early twenties will appear more and more out-of-step with societal expectations. But when has Christianity ever been fully validated by the surrounding culture? The call to biblical manhood, though a glorious, fulfilling, dignified calling, will be, at best, ignored by the present culture; despised at worst. But let’s not allow these contrary currents to discourage us from making headway on our course to true manhood. Courage is a necessary component of biblical manhood, and perseverance, too. And we will need both as we leave father and mother. 


1. See Richard Fry, “For the First Time in Modern Era, Living with Parents Edges out Other Living Arrangements for 18-34 Year Olds,” The Pew Research Center, May 24, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2017, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/05/24/for-first-time-in-modern-era-living-with-parents-edges-out-other-living-arrangements-for-18-to-34-year-olds/.

2. Mark 3:20-21 only mentions “his family.” The text reads, “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” A few verses later, Mark mentions Jesus’ “mother and his brothers” who had come to find Jesus while He was preaching (see Mark 3:31-35). It could be, then, that by leaving out the reference to Jesus’ mother in 3:21, Mark means to indicate that only His brothers and other relatives were the ones who thought Jesus was “out of his mind.” Or, Mark could just as likely meant to include Jesus’ mother among those who thought Jesus was out of His mind, and the word “family” is merely shorthand for “mother and brothers.” The context does not allow us to be dogmatic either way. Luke 2:41-51 and John 2:4, however, both lend to the notion that Mary didn’t fully comprehend Jesus’ ministry in its initial stages.       

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