Conversations for Life

Parental Authority

September 24, 2018

Kathleen: Hello everyone and welcome to Conversations for Life. Today we're going to discuss authority, specifically parental authority. Now this is a huge topic and it's often a very sensitive one. Parenting is a huge responsibility and the weightiness of what we're called to do before God, I think, tends to bring out our insecurities. You know, “are we really good enough to do this job, to bear this weight?” And I think every parent has at some point thought, “why did God give me this responsibility? Does He know what he was doing?” And also, many of us have experienced the abuse of authority in some area of life in the past. You know, perhaps in our relationship with our own parents growing up, or in society with some kind of authority figures. So we've seen the ugly side and we feel kind of leery of authority. Is it really a good thing? But at the same time, we recognize that authority is vital to the parent-child relationship because God designed it that way for the children's good.

Jonathan: Well, and I think for me, Kathleen, this has also become an important topic because the issue of authority has become such a big topic in our society: Who should have authority? Why should they have it? How should it be exercised? Is it even a good thing? So these are questions that are being asked in our society. And of course we as parents, we are caught up in this discussion. And so I think many Christians are asking themselves, well, what kind of authority do I have over my children? How should I exercise it? Is it a good thing to even exercise authority, or is it sinful?

Kathleen: Yeah. And that's hard. I know people who came from a bad home life, and now they’re parents, but whenever they're firm in setting expectations for their children, or in disciplining their children, it triggers something in them, and they feel like they're being harsh or mean, or maybe even replicating the abuse they experienced. It can be hard in those cases to constantly exercise authority, believing that it is a good thing.

Jonathan: Well, so why don't we start with the big question of: do we parents have authority? Is this really a teaching from the Bible, or is it something that we just say to cover up something that's actually wrong? And so, there’s no way, of course, tonight that we can discuss everything the Bible has to say about authority, but we should at least go to look at where the origins of this idea comes from, which is Genesis 1. And in Genesis 1:27-28, these very famous verses, it says that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female, He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”


And so God says to them, fill the earth and subdue it. And so what we see happening here is that God is giving authority over creation to Adam and Eve, and that this authority is to create life and to order life. Now this being said, there are some really important caveats about the authority that we have, that we see described here. For one, it is a derived authority. Adam and Eve exercise authority, not in absolute terms as if they’re God, but as authority as derived from God, it’s given to them by God. They are his stewards, they are to manage his creation. So mankind gets its authority from God. And we are supposed to use this authority to honor his name. So we don't have ultimate, or absolute authority. It's a derived authority.


And then secondly as I've already alluded to, the authority that we're given has a purpose, a purpose that we can summarize as extending the knowledge and the glory of God in creation. So the authority that we see here, the origins of it for us, is that it's a derived authority, and it’s authority with a purpose. So if we don't exercise the authority according to this, then we're not doing it according to God's will. But on the other hand, if we are exercising authority in the way that God intends, then we will find that this authority is life-giving and life-ordering.

Kathleen: I love that phrase, “life-giving and life-ordering.” That's a really good thing to think about as we’re with our children, as we're disciplining them, as we're loving them. Yeah, so as you talked about, we see in Genesis 1, God created authority for a good purpose that brings him glory and promotes Shalom in the world. And I love that word. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, for wholeness, for flourishing. It pervaded Eden and it's what will define the new heavens and the new earth. And that's something to be really glad about. But, if you keep going in Genesis, you get to Genesis 3, and the Fall happens. Mankind rebelled against God. Sin and death entered the world, and everything broke, and authority was one of those things. And you see that in the following chapters and verses. You know, even in the curse that God pronounces in Genesis 3—men will rule harshly over their wives.

You see it in chapter four. Lamech, he’s a powerful man, and he brags about killing someone, and even brags about the curse that comes upon him for it. And then after the flood in Genesis 11. The people decide to use their God-given intelligence and ingenuity to brashly defy him, to build up a tower to try and reach heaven and make a name for themselves, instead of obeying Him, putting their efforts toward making His name and His glory known in all the earth. So, after the fall, sin is raging, and one of the things that it takes down with it is the proper use of authority. So, instead of people using authority to glorify God, now the temptation, and too often the reality, is using authority to glorify ourselves.

But I want to bring up the fact that sin does not ruin the original purpose of authority, or anything else. It perverts the use too often, but the abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use. God's original purpose remains unchanged, and doing things His way still makes for the best individual lives, and the best society in general. You know, if we want ourselves and our people to flourish, then following God's purposes is the most effective way to do that. So I think the thing we want to focus on as Christians, is that we are a part of redeeming fallen creation. And so redeeming authority, in this case, that means taking something that's been corrupted or perverted, and bringing it out of that corruption and into its right use. We want to use authority in the way God intended. It's derived from God to steward God's creation for God's glory. And yeah, it's for the purpose of creating and ordering life.

Now we do still struggle against sin. I do. You do. We all do. And we know the world is sinful. But this goal we have of redeeming authority, it really captures the now-but-not-yet nature of the Gospel. And what that means is just, you know, right now we're in the age after Jesus' resurrection. So we have the power of the Holy Spirit. We have the hope of the new creation, but we also grown with all of creation because of the present power of sin in this world. God's kingdom has come now, but it's also yet to come. So in this, we're part of God's plan of putting all creation right. And that includes the exercise of authority.

Jonathan: So we know from scripture that we are to exercise authority. That it’s a good thing. That, you know, as I said, and as you said, that authority in Scripture, the origin is to be life-giving and life-ordering. And as you said, too, of course the Fall, it just messes this whole thing up. And I think, and I think that's where we get this idea in our culture too, this great suspicion of authority that I was hinting at earlier. Because I believe that for the most part, we as a culture have decided that, in the majority of cases, the exercise of authority, especially hierarchical authority, where you have a person or a group that's over another, that it's almost always negative. And that these kinds of relationships, they limit human potential, they are a feeding ground for corruption, for abuse, for selfishness, for greed, and so on.

And so we live with this reality, with this message in our culture, that almost all authority is exercised to the detriment of others. So rather than authority being viewed as life-giving or life-ordering, I think we see the message that authority is life-stealing and is life-limiting. Now, as you talked about, because of the Fall, a big part of this is based on truth. In our world, all too often authority is exercised in negative ways, and that this is the reality of the world we live in. So people do abuse their authority to get what they want at the expense of others. There's no doubt. And even more, you know, our own country, we were born out of rebellion against tyranny. And so there's this deep suspicion in our culture of authority. And I think that's only grown over the last hundred years.

Kathleen: Yeah, and you know, even beyond the social climate, there's this personal, individual level. Many of us have in some way been personally affected, or traumatized even, by the misuse of authority. It's really a heart level, guttural thing. Some of us may have experienced domestic abuse either as a child or as an adult. People sadly have experienced spiritual abuse in the Church, you know, being manipulated to follow leaders into sin under threat of being ostracized or, or even being told that submitting to heavy-handed control is what God means by submitting to your church leaders. And I think that's just particularly heinous because it brings God's name into the abuse. It claims God's approval. And you know, it's very clear from scripture that God rejects that kind of abuse with fierceness. But because of this reality that people have really been very personally affected by the abuse of authority, we need to be very compassionate with those who have suffered. To people who have been abused in this way, authority can seem really scary and necessarily bad. So I think we need to listen to people's stories and really hear them, and have compassion. But at the same time, we do want to help people get back to the original purpose of authority, and that redeeming part that we were talking about earlier.

Jonathan: Yeah you know, the phrase, “redeeming authority,” is great because it captures both the creative origins of authority: that it was given to us by God to order life, to create life. But then also, the reality of the context we live in now where authority has been so tarnished, so used as an instrument of wickedness and evil. And so it's great to think about it in this context of redemption. And it's also great, because I think for me at least, it implies that, that this exercise of authority, just like all things in the Christian life, is a process. That it includes repentance, it includes forgiveness, it includes, of course, reliant upon the Holy Spirit. That when we speak about exercising authority, we don't do so as those who are without sin. We exercise authority as parents who are sinful, but have also been redeemed. And so that struggle that we face as parents to exercise authority over our children is similar to the struggles we face in other areas, which is really about claiming the redemption that we have in Christ.

Kathleen: Yeah. So as parents, you know, as we've just been saying, we recognize God has given us authority over our children. That it's a good thing to create and order life in our home. But we do also wrestle with it. Because, in part, our culture is wrestling with it, and partially because of our own bad experiences. And in light of that, in light of our sin, in our parenting we do have to be very careful not to abuse our authority. Our Authority is from God. We are not God, and we don't get to just please ourselves. You know, there are many times as these sinful people—we are saved, we are redeemed, but we still sin—there are many times when what we feel like doing is not acceptable to God. We don't get to just follow our whims. We actually stand before God and we have to remember that in our parenting.

And I think, to the degree that we recognize God as our ultimate authority, we will exercise our authority responsibly, and in a godly way. We are accountable to God, and we are witnesses of how He exercises authority. And he never abuses it. He's holy and good. It is actually impossible for him to be abusive. It is against His nature. And we see throughout Scripture, if you read these stories, God never asks out of selfish, petulant anger, which we are—I know I am—so prone to doing. God is angered by evil, and he does respond to evil, He does not let injustice and wickedness continue forever. And that's really a reason to rejoice, especially if you have experienced serious abuse in the past. And so in our parenting, our authority really has to be joined, as you said, Jonathan, with genuine and open humility, grace and repentance.

And the cool thing—It feels frustrating in the midst of it—but the cool thing is that we have the chance to model repentance to our kids when we do fall short. And, you know, I'll say, I get to model repentance to my kids a lot. Sometimes I wish I wasn't doing that so much! Sanctification is a process. But I have a dear friend who has children who are entering adulthood and leaving the home, and she actually asked them, “What was the biggest factor in their home life growing up that led to them pursuing Christ on their own?” And she was really surprised by how they responded. They said that it was the fact that their parents had apologized to them whenever they sinned against them. This was what helped make the faith real to these kids, who are now adults. They saw this humility and repentance, and they saw the truth of the gospel shining out of that. So, we have to remember that proper authority does not mean lording over people. It's actually the exact opposite of that.

Jonathan: Wow. So yeah, when we exercise authority in this, in this way that you're talking about, in a redemptive way, you know, we're actually setting our children up for a healthy relationship with God, and his authority in their lives. And I think it's good for us to remember this. This is a good thing. So when we're doing it, when we're exercising the authority in this way, even if in the moment it doesn't feel good to us to have to discipline our child, or to have to be strict, to have them follow a rule that, that they need to follow, that it's a good thing. It's a life-giving thing, a life-ordering thing.

And conversely, it means that when we listen to even our own flesh and we abdicate authority because, for whatever reason, when we do that, we might think, “Well, we're helping our kids,” or “We're doing some nice to them.” Actually what we're doing is we're setting them up in the long-term for harm. And so, I think that this is a really good thing to remember in the heat of the moment of having to exercise authority when it when we might feel in our flesh that we’d rather not have to do it.

Kathleen: Yeah, and there's plenty of times when we'd rather not do it. I don't know if our kids believe that, but, yeah. And you know, the interesting thing is that psychological research bears this out as well. In the 1960s, a developmental psychologist named Diana Baumrind carried out extensive research looking into which parenting styles produce the best outcomes in children. She wasn't looking at specific practices, but more like an environment that's created by the parents in the home. And then other researchers, Maccabee and Martin, extended and added to her work in the 80s. And even since then, people have continued to test and confirm the conceptual framework through further research. What they've continued to find is that you can conceptualize parenting along two axes, or two spectrums. So, one being warmth and responsiveness, and the other being the level of demands or standards that parents have for their kids.

So the first is the measure of how much the parents are characterized by warmth, acceptance, how much they allow independence. How much they are sensitive to their children's very needs. Or of course on the other end of that spectrum how distant and detached they are. And then the other axis is a measure of how much parents require obedience, how strict and demanding they are. The degree to which they set standards and expect children to follow them. You know, how much control they have in their lives. Again, on the other end of that spectrum, how much parents let their children run their own lives without any rules, or that many rules, they can be very indulgent or just uninvolved. And not surprisingly, the data continue to demonstrate that homes with high affection and high structure are associated with children with the most positive outcomes and the fewest negative outcomes. They call this style Authoritative.

And that just means that the parents are warm and responsive, they're supportive, they value independence in their children, and they also have clear and firm rules and high expectations for their children. And actually the worst outcomes are associated with neglectful parents who are low in both warmth and control. So they are basically just disinterested, and their children have high rates of delinquency, bad relationships, things like that. Those are the outcomes that are most common with that style of parenting. They really suffer from not having the support of both affection and boundaries. And you know, I say it's not surprising because we know biblically what love is. We know because God himself is love, and love certainly involves responsiveness, even though it's not caving into our every whim. You know, Hebrews 12 says that a good parent disciplines the child they love, because God himself does that in order to keep us going in right path, it's for our good. So affection, warmth, and responsiveness, and appropriate boundaries and expectations of obedience, these are both essential for a parental love to be complete.

Jonathan: Well in that last—that both/and that you just said there—is great because as we've talked about how parents wrestle with exercising authority, I think it's because they see it as either/or all too often. It's either, “I'm going to be the strict authoritarian parent who's going to lay down the rules.” Or, “I'm going to be the loving, affectionate parent who's going to just smother my kids with affection.” And what you're saying with this study is, is you can do both those things. That you can lay down good authority in the home and that that's good for the children, and at the same time also maintain a home that’s full of love and affection. And certainly, as Christians, that's what we aspire to do.

And you know, the other thing that you said that really caught my eye was two things. One was that you said she wasn't looking at specific practices. It was more of just the idea of authority itself, and different people had different ways of exercising that. And, of course, we would say, biblically speaking, there are some guidelines, but this podcast is not saying, “Do this, don't do that.” It Is simply saying that the idea of authority is a good one, and that we are to exercise authority in the home. And then we can discuss, “How does that look in practical terms?” and that will be different based on a lot of factors.

And the second thing you said that was really good was that, you know, the worst outcomes were by those parents who were cold and neglectful. Because just getting back to this idea of, you know, advocating authority, that in the moment, we might think we're doing good for our kids by abdicating authority. But in reality, the long-term is some pretty heavy consequences. And you know, it got me thinking too, when we talk about abdicating authority, we're not talking about criminal behavior necessarily. We’re not talking about you leaving your kids at home for hours upon hours while you're out gallivanting around town. I think as parents we're talking about a lot of mundane ways that we can abdicate authority.

And a couple of examples that I know I'm tempted by, is first and foremost using electronic devices, or other means, to distract my kids. And it's not really as much about them, although I might think it's about them, it's really about my own desire to essentially not deal with my children, to not have to be responsible for them for that period of time, whatever it might be. And you know, we have Netflix, we have Amazon Prime, and I have nothing against—you know, I think there's a lot of great content out there, it's perfectly fine to let your kids relax and watch a cartoon every now and then, that's great—but if I'm using it to avoid my responsibility for my kids, that's when the question of, “Am I abdicating my authority over them?”  comes into play.

And then, you know, on top of that, with this idea of advocating authority, sometimes we do it simply by letting everyone in our family just have their own independent lives. I know for me growing up, that's what it was like. We all had our own lives. My Dad had his life, my mom had her life, my brother and sister and I, we all had our own lives. And we had our own rooms, our own TVs, we had our own everything. And we essentially lived as tenants under one roof. And in that context, a parent cannot exercise good authority, especially like you were saying: the authority that has combined with the affectionate, loving home. And so I think we need to be mindful that part of exercising authority is engaging with our children. That just being with them and having a home where the members of the family are engaged with one another. You can't have authority if you don't have that.

Kathleen: Yeah, I agree. So this is all a lot of great stuff. So I think the question we want to say is, what does this mean practically? What do we do with all of these big ideas? How do we apply them to our lives? So what do you think, Jonathan? What are some applications that really stand out to you?

Jonathan: Well, firstly I think we have to keep in mind—and this get us back to, as I've brought up a couple of times, the issue of society and these big questions our society is debating about authority—well what better gift can we give to society than adults who have a good, healthy view of authority, and who will exercise authority in the way we've described. You know, our kids are all going to grow up to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, policemen, whatever they might be. And they're going to exercise authority in whatever sphere God's given to them. What better gift can we give to our society than adults who exercise authority in a godly, redemptive way?

Kathleen: Yeah, and I think for those of us who may feel uncomfortable with exercising godly authority in our home, we can find people in our church and community who embody what we're looking for. Especially if we've experienced serious abuse of authority, it's good to find those mentors. And we can live life with them, sit at their feet, watch them as they do it. Let them disciple us in this, and let ourselves imbibe the true, beautiful use of authority. And I think our default is to just fall into the patterns we've experienced in the past. You know, what we grew up with, what we or what we had done to us in past relationships. Of course, sometimes, some of us just become reactionary and we do the exact opposite of what we hated, but that's not necessarily any better, that can just be a different extreme of maladaptive behavior.

So for me, I didn't grow up in a Christian home, and I saw the abuse of authority all the time. I did not come out of that home knowing how to be a wife and a mother. I definitely would not have known at that time what sort of authority parents are supposed to have, and how to use it for flourishing. After I became a Christian though, I began to watch other parents. I was in their homes, seeing and hearing how they treated their kids. I was asking questions and picking their brains. And you know, I learned specific methods and techniques of parenting, but much more than that, I learned a new heart of parenting. And so really, along with Scripture, just the wisdom of Scripture, it's the wisdom of other parents that taught me how to parent

Jonathan: And lastly, I would add on that I think we should bring it back ourselves. Because as we talk about exercising authority, as we talk about our children, the question comes back to us: Well, are we modeling submission to authority as parents in terms of those who are over us? So are we modeling it in terms of the way we talk about our pastor and our elders? Are we modeling it in the way we talk about our boss or our company? Are we modeling it in ways that our children are seeing the way we treat those in authority over us as consistent with how we expect them to listen and obey us? And I think that's a very convicting question. Because it could even be subtle things. It could be gossiping about one of the elders in the church, or it could be complaining about my boss and not liking them, and saying ridiculing things about them. Or it could be undermining the other authorities in my kids' lives. You know, we are a part of the community. And so there are other people who have different kinds of authority in my kids' lives. Maybe it's a teacher, it could be a police man. It could be a number of people in the community that would have authority in some way over my kids. Do I undermine those people? You know, when the teacher brings home a report about my child, do I respect and honor the teacher? You know, I think you get the idea. I think as parents we are first and foremost to model what it looks like to submit authority.

And so, well Kathleen it’s been a great podcast. We are out of time for today. I look forward to many more like this, and I hope that for all you listeners out there, you are benefiting from this conversation that we've had today. We'd love your feedback. Please visit us at And subscribe to get our newsletters and add any comments or feedback you'd like to give us. And until next time, take care. And God bless

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