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Cultural Rebellion Against God II: Denial of Ecclesiastical and Familial Authority

Modern culture has a warped view of authority. In some instances moderns grant nearly infinite powers to one institution (usually the state), while in other cases individual authority seems to be of paramount importance. We know that God has ordained at least three authority-holding institutions: the family, the church, and the state.

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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Cultural Rebellion Against Authority
Modern culture has a warped view of authority. In some instances moderns grant nearly infinite powers to one institution (usually the state), while in other cases individual authority seems to be of paramount importance. We know that God has ordained at least three authority-holding institutions: the family, the church, and the state. The Westminster Confession of Faith warns against opposition to lawful authorities:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God.1

The first article in this series (March, 2001) dealt with a small part of the problem of undue powers being granted to the state. Here we will consider our culture's rebellion against the church and the family.

Denial of the Church's Authority
Rebellion against the church takes many forms. An extremely common form of that rebellion in our modern culture is the rejection of Biblical church discipline. Most churches are so afraid of inciting rebellion that they refuse to administer discipline, and thus forsake one of the marks of the true church.

The church itself has contributed to its own impotence. Several years ago my wife and I were visiting a certain large Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church that we knew had dropped the ball on disciplinary issues. As two teenage girls joined the church that morning, I saw part of the reason why. An elder, with the PCA's Book of church Order in his hand, "read" the question, "Do you submit yourselves to the government and encouragement of this church?" I had been in the PCA long enough to know that the word "encouragement" had been substituted for "discipline." Members of that church could easily have been unaware that discipline was part of the church's responsibility!

The church has cast off its own authority in many ways, some subtle, some not. A certain "seeker-friendly" church-chain has rejected pulpits as too imperious, and pastors refrain from holding a Bible while preaching because it appears too authoritative.2 Even in Reformed denominations, it is common for preachers to eschew clerical robes or even a coat and tie. Black robes, more common in Presbyterianism, signify authoritative teaching. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with preaching in jeans and a polo shirt, formal attire of any sort encourages respect and conveys a sense of the high office of those called to preach with authority.

Denial of the Father's Spiritual Authority
With the church willing to play down or even negate its own authority, can it be surprising that those under its teaching mimic its reluctance to lead? Husbands and fathers no longer act as masters over their own families, but allow their wives to assume the leadership functions. Fathers and mothers alike permit their children to wander aimlessly in a cultural morass.

As husbands and fathers neglect their role as spiritual heads, the church stands willing to coddle them, not exhort them to perform. Modern developments such as Sunday school classes and women's Bible studies, while not bad in themselves, have soothed the consciences of men who will not teach their families at home.

Because God works redemptively in whole families, evangelistic activities ought to be directed toward whole families, and particularly husbands and fathers.3 Evangelistic activities targeted toward children, while certainly not prohibited by Scripture, can encourage a decapitated view of the family if heads of households are not also being called to faith in Christ and obedience to God's Word. Children, evangelize your parents? If this is the primary strategy for spreading the gospel, something is wrong with our view of the family.

Husbands and fathers seeking to lead their families Biblically will face disapproval and outright attacks from all quarters. Our culture hates godly male leadership, and takes every opportunity to tear it down.

Denial of Paternal Authority in Marriage
For centuries, writers of love stories have incorporated the disapproving father into the plot as a barrier that must be overcome before the couple can be married. In a way, this is appropriate. The father is sometimes required to protect a child from an injudicious match. Yet it seems that most love stories in this vein portray the father as a selfish, obstinate troll who lives to keep his lovesick daughter as a perpetual housemaid. Such caricatures, which flagrantly mock paternal authority in marriage, say much about our culture.

In an excellent defense of the necessity of parental consent to marriage, Francis Turretin contends against the Roman view on clandestine marriages or monastic vows. Arguing partially from the Fifth Commandment, Turretin writes that honor to parents:

...consists principally in the obedience due to them and since it is to be rendered in all things 'in the Lord,' marriage cannot be excepted, which is of so great importance to settling the condition and fortune of the whole life and which, as the most difficult thing, exceeds the age, understanding, and judgment of children. How can they be said to obey them in all things, who in the most momentous case pay no regard to them?4

Passages such as Exodus 22:16-17 and 34:16, Deuteronomy 7:3, Jeremiah 29:6, and I Corinthians 7:38 make little sense unless they are predicated upon a father's authority in a child's marriage. Numbers 30:4, which empowers a father to make void a daughter's vow, might apply to marriage vows as well. As Turretin puts it, "If a vow, which is a promise made to God, comes under the parental will, how much more a promise made to men?"

Questions about the conditions under which a father might "veto" a marriage are not easy to answer, but the modern culture hardly acknowledges his role. In most weddings, fathers have become an expected tuxedoed ornament, rather than performing the necessary function of transferring covenantal headship on that occasion. In many wedding ceremonies, the traditional question, "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" meets with the modernized response from the front row, "Her mother and I do." One wonders what would occur if the father were to respond, "As this match goes against my better judgment, no one gives this woman in marriage."5

Contentions between Church and Family
If it were not enough that individuals rebel against God-ordained authority of family and church, the two institutions increasingly do not act "mutually to uphold and preserve one another" but instead rebel against God's boundaries for each.

Even in Reformed circles there is often little deference to family authority in matters regarding their children. Not too long ago, a PCA minister in Georgia, with the backing of his session, agreed to officiate in a wedding to which the Christian father of the bride strenuously objected.

Families likewise reject Biblical authority structures, sometimes rebelling against ecclesiastical authority, on other occasions surrendering family functions to the church. Some parents refuse to have their children baptized, thus cutting little ones off from the people of God.6 Other parents neglect family worship and the continual instructing of their children in the Christian faith, assuaging their guilt with the thought that Sunday school classes or youth groups or summer camp or short-term missions trips will satisfy those obligations.

The State against Church and Family
Contentions between family and church are harmful partly because they distract both institutions from a much more intrusive enemy the state. This is perhaps best seen in the state's usurpation of various welfare functions from the church and the family. Ultimately, the modern state seeks to subjugate all other institutions. In a well-known current case, a Baptist church in Indianapolis asserted that it should not be made a tax collector for the state (by withholding from its staff) and found itself confronted with the threat of armed force. Families are undermined by a thousand state interventions, ranging from income, property, and inheritance taxes to truancy laws, welfare, and Social Security. Legislative and judicial attacks on biblical practices such as homeschooling, corporal punishment, and adoption further weaken the family.

The continuing assault on the family requires a concerted, Biblical response by Christians. It should include a re-evaluation of the church's approach to the family, as well as efforts to remind the civil magistrate of the Biblical limits on his jurisdiction.

See Part 1


1. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 22, Sec. 4.

2. But see Titus 2:15.

3. See Genesis 17:7-14; Acts 2:38, 39; 11:14; 16:15; 16:31.

4. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 108.

5. Furthermore, the modern response further dilutes the father's headship as his wife shares the vestigial practice of giving away the bride. Nowhere in Scripture is the mother's consent required.

6. See Genesis 17:14.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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