The Limits of Authority (Part Two)

Shutting Down a TyrantWe’re reaching the end of our study of authority proper, and will shortly be looking at the question of conscience. But before we can get there, I need to expand on some issues related to the relationship between the family and the church.

The importance of the family as a God-ordained institution separate from the State and the Church cannot be understated. It is the weakest of the three institutions, and the one most under attack by both states and churches today.

Invasion of marriages is when a state or church interferes in the affairs of a family where it has no biblical warrant to do so. It can also involve acting in areas where there is a legitimate, though less direct interest. Non-adult children are members of a church, but a church should not quickly bring them in for discipline for disobedience to their parents. Nor should the parents bring them there. The situation is their responsibility. Only when things are hopeless should such a course be taken. A similar example would be the religious education of children. Both the Church and family have roles, but the family should take the lead, while the Church aids and instructs the parents.

Similarly, churches should avoid counseling in marital situations where the Bible does not speak directly. The couple should work it out on their own, if they are able. Again, only when things are absolutely hopeless should the church step in. The church needs to be very, very wary of invading the marriage by publicly siding with one member of the marriage or another when there is a marital conflict. While it is perfectly clear that the biblical model is that the husband is the head of the wife, the church needs to be especially careful of not simply siding with the husband and telling the wife to just submit. One of the things that I have noticed (especially amongst the younger Neo-Reformed crowd) is the tendency to quote Ephesians 5:22-24 (especially the “all things” clause) without continuing to v. 25.

To automatically side with the husband in those cases where the church has been called upon to adjudicate the difficulty, the church is failing to recognize the truth spoken of in Proverbs 18:17: “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” Furthermore, it is the duty of the church to instruct husbands that they are to “love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up on its behalf” and, in fact, are to “love their wives as their own bodies.” The obligation entailed here has very obvious outward and physical manifestation. Just as they would not do anything detrimental to their own physical well-being or life, so they have strict moral orders not to do so to their own wives. They are forbidden to “hate their flesh” (Eph. 5:29), which clearly rules out depriving them of sustenance and protection or showing them physical violence. By direct contrast, Paul teaches in the same verse that it is the duty of husbands to “nourish and cherish” their wives’ flesh.

Moreover, Paul goes so far as to say, “if anyone does not provide especially for his family, he is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). When one remembers the evaluation and destiny of unbelievers according to the theology of Paul, these words have incredible intensity and severity. Someone who exposes his wife and family to physical harm by deprivation of their basic necessities is (somehow!) in a worse moral condition and under greater condemnation than an unbeliever.

While the church can, and should, encourage wives to submit to their husbands, the church cannot stand idly by while sins of omission (depriving the family of basic necessities) and of commission (committing acts of verbal, physical, or sexual violence) occur. It doesn’t constitute and invasion of the family for the church to step in and apply negative sanctions in such a situation. Not only this, but due to Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:4-5 that the state is to punish those who do evil, by failing to apprise the appropriate authorities when these crimes have occurred, the church is inappropriately interfering with the state’s ability to execute its God-appointed role. In fact, I believe that the church unquestionably has a moral duty to report such crimes to the state, while separately pursing ecclesiastical sanctions for the same sins.


"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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