Authority: The Missing Ingredient in Much Christian Parenting

“Don’t make me count to three!”

I can still hear my mother’s desperate voice pleading with me to obey her command. I knew that if it ever got to the point of her resorting to those six words, it was serious. I didn’t then fully comprehend, however, that her reliance on that warning resulted in a manipulative boy being trained to delay my obedience until she reached the point of uttering it.

The topic of parenting is a sensitive subject. Parents are personally and emotionally connected to their children. Parents who intentionally think about parenting philosophies usually feel very strongly about the practices they choose. For this reason, as well as insecurity about one’s own parenting philosophy, good parents are often hesitant to give advice, and bad parents are slow to receive it.

However, as a pastor who regularly engages in conversations with desperate parents seeking advice, I have observed a real crisis in the state of Christian parenting. The problem is best described by what the late author Edwin Friedman called “a failure of nerve.” In short, many Christian parents have lost the confidence required to maintain healthy authoritative presence in their homes and have become negotiators who appease instead of leaders who direct.

The reasons for this abdication of parental authority are legion, and without claiming to have exhausted them, let me point out two. First, many Christian parents have imbibed the spirit of the age. The secular gospel of the modern age states that the highest good for humanity lies in being oneself fully, which is accomplished exclusively by looking inward to discover one’s true self and then expressing that self, unhindered.

If the pure and authentic self lies within, hidden and undiscovered, then the real enemy is society which seeks to impose standards and roles upon us from outside. Original sin, in this scheme, is not the flaws of character that we all carry, but instead, the societal institutions—parents included—that have so warped us. True liberation, we are told, comes when restraint is removed, and prescribed expectations are shattered.

Christian parents should find this view deeply problematic for several reasons. It misidentifies human nature, the problem with the world, the solution to the problem, and human flourishing. Our children are not innocent victims of societal oppression; they are sinners in need of grace. The solution is not found by looking within, but by looking without—to Christ, our only hope. Human beings do not flourish and thrive when we get to do whatever we feel like doing, but when we discover the true purpose for which God created us—to know and worship him.

We don’t need liberation from society’s slavery so that we can be ourselves. We need liberation from slavery to self so that we can be who God created us to be. Only Christ can give us freedom. As Christian parents, we must speak lovingly and authoritatively to our children about their sin and the solution that God has provided in Christ. We must employ our God-given parental authority to confront and combat the soul-destroying cultural messages they are soaking up.

Second, many Christian parents misunderstand Christian love by pitting authority and love against one another. In the imaginations of many, to be a loving Christian is to be nice. But last time I checked, “nice” wasn’t included in the list of the fruits of the Spirit. In fact, “nice” is never advocated in the pages of Scripture.

Being nice has more to do with societal expectations than genuine love. A person is nice when they do something outwardly that conforms to societal standards. A nice person is never authoritative. Niceness requires a willingness to be run over, and your children are very willing to take over from there.

Kindness, however, is a God-produced disposition toward the good of others, even when they don’t deserve it. We learn kindness from God. Kindness doesn’t just permit authority, it demands it. Jesus, the kindest man to ever live, astonished people by the authority of his speech (Matt. 7:29). Like Jesus who called the Pharisees “a brood of vipers,” a kind person is willing to offend if he or she perceives that offence is necessary to confront soul-destroying attitudes or behaviors.

“Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5). Christian parents, we must be willing to speak authoritatively to confront the folly and sin bound up within the hearts of our children. We must demand obedience because we long for them to experience freedom. We must lead them to see that the flawless Savior is the only hope for flawed people like us.

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