Patriarchal Government: Considering the Biblical Foundation of Aristocracy
In the previous installments on civil legitimacy, we discussed some basic principles that underscore the tenets of biblical authority. Next we delved into the issue of democracy. We observed that modern democratic theory is rooted not in Christian theology, but rather in humanistic assumptions. Democracy is predicated upon humanistic constructs of morality and embraces humanistic ideas regarding human character. It should not surprise us that the rise of democracy has invariably coincided with the decline of Christian civilization, once recognized as Christendom. What Christians need to do in order to recover lost ground is to replace the false humanistic assumptions that are the foundation for modern democracy and replace them with a foundation that is more demonstrably Christian. Once this can be achieved, we will be able to replace liberal democracy with more traditional means of government. But before we can begin on this quest, we must ask ourselves the all-important question: What is the scriptural basis for authority?
Authority in the Family
In the Bible we find that God-ordained authority is patriarchal. This means that authority begins at home with the husband and father as the head of his household. To acknowledge this certainly flies in the face of today’s egalitarian thinking, in which men and women are thought to be functionally equal, and husband and wife are considered to be equal partners in marriage. Nevertheless this is precisely what the Bible teaches, and precisely what the Church has believed until the most recent decades.
Patriarchal authority has been established from the time that God ordained the family. It is fundamental and foundational for the proper function for society. We read that God created the first man Adam, and created Eve to be his wife and helper (Gen. 2:18-24). This became the foundation of distinct gender roles in God’s created order, and these distinct roles preceded the Fall, the entrance of sin into the world (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:3,7; 1 Tim. 2:12-13). Although sin has distorted the relationship between husbands and wives, the authority of the husband and father has not changed and, in fact, has a sanctified role after conversion (Gen. 3:16; Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Pet. 3:1-7). Both men and women are created in God’s image, with men bearing God’s image and glory in terms of authority, and women reflecting the glory of man (Gen. 1:27-28; 1 Cor. 11:3, 7; Eph. 5:28; 1 Pet. 3:7).
Built upon the foundation of the relationship of husband and wife, we are given a basis for authority within the family. Children are commanded to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). The authority and dignity of parents is established in the Decalogue as the fifth commandment: we are told to honor our fathers and mothers, that our days may be long upon the land which God has given us (Ex. 20:12; Lev. 19:3; Deut. 5:16). The apostle Paul points out that the fifth commandment is the first commandment with promise attached to it (Eph. 6:2-3). The promise of being maintained on the land which God has providentially given us is one of supreme importance. Essentially, God is promising material security to those who render their parents due honor and respect. We are told by wise King Solomon to heed the instructions of our fathers and not to forsake the laws and commandments of our mothers (Prov. 1:8; 6:20), and he likewise informs us that the wise make their fathers glad while the foolish grieve their mothers (Prov. 10:1; 15:20). Just as parents make sacrifices for the benefit of their children when they are young, we should also make sacrifices for our parents as they grow old (Prov. 23:22; 1 Tim. 5:4-8). Throughout much of the book of Proverbs, Solomon extols the virtue of respect and honor to parents, and castigates as wicked those who bring grief to their parents.
Just as the Bible strongly praises and exhorts us to honor our parents and ancestors, the Bible also strongly denounces disrespect to one’s family and extended kin. One of the earliest examples of shameful disrespect for parental dignity involved Ham, the son of Noah. He witnessed his father’s drunken nakedness. His brothers Shem and Japheth both honorably covered their father Noah to avoid heaping more shame upon him. Ham’s disgrace of his father Noah is compared with his brothers’ faithful allegiance to Noah their father (Gen. 9:20-27).
Shaming one’s parents was considered particularly heinous. In fact, openly cursing one’s parents was considered so vile a sin as to incur the death penalty (Lev. 20:9; see also Prov. 20:20; 30:17). Some might think that this is simply the product of a primitive society without respect for individual freedom, but they may be surprised to learn that this precept finds its most ardent defense by Christ in his rebuke of the Pharisees. We tend to think of the Pharisees as the stuffy, ill-tempered conservatives of yesteryear. The reality is that the Pharisees were actually guilty of voiding precepts established in the law in favor of their own traditions. These traditions were embodied in a collection of writings called the Mishna, which became the basis for the Talmud, a text sadly still in use among practicing Jews to this day. Among the precepts voided by the Pharisees was the precept that open rebellion and cursing of one’s own parents incurred the death penalty.1 Christ expressly taught that laying aside the commandments of God and replacing them with man-made ideas, even while claiming loyalty to God, was nothing other than hypocrisy; and He used Lev. 20:9 as an example of the Pharisees’ guiltiness in this very hypocrisy (Matt. 15:1-9; Mk. 7:1-13)!
Does the Fifth Commandment Apply Only to Our Immediate Family?
While the fifth commandment definitely has a primary application to our own immediate parents, it should also be pointed out that the fifth commandment isn’t applied only to individual or nuclear families comprised of a husband, wife, and children. This command was extended to ancestors among the living and the dead. For example, the Rechabites were praised by God for their fidelity and obedience to their common patriarch, Jonadab the son of Rechab (Jer. 35, especially verses 8-10, 18-19). Deceased kings were also said to sleep with their fathers when they died.2 There are also many instances in which gaps in genealogies indicate that one’s “father” could simply refer to a direct ancestor, such as a grandfather or great-grandfather.3
Commenting on the application of the fifth commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism provides this insight: “Question 124: Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment? Answer: By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.”4 From this commentary, we can see that the fifth commandment establishes the basis not only for authority within the family, but also for authority within the church and civil society as well.
In the next section, we will expand on how the fifth commandment establishes proper authority in the civil sphere. Understanding the basis for authority in God’s law is essential for understanding how authority should be exercised in the realm of civil government. This will further vindicate the claims made in previous editions of this series that democracy is not founded upon a Christian concept of authority. Rather than being established by the consent of the governed, authority is founded upon God’s recognized order in the family. Imagine how disastrous family life would be if democracy were enacted. Children would vote themselves higher allowances, no curfews, no boundaries or limits, and would ultimately squander all that the family had earned by the labor of their parents. This happens simply because children don’t know any better, which is why God established patriarchal and parental authority in the first place.
This is precisely what we see happening in modern families that refuse to practice biblical authority or discipline, and this same phenomenon is also occurring in society as a whole. Unless we can successfully apply this Christian principle of patriarchal authority to the institutions of church and civil society, then all hope is lost for renewal and progress. Fortunately, the future is in God’s hands rather than our own. For this reason I am confident that the errors of today will eventually be corrected as God extends His Kingdom. Today’s failures and defeats are tomorrow’s victories, not because of what we do, but because of what God will accomplish (1 Cor. 15:25-28; Heb. 2:8).
- Adam Clarke comments that the Hebrew word “yekallel signifies, not only to curse, but to speak of a person contemptuously and disrespectfully, to make light of; so that all speeches which have a tendency to lessen our parents in the eyes of others, or to render their judgment, piety, etc., suspected and contemptible, may be here included; though the act of cursing, or of treating the parent with injurious and opprobrious language, is that which is particularly intended.” It should be apparent from this context that this law never intended to suggest that bratty toddlers would be put to death for throwing temper tantrums or for casual disobedience. This penalty is reserved for adults who actively curse their parents. If this would be allowed to go unpunished, society would unravel at the seams. (See Adam Clarke’s commentary on Lev. 20:9) ↩
- The refrain that dead kings slept with their fathers appears several times in the books of 1 and 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. ↩
- A prominent example of this is found in the genealogy of Christ presented in Matt. 1. We read in several places of someone “begetting” someone who is their grandson or great-grandson. This can easily be seen by comparing Matthew’s genealogy to Old Testament genealogies in 1 Chr. 3. For more information on gaps in biblical genealogies, consult “Primeval Chronology: Are There Gaps in the Biblical Genealogies?”, by William Henry Green. Bibliotheca Sacra (April, 1890), 285-303. The article can be found here: http://www.reasons.org/resources/non-staff-papers/primeval-chronology ↩
- The Westminster Larger Catechism continues, “Question 125: Why are superiors styled father and mother? Answer: Superiors are styled father and mother, both to teach them in all duties toward their inferiors, like natural parents, to express love and tenderness to them, according to their several relations; and to work inferiors to a greater willingness and cheerfulness in performing their duties to their superiors, as to their parents. Question 126: What is the general scope of the fifth commandment? Answer: The general scope of the fifth commandment is, the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors, or equals.” The WLC can be found here: http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/larger1.html ↩