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It has wisely been said, “He who defines the terms wins the debate.” For many years we have, as a nation, been engaged in a battle over defining the nature of the family. On one side are those who say family can mean whatever we want it to mean, that family is any group of people sharing a common bond of love within a home. On the other side are those who argue that family is an institution ordained by God, for His purposes and for His glory. Those of us who are on this side of the argument would affirm that God not only gave us the family, but He also gave us its structure and design. He gave us these things for His glory and our good. Family is, rightly and biblically understood, a series of horizontal covenants which are together, as a whole, in vertical covenant with God Himself.

Covenant is one of those words that is both difficult and terribly useful. Because it is difficult we are not always comfortable with it. Yet we cannot ignore it, because it is practical and useful. Typically, we try to reduce it down to something more understandable but less useful; we equate it with a modern understanding of a contract. A covenant has contractual elements to it, but it is not merely a contract. A covenant begins in a context of relationship; in fact, it cannot exist without relationship. When my husband and I joyously agreed to marry, we did not lay out a long and involved set of requirements, like a contract. No prenuptial agreements of any kind for us. We were driven by a mutual love, one for another, by a mutual desire to serve the Lord together. We were not guided by a list of negotiated benefits for which we were willing to make negotiated concessions. The same idea is true with our children. We didn’t sit them down once they were old enough to speak and offer to trade room and board, love and affection, training and education, in exchange for some household chores and care for us when we are older. We love our children and we welcome them into the family. This love is not dependent on them upholding their end of some deal.

As we recognize that there is an important relationship element to a covenant, we must guard against slipping into the worldly understanding of what the family is to be. Just because the concept of “contract” inadequately defines the family doesn’t mean that “anything goes” within the family. We are not free to live in an environment free of rules just because our lives aren’t defined by a contract. The relationships in the family are protected, upheld, and encouraged by a series of pseudo-contractual obligations. I have never signed a paper that promised I would make meals daily for my family. However, my family is upheld and their health is usually encouraged by my fulfilling this role for them. Our eldest son hasn’t signed a “take-the-trash-out” contract, but here too his diligence is good for our health and our well-being. One could argue that a covenant is the marrying together of the relational and the legal or contractual.

My calling in this article is not, however, to expound upon the family per se, but rather to look at the question of authority in the family. My focus, then, will shift to the contractual end of things rather than the relational. I want to be certain, however, that we don’t lose sight of our context. As we remember our obligations, we have an obligation to remember the reality of relationship.

The most compelling relationship, and the source and power of all lines of authority in relationships, flows out of a single vertical covenant. That is, we cannot understand authority in the family until we first recognize and submit to God’s authority over all things. This includes, by the way, His authority over marriage even outside the church. Marriage isn’t a gift to the church only but to the world as well. It is a gift given by and governed by the triune God. This is why those outside the church are not given free reign to redefine the nature of the family. They can say that a house with two dads is a family, but that doesn’t make it so. God’s definition in Holy Scripture tells us what a family is.

We who are the bride of Christ, of course, are called to recognize and to rejoice in subjection to Him while those outside the church don’t recognize His existence, let alone His authority. He is our head, and thus we must recognize that all authority in our lives belongs to Him. After all, He tells us in Matthew 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” Again, in Romans 13:1 we are told: “There is no authority except from God.” Any authority we have has been given by Him. It is not something we have in and of ourselves.

These two verses come together when we are given a brief but potent summary of the lines of authority in the home in Ephesians 5 and 6. Having called us all to submit to Jesus’ authority and to submit to one another (Eph. 5:15–21), Paul turns his attention to what that looks like within the family. He begins with a straightforward call for wives to submit to their own husbands, even as they are to submit to the Lord. In the garden, God called the husband to lead the wife, to rule in the home. He made Eve in turn as a help suitable to her husband, setting this up as the model for all future Eves to follow. All of this means that authority in the home starts with the Creator, then runs to the husband, then from him to the wife. And as Ephesians 6 shows us, this authority then runs from the parents to the children. Children are called to obey their parents, reiterating both the command and the promise of the Ten Commandments that obedience will cause things to go well with the children and that they will enjoy long life. As with the call for wives to submit to their husbands, so here Paul is perfectly clear and straightforward. So too was our Lord clear in the creation account in Genesis that sets out lines of authority between husband and wife. It is only our bucking against the authority of God that tempts us to buck against the authority in our homes. In certain situations, we don’t want to acknowledge or submit to God as our head; therefore, it is not surprising that it would be difficult or impossible to submit in our familial relationships. In both spheres, blessing comes when we humble ourselves, giving up what we sinfully think are our “rights” and submit to those in authority over us. It is important to keep in mind that husbands, fathers, and mothers who refuse to exercise appropriate authority in their homes are guilty before God for failing to submit to His authority. Their failure comes from not believing and acting on the Word of God, accepting the roles and responsibilities He has given them.

It is true enough that all this authority is given with a purpose and goal in mind. God did not call wives to submit to husbands for the comfort and peace of the husband, though submission often brings about those welcome blessings. God did not call children to submit to the authority of parents for the comfort and peace of the parents, though again, these are often happily accepted by-products of submission. God gives us authority in both these cases for the sake of fulfilling our calling before the ultimate authority: His. We fulfill our callings by being fruitful and multiplying, filling the earth and subduing it, and ruling over all living things (Gen. 1:28).

My husband is my head, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:22–33, so that he might be an aid to my sanctification, washing me with the water of the Word, just as Jesus does for His bride, the church. Our children are given to us that we might return to Him godly seed, that we might help them learn to obey, that it would go well with them in the land. If we desire any of these blessings — and they are certainly set up in Scripture as desirable — we ought to remember a very important point: wives will better submit to husbands as husbands submit to Christ, and children will better submit to parents as wives better submit to husbands. The Lord brings blessing with obedience, and this blessing multiplies and spills over to each of us in the family as we are fulfilling our God-given roles. Rebellion here, as everywhere, brings down curses from heaven. Obedience here, however, as everywhere, brings the very blessing of God on high.