In the first essay in this series, I introduced the idea that both common views of authority within marriage, egalitarianism and complementarianism, fail to meet the Biblical mark. Both views base their positions on ontology, i.e., the position of husband, the gender of male, or the radical ontological equality of all. I also defined these terms and discussed the more controversial terms of feminism and patriarchalism. In this part, I will begin to apply Biblical covenantalism to authority within the marriage relationship. It will be helpful for new readers to read part one first.
In Dr. Ray Sutton’s groundbreaking book on the Five Point Covenant model, That You May Prosper, he explains that every covenant has five primary points. (I do not agree with every idea in this useful book, but it remains exceedingly helpful in understanding authority, and I recommend it to all Christians.) The five points are summarized using the acronym THEOS (Greek for “God”).
- Transcendence/presence of God
Dr. Gary North describes the model in this way:
- Who’s in charge?
- To whom do I report?
- What are the rules?
- What do I get if I obey (or disobey)?
- Does this outfit have a future?
We can come to a genuinely Reformed and Covenantal view of authority within Christian marriage, and authority in general, by faithfully applying this biblical model. Some points have been neglected more than others, so I will spend more time on those but do not think that the other points are any less important.
First, Christ is transcendent in marriage and authority. If any creature of God has authority, it is because King Jesus has delegated that authority to the individual. Authority is not “owed” to anyone but Christ. It does not, primarily, belong to us. When Christians start sounding entitled to authority, they are mixing up transcendence. Furthermore, if the proof of their alleged ontology-based authority is Jesus, they are obfuscating transcendence and idolatrously playing as a little godling. The only being that can claim authority based on His ontology is the being with ultimate and intrinsic transcendence: God. The Triune God is the source and basis of all legitimate authority.
Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, has the authority of God by His nature of being God:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1–3).
As Dr. Sutton explains in That You May Prosper, the idea that a father or husband is God, or like a god, is much more in line with Mormonism or Roman Catholicism than Christianity:
Also, since the father is the divine connection between heaven and earth, his authority is absolute. It cannot be contradicted. . . .
Biblical authority is not this way. The authority of the home is God, not the father. Whatever the father has is delegated to him. He is a representativeof God, not an extension of Him. There are checks and balances. He might sin, and ask his family to do the wrong thing. So, there is a time to disobey the father. The Biblical example is the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1ff.). Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit, and asked his wife to follow him in his disobedience. Because she obeyed her husband, she was executed by God.
The Biblical picture of authority is perhaps best illustrated with a triangle. God is at the top of the pyramid. Father, mother, and children have access to and are directly responsible to God. The father is the legal representative as opposed to magical leader. The father has certain limits and checks and balances on him. . . .
The historical marriage covenant, by the fact that there is a set contract, limits the powers of the father, and the mother for that matter. They could not do anything they wanted with each other, or with their children. There were ethical boundaries that defined the limits of their power.
Unfortunately, there are Christians in places of great influence today who continue to teach a clan view of the family, a kind of “almost Mormonism.” They do not acknowledge the Protestant principle of multiple authorities. They teach that the father’s word is law, that a pagan father can, for example, keep a Christian son from marrying a Christian woman, no matter what the girl’s parents say, or the son’s and girl’s church courts say. This simply transfers to the father the kind of authority which the Roman Catholic Church officially invests in the Pope. A father becomes a final court of earthly appeal, one who can veto a marriage. This is radically anti-Biblical.”1
What the Mormons, Romans Catholics, and some complementarians get dreadfully wrong (among many other things) is the significance of transcendence. A father or a husband is not transcendent and therefore cannot and must not rule as if he were God or a god. By placing upon oneself the authority of God, the father and husband commits blasphemy against the one genuinely transcendent God and becomes a tyrant. Furthermore, any wife who passively views her husband as if he is transcendent is likewise guilty of blasphemy. Getting the first point of the covenantal model wrong is nothing less than breaking the first commandment:
You shall have no other gods before Me (Ex. 20:3).
Hierarchy / Representation
Hierarchy, in the covenantal model, is seeing, recognizing, and submitting to legitimate authority. Hierarchy has to do with who has the authority. To defy legitimate authority is sin and rebellion, not only against the human authority but also against God. Any lawful authority is the authority of God. This is dependent on understanding the first point. Authority, and thus hierarchy, will flow from the transcendent law-giver and is based on His stipulations. Ethics / service / law (the third point of the covenantal model), forms the basis for gaining authority, retaining authority, and the structure of the hierarchy.
Because orthodox Christianity rejects radical and humanistic egalitarianism, there will always be a hierarchy in authority. In any given moment and regarding any given subject, one party will have more authority than the other or neither party will have any authority at all. In defiance to those who would strawman the covenantal view of authority and covenantal complementarianism, hierarchy is inevitable. In opposition to the anarchists, hierarchy is a feature of covenantalism, not a bug.
The difference between covenantal views of authority and ontological/positional views of authority is not that covenantal thinking rejects hierarchy. The difference is in where that authority originates and how that authority becomes established. The covenantal view, therefore, maintains that rebellion against true authority is rebellion against God. A faithful covenantal head of a family or nation is an example of legitimate authority. Yet, we must never forget that all-important qualifier; faithful. Just as some may be emotionally driven to disparage any and all forms of equality, many may also be emotionally driven to reject all hierarchy. Everyone should soberly consider their presuppositions and their experiential and cultural baggage. Hierarchy has often been used as a cudgel of tyrants, yet hierarchy in itself should be understood as an abused concept, not as a pagan concept.
Ethics / Service
Ethics is the third point of the covenantal model. Where better to look to understand the relationship of ethics and service to authority than to Jesus himself? Jesus is and will always be God. The Godhood of Christ did not begin at His ascension. Nevertheless, even Jesus, the God-man, was given all Kingly authority by God the Father:
The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand (John 3:35).
. . . which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:20–23).
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18).
As A.A. Hodge points out, the distinction between the authority of Jesus as God and the authority He has as King of His Kingdom is not a new distinction. It also drives home a vital and beautiful point on authority:
The truth as held by all branches of the historical church is, that while Christ has been virtually Mediatorial King as well as Prophet and Priest from the fall of Adam, yet his public and formal assumption of his throne and inauguration of his spiritual kingdom dates from his ascension and session at the right hand of his Father.2
The incarnation and the incarnational subordination of the Son to the Father are essential in understanding the atonement and authority. The Transcendent becomes subordinate in creation and part of the creational hierarchy. By taking on flesh, Jesus willfully comes under The Father, taking on the role of man in a wholly covenantal and representational manner to provide atonement. The reason Jesus took on flesh to become the God-man and gave up some of His authority was to play the role of the second Adam. Jesus, to be the second and better Adam, and for there to be a propitiation for sins, took on flesh.
Jesus, unlike Adam, obeyed God and pleased God by His obedience. By His obedience on earth, Christ not only saves us from sin but also re-inaugurates and restores God’s people to the Dominion Mandate—the original purpose of man on earth—ruling as God’s creatures over God’s creation. For this to happen, Jesus obeyed God on earth in his ministry but also obeyed God in His suffering on the Cross. In this singular event, Christ brings about the redemption of God’s People, freedom from sin, a restoring of the Dominion Mandate, and the salvation of all the world. No other event in all of history could rightly be called more sacrificial or of more service to humanity.
As authority functions under God, Jesus was brought low in service and suffering to be raised up in glory and to sit at the right hand of God. Suffering for sin, Jesus became last in humility and service, and ascending as King, Christ’s authority now reigns over all. It is difficult to be clearer than the Apostle Paul in his letter to the saints in Philippi. Service is not only important, but it also plays a central role in the Gospel:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:3–11).
Berkhof notes how the aspect of ethical transformation works also in the life of the truly saved Christian:
By His incarnation and human life He reverses the course on which Adam by his sin started humanity and thus becomes a new leaven in the life of mankind. He communicates immortality to those who are united to Him by faith and effects an ethical transformation in their lives, and by His obedience compensates for the disobedience of Adam.3
Understanding covenant, therefore, does not only teach us where all authority comes from (transcendence), but the way in which it necessarily operates. The Transcendent Jesus taking on flesh in service to God for the redemption of God’s people teaches us a great and stunning lesson in how authority and hierarchy in the Kingdom of God function. Because authority comes ultimately from God, who receives that authority depends on stipulations laid out by the transcendent source of authority. As Dr. Sutton points out,
The covenant is ethical. The baptismal candidate commits to the Lord’s ‘will and commandments.’ These are the stipulations and laws of the Bible. The elders and/or officers may not ask the people to do anything and everything. They may only command what is stated in the Bible. An elder, for example, may not tell his congregation that it may not ride bicycles. He does not have authority to do so because the Bible does not forbid such activity. His power is limited to the ethical, and only the ethics expressed in the Bible. When it comes to the commandments of the Bible, however, the officers have special authority to apply them. The Church covenant is ethical in character. It is not magical. The will of God is expressly laid out in the Bible. Any time the will of the Lord is sought, the ethical character of the covenant should be kept in mind.”4
Here Dr. Sutton brings up the essential element in ethics and authority. There are at least two things to consider when asking whether or not someone is exercising just authority:
- Sin. Is the authority commanding you to sin? This question is rather non-controversial. We are to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).
- Jurisdiction. Is he commanding something that he has no right to command?
In the case of point one, we must disobey. In the case of point two, we can disobey. In the case of unlawful jurisdiction, we must weigh the disobedience with wisdom and other considerations. In the example used by Dr. Sutton, an elder does not have unlimited authority over the life of the congregant. This check is not solely limited to commanding sin but also limits his jurisdiction. The same limitations apply to other realms of authority. Jurisdiction is defined by the purpose and function of the sphere of sovereignty. The civil government has the just authority to punish crimes according to the Law / Word of God. However, the civil government does not have the authority to punish every sin as if all sins were crimes. Furthermore, the civil government has no authority to restrict the lives and money of peoples outside of its narrowly defined role. R. J. Rushdoony also indicates both the preeminence of God and jurisdiction as irrefutable elements of authority.
Since God is absolute power, all subordinate and created powers derive their office, power, and moral authority only from God, and they must exercise it only on His terms and under His jurisdiction or else face His judgment.5
The ethics point of the five-point covenantal model is about the responsibility of those in positions of power, but also about the duty of every creature of God. Without authority being contingent on ethics / service, human relationships and hierarchies are absolutized. I recall one man stating, for example, that even the most wicked father retains all authority. This sort of dangerous view of ontological authority, as R. J. Rushdoony explains, is not only hazardous to the weaker party of the relationship but is theft against the Crown Rights of God:
No relationship between man and man can be absolutized. We have no absolute bond which ties us unconditionally to any man, either to obey or to love him. Marriage is dissolved by certain transgressions. The parent’s duty to the child is nullified by his incorrigible conduct. The child’s duty to the parent is limited by his prior obedience to God and the maintenance of God’s law-order. In every human relationship, the only absolute is God’s law, not man’s relationship.
Fifth, not only does the absolutizing of a human relationship involve theft, in that the indulgence of a delinquent family or society member is the robbing of another, but it also involves theft God-ward as well as man-ward. It is an infraction of God’s order to indulge evil. It involves robbing one person of his due in order to reward or indulge another, and this means also the violation of God’s order to continue man’s disorder.
To repeat again, responsibility is not a one-way street. If the ox, an animal of limited intelligence, is accountable for his acts, then every man in his station is also responsible. In every relationship, there is responsibility on every side by every person.6
Responsibility and ethics work in both directions. The weaker party does not have unlimited rights, nor does the stronger party have unlimited authority. When we allow, and even sometimes encourage, absolute authority divorced from ethics, we indulge in evil and participate in furthering anarchy against God’s Law order. God’s order is not based primarily on gender, institutional positions, or human relationships, but rather His Law. When we try to stipulate otherwise, we end up subverting the very law-order we claim to protect.
Marriage roles, positions, and institutional power are all subject, first and foremost, to God, and are only tools that can be used or abused.
So far, I have covered three of the five points of the covenant. In the third of these essays, I will conclude by covering the last two points: oaths / sanctions, and succession / inheritance.
- Ray Sutton (1987), That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant, 153-155, https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/that_you_may_prosper.pdf
- A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (1976), 429.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: Part 3. Section 3. Chapter 4: The Nature of the Atonement, https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/berkhof/systematic_theology.html
- Ray Sutton (1987), That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant, 170, https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/that_you_may_prosper.pdf
- R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, 1:73; emphasis added.
- R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, 1:483.