In the first part of 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 as well as discussed the more controversial terms of feminism and patriarchalism. The second part dealt primarily with the first three points of the Biblical five-point covenantal model: transcendence, hierarchy, and ethics. In this final part, I will cover the last two points of the covenant.
In the first three points of the covenant, we saw that all authority comes from God, that inequality in authority creates hierarchies, and that God’s stipulations for whom he delegates authority to are based on ethics (or service). But what happens when we are faithful to those stipulations? What happens when we are unfaithful? This is where the category of sanctions comes into play in covenant thinking, and sanctions rely upon an oath.
All covenants are sealed, explicitly or implicitly, by an oath. This oath, a sort of promise, carries with it both blessings and curses. Frequently this oath is highly symbolic (e.g., the marriage ceremony, circumcision, baptism). There are both negative and positive consequences connected to any covenant. Blessings for covenant keepers and curses for covenant breakers. Dr. Sutton introduces the idea of oaths/sanctions.
Fourth, the covenant implemented a system of sanctions based on an oath. Once an oath was made, a man was expected to keep it. Any violation met serious sanctions. Perjury in the realm of the State was in many cases punishable by death. Adulteration of the marriage oath met the same end. Apostasy from the Church covenant resulted in banishment. The oath and the sanctions that enforced it were an effective stabilizing factor in American culture.1
The dual sanctions are significant. A covenant does not only promise blessings if faithful, but it also promises death if unfaithful (Romans 6:23, Romans 7:2–3). Adam and Eve sinning against God’s covenant not only broke the ethical stipulations of the covenant, but it also brought death to Adam and Eve and brought spiritual and physical death to all the world. God is faithful to His people and is glad to heap blessings upon the faithful. These blessings can take on many forms, including physical blessings, children, and authority and influence (Proverbs 16:20, Psalm 5:12). Deuteronomy, in many places, displays the dual nature of covenantal sanctions.
Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them (Deut. 7:9–11).
One blessing of covenantal faithfulness is retaining authority. Question and answer 129 of the Westminster Larger Catechism demonstrate the result of those having authority being faithful.
129. What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?
It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, commending, and rewarding such as do well; and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body: and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honour to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.
If those who have authority are faithful in ethics and service, they preserve the authority God has given them. This may seem obvious, but it is a very significant detail. The way to retain authority is not in retaining gender, title, or position. The way to retain authority is by being faithful to the duties and responsibilities of the role given to you by God: “and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.”
By faithful obedience to God’s Law/Word and according to the function and purpose of the position of authority, authority is retained. Breaking covenant, however, brings curses, negative sanctions, and ultimately death.
The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it are held guilty. Therefore, the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left (Isaiah 24:5–6).
One negative sanction against those who transgress God’s Law/Word is the loss of any previously God-delegated authority. Regarding the civil magistrate, John Calvin makes clear that authority is contingent on ethics and the loss of ethics results in a loss of authority.
If princes demand we turn from honor of god, if they force us into idolatry or superstition, then they have no more authority over us than frogs or lice.2
The loss of authority because of a lack ethics/service is the heart of the justification needed to defy tyranny. Because God’s order and God’s implemented hierarchy is ethically binding, to resist or defy legitimate authority is sin against the authority and sin against God. In order to justify defying tyrants, the tyrants must first lose authority. If wicked rulers, tyrannical elders, and imperious husbands retain authority, they must never be challenged. Ontology-based authority, as opposed to the covenantal view, aborts righteous resistance at the root.
Succession is the fifth and final point of the five-point model. It has to do with carrying on the covenant. Who will inherit the covenantal order? How will the covenant or the covenantal blessing continue? And, ultimately, what is the end goal of this covenant? As Dr. North said, “does this outfit have a future?” Ray Sutton expounds on the end goal and the premier inheritance of the New Covenant:
What is the New Covenant inheritance? The whole world. Jesus redeemed the world, and the meal is the Church’s first claim on what rightfully belongs to it. Feeding on Christ, God’s people lay hold of the One who owns all things. As his “younger brother” (Christ being the true “first-born”) the Church receives what He has. Here, continuity is established. Paul argues that Christ lays everything up for His Church.3
Consider the family and how inheritance works biblically. A son who is dishonorable loses legitimacy and does not share in the inheritance. Legitimacy is an essential element of the fifth point. A child does not have legitimacy as an heir merely because he has the blood of his father. A child becomes an adult and shares in the inheritance of his or her family because he has legitimacy based on the ethical stipulations placed upon him by God. That legitimacy can be lost by egregiously failing to meet those ethical stipulations. In other words, legitimacy comes from covenant, not blood. The blood/ontological error is the very same arrogance of the Pharisees.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7–10).
The Pharisees claimed power and spiritual authority because of their blood and titles, however, John the Baptist pointed elsewhere. He did not point to ecclesiastical position or bloodline, he pointed to repentance. John pointed to ethics, and ultimately, he pointed to Christ. Salvation is not by our blood (or gender, title, local church membership), but by Christ’s spilled blood of the Covenant.
Inheritance is forward-looking. It is about the next generation, but also about the future of the Kingdom. The continuity of Christ’s legitimate children throughout all of history is a testament to God’s Covenant with His people.
It is my hope that the five-point model can help clarify how authority (and many other things) functions within the Kingdom of God. This very brief explanation and application of Sutton’s model could be far longer, so I encourage readers to read more on the subject. This is, no doubt, just a glimpse of the implications of covenantalism.
If nothing else is clear, understand that authority is covenantal rather than ontological. We see this in the church with the qualifications for eldership as well as disciplining fallen elders. We also see this in the duty and responsibilities of the civil magistrate and our call to righteously defy tyranny by obeying God rather than man. In each case, authority is covenantal and not ontological in basis. Ontology plays a role in naming and calling out elders in the church as well as with a faithful husband being the stronger vessel and representative head in a marriage, but the basis is always foundationally covenantal and therefore ethical/service based. Ontological based views of authority mistake a single ingredient for the basis and foundation.
Radical egalitarianism teaches that no ontological distinction would be relevant to any hierarchy. That is very incorrect. Furthermore, any attempt to destroy all distinctions and all hierarchies is defiance against God’s Law and explicitly anti-covenantal.
Complementarianism teaches that there are relevant ontological distinctions, but that those distinctions are the basis for authority. That also is error. Furthermore, basing authority on ontology opens the door wide for tyranny and theologically destroys any and all justification we have for righteous resistance.
Both errors point to ontology as the source of authority. Egalitarianism (as defined above) asserts an equal ontology and therefore equal authority. Not a potentially equal authority, but actual and realized authority egalitarianism. This is nothing but anarchism of the worst sort. Complementarianism (as defined in part one) rightly asserts an unequal ontology but then intrinsically ties authority to the stronger gender based on their ontology.
Lastly, we should look to Christ as our example. Authority comes from dying to yourself, service to God primarily, and service to others. Consider Philippians 2 again, and consider it soberly. Let God’s Word speak to you. If King Jesus humbled himself and saw it fit to be a servant to mankind (and thus attain glory and all authority in heaven and earth), should we balk at the idea of husbands being servants to their wives?
Dr. James Jordan illustrates while also quoting from the Gospel of Mark:
Moses and David, for instance, became leaders of men by first being shepherds of flocks; and Jesus learned leadership by working with recalcitrant wood as a carpenter. Adam was actually told to ‘serve’ the Garden, and the word used is the same as that used for slavery in the Bible. Service to the creation would teach him how to serve his wife, his children, and other men. True kingship is by service, and is never apart from service. Jesus said that,
‘those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve’ (Mark 10:42–45).
The lives of Joseph and Daniel and others show that it is through humble service that God’s people become rulers. The lives of Saul and David show that if a man forgets to be a servant after he becomes a lord, he will lose his kingdom. After all, the purpose of rule is not domination but glorification. If my goal is to glorify and beautify my wife, I will not abuse her. If my goal is to transfigure and exalt my neighborhood, I will not destroy it. If my goal is to ‘Jerusalemize’ and “heavenize” my land, I will not pollute it.”4
Godly service is not only the key to understanding authority in the family, but it is also the key to understanding dominion and building the Kingdom of God. If God’s people believe they can wrestle control of the world’s mechanisms of power away from the secularists and use that power for good, we will only produce an ugly but whitewashed caricature of a Christian society. Power Religion and its bastard child, ontology-based authority, is based on taking the tactics of the world and trying to make what is intrinsically pagan work for Christendom.
Like Boromir wanting to use the One Ring in defense of Gondor, the church will likewise perish in thinking they can use evil for good to come. We will only build a disgusting satire of what secularists and antinomians already believe about Christianity and theonomy. But most importantly, we will not be building the Kingdom of God, we will be building right-wing humanistic kingdoms to replace toppled left-wing humanistic kingdoms. And those petty fiefdoms will be built out of sand. And sadly, our churches and families will be smaller microcosms of the same sinking kingdoms.
The answer to feminism isn’t swerving into the other ditch and being as radically anti-feminist as you can think up. By being the opposite of what you oppose, you allow what you opposed to define truth. That’s autonomy and subjectivity. A reactionary epistemology. The answer to feminism is the Biblical and covenantal standards of society and marriage. The truth will sometimes look like the culturally conservative status quo, but often it will not. We should be governed not by society, conservative or liberal society, but by the Law of God. Standing against the world does not automatically mean you are standing for the Word of God. Because of this, we need to be very careful to stand for truth first, and then, and only then, against the world when the world conflicts with the truth.
“The covenant is hierarchical; to rule we must also serve. To enforce a law-order, we must be under it.” —Gary North
- Ray Sutton (1987), That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant, pp 7, https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/that_you_may_prosper.pdf
- John Calvin, Supplementa Calviniana Vol. 8, p. 376.
- Ray Sutton (1987), That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant, pp 135-136, https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/that_you_may_prosper.pdf
- James B. Jordan (1988). Through New Eyes. p. 135. https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/through_new_eyes.pdf