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Volume 18, Issue 3: Husbandry

Bounded Patriarchy

Douglas Wilson

In the governments that God has established, we find true authority. The civil government is the ministry of justice and has been granted that authority by God directly (Rom. 13:1-7). The government of the church is also established in Scripture, and God grants the authority to rule (Heb. 13:7, 17). And in the home, God has established the husband as the head of his wife, just as Christ is the head of the church (1 Cor. 11:3).

The authority held by these governments is derived from God, and it reflects His authority. These governments are ministerial and delegated authorities. But because they are creaturely and sinful authorities, they cannot be absolute authorities.
This principle is well understood by Christians when it comes to the question of relating to the civil magistrate. "But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye" (Acts 4:19). In this case from Acts, while it was a combination of dealing with the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the restriction had to do with the civic behavior of the apostles.
So we know that if God tells us to do one thing (preach the gospel, worship Him, etc.), and the civil magistrate prohibits it, then we obey God. This means that the authority of the civil magistrate, while genuine, is still bounded or limited. The same thing is true in the Church. Ministers and elders do not have the right to overthrow the gospel, and if they attempt it, they must be opposed. "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8-9). This means that church government has set limits also defined by the Word of God.
The same thing is true with regard to the authority of husbands and fathers. True authority is not the same thing as absolute authority. No human authority is absolute. Under every human government, there is a point where those who are under that authority have the right (and the obligation) to say, "No." Now because the Scriptures teach us in multiple places about our need to be obedient, we need to be extremely careful here. Rebellion comes easily to us, too easily. The undisputed fact that the Bible allows for civil disobedience has been used by fevered brains for centuries as a scriptural support for being a hotheaded young scofflaw. But this abuse, real as it is, does not negate the principle.
The Bible contains numerous examples of godly disobedience to established authority—the Hebrew midwives, David at Adullam, Abigail resisting her husband, Jesus and the Sanhedrin, and so on. This godly resistance can be found in every governmental setting, whether civil, ecclesiastical, or familial.
All this is to say that the authority of a husband over his wife is not absolute. So why I am I making this point? In conservative circles, there has been a significant reaction away from feminism. That is all to the good, because feminism, hard or soft, is a fundamental error. But there is more to being biblical than being "not feminist." Some have thought that all that is necessary to establish your credentials as a biblical thinker on the family is to tick off the feminists. But this cannot be right—first, because ticking off the feminists is far too easy. Secondly, our standard should alway be the law of God and not the disobedience of men . . . or womyn.
When it comes to divorce, the Westminster Confession contains a wise phrase, saying that "the persons concerned in it not [be] left to their own wills and discretion in their own case" (25.6). This is because men are apt to "study arguments." The principle that we may apply here is that, wherever possible, disobedience simpliciter ought to be avoided. Sometimes it cannot be avoided, but in the course of resisting one human government (established by God), we ought to be trying to submit to the others. And when there is a fundamental conflict, we have the right to appeal from one to the other.
For example, suppose a husband beats up his wife, and then commands her, "Do not tell anyone about this." A simple command, right? Does she have the right to disobey this? It would be more to the point to ask if she has the right to obey it. She may not be in a physical position where she can tell anyone, but she needs to reserve to herself the scriptural right to report what has happened as soon as she has the opportunity. In other words, when it comes to a husband beating up his wife, he needs to realize that he is sharing jurisdictions with the other governments that God established. A wife in this situation should call both the cops and the elders. When she does this, she is not being "unsubmissive." She is not being unsubmissive in such a situation if she disobeys a direct command. She would be unsubmissive if her husband's authority were absolute. But he is a finite creature, and his authority, although genuine, cannot be absolute. Thank God.

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