Authority and submission

Dictators like Idi Amin exercise fearful authority of the first sort but lose the second sort. Caricature by Edmund S. Valtman.
(Gifted to the U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia)

Authority and submission are fraught concepts in families. There are two sorts of authority, earned, and that bestowed by position. Which works in families?

Authority, Submission, and the Sydney Anglicans

When I posted my thoughts on the Sydney Anglicans’ decision to “let” women promise to “submit” in the wedding service (suggesting that the logic of Ephesians 5 would suggest men should promise to submit too, see below) it provoked some discussion on Facebook. One friend, in particular, was concerned about “authority”. So it may be helpful to set out here a bit about my approach to “authority”.

Two sorts of authority

Earned authority

There are two rather different sources of authority. First, people earn authority by their actions. In most instances this is bestowed by others because someone consistently “leads well”. Almost always we see such a person exercising hesed the sort of faithful kindness and love that the Bible consistently encourages us to show in relationships (whether family or covenants of various sorts) and which God shows to us supremely.1 This sort of authority is bestowed by others and earned. It correlates closely with respect and honour. If someone acts badly or faithlessly they literally dis-honour themselves, losing respect and authority.

Positional authority

The other sort is given by social convention to certain people because of the position they occupy or the title they have been given or inherited. This is the respect due to kings, lords, teachers, judges and others “in authority”. It is often unearned, or the earning has been invisible to those under the authority. It is a matter of social convention. Naturally usually there is a high degree of correlation between the two sorts, but they are not the same thing.

There seems to be a spectrum of attitudes to socially conventional authority. On one hand many people believe that society depends on it being “properly respected”. On the other, others believe respect and authority should be earned. Few of us hold one view or the other completely. Most “conventional” people believe that socially bestowed positional authority can be lost through bad behaviour (though they may differ on what sorts of bad behaviours lead to this). Most “personalists” accept that people can be given a certain amount of authority (at least to make and enforce rules) by their position.

Scripture is not as helpful in deciding between these two positions as we might expect. The Bible seems to support both. There are numerous passages that enjoin the faithful to “respect authority” and honour those placed in authority – even pagan rulers. On the other hand prophets, like Jesus, remind us that we need to earn real authority and/or that the only true authority is God (e.g. Matt 23:8-12).

Authority and submission in the family

So, which sort of authority exists within a family? In my experience, although society recognises and teaches that parents have and should exercise proper authority over their children, this authority needs to be earned and maintained. From a baby’s first cry, thhroughcare and protection through years of hesed we build up a store of authority. This is one reason why fostering can often be difficult especially at the start.


  1. The Bible uses the word more often of God than of humans. []