I have an interest in the topic of biblical authority. I don’t know why, but I’ve been writing about it a lot lately. Last month, I wrote a Facebook post about the authority of the local church over its members, quoting from a book I had been reading. Many responded favorably to this post, but a couple of friends expressed some misgivings.
One friend messaged me and asked, “What are the limits of pastoral authority?” That was a good question. You cannot preach on authority without admitting that it can and has been abused. When it comes to parenting, the Bible itself recognizes this danger. It is no coincidence that Ephesians 6:4 (“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath”) comes right on the heels of Ephesians 6:1 (“Children, obey your parents”). When we as fathers are harsh, thoughtless, or inconsistent with our children, we “provoke them to wrath.” In mild cases, this can damage your relationship with your son or daughter for a time. In serious cases, you could poison them against you and the Lord for life.
How can we as Christian fathers avoid provoking our children? Here are five safeguards you can put into place without compromising your authority.1
I’ve heard it said, “Never give a command unless you intend for it to be obeyed.” That is excellent advice. Better to say nothing at all than to say something and not follow through. This requires forethought and intentionality. If you constantly “shoot from the hip” when giving instructions, you will end up provoking your children, compromising your authority, or both.
Also, be considerate. For instance, if you are planning to leave the park soon, allow your kids to mentally prepare for that by giving them a five-minute warning. That way, they aren’t caught off guard and have time to finish their game. Good leadership is thoughtful leadership.
If you are going to enforce obedience, it’s important that the communication “gets through” to your children. Communication is a two-way street. You haven’t communicated unless your desired message has been received. For some children, you may need to make them stop what they’re doing and look you in the eye as you talk to them. Requiring a simple “yes Mom” or “yes Dad” ensures that your child received the message.2
Do you remember inconsistencies in your parents? Sometimes the same action would draw out seemingly opposite responses from your parents. One day you’d receive a “meh” response, and the next day you’d be tried for high treason! Do you remember how frustrated that made you? If your children/teens don’t know what to expect from you as a parent, they will inevitably be frustrated.
Perhaps these inconsistencies are where family rules originate. Many family rules are not legalistic tools to control other people’s lives, but loving structures to ensure consistency. Personally, I can’t remember any written rules in my home growing up. However, we had a lot of unwritten rules, which helped us know what to expect from day-to-day. The degree of formality with which you formulate and communicate rules is up to you; but do have rules and do be consistent.3
God is merciful to us, so we should show mercy to our children too. Sometimes, it is appropriate to issue a warning in lieu of discipline, especially when factors like hunger, lack of sleep, and chaotic circumstances have made obedience more difficult. With our own elementary and preschool-aged children, if we have pushed them hard all day (like we spent four hours at church or had a long outing or family reunion) and then they act up, we are slower to discipline them.
However, at the same time, beware the trap of always “showing mercy.” Sometimes “showing mercy” is just an excuse for lazy parenting that actually hurts your children because it creates inconsistency and trains them not to obey.4
5. The Appeal Process
I’m not sure how common the appeals process is in Christian homes today, but it was a big help to me growing up. An appeal is basically a safeguard against misunderstandings and the stupid commands that parents sometimes give. It is a way for you to say to your child, “I know I’m imperfect, so here is how to respectfully voice your concerns.”
Let’s say that I tell my daughter, “I want you to feed the dog.” But unbeknownst to me, she just did it half an hour ago. Or here’s another one that comes up often: I tell my daughter, “Go feed the dog,” but my wife just told her to go clean her room. Or your son is reading in bed before bedtime. You walk in and say, “Turn out the lights,” but unbeknownst to you, she is on the last page of her book. What should she do?
Here’s how the appeal process would work. Your son would say, “Dad, may I please appeal?” You would say, “Yes.” He would say, “I have one page left in this book. Can I finish it first?” And then you would decide whether to say “yes” or “no.”
Having some kind of appeals process in play is important for several reasons.
- It accounts for human fallibility. There is no way that I as a dad will be perfect in giving instructions. So how can I account for that human error? One of the best ways is by allowing your kids to appeal.
- It makes you more approachable. You don’t want your children to be mindless machines. Instead, you want them to come to you with their concerns so that you can explain the “whys” behind the commands. The appeal process encourages this kind of interaction between you and your older children.
- It keeps parental authority from becoming arbitrary. If you ever do “shoot from the hip” with an instruction, your children’s appeals will help keep you in check.
- It gives you an “out” without compromising your authority. What do you do when you give an instruction that in retrospect was stupid? In lieu of an appeals process, some parents simply allow their children to complain, talk back, and argue with them. This is unacceptable, because it teaches your children to disrespect their authorities. The appeals process, on the other hand, teaches your kids how to “push back” in a gentle, respectful way.
- It prepares your children to interact correctly with other authorities later in life. If your children learn to appeal correctly, they will be lightyears ahead of their peers when it comes to interacting with authorities on all different levels. How useful would that skill be in dealing with an unreasonable boss? The fact is that the appeals process is the biblical way to disagree with authorities.5
What are some guidelines for the appeals process?
- It is mainly for older children/teens. A two-year-old is not old enough to appeal. He’s not old enough to understand those concepts. Besides, with the two-year-old, you are still working on unconditional obedience. The first thing a two-year-old needs to understand is that he or she is a person under authority. Introducing the appeal process before that primary lesson is learned is getting the cart before the horse.
- The child must express a willingness to obey first. Sometimes, a child’s eagerness to appeal is a sign of an unsubmissive heart. In other words, it’s not your instructions that are the problem; it’s his heart that is the problem. One simple way to address this issue is to teach your kids to say “Yes Daddy” first before they appeal. It may seem awkward at first, but the timing really is important. Until you children respond with that “yes,” they have not acknowledged your authority/their submission. It is only after that acknowledgment that they should begin to push back.
- The proper time to appeal is usually when there is information that Mom or Dad either weren’t aware of or didn’t consider. Teach your children that “I don’t want to” or “I don’t agree” are not appeals, they are arguments; and arguments will not be tolerated. However, there are times when new information that Mom and Dad weren’t aware of may change their decision. This is a perfect time to appeal.
- The child must appeal respectfully. This is why we have tried to teach our children to use the specific words, “Mommy, may I please appeal?” Without some kind of a learned phrase like this, the child is likely to be disrespectful.
- The child may appeal only once per issue. Once your appeal has been heard, that’s the end of it. You don’t get to appeal again unless new information comes up. Persisting in the argument after your appeal has been heard is disrespectful and disobedient.
- The child must accept your final decision gracefully, even if he or she disagrees with it. Stomping, pouting, and giving you “the cold shoulder” are all unacceptable behaviors because they evidence a heart that is unsubmissive. Remember, the most important thing we are after in our children is real heart change!
If you think the appeals process I have described sounds too complex, please understand that it is not meant to be overly restrictive or formulaic. It is simply the result of godly people thinking seriously about how to teach their children respect for authority while also not provoking them. May the Lord help us in that endeavor!
Also, if you are tempted to make too many rules, go back to point #1. ↩︎
If you are interested in doing a biblical study of appeals, start in Daniel 1. The principles for disagreeing with authorities found in that chapter are very helpful. ↩︎