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Whatever Happened to Parental Authority?

What the Bible says about one of parents’ most sacred trusts

By Antonella Pedley

Fussy eaters, endless tears, temper tantrums, naughty children, and rebellious teenagers? Enter Supernanny!—one of the most popular shows on British television, which ran several series and spawned similar programs in scores of other countries, including the United States. The show features a professional child caregiver who spends a few days with families at the end of their tether and helps them sort out their chaotic households by offering solutions to difficult child-rearing conundrums. The magnet of the show is undoubtedly the protagonist: With her calm demeanor and benevolent yet authoritative style, Supernanny restores domestic order and parental sanity.

Why is the show so popular? The answer may lie in the fact that many parents can relate. Parenting has never been easy, but less so today as mothers and fathers are facing new challenges (such as myriads of digital temptations) and at the same time encountering a web of often contradicting advice from professionals. Two thousand years ago, the Bible predicted that one of the challenges of the “last days” would be disobedience to parents. 2 Tim. 3:1, 2. This rampant problem is a manifestation of a more general and ubiquitous attitude: disregard for authority.

Divinely Instituted Authority

When God created the first two human beings, man and woman, as equals, their only authority was God Himself. In a world where God’s law of love was the supreme rule by which everyone would live, there was perfect freedom. Yet, once sin entered the world, with it came the baleful consequences of disobedience to God’s law of love. Thus, the need for earthly authority arose to keep the various units of society functioning, maintain order, and hold destructive behaviors in check.

Through His inspired Word, God has laid down certain authorities to govern human affairs (and this list is not exhaustive): the state,1 the church,2 and the most basic authority preceding all others, parents. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” Ex. 20:12, NKJV.3

Sadly, all through history, authority has been badly misused—by parents, by teachers, by the state, and by the church. Think of all the ills that have been perpetuated by abusive parents or teachers, oppressive regimes, or corrupt and power-hungry church officials—the list is almost endless, and the daily headlines supply us with fresh examples. Suspicion towards authority may be a justified reaction in a world running amok. However, in the last 60 years or so, suspicion has turned into downright hostility toward authorities of all kinds. 

The question that arises then in today’s authority-averse society is: Are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Abandoning all authority only paves the path to complete lawlessness and chaos. Unfettered freedom is impossible in a sinful world where internal barriers to wrongdoing are either fragile or nonexistent. Earthly authorities, when functioning within divinely instituted parameters, were given to provide necessary boundaries against sin.

A Fundamental Responsibility

One dictionary definition of the word authority is “the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.”4 The Bible frames the authority given to parents in the form of a command: “Train up a child in the way he should go.” Prov. 22:6. It is not an optional extra. To excuse yourself from the training of your children is one form of neglect, not wholly unlike failing to provide them with food, clothing, and shelter. Acquiring sound habits, a robust work ethic, a pleasant personality, and a solid character is essential for success in this world. In addition, the eternal destiny of every individual depends on choices made in this life, for or against God. The goal of parenting is not only for present success, but for future success as well.

Scripture gives both positive and negative examples of parents in their training role. On the negative side, King David failed to discipline his children. In relation to his seditious son Adonijah (rebellious Absalom’s younger brother), we are told that David “had not rebuked him at any time by saying, ‘Why have you done so?’” 1 Kings 1:6. Unfortunately, David’s failures as a father had disastrous effects for him, his family, and the whole nation: civil war, death, and untold suffering.

On the other side of the spectrum, in Genesis 18, God foresaw that His friend Abraham “shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.” V. 18. You could not find a better definition of success in life. Yet what would help Abraham fulfill his calling and destiny? God continued, “For I know him” that he will “command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” V. 19. By exercising appropriate parental authority, Abraham became the father of a nation that blessed the world in countless ways, not the least by providing the earthly lineage of Jesus, the Redeemer of the whole human race.

Our early image of God is molded by our relationships with our guardians—whether harsh and demanding, or lax and permissive. 

When a child is young, the parent stands as the representative of God to that child. His early (or even lifelong) image of the heavenly Father will be molded by the relationship with his guardians. A demanding and harsh attitude on the part of the parents will give a false impression of God to the child. Conversely, a lax or disinterested attitude will provide a distorted representation of God, one that will fail to prepare the child for a life imbued with respect for divine authority. The child may also grow to disregard human authority, an issue which will negatively impact his dealings with officers of institutions, such as the school, the state, the workplace, or the church.

Parental Authority 101

Parents ought to use every opportunity to teach life lessons. “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” Deut. 6:6, 7. The mission of fathers and mothers is to translate the will of God into terms that their children, at each stage of their growth process, can understand. Just as God is desiring to teach us every day as part of a lifelong work of character building and sanctification, so parents will not cease to bring home targeted lessons that will refine and build the character of their children.

Someone may say, I agree that parents ought to train their children, but must they exercise authority? Can the parent not simply offer advice and let the child make up his or her own mind? After all, some may reason, the child has all the good in them and, if offered the right information, will develop harmoniously. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one, according to Scripture, we are born with a tendency toward sin.5 Providing weak or minimal guidance will fail to address the character deficiencies that will inevitably arise. 

Secondly, children are immature and therefore need to be taught to make wise decisions. The Bible admonishes, “Rebuke your neighbor [and that includes your own children] frankly so that you will not share in their guilt.” Lev. 19:17, NIV. For example, we would not leave it up to small children whether they would brush their teeth or eat all the candy they want. Parental authority ought to steer the child into a direction that will encourage the development of a wholesome character, a beautiful personality, a healthy body, and an educated mind. Children should be given choices, but only in matters that will not affect them adversely if they make the wrong choice. For example, when getting dressed in the morning for school, they can choose between wearing the white or the blue T-shirt, but not between the T-shirt and pajamas or a bathing suit. 

Over time, the parents’ role will shift as they gradually let go of deciding on behalf of their children, hopefully as they see them making wise choices for themselves. Micromanaging their offsprings’ lives or sheltering them excessively will not provide children with the backbone and skill to make their own choices and take responsibility for their actions.

Authoritarian Vs. Authoritative 

Sometimes parents shun exerting authority in the mistaken belief that it implies using force, pressure, outbursts of anger, or violence. All these measures are to be avoided in preference for firm and steady, yet kind, guidance. The mission of a parent is to teach self-control. Pressuring a child into a certain behavior is more akin to control. God never uses force to twist our will. Instead, He gives us a choice by saying, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil…therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:15, 19), and then spells out the consequence of our actions. 

Pressuring children to obey will not teach them self-control or responsibility. God never uses force to twist our will. Instead, He sets before us choices. 

In the same way, wise parents will tie consequences to actions and offer age-appropriate and safe choices. For example, little Betty refuses to tidy her toys before turning in for the night, but she would not miss her bedtime story for the world. One way to teach her tidiness is to say something like this: “Betty, it will soon be bedtime. If you would like your bedtime story, you must first put away your toys.” 

It is tempting for parents to believe that being permissive will make children feel “more loved.” However, children thrive only in environments with clear limits. Children who rule their own homes may later blame their parents for allowing them the kind of freedom they were not ready for at earlier ages. Love may sometimes have to be tough and courageous. Although “no chastening [discipline] seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Heb. 12:11. 

Parents who teach their children that responsibilities in the home are mutual in all directions will not betray their God-given trust. Ultimately, exercising good parental authority is the art of setting healthy boundaries for the present, future, and eternal good of the child. “Honor your father and your mother” is for good reason “the first commandment with promise: ‘that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth.’” Eph. 6:2, 3.


  1. See 1 Peter 2:13–17; Rom. 13:1–7.

  2. See Eph. 4:11–16; Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1–5.

  3. All Bible quotations are from the NKJV unless otherwise noted.

  4. “Authority,” Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.

  5. See Psalm 51:5; Jer. 17:9.

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About the author

Antonella Pedley lives in Sweden and is the mother of two teenagers.