Over the past few months, I’ve been leading a study of Luther’s Large Catechism at my congregation. Most Lutherans have memorized Luther’s Small Catechism at some point in their lives–for those of us raised Lutheran, that’s a standard part of Confirmation as it covers the most basic essentials of the Christian Faith. But we do ourselves a disservice when we forget the Large Catechism as it offers us a great opportunity to revisit those very same basics but dive into them far more deeply. In doing so, we not only grow in knowledge that we may be better equipped for every good work, but we also grow in humility as we begin to understand just how little we know and how poorly we keep God’s commandments.
This study has been edifying for me (and hopefully for my students as well!) in many respects, but I was particularly struck this past week by a passage from Luther’s explanation of the 4th Commandment:
In this commandment belongs a further statement about all kinds of obedience to persons in authority who have to command and to govern. For all authority flows and is born from the authority of parents. Where a father is unable alone to educate his rebellious and irritable child, he uses a schoolmaster to teach the child. If he is too weak, he gets the help of his friends and neighbors. If he departs this life, he delegates and confers his authority and government upon others who are appointed for the purpose… So all whom we call “masters” are in the place of parents and must get their power and authority to govern from them… From antiquity the Romans and other nations called the masters and mistresses of the household “housefathers” and “housemothers.” They called their national rulers and overlords “fathers of the entire country.” This is a great shame to us who would be Christians because we do not give them the same title or, at least, do not value and honor them as fathers.
To be sure, all authority is ultimately established by God (this is His commandment after all.) Nevertheless, the way Luther describes it here, all temporal authority penultimately proceeds from parents by way of God’s explicit command to honor our fathers and mothers. And, of course, though we loathe to think of it in our feminist culture, that parental authority is most properly paternal authority—for God has explicitly established the husband as head of the wife and instructs the wife to be submissive to her husband. So in sum, whatever governing institutions we may be under, they exist because somewhere along the line, our forefathers delegated their own authority over their households to others in order to assist them with specific tasks.
To be sure, this assessment indicates that we owe honor and obedience to various authorities in this world—just as the New Testament repeatedly instructs Christians. Nevertheless, it also has a rather profound implication for how we ought to view civilization which we would do well to consider: All temporal authorities exist for the sake of families.
Like all authorities, parental authority is ordained in connection with certain responsibilities—namely, responsibilities to raise, nourish, and protect their children. Parents are the ordinary means by which God protects and provides for human beings during the rather lengthy period it takes for us to mature enough to even survive on our own. As Luther colorfully put it earlier, “Each child will discover that he has from [his parents] a body and life. He has been fed and reared when otherwise he would have perished a hundred times in his own filth.”
As societies grow more complex, it is certainly meet, right, and salutary that fathers should collaborate and delegate to a certain extent. It’s only natural for us to specialize in our economics and cooperate in our civics. Even in terms of civil government, when it comes to the duties that Paul lists in Romans 13—namely punishing wrongdoers and commending rightdoers—there are substantial limitations to what we can each do on our own. After all, vigilantism has some rather obvious drawbacks, and providing for the common defense has always been a struggle in a fallen world.
But as generation after generation becomes absorbed in the day-to-day tedium of life and civilization, knowing this nature and purpose of temporal authorities affords us an opportunity to step back and see the forest for the trees. After all, authority can be and often is abused—both deliberately and absentmindedly. Most obviously, of course, temporal authority is abused when divorced from its inherent responsibility–when the one in authority directs those in his charge for his own benefit rather than theirs. Abuse of delegated authority, however, can also come in the form of overreach-and this is a far more insidious variety.
Overreach cam occur with the best of intentions because it need not forget the responsibilities for which the authority exists; it need only forget the one who delegated the authority in the first place. You can think of it in terms of a steward who comes to believe himself the true king. Rather than executing the king’s will to the best of his ability, the abusive steward begins to execute his own will with the king’s authority. The reason it’s so insidious is because it’s hard to discern when the king and the steward are on the same page and only becomes obvious when differences of opinion proliferate and it’s somehow always the steward’s will that’s accomplished rather than the king’s. Instead of assisting the king in his responsibilities, the abusive steward absorbs his regent’s functions into himself.
It is now painfully obvious that many of those to whom parents have delegated their authority have become abusive stewards. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Luther’s example of the schoolmaster. Most parents in the West have enlisted others to educate their children. And as much as I adore homeschooling, I have to point out that this was not an entirely foolish decision on our part. Any father who wants his child to know significantly more than he himself does will need to enlist help at some point. And in the modern world in which science and technology have rapidly advanced, this hope became a relatively sensible expectation.
Nevertheless, the task of the schoolmaster is to teach the children what the parents deem important and oversee them in a way that parents deem appropriate. That is why the expression in loco parentis was once so frequently used at our academic institutions. It’s why so many of the rules we now consider quaint—like curfews, sex-segregated dormitories, and robust dress codes—were once commonplace in various levels of schooling. Teachers and administrators sought to govern their charges according to the ordinary sensibilities of the parents who entrusted them to the schools in the first place.
It would be hard to overstate how far our academic institutions have fallen from this.
This is most obviously evident, of course, is the fact that our public education system has taken it upon itself to teach all manner of nonsense that most parents abhor. We never asked them to teach our kids that boys are actually girls, that the right equipment makes fornication safe, that God is irrelevant, that nationalism is sinful, or that we’re all going to burn along with this planet unless we eat bugs and live in grass huts. No, this all comes from an education-industrial-complex that believes itself far more enlightened than the parents whom they often consider to be rubes and amateurs.
But you can also see it in the way relationships between parents and teachers have become so contentious over the years. Much of the time, we seem competitive rather than cooperative. I remember hearing one educator dismiss parental complaints about common core’s infamous new math as a matter of mere ego. Those parents, he thought, were just feeling left behind because they’ve found themselves to be too impotent to help with homework and are simply failing to cope with their own obsolescence. It was a pretty absurd point of view given the dismal failure of common core. But even apart from extreme attitudes like that, so many teachers see parents as overweening busybodies who are constantly micromanaging them, expecting their brood to be treated like special snowflakes, and interfering with their job of educating children.
And to be fair, that attitude is not entirely unwarranted because we do live in an age of helicopter parents who don’t particularly trust their child’s educators. Nevertheless, our education system has provided ample evidence that it’s infested with many untrustworthy and incompetent individuals. In a way, both sides are right and both sides are wrong—and it’s all because both sides have forgotten where educators’ authority comes from. A parent who understands that she’s delegating is only going to do so to someone she trusts—someone she won’t be trying to micromanage. Likewise, a teacher who knows she’s assisting parents isn’t going to go her own way on what’s best for their children.
While schools are the obvious example, this dynamic of absorbing rather than assisting the family is by no means restricted to them. Under the guise of assistance to poor families, our social welfare systems have effectively come to replace fathers. As evidence of this reality, one need only look at the rise of illegitimacy in those communities which made the most use of those systems. Our entertainment industry has likewise eschewed any respect for parents. In its schizophrenic need to simultaneously cater to the lowest common denominator and preach its pretentious social gospel like raving televangelists, Hollywood has wallowed in the destruction of the family—churning out product after product in which parents must be escaped and cliques are our only true family. Worst of all, rather than recognizing its charge to protect and serve American families on behalf of parents, our federal and state governments instead see their primary mission as micromanaging a collection of fungible individuals. As more Americans reject the challenge of family for themselves, more and more will ignorantly accept the backward notion that government is the ultimate authority which graciously delegates a trifle of its jurisdiction to the parents of its children.
But with this complaint about the state of society—those people—laid out there, we must also remember the far more uncomfortable implication of temporal authority proceeding from parents: The temporal buck stops with us. If the steward absorbs the king’s office, then the king has let it happen for one reason or another. The sad truth is that we have the society we deserve. We delegated our authority for our own convenience and, in our sloth, failed to supervise how it was used. We’ve broken up our own families—undermining fathers and even throwing them out of their homes. We’ve seen our children as inconveniences and sent them off to be educated by people who openly loathe our values. We’ve voted away our own authorities so that we could evade our responsibilities.
We are therefore left with two tasks. The first is simple: Repent. As is always the case when we look deeply and honestly at God’s law, we cannot help but notice our failure to abide by it. May God forgive us for our foolishness and ineptitude! And we know that He will because he has promised to forgive all who repent for the sake of Christ.
The second is just as simple but a great deal more difficult: Take our authority back. All of the authorities being wielded against us come from us. We need to withdraw our support from failing institutions. If we can do things on our own, we shouldn’t rely on them. If we can’t do it on our own, we need to either fix those institutions or build new ones that avoid our old mistakes. And yes, I know that’s all very abstract. Crystallizing these ideas into practical action is a lot harder, and I’m currently struggling with that just like everyone else. Some more entrepreneurial-minded folks on the right are already building their own platforms and institutions, which is fantastic. But that’s not most people, and it’s admittedly not me either.
So if we’re not yet up to thinking big, then we need to at least think small and begin with our own homes. Honor your parents. Learn skills and earn a living using them. Find a spouse and be faithful to them. Follow God’s design for the family. Actually have kids and invest yourself in raising them. Homeschool if it’s at all possible. Be involved in your church and defend it against error. Catechize your children yourself (Confirmation is great, but you can’t outsource teaching the faith.) Help and encourage them to marry well and have families. And as you carry out all these vocations, always resist the Lie—never use your authority to countenance the Spirit of the Age.
We can’t take our civilization back in a generation—things are too far gone for that. But though we can’t do it for ourselves, we can do it for our children—for our posterity. That is the only motivation that will do the trick, for civilization isn’t built in a day or a lifetime. It is, as they say, about planting trees in whose shade you will never live to sit. But rest assured: your kids are worth it. And God—having attached a wonderful promise to this commandment and having called us to such small and mundane tasks—will be well pleased when we take them up in faith.