I just read your Revival Focus blogpost on pastoral authority (see Leading versus Lording: An Examination of the Extent of “Pastoral Authority”) and had a question about it. Your post hit a topic that has been extremely frontal in my thinking lately. It seems anyone in an authoritative position has a natural tendency towards wielding power and influence, and the result becomes lording over the “underlings” rather than biblical shepherding. In the case of adult children, (of legal age and/or marriageable age) what’s the extent of parental authority? When an un-married adult of legal age decides he’s going to make a decision about his future, does he need parental approval? In the realm of pastoral authority, I believe it would be mediation for a pastor to dictate God’s will to his people. Is this same concept true of parental authority?
Thank you for your reasonable question. If a young person’s heart is truly surrendered to God, then this discussion can be properly understood.
As we all know God gave parents authority over their children since He gave them the right and responsibility to use the “rod” in a biblical way. The Bible tells children to obey their parents and honor them (Eph. 6:1-2), which means to respect and obey with the right heart attitude. This is absolute and not debatable. Yet obviously, parental authority cannot be all-inclusive or, for example, a vile father could order his daughter to be inappropriate. But this violates the clarity of other absolutes in the written Word of God. In a situation like this it would be a matter of the higher ethical priority of obeying God rather than man, ultimately making it a matter of obedience to God, not disobedience to man. Parental authority must function under the authority of God; but, within God’s guidelines, parents have a God-given authority over their children. The question is whether or not this authority is for life.
A married son is to “leave” his father and mother and “cleave” to his wife. This inspired concept reveals that married children comprise a whole new home and, therefore, have their own new authority structure. Again, this is absolute. This does not imply that young married people wouldn’t ever desire help and counsel from their parents, but they are, at that point, “on their own.”
But what about sons and daughters who are adults but not yet married? It may be argued there is a difference for daughters than sons based on Numbers 30 and 1 Corinthians 7. The principle being daughters are under their fathers until they are under their husbands. Yet, what does a daughter do when her parents die? At some point sons and daughters must learn to walk with God and be “on their own.”
Practically speaking, the “rod,” which represents authority, no longer has the same place once a child becomes an adult. Beyond that, the Bible clearly says, “Train up a child” (Prov. 22:6) and “bring them up” (Eph. 6:4). Both of these clear admonitions imply there comes a time when the child is to have been “trained up” and “brought up.” The child is now of age. Paul said “When I became a man,” indicating there was a time when he became an adult. In his case he was not married so it wasn’t contingent upon marriage, and the statement implies he had the responsibility to function as an individual who was “on his own.”
What age are we talking about?—not that adult children wouldn’t want to keep gleaning from the wisdom of their parents well into their adult years. Biblically, the New Testament does not give us an exact age. Yet, there is a fascinating passage in the book of Numbers. I realize this is Old Testament, and it is not prescriptive. But it is a biblical precedent worth considering. When the children of Israel rebelled against God in unbelief to go into the Promised Land, God judged all who were twenty years old and above with the sentence of dying in the wilderness, and those who were nineteen years old and under were allowed to live (Numbers 13-14). To us there doesn’t seem to be much difference between a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old. But this distinction is where God drew the line. For me, this passage provides parents a goal to bring their children up into a personal walk with God that’s real by the time they’re twenty. But again this is not prescriptive. In many ways every child is different.
It seems that the “on their own” age is whenever a child will be held primarily responsible before the Lord for his or her decisions. A lot of key decisions are often made in one’s early twenties. A wise adult child would certainly desire the wisdom of their parents in important matters and certainly would not desire choices that would disgrace them. When there is a healthy relationship between adult children and their parents, they will want the wisdom of their parents in big decisions like a life’s mate. Who would know better what kind of young lady would be “right” for a son more than his mother who knows women and knows him? Who would know better what kind of young man would be “right” for a daughter than her father who knows men and knows her? On the flip side, parents with a good relationship with their children would be considerate of their child’s thoughts on who to marry (Gen. 24:56-58).
After many pulled their children out of the public schools for the option of Christian schools, and then many pulled out of Christian schools for the option of home schooling, there has been an unnecessary consequence. Some parents never really help their children grow up. Please don’t misunderstand me on this. We must draw lines for our families regarding anything spelled out as an absolute in the Bible. Also, regarding what is variable within the absolutes, we must obey the Spirit regarding wise applications for our families. But at some point our children must personalize their own convictions and develop a personal walk with the Lord. This should be our goal in training them.
In his book The Ins and Out of Rejection, Dr. Charles Solomon points out the subtle form of rejection a child receives when he is not allowed to mature into a responsible adult. This often produces an adverse reaction if not outwardly, through inward turmoil, though sometimes the child does not fully understand why. Dr. Solomon says this has been a major issue in their counseling ministry.
As a child grows into an adult he must learn to get the mind of the Lord through the Word and the Spirit, and to discern God’s will for his life. When a child is young, parents do this for him, but the goal should be to see the child develop into a mature, responsible adult. As an adult, an individual must obey the voice of the Lord. Jesus even said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother…he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). This passage shows that parental authority is not for life. Sometimes an adult child must obey God rather than man. But when there is a healthy relationship with mature understanding, there should not be a problem between parents and adult children.
One of the goals as parents is to take the arrow of your child out of the quiver of your family and shoot the arrow in the way of the Lord. In other words, parents must seek to lead their children into a genuine relationship and walk with the Lord, so they make responsible faith choices as adults, which are real, not robotic. In so doing they stay in the right way (Prov. 22:6).