Sunday, April 05, 2020

Tyrants and Pushovers

Nobody likes a tyrant. I don’t imagine anyone ever did even when, as is so often claimed today, tyranny was the defining feature of patriarchal leadership in the secular world, in church government, and even sometimes within families. At least this is what we are led to believe.

I have no doubt a significant number of the horror stories about the abusive leadership of times past are perfectly true, and should serve us well as cautionary tales. But I very much doubt all of them are.

Negative Reviews

Not everyone who claims injury at the hands of an authority figure has a legitimate case. When the third servant in the Lord’s parable called his master a “severe man”, he did it primarily to excuse his own laziness and incompetence. In fact, the nobleman in question had just granted authority over ten cities to a diligent underling who had done nothing more impressive than turning three month’s wages into six, which suggests the master was actually a pretty generous fellow. I have known more than a few people who like to complain bitterly about the harsh character of the authorities under whom they labor. Upon further investigation, their claims of abuse turn out to be equally specious.

Likewise, church elders get the occasional negative review from their congregants when they have to render decisions. When two parties cannot settle a dispute themselves, it is not always possible (or even prudent) to split the baby down the middle. Christians who take their problems with others to their elders occasionally find themselves getting what they consider to be the short end of the stick, and once in a while the “wronged party” takes it upon himself to share his discontent with anyone who will listen to him. Such things have been happening since Moses led Israel through the wilderness, and they probably always will.

The Servant-Leader Model

Complicating the issue today is the popularity of the “servant-leader” model and the “mutual submission” concept promoted by Christian feminists and their enablers. It’s not that the idea of a leader who serves is anti-scriptural: the servant-leader idea comes from the teaching of Christ himself. The difficulty is not with the concept but with its execution in real life. It has become the expectation in evangelical circles that their “servant-leaders” will serve them by never issuing orders and by doing everything that those they are serving think they ought to be doing. Thus the real authority in the evangelical servant-leader model often lies with the “servees” rather than the ones doing the serving. “Peel me a grape!” was demonstrably not the Lord’s intent among believers, as I have discussed here.

If it’s true that nobody likes a tyrant, it’s also very much the case that nobody wants to be led by a pushover. The servant-leader as explained by evangelicals who promote the concept is the living definition of a patsy: he is responsible for everything and has authority over nothing. At least tyrants are feared and respected.

When we come to Paul’s letter to Timothy, we find this statement made about overseers:
“He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
Let’s just say that this doesn’t quite fit into the “servant-leader” paradigm, in which submission has become entirely at the initiative of the person choosing to do it, and has become entirely optional. How exactly does a father “keep his children submissive”?

Ruling by Main Force

We must absolutely reject the idea of physical violence here, for a couple of perfectly good reasons. I am not talking about spanking, which, done consistently, cautiously, and with a good helping of self-control, is both scriptural and practical in the case of small children. But it is not his management of infants that qualifies a man to be an overseer. In Paul’s parallel instructions to Titus on the qualifications of elders, he mentions that a man’s children must not be “open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination”. A quick study of the Greek shows “debauchery” and “insubordination” are qualities we could never reasonably attribute to a small child. The apostle is talking about a man’s management of children in their late teens, when natural independence is asserting itself and spanking as a means of exerting control has become absolutely inappropriate.

The second reason we must reject the idea of using violence to keep children submissive is this: the ability to manage children by force would not qualify the prospective overseer for anything at all. If it is not considered acceptable for an overseer to use physical restraint or corporal punishment to keep church members in line, then surely the fact that he managed to use it “successfully” in his home at one time is entirely beside the point.

It should be evident that “keeping his children submissive” cannot possibly involve the imposition of one’s will by means of physical threat. And thank goodness for that!

Legitimate Tools for Keeping Children Submissive

Well, if not with violence, then how can a man keep his children submissive? What tools may he legitimately use? Scripture gives us a few clues to work with.
  1. Don’t provoke anger unnecessarily (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). Angry children have great difficulty submitting. They have less life experience to draw on, and cannot philosophically shrug off a demeaning remark, a flippant comment or an unfair and harsh critique the way we learn to do as we age. Perceived unfairness from an authority figure gives them an excuse to misbehave. My father was a master of keeping the moral high ground in all our dealings. I did not like some of the punishments he doled out, but I could never charge him with highhandedness, unfairness or arbitrariness. He was careful and measured in everything he did, and never punished his children in anger. As a result, we didn’t get angry back. We huffed and puffed at the restrictions imposed on our wills, but we always knew we were in the wrong.
  2. Provide a consistent example (Acts 20:35). Children respect a parent who hasn’t got handles. A father who is perpetually in the grips of some controlling desire — alcohol, sports addiction, laziness, gluttony, self-will, greed — loses his moral authority. His children may tolerate him but they will not respect him, and as a result will quietly or noisily do their own thing.
  3. Be a man of your word (Matthew 5:37). Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no. Do what you say you are going to do. If you make a promise to your children, deliver on it. If you can’t, let them know why you failed and apologize. Likewise, when you say that a particular action will result in punishment of one sort or another, make sure you carry through. A man who doesn’t follow up on his promises loses all credibility. Let your children see that you are a person of integrity who can be counted on. It’s awfully hard to justify bucking a system that is characteristically predictable. It is easier to learn to work with it and do those things that produce good results.
  4. Be fair (Leviticus 19:36). God wanted his people to use consistent measures, weights and calculations. Fathers need to govern their families with unvarying standards. If there is a shift in policy from one child to the next, a good father should be willing to offer a reasonable explanation for the change, like “Your brother has demonstrated he can be trusted with the car because he did his chores consistently and well. If you do the same, I’ll let you have the keys too.” It is very difficult to submit to someone whose standards seem unfair. Even if you are trying to do so, how does one hit a moving target?
  5. Don’t let good conduct go unpraised. The apostle Paul corrected churches where correction was needed, but he also praised them wherever he could. In his letters to the seven churches, the risen Lord Jesus repeatedly says, “I know ...” In every case but one, he is praising the churches for the things they are doing right. A father who wants to keep his children submissive needs to be equally unstinting with praise where it is deserved. Rebellion is often a product of a feeling that you are unappreciated, and that nothing you do will ever be considered right no matter how hard you try. Regular, appropriate words of encouragement can serve to dissipate that sense of grievance.
Not-so-Fine Whine

The biblical overseer is not a tyrant, but he is also not a pushover. He puts himself in the best possible position to maintain his moral authority by setting an unimpeachable example. His experience in child-rearing has real-world applications well beyond his home.

Will unhappy people still whine about their elders from time to time? Absolutely. But if your church’s overseers are known to be men who seek to lead biblically, nobody is likely to give the complainers the time of day.

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