By James A. Karpowitz
A godly response begins within the heart prior to any external, observable actions. Jesus addressed the heart motivations of people, those unseen components of our lives defining why we do what we do. This is an important truth to understand because you may have had your own motives wrongly questioned or criticized by someone either in authority or in pseudo-authority. If you want them to question your loyalty, just refuse to be manipulated and dominated. If you want them to doubt your spiritual maturity, don’t accept a burden that isn’t yours to carry. However, if you want to be labeled “rebellious”, complete with a tee shirt and a certificate suitable for framing, just take a contrary position to a person trying to claim (or subject you to) authoritarian rule in your life. Trust me, it will work. Is it rebellious, however, to make a personal decision as an adult that may or may not be in concert with a decision your parents would make? Is it rebellious to make decisions, period, rather than waiting to be told what to do? Is it rebellious to disagree with a husband concerning a matter of, say, a child’s well being?
The roots of a godly response to the abuse of authority are grounded and grown in prayer. Prayer is your preparation for those specific situations that require some sort of response or decision on your part. Pray for the person you are/will be dealing with. Pray for your heart and your attitude. Pray for the people around you who may be impacted somehow by the situation. A friend of mine leads mission trips for teens and they’ve often encountered situations where they didn’t know what to do or were in need. His standard question was “Have you prayed about it?” You really didn’t want to go to Marty with a question or problem unless you prayed about it first! Prayer is potent because you are communicating with almighty God who knows your needs even before you verbalize them, who loved you when you were dead in sin and loves you now as one of His own. During my own family difficulties growing up, we frequently prayed over the doors and windows of the house when we knew that my father would come home in a volatile condition because we recognized that we were engaged in a war fought with heavenly weaponry.
Can we bring these situations to the Lord as a first step before doing anything else?
As you do, take a good honest self-inventory. Are you seeking His will in your life? Have you dealt with areas in your heart that you know you need to address? Is there any area where you know you are wrong and need to yield? Are you open to considering things of which you might not currently be aware? If you’ve got these bases covered in this preparation phase, then you know that you can deal with your particular situation with a clear conscience. With that in mind, the next step is to assess your situation. Ask yourself, “What actually is the issue? What is causing the conflict? What is my role in it, and what is within my ability to change?” It is important to ascertain what are you responsible for and what is in your control – as well as what you are not responsible for and/or cannot control. That way, when you choose to take some form of action, you know that you are not trying to change something you can’t, or take on a burden that is not yours to carry. Contemplating the issues will help you address them without crossing into the realm of attacking persons.
While you are determining how to respond to the improper use of authority, remember that authority itself is not a bad thing even if its misuse may cause you pain. If you smash your thumb with a hammer, it doesn’t make the hammer bad, just painful and destructive if misused. Biblical authority properly applied is supposed to be protective. The Bible does not portray it as a weapon parents are given to use against their children or to crush their individuality, but as a tool to help them develop. The scripture says that the husband is the head of the wife. Human nature at its best will interpret headship as a mandate for setting a husband/father up as the center of the universe around which the family revolves. At its worst, it will see headship as an excuse to turn into a despot. Either way, it is the logical outgrowth of zeroing in on the headship of Christ while forgetting the path that the Lord took to that headship. If we guys can learn to view headship as a matter of serving, leading, teaching, suffering and dying, we won’t regard the word as a cue to begin beating our chests with the peacock tails all fanned out.
As I said earlier, it’s important to realize that these authority-gone-amok situations are actually spiritual warfare and you need to remember who the enemy is. The enemy isn’t the authority or authority-wanna-be in your life. Rather, the enemy of your soul is Satan and ultimately he is behind the corruption of what is good. Knowing that he is responsible when authority goes sour will help you keep your perspective and focus your response in the right direction.
It is possible for people to abuse authority with malicious intent. It is equally possible to abuse authority despite the best of intentions. A person could wield authority carelessly while being self-absorbed and clueless as to how their actions affect other people. Whatever the reason, the effects are going to be similar. As you sort through this stuff and figure out how to deal with it, you’re likely to experience some anger along the way – maybe a lot of anger. That’s okay and understandable. Just make sure you direct that anger where it belongs and remember that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but “mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds” (I Cor. 10:4). If you’re having difficulty with a person close to you, within your family, it may seem like the battle is very local and “right there”. It is, yet the scope of the battle is way beyond what you can see. That is why prayer is so important in preparing your heart for dealing with the battle at hand.
One last thing to consider is that a godly response to ungodly authority is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. You could be dealing with an unstable, abusive and unpredictable husband or father. Maybe you’re living amidst oppressive megalomania, cloaked in a religious veneer, at the hands of an insecure control freak who mistakes the Bible for a lasso. Maybe you’re dealing with a mere difference of opinion between two adults who happen to be parent and daughter. People can’t throw the same wildcard answer at every situation and think they’re solving anything but it doesn’t deter them from trying.
People in certain circles will chant “submission” as a mantra because it’s the only word in their playbook. All you have to do is submit and everything works out in the end, right? Women have actually been told that they were abused because they weren’t submissive enough. I would venture to say there are women in shelters who would testify otherwise. Some people will actually suggest that a woman in a physically abusive and dangerous situation should remain in that situation even if it ultimately kills her, as though it were a martyr’s death. This type of idiotic advice rarely, if ever, comes from people with first hand experience in such a situation. Those who advocate the “martyr” approach might say, “Show me a bible passage that allows the wife to get out from under her husband’s authority!” [cough – Abigail – cough, cough – Nabal] I say, show me a scripture verse that a) legitimizes violent and dangerous behavior by a head of a home and b) commands a wife to endanger herself or her children. A husband is under authority too and the godly response here might entail 3 digits on a phone to enlist the help of said authority to protect a wife and her children.
How about the control freak with a mission? He’s determined to micromanage everyone around him and by gumbo, you’d better yield to him because his Bible will fall open right to those submission passages (from the sheer weight of the highlighter ink). Of course, he’s never wrong, even in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary. Now he wants to embark in a direction that is clearly unbiblical or irresponsible and insists that the Bible commands you to submit to him. When a person wrongly interprets or wrongly uses scripture, comes to wrong conclusions and ends up going in wrong directions, what right does he have to appeal to scripture to demand that you submit to his kookiness? Such a person is trying to occupy the place of God in the lives of others and last I heard, that position was filled long ago.
How about an unbelieving spouse who wants to you do something sinful? Do you submit out-of-hand even though you know that the action itself is wrong? Obedience to authority does not trump a clearly wrong choice. “Oh, Lord, I had no choice but to engage in that sin because you commanded me to submit to my husband in all things!” That doesn’t make any sense, does it? Sometimes obeying an earthly authority could cause you to sin. The high priest tried to compel Peter and the other apostles not to preach in the name of Jesus and they said, “We ought to obey God rather than men”. That might be the godly response in your case.
Some of you who have reached adulthood and found yourself compelled to leave an unhealthy, authoritarian family structure to be out on your own. Authoritarian families have been known to treat such a decision as though you were some kind of prodigal, particularly if they follow the status quo that a daughter is welded to her parents’ household until marriage. Some families will go so far as to cut off your contact with them and treat you as though you had left God. May I suggest, dear sister, that if your heart is tender toward Him and you left an unhealthy situation, then you haven’t left Him. Guilt, shame, manipulation, domination, authoritarian control and abuse are not legitimate, biblical ways for a family to operate. Those dynamics might try to follow you out the door but being free of them will be the path to a relationship with God that you never thought you could have. My friend and musical hero Bob Bennett said that the real tragedy isn’t so much that bad things would happen to us but that we would keep those things out of the reach of a God who loves us. Reach out to Jesus with your pain and know that He reaches out to you in grace and mercy, even if you didn’t see that modeled in a supposedly Christian environment.
In summary, please consider this a general framework for forming a godly response to the abuse of authority, since individual responses to individual situations will vary. I can’t tell you what the right answer is in every case but I do know that the passive response is not necessarily the godly response.
_____________________________________________Jim Karpowitz, 44, became a Christian on the heels of the of the early 70’s Jesus Movement. Having lived through periods of unhealthy church dynamics, the aftermath of alcoholism in his family and the premature loss of his father, he is grateful that Jesus Christ brings healing and restoration. Jim and his wife Sue have been married for 16 years and spent several years in children’s and youth ministries. Presently they home school their two children and are strongly committed to developing healthy marriage, family, church and interpersonal relationships. Jim earns his keep as the last surviving full time avionics bench repair technician in the state of Wisconsin. He also enjoys writing, ministering as a singer, songwriter and worship leader and he has more hobbies than free time these days. Sue has a BSN degree but hung up her stethoscope to become a full time mom. She is also a gifted public speaker, an avid runner and best friend to her husband. The Karpowitz’s live in Wisconsin and can be contacted at Karpman@aol.com.