The holy government of families: authority

Puritan pastor and theologian Richard Baxter (1615-1691) is perhaps best known to us lay people as a prolific and encouraging writer, penning The Reformed Pastor and his massive 1,143 page Christian Directory, among 170 other works. I’ve been going through his much more manageable writings on Christian marriage and family, originally found in his Directory. These chapters have been recently edited by Randall J. Pederson and published by Crossway as The Godly Home. This 225-page book is still imminently relevant and challenging. At times, I get the feeling that Tedd Tripp probably read it before writing Shepherding a Child’s Heart. I recommend it, especially for Christian husbands and fathers.

In this and subsequent posts, I will outline two chapters that have been especially challenging to me as a husband and father: that of the holy government of families. Or, in twenty first century terms, the spiritual leadership of families (or federal headship for you Wilsonites). You can follow along by reading electronic versions at Christian Classics or Google Books and skipping to chapter four of part two. There is much more to be gained from Baxter’s wise counsel than I am outlining here.

To begin, Baxter writes that “The principal thing required for the right governing of families is the fitness of the governors and those governed…If persons, unfit for their relations, have joined themselves together in a family, their first duty is to repent of their former sin and rashness, to turn to God and seek after that fitness necessary for the right practice of their duties” (Godly Home, p. 99). In other words, spiritual leaders need to get right with God first before they can expect to lead their families: repentance and humbling ourselves before God comes first! After repentance, how should men lead rightly? Baxter says they need authority, skill, and holiness and readiness of will. These three form the outline of Baxter’s directives for how to govern one’s family holily.

Authority is the first general direction: “Let governors maintain their authority in their families.” Understanding the “nature, use, and extent” of biblical authority is a necessity for family heads. Here are Baxter’s five “directions” on authority (quoted directly):

  1. Let your family understand that your authority is from God, who is the God of order, and that in obedience to him they are obliged to obey you.
  2. The more God appears to be with you, in your knowledge, holiness, and blameless life, the greater will your authority be in the eyes of your inferiors who fear God [not inferior in value or importance]. Sin will make you contemptible and vile; and holiness, being the image of God, will make you honorable.
  3. Do not show your natural weakness by passions or imprudent words or deeds.
  4. Do not lose your authority by not using it. If you suffer children a little while to be in control and to have and say and do what they will, your government will be but a name or image.
  5. Do not lose your authority by too much familiarity. If you make your children playfellows or equals and talk to them and allow them to talk to you as your companions, they will quickly grow upon you and hold their custom. Though another may govern them, they will scarce endure to be governed by you but will scorn to be subject where they have once been equal.
Next up: “prudence and skillfulness in governing.”

2 thoughts on “The holy government of families: authority

  1. Thanks Joel. I'm excited to add this to my reading list. I'm still so surprised at how much the Puritan writers hit the nail on the head. I shouldn't be, but I find myself still going into old books expecting antiquated advice and finding the opposite. I read Holiness by J.C Ryle recently and was also amazed at how right on he was. Apparently pastoring people hasn't changed much since the 16 or 18 hundreds. We're still the same Israelites wandering in the wilderness.

  2. Jimbo, the Puritans were right on so much more than we give them credit. Their negative stereotypes really give them a bad rep. They may have had blind spots that we can see clearly, but many of our blind spots can be opened by reading their insight (hat tip to C.S. Lewis' article on reading old books). Also, Ryle's Holiness is one of my all time favorite books, and perhaps the most formative for me.


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