Do ancestors have ruling authority over their descendants?
I've recently encountered an argument that attempts to extend the scripturally well-grounded authority of parents over children back to previous generations: grandfather, great- great- grandfather and further, and even to long-dead ancestors. This would be a pretty important claim, if it were true. Are we required to obey all the commands of our distant ancestors (as long as they do not command us to sin)?
I'm going to label this claim about Biblical law as "ancestor ruling authority," to distinguish it from the (fairly) mainstream "parental ruling authority."
To begin, let's define a typical view of parental ruling authority:
20 Children, obey your parents in all things, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, don’t provoke your children, so that they won’t be discouraged. Colossians 3:20-21WEB
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with a promise: 3 “that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth.” 4 You fathers, don’t provoke your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:1-4WEB
Does the Greek word translated "parents" above (γονεῦσιν) mean extended ancestors, further than one's immediate parents? Not according to my Greek lexicon (BGAD). Furthermore, Paul combines his command to "obey" with the Fifth commandment, which says "father and mother," reinforcing the referent. Verse 4 also specifies the referent: to the ones actually acting to "bring up" the children "in the discipline and admonition of the Lord." While the children are still in the household of the parents, being actively "brought up", "disciplined," "chastised" [Deut. 21:18], and "admonished," it is important for the child to obey their parents "in all things" (Col. 3:20).
What does "obey" mean, in the context of Paul's statement?
Parents have a broad, but Biblically-limited, ruling authority over their children. For example, I (as father and head of my household) can command my son to do X. As long as:
- My command ("do X") is not itself a violation of Biblical law, and
- X is physically possible for him to do, and
- X is not literally a sin,
then my son must obey that command. Of course, I am cautioned to guard against "provoking" him "to anger" (Eph. 6:4). But my child's emotional state can never be used as a standard to nullify or challenge my authority to give him lawful commands. Importantly, this warning against "provocation" does not act as any kind of limit upon the scope of my ruling authority. I also am not answerable to my son regarding my reasons for my commands: he cannot say (something like) "OK, I'll do that, if you can explain why you want me to do it." That statement of contingency would actually be a form of disobedience and unlawful on his part.
Points number 2 and 3 above are pretty obvious, but what about number 1? What would be an example of a command I might give which is itself a violation of Biblical law?
If I were to command my son or daughter to marry someone (even if it would be otherwise lawful for them to choose this marriage themselves), I would be giving an unlawful command. Marriage (Christian marriage, at least) is a covenant, which requires the free consent of both parties (otherwise, it becomes the crime of rape). A parent cannot lawfully force a child into a marriage covenant. A forced marriage has no legal existence.
It would also be unlawful for me to command my son to do something which is within the realm of a conscience-bound action. To act against one's conscience would be a sin (1 Cor. 8:7-12), and there are definitely issues which are legitimate cases upon which people can differ in their ethical assessment. For example, consider if I were to command my son to go participate in a war (which I believed to be a just, defensive war), but my son believed that there was a serious question about ethical propriety of the warfare (maybe it escalated from a simple property boundary dispute, and there was a question about the propriety of the behavior of "our side"). This participation in a conflict involving the probable use of deadly force would be a decision which he would have to make for himself. It would be unlawful for me to bind his conscience on this issue, forcing him to choose between it and obedience to my command.
This authority of the parent over the child is thus the broadest grant of authority possible under God's law. And it is also enforced by the harshest civil penalty -- death:
18 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city and to the gate of his place. 20 They shall tell the elders of his city, “This our son is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey our voice. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 All the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall remove the evil from among you. All Israel shall hear, and fear. Deuteronomy 21:18-21WEB
Thus, persistent disobedience on the part of a child results in a death penalty.
Jesus, upholding the Fifth commandment
The Fifth commandment ("honor your father and mother") is related to many Biblical laws, because family governance and integrity is foundational to how God intends that we relate to one another. Therefore, God's law brings the severest sanctions against those who act against the family. For example, the crime of adultery (breaking the marriage covenant) is a death penalty offense: Lev. 20:10. When Jesus was criticizing the Pharisees for "making void" God's law (Matt. 15, Mark 7), he quoted the Fifth commandment right alongside the death penalty statute for cursing one's parents:
9 He said to them, “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother;’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’ Mark 7:9-10WEB
Jesus both quoted and endorsed the abiding validity of this death penalty statute. This shows how seriously Jesus takes the protection of the family. [And if a theologian claims that Jesus somehow abolished this death penalty -- as some do -- then that theologian makes Jesus into exactly what he was accusing the Pharisees of being: a "hypocrite" (Matt. 15:7). Jesus' argument against the Pharisees depends upon his own claim to be upholding the law, not "making it void," like the Pharisees often did.]
Paul, upholding the Fifth Commandment
In Paul's first letter to Timothy, he refers directly to another Biblical death penalty statute -- for striking one's parents:
8 But we know that the law is good if a person uses it lawfully, 9 as knowing this, that law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for homosexuals, for slave-traders, for liars, for perjurers, and for any other thing contrary to the sound doctrine, 1 Timothy 1:8-10WEB
The law Paul references here is from Exodus:
15 “Anyone who attacks his father or his mother shall be surely put to death. Exodus 21:15WEB
Notice that Paul says that this is a "lawful" use of the law.
Given this very broad grant of authority of parents over children, the next question should be: "Does this parental authority hold for all time, at any age, under all circumstances?" Am I required by scripture to obey the (lawful) commands of my father, till death? Can a father tell his adult son, who is no longer living in his household, "Son, you need to quit your current job as a computer programmer, and go work in Zambia for [a particular] Christian missionary organization." This command is both possible (we assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a job opening at the Christian missionary organization. Janitor, maybe?), and there is nothing actually sinful about what the father is commanding. Must the adult son obey?
Let's leave that question hanging, for the time being, and consider a much stronger extension to this idea of parental authority: ancestor ruling authority. Consider the following scripture passage from Jeremiah, which is central to the argument of the ancestor-ruling-authority advocates:
1 The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, saying, 2 “Go to the house of the Rechabites, and speak to them, and bring them into YHWH’s house, into one of the rooms, and give them wine to drink.” 3 Then I took Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah, the son of Habazziniah, with his brothers, all his sons, and the whole house of the Rechabites; 4 and I brought them into YHWH’s house, into the room of the sons of Hanan the son of Igdaliah, the man of God, which was by the room of the princes, which was above the room of Maaseiah the son of Shallum, the keeper of the threshold. 5 I set before the sons of the house of the Rechabites bowls full of wine, and cups; and I said to them, “Drink wine!” Jeremiah 35:1-5WEB
The Rechabites were a nomadic clan, who (according to 1 Chron. 2:55) were descended from the Kenites. They did not own any land within Israel, but were "sojourners" (v. 7) in the land. At the time of this Jeremiah passage, they were sheltering within the walls of Jerusalem (v. 11) due to the threat from the Babylonians.
YHWH wanted to use the Rechabites to deliver a prophetic lesson to Israel. He told Jeremiah to offer them wine, so that everyone could see their reaction:
6 But they said, “We will drink no wine; for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, saying, ‘You shall drink no wine, neither you nor your children, forever. 7 You shall not build a house, sow seed, plant a vineyard, or have any; but all your days you shall dwell in tents, that you may live many days in the land in which you live as nomads.’ 8 We have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he commanded us, to drink no wine all our days, we, our wives, our sons, or our daughters; 9 and not to build houses for ourselves to dwell in. We have no vineyard, field, or seed; 10 but we have lived in tents, and have obeyed, and done according to all that Jonadab our father commanded us. Jeremiah 35:6-10WEB
Advocates of ancestor ruling authority claim that this passage should be read as normatively authorizing ancestor rule. For example here is a statement from someone who advocates this view:
[T]he Jer[emiah 35] passage seems to indicate that the level of authority of fathers (and forefathers) was much higher than what we are used to today in our modern context. (Imagine not doing something because your dead great grandfather told you not to do it, and you never met the guy).
Why would this scripture passage be normative, though? Isn't this just a descriptive passage about the customs of a small nomadic clan descended from Kenites?
So far as we have read, yes. But attend to the rest of the passage:
13 “YHWH of Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘Go and tell the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, “Will you not receive instruction to listen to my words?” says YHWH. 14 “The words of Jonadab the son of Rechab that he commanded his sons, not to drink wine, are performed; and to this day they drink none, for they obey their father’s commandment; but I have spoken to you, rising up early and speaking, and you have not listened to me. 15 I have sent also to you all my servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them, saying, ‘Every one of you must return now from his evil way, amend your doings, and don’t go after other gods to serve them. Then you will dwell in the land which I have given to you and to your fathers;’ but you have not inclined your ear, nor listened to me. 16 The sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have performed the commandment of their father which he commanded them, but this people has not listened to me.”’ Jeremiah 35:13-16WEB
It is clear that YHWH is using the Rechabites as a positive example. He used Jeremiah's action (offering them wine) to deliberately juxtapose their faithful behavior in obeying their ancestor's commands with the Israelites' unfaithfulness to YHWH's commandments. It is actually common for God to use the behavior of non-Israelites to implicitly and explicitly rebuke his own people. Other examples include the repentance of the Ninevites in the book of Jonah, a Roman centurion (Luke 7:9), a Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt. 15:21-28), and the Samaritans whom Jesus visited (John 4:39-43).
The argument of those who advocate ancestor ruling authority thus becomes:
- The Rechabites obeyed the commands of their ancestor Jonadab, a man who had been dead for over 200 years (Jer. 35:6-10).
- YHWH used the Rechabites' obedience as a positive contrast with the disobedience of his own people, and he even pronounced a blessing upon the Rechabites for their obedience ["Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before me, forever."] (Jer. 35:13-19).
- The positive contrast and the blessing show that YHWH is approving the universal normativity of obeying the (lawful) commands of a distant ancestor (hence, "ancestor ruling authority").
Points 1 and 2 are statements of scriptural fact, and (I believe) incontestable. However, does the conclusion in point 3 logically follow from the facts in points 1 and 2?
I do not think so, for the following reasons.
Explanations for the Rechabite faithfulness: Family loyalty
First, it is not clear that the Rechabites were obeying their ancestor Jonadab because they believed that YHWH's transcendent law required them to. There is no explicit Biblical law which requires obedience to the arbitrary commands of one's dead ancestors (as opposed to say one's immediate parents). This is why the advocates of ancestor ruling authority must go to Jeremiah 35 to try to make their case. It seems more likely that the members of this nomadic Kenite clan were acting merely upon a strong commitment and loyalty to the family customs they had grown up with.
Family loyalty/custom is not the same as strict obedience to a law (e.g. "obey all the commands of your ancestors"). So, for example, if a Rechabite son was confronted with a command from his father, who said: "son, for the time being we are going to live in this house in Jerusalem. I realize this is a drastic change from how we have been accustomed to living, but I think it is for the best right now. Pack up the tent and follow me," would the son have challenged, or rebuked, or disobeyed the instruction of his father? Family loyalty would be the issue, and his strongest loyalty would not be to a man that he had never met, but to his immediate parent. He would have trusted the wisdom of his father as (obviously) overriding the wishes of an ancestor. Loyalty is primarily about relationships with living people, not abstract commands.
Now someone may counter by saying something like: "But the Rechabites were faithful to all their ancestor's commands [Jer. 35:8], and would never do something like what you are suggesting. They would never force their son to make a choice like that."
I grant that the specific Rechabites whom we read about in this Jeremiah 35 passage would not have forced their children to make this choice, because they were completely loyal to their ancestor Jonadab [Jer. 35:8]. But we are reading [in Jer. 35] about a small group of Rechabites who were gathered into a room of the temple. If there were any Rechabites over the previous 200 years who had decided to leave their nomadic tribal existence and adopt a settled way of life in a town/city, or had become servants to an Israelite family, or had married into an Israelite tribe, then they would not be in this group, by definition. We know very little about the Rechabites, and this Jeremiah 35 passage contains (by far) the bulk of our information.
I propose that we are viewing a (perhaps even large) remnant of Rechabites, who only show up at this point in the narrative for YHWH's purpose in using them as a contrastive example. They are not mentioned because YHWH especially approved of their peculiar ancestral restrictions ("never build or own a house", "live in tents", "sow no seeds", "drink no wine"). They are only mentioned because of their ancestral/family loyalty. Any of the previous Rechabites who were not loyal to Jonadab would not be mentioned.
Explanations for the Rechabite faithfulness: a voluntary, Nazirite-like vow
Another possibility is that the Rechabites ascetic lifestyle was a result of each generation of sons taking a (voluntary) vow, similar to the scripturally-endorsed Nazirite vow (which has some related features, such as abstention from wine). On this explanation, Jonadab created his ascetic rules (for purposes which aren't preserved for us in the scriptural record) and tied them to a vow, similar to the Nazirite vow. Vows are not mandatory, but vow-keeping is certainly approved by God: 2 When a man vows a vow to YHWH, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:2)
Those descendents of Jonadab who wanted to remain within the ascetic, nomadic community would be required to affirm this vow once they were considered adults (sons and daughters capable of taking vows, as in Num. 30). Those descendants who did not take the vow, did not remain in the community.
There are other explanations for the Rechabite faithfulness, but the two above are sufficient. Neither of the above explanations for the Rechabite faithfulness to their ancestor (family loyalty or a voluntary Nazirite-like vow) requires that we infer the normativity of ancentor ruling authority. But there is a more important problem with the view.
The Importance of a Parent
Being a father (or any head of household, such as widow with dependent children) is a complex, demanding task. It requires wisdom, empathy, and an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of everyone in the family (including one's own). It requires an ability to balance risk against opportunity, and to balance the needs of one family member against another. A father must provide his children with opportunities for independent decision-making and risk, so that they develop the mental "pathways", skills, and courage which will be required when they have families of their own.
Our goal for our children, of course, is maturity. We may wax nostalgic for those times when our children were cute ("Remember this video?"), and immaturity is often an ingredient of cuteness. But we also understand deeply that immaturity is not optimal, it is merely transitional.
The intent of the book of Proverbs is that a child become a wise decision-maker. Proverbs are not only about following God's law on clear issues of right and wrong (though there are plenty in this category). They are also about making the best decision in situations where there is more than one lawful course of action. They cover all the nuanced advice which a king might be given by wise counselors:
2 to know wisdom and instruction; to discern the words of understanding; 3 to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; 4 to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young man— 5 that the wise man may hear, and increase in learning; that the man of understanding may attain to sound counsel; Proverbs 1:2-5WEB
Who is accountable to YHWH for children?
The primary persons responsible for training up a child are that child's immediate parents:
8 My son, listen to your father’s instruction, and don’t forsake your mother’s teaching; Proverbs 1:8WEB
This is clarified further by the primary scripture passage which shows that Christian marriage is a covenant:
14 Yet you say, ‘Why?’ Because YHWH has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and the wife of your covenant. 15 Did he not make you one, although he had the residue of the Spirit? Why one? He sought godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. Malachi 2:14-15WEB
YHWH seeks "godly offspring," and the primary persons whom he holds accountable in this task are the father and mother. Not the grandfather. Not the long dead ancestor. A child's immediate parents are the ones given a special responsibility for the maturing of their children, and a commensurate special authority. This is why the scripture calls upon children to "obey" them during this period of growing maturity and wisdom, until the time comes when they leave their father and mother and form their own family and household.
This is why the scripture requires the death penalty for the persistent rebellion of children who are still under their parents discipline and ruling authority: Deut. 21:18-21. Consider the following implication of this death penalty if we were to assume the truth of the ancestor-ruling-authority view:
- A distant ancestor commands all his descendants not to build or own a house (which is what Jonadab actually did, in the example above: Jer. 35:7. In theory, though, this could be any lawful command, no matter how minor or arbitrary.).
- No one could prevent him from issuing this lawful command, or countermand it, except his own ancestors. Once his ancestors are dead, no human would ever again have the authority to rescind this command. It must be followed forever. (Baptists take note: permanent alcohol Prohibition could be easily implemented as long as all the ancestors of a particular community prohibited drinking. Jonadab did it: Jer. 35:6.)
- A descendant of the ancestor in #1 purchases a house, and refuses to sell it when confronted by elders.
- The house-owning descendant must be stoned for persistent rebellion to the command of his ancestor: Deut. 21:18-21.
Of course the passage in Deuteronomy says "father" and "mother", but I cannot imagine that the advocates of ancestor-ruling-authority would mince the scripture here. If ancestor-ruling-authority is the correct view, then a father and mother who did not obey their ancestor by holding their son accountable would be the ones disobeying the law.
The above logical implication of the ancestor-ruling-authority view seems inescapable. Yet it also seems unlikely to me, given everything else that I read in scripture about the responsibility of parents to promote maturity and wisdom in decision-making. It seems more likely to me that parents are the only ones given broad ruling authority over the children of their household, because they are the ones whom YHWH holds accountable for raising their children to a state of maturity and wisdom. Eventually, the mature children leave their parents household and become accountable for their own decisions, both under law and by God himself.
31 “For this cause a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife. Then the two will become one flesh.” Ephesians 5:31WEB
Part of the job of encouraging and teaching decision-making maturity is giving children the freedom to make decisions that might even cause them harm. Clearly, we parents must protect our maturing children from obvious, permanent harms. But we ourselves recognize and take risks on a regular basis. The life of a mature adult involves taking risks and judging wisely when we do. Most of us want the freedom, for example, to assemble in groups of 10 or more people (voluntarily), even if it involves the risk of getting a possibly-deadly flu. People who foreclose this type of decision ("it's for your own good!") are not helping to promote maturity.
It should not surprise us that tyrants are often more interested in promoting immaturity in their populace.
There are many things which Christians recognize to be issues of conscience. For example, whether one drinks alcohol, or abstains, should be left to the conscience of the individual. Paul also identified "food" and observance of certain "days" as issues which should not be subject to human "judgement" (Col. 2:16, Rom. 14:2-10):
2 One man has faith to eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 Don’t let him who eats despise him who doesn’t eat. Don’t let him who doesn’t eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you who judge another’s servant? To his own lord he stands or falls. Yes, he will be made to stand, for God has power to make him stand. 5 One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks. He who doesn’t eat, to the Lord he doesn’t eat, and gives God thanks. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord. Or if we die, we die to the Lord. If therefore we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died, rose, and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Romans 14:2-10WEB
In the passage above, Paul identifies "the master" of each man on these conscience issues as Jesus Christ himself. He does not caveat his statements by saying: "of course, if one of your ancestors forbade a particular food, or commanded observance of a particular day, to his descendants, then he stands between you and the Lord."
In another passage, Paul wrote: 3 But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 1 Corinthians 11:3WEB
Why did Paul draw an immediate line of authority (headship) between every man and Christ? Why would he not even mention ancestors, or grandfathers, or fathers, who were surely still living, for most of the people to whom he was writing? A husband has ruling authority (headship) over his wife. If grandfathers and ancestors had the same ruling authority (headship) as a husband over a wife, then why does Paul never mention this?
To Timothy, Paul wrote:
1 But the Spirit says expressly that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of men who speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron, 3 forbidding marriage and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. 5 For it is sanctified through the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:1-5WEB
Question: if an ancestor forcibly required his descendants to abstain from foods (like wine: Jer. 35:5) which "God created to be received with thanksgiving", how would this injunction now be distinguished from the "teaching of demons" or "devotion to deceitful spirits"? Isn't it Paul's uniform teaching that lawful food consumption is a conscience issue which is a decision made by each individual man?
Is this a New Covenant discontinuity in God's law? In other words, was the authority to restrict lawful foods given to the ruling ancestors in the Old Covenant, but now specially foreclosed under the New Covenant? If so, why would there be such a discontinuity of ancestor-authority on this particular issue? If not, why doesn't Paul say anything about this ancestor-authority exception?For the above reasons (and more, which would just make this essay even more unwieldy), I think the ancestor-ruling-authority interpretation is not a good understanding of Biblical teaching on family authority. Ancestor-ruling-authority seems to me to work against both the authority and responsibility of the father as head of household, a role which is strongly supported by scriptural teaching as a whole, in both Old Testament and New.