Most people recognize that intentionally separating a child from his parents interferes with an inviolable human bond and eviscerates a natural law that precedes any man-made law. While the postwar consensus enshrined by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that parents have a “prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children,” it is not apparent that all member states remain in agreement. For instance, Germany’s national ban on homeschooling was recently upheld by the supranational European Court of Human Rights in Konrad v. Germany. But when a German family fled to the United States to escape such tyranny to pursue homeschooling for their children, the United States under the Obama administration opposed their asylum request.

Recently, to the alarm and consternation of many, Harvard Magazine ran an article that profiled Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard Law professor who is campaigning for a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling in the United States. This article ran ahead of a school-sponsored anti-homeschooling summit at the university that was subsequently canceled. In an article for the Arizona Law Review, Bartholet lists a variety of reasons why she opposes homeschooling, including the state’s interest in preventing child abuse and protecting a child’s rights to a meaningful education. But the veil slips a bit when in the midst of listing her grievances against homeschooling, Bartholet notes that up to ninety percent of homeschoolers are driven by conservative Christian beliefs. Why would this be a problem? Here Bartholet is explicit: these Christians want their children to adopt their religious and social views, which apparently is beyond the pale.

“The Root of Humanity”

What would be wrong with a secular state forcing a secular education on a Christian family? At the heart of this question is the nature of the family and parental authority. Human persons owe their existence to two essential but unequal sources. As Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on the book of Ephesians, “God must be honored as the source of our existence, and our parents also as the source of our existence.” God is the ultimate source and author of human life. In his divine economy, God has authored a secondary, proximate source. Aquinas affirms what Scripture and nature teach together, that a child comes into the world on account of two authors, or sources: God, and a father and mother.

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The conceptual relationship between author and authority, while plainly visible, is rarely reflected upon. Both words derive from the Latin auctor, which roughly means originator, father, producer. The connection between author, or source, and authority in Latin parallels the use of the Greek word kephale, which literally means “head.” Scholars debate whether kephale always implies a sense of “authority over,” but the conceptual connection between “source” and “authority” underlies this debate. An author or source exists in some relationship of authority to what is authored. We preserve this conceptual connection in phrases like “head of household.” As the human auctors of their children, parents have a fundamental and natural authority over them.

Parental authority is enshrined in Christian Scripture in a prominent position as the first commandment of the second table of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod. 20:12). The ordering of the decalogue is instructive: primary is man’s duty to the authority of God, who is the author of life and the world and everything in it. This duty to God is followed immediately by man’s duty to parental authority. The Jewish philosopher-theologian Philo of Alexandria was so impressed by the connection between divine and parental authority that he understood the fifth commandment to be in the first table as part of man’s duty to God.

When the Apostle Paul commends the fifth commandment to the early church in Ephesus, he notes, “this is the first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2). Proper respect and honor for one’s father and mother are closely tied to a full and meaningful life (Eph. 6:3; cf. Exod. 20:12). The Westminster Divines rightly recognized in the fifth commandment not only a duty to parental authority, but also a duty to all legitimately established human authority. The Westminster Larger Catechism teaches that what is meant by father and mother is “not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.”

Among the manifold benefits of the divine institution of the family is a social good: it is a school of proper love and respect for authority. The child who experiences love and nurture from his father and mother is naturally disposed to obey them when very young. Where this disposition decreases with age, it is reinforced by command. Where command is inefficient and some form of consequential punishment is meted out, disobedience is disincentivized. An adolescent learns quickly that to disobey father and mother, who lovingly provide him with food, clothing, and shelter, is to bite the hands that feed, as it were. In this way the connection between life, prosperity, and proper deference to authority is naturally reinforced in the home.

Thomas Watson, in his Body of Practical Divinity, identifies five spheres of paternal-like authority to which we owe proper respect: political, ancient, spiritual, economical, and natural. The son and daughter who learn obedience in the family are made ready to relate well to conventional human authorities, such as magistrates, elders, pastors, or employers. The connection between natural and conventional authorities helps explain why familial language pervades the language we use to speak about various authorities. Christians call to our Father in heaven after the example of the Lord Jesus who taught us to pray. Paul could speak to the church at Corinth as a “father in the faith” (1 Cor. 4:16), a tradition preserved by many Christians who call their priests and pastors by titles like “Father.”

This use of familial language is not restricted to Christian tradition alone. Subjects in antiquity referred to kings and queens as fathers and mothers of their kingdoms, and today we still refer to the country from which we hail as our motherland. E. H. Gombrich, in his wonderful book Little History of the World, explains how the Chinese philosopher Confucius considered familial authority as related to human society:

Someone who is always good to his parents, who obeys them and cares for them—and this comes naturally to us—will treat others in the same way, and will obey the laws of the state in the same way that he obeys his father. Thus, for Confucius, the family, with its brotherly and sisterly love and respect for parents, was the most important thing of all. He called it “the root of humanity”

In other words, the natural structure of the human family undergirds and informs human society. What would it be, then, to undermine this structure? Would it not be to attack “the root of humanity,” to unsettle the very foundation of all human authority? The child who is given permission, either by church or state, to ignore the authority of his source—his author, the raison d’être of his existence—is a child primed to throw off respect for any human authority.

In The Christian Family, Herman Bavinck notes that familial or natural authority is divinely authorized in the Garden before mankind’s fall into sin (Gen. 1–2). Ecclesial authority isn’t authorized until after mankind’s fall, when in God’s curse against the serpent he promises enmity and salvation through the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). Governmental authority is likewise authorized only after the fall in Genesis 9, with God’s recreation of the world after the flood and his delegation of the power of the sword to mankind in order to avenge human life. Three spheres, three rightful claims to authority, all derived from God’s direct authorial delegation. But as Bavinck notes, the order and constitution of each authority are important:

Family, state, and church each share this feature, that each is independent of the other, each has its own origin and purpose, and none came forth from the other. They differ, however, in the fact that the family is the oldest institution and came into existence immediately with the creation of the first human couple; the state and the church, however, were instituted after the fall, and in such a way that the church owes its existence to special grace, while the state owes its existence to common grace.

One implication of this biblical account is the realization that the family, like the church, is a pre-political institution. As such, familial authority is prior to any political authority and should be respected as such—even if sometimes the state may have to interfere in familial affairs in its pursuit of justice and peace. Jesus hinted at how ecclesial authority may supersede familial authority, both in this life and the next, when he said he was bringing a sword between father and son, daughter and mother (Matt. 10:34–39). But as Aquinas affirms in the Summa Theologiae, “it would be contrary to natural justice, if a child, before coming to the use of reason, were to be taken away from its parents’ custody, or anything done to it against its parents’ wish.”

Categories of logic help us understand why. One’s father and mother are essential to the nature of one’s existence in a way that does not hold true of state or church, which are more accidental to one’s essence. If your parents never existed, you would never have existed. If the nation in which you live or were born had never existed, or ceased existing, you would be citizens of another; the same holds true with the local church. The exceptional and unique fact that you have only one natural father and one natural mother contains within it a sacred duty, and Scripture universally recognizes this duty to parental authority.

Parental Right

The other side of parental authority is parental obligation to nurture, provide for, protect, and form the child under one’s care. Scripture confirms what nature proclaims: The one who does not provide for his own relatives denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). And fathers are charged with disciplining and instructing their children in the Lord in a way that does not provoke them (Eph. 6:4; cf. Deut. 11:19). The Bible’s pervasive concern for the orphan is negative evidence of the same principle: an orphan has neither father nor mother to protect or provide for him, and the community is called to step in and fill the role. But the role is not without form: they are called to be like God, who is a father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5).

In talking about rights, we must never lose sight of what is right according to the will of God and to which nature and plain reason testify. Parental authority, and what some have come to call parental rights, is a biblical and natural concept that should be upheld by church and state alike. Any attempt to violate this parental authority apart from extreme circumstances that demand intervention on behalf of justice—such as the preservation of life and the prevention of physical and sexual abuse—should be vehemently opposed in the name of Scripture and the natural order.

As the human source and “authors” of their children, parents are endowed by their Creator with a sacrosanct authority over their children, an authority that includes the right and duty to educate them after God’s commands. All people of good will should oppose a state-coerced education against the will of parents, Christian or otherwise. For the same sovereign God who “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26), gave every son and daughter to their mother and father. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder—even and especially in the name of state-coerced education.