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Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The Authority of Parents

“Who gives this woman to this man in marriage?”

“Her mother and I.”

These are words that have been spoken over and over again by fathers who have given their daughters in marriage. But do we really understand the implication of these few words? They refer to the active exercise of parental authority in the marriages of our covenant children. When a father walks his daughter down the aisle to give her hand in marriage to a man, he is placing his stamp of approval on the marriage. He is exercising his authority and responsibility before God as the head of his home. This authority of father and mother, however, is not exercised only on the day of their children’s wedding. It begins long before this. Parents have a biblical right and duty to be closely involved in their children’s dating life. Even more, parents — especially fathers — have the right to decide whom their children may date and therefore ultimately marry. All this is implied when father and mother give the hand of their daughter to a man in marriage.

This is a rule of Scripture that is at best forgotten and at worst ignored and rebelled against in our society today. Most foreign cultures, even with their heathen religions, still insist on parental control over whom their children marry. But the “liberated, enlightened” society and church of the United States have long thrown away this “outdated” rule along with the rest of the testimony of Scripture. We live in a lawless society, where rebellion against established authority has become the norm. Because of this, dating has long ago broken outside of the bounds of parental authority and supervision.

Though such rebellion has occurred repeatedly throughout history, it became a part of our society during the social revolution of the 1960s. On every front young people rebelled against authority. They marched against the government, dodged the draft, and rioted on college campuses. They rebelled against the church and the authority of Scripture. In promoting their new philosophy of love, they spit in the face of God bytrampling in the dirt the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” “Free love” was the phrase coined by the hippie movement. “If you can’t be with the one you love, baby, love the one you’re with” was the slogan sung in many songs. Love-ins became popular in cities such as San Francisco and on college campuses. Dating became casual and recreational. Though fornication has always been around, it became a norm for dating during this era. It was expected on a date.

With this rebellion against the church came also rebellion against parents. Parents were viewed as part of the “establishment,” which did not understand the cares and needs of the teenager. Teens ran away from home, lived in communes, went away to college — anything to escape the authority of father and mother. The generation gap was created. It was during this era of rebellion that a new system of values emerged. Teenagers now had the right to choose for themselves whom they wanted to date, live with, and perhaps marry. Parents fought to maintain their control but lost out to the spirit of rebellion that ate away at society. The 1960s and 1970s are not an age to boast about. It was a time of horrible rebellion!

This rebellion has become a part of our society now. Living together outside of wedlock, divorce and remarriage, homosexual relationship, having children before and even outside of marriage are the accepted norm of society today. In the eyes of the unbelieving world these are just as normal, if not more normal, than a family consisting of one husband and wife with their children. Due to all of this, many young people do not even know their parents, let alone bow to their authority. In those families where there still are parents, father and mother relinquish their authority when their children turn a certain age for fear their son or daughter will turn on them and forsake them.

All this has had a devastating effect on dating within the sphere of the church and covenant. So influenced are young people in the church today by the trends that have developed in this world of unbelief that they have convinced themselves that they need not bow before the rule of father and mother. They believe that God has given them the right to decide matters of their life independent of their parents’ authority. This extends to dating. Oftentimes young people date whom they choose without even seeking father’s and mother’s approval. And if young people know that father and mother would not approve, they “sneak out” on a date, fully confident that their parents will never find out!

Sad to say, in a real way parents have allowed this to happen! They have allowed their children to read the romance novels and magazines that line the shelves of bookstores. These books portray a love that is entirely earthly and sensual — even sexual. Parents have allowed their children, from smallest childhood on, to watch the TV shows and movies which actively promote the immorality and rebellion of the 1960s! The modern media mock parents. Parents are made out to be bumbling idiots who have no lick of common sense or knowledge of the modern scene. Parents only botch things up, and the teenager is made to look as if he is the only one who has any sense. Do we realize how much our children have been influenced by this kind of thinking?

But that is not all. Far too often mother and father do not take an active interest and role in their children’s dating life. For some strange reason they choose to relinquish their hold on this all-important part of their child’s life. Their children are gone from home every night of the week, and where they are or what they are doing or whom they are with is left up to their children’s discretion. For some strange reason parents are made to feel that to control this part of their child’s life would be an intrusion and not trusting their children as they should. So parents — covenant parents — close their eyes and hope for the best. The most they dare to do is pray for their children. As for the rest, they take only a passive role in the dating life of their children. They feel that all they can do is advise, but nothing more.

In opposition to this attitude stands the Word of God! Parents are called by God to exercise oversight and rule in the whole area of dating. This is especially true of the father, who is called by God to be the head of his family. Likewise, children are called to be obedient to parents in this whole area of life.

When we say that father and mother have a position of oversight in the dating life of their children, we mean that they are called to determine when their children may date, whom they may date, where they may go on a date, etc. This is not a matter of a lack of trust. It is a simple matter of exercising their authority in an all-important area of their children’s lives. It is meant by God as protection, as a safeguard, to keep covenant children in the foolishness of their youth (Prove. 22:15; Ps. 25:7) from ways of sin and error which might ruin their future life.

Young people, can you begin to imagine how far-reaching is the decision to marry someone? Only someone who has been married for twenty-five years or more can begin to tell you how far-reaching it is! Marriage is for life! Do you really trust your inexperienced youth to make a decision on your own that will have to do with the rest of your life? Do you really trust other young people, who know nothing more than you about marriage, to help you make the right decision? Do you trust anyone more than your own parents, who love you and are deeply concerned about your future, to lead you in this area of your life? God places our parents in authority over us for our sakes. We need that authority and rule over us.

This does not mean that father may act as a tyrant, with no regard to the desires or needs of his children. Parents must understand that their teenage children have reached the age of discretion and are beginning to make decisions for themselves. This is good. This is the way God intended it to be. Young men and women must learn to make sanctified decisions in every area of their lives, including that of dating and marrying. Arranged marriages are out of the question! We know that! Neither may parents choose the persons they want their son or daughter to date and force them to go out with them. Wise parents allow freedom to their children to choose within the sphere of the church and covenant the one whom they would like to date. Yet, the permission of father and mother must be obtained before our children may go out on that date.

Young people are called to submit to the rule of parents in this regard. I cannot help but think that Ephesians 6:1, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right,” was written not first of all for the sake of younger children. Little children have little choice but to obey the will of their parents. They are little! But it is the young person who can so easily rebel against parents. He is beginning to think and reason on his own. Oftentimes, he thinks he is so much wiser and more informed than his parents. But the rule of Scripture in dating, as in all of life, is to obey father and mother in the Lord: for this is, very simply, right! It is right, good, lawful!

Neither is it difficult to make a scriptural case for parental rule over the dating of our children. This is evident in those passages where Scripture speaks of daughters being “given” in marriage (Ps. 78:63; Luke 20:34; Matt. 24:38). The idea expressed by this is that under normal circumstances a young woman remains under her father’s authority and rule until that time when her father gives her to another. She then would come under the authority of her husband. (See Numbers 30:3-16.)

Several laws in the Old Testament applied directly to this same issue. In Exodus 22:16, 17 we find an instance of fornication between a young man and woman of the covenant. We are told specifically in verse 17: “If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.” Obviously, a father can and may “utterly refuse to give” his daughter away in marriage.

Another law is given in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 which deals with a dispute between a father and a husband of a young girl whom the husband claims is not a virgin. In this passage the father of the woman is required to give evidence of her virginity. Certainly this means that the father regulated closely whom his daughter courted prior to the time of her marriage. He even made sure his daughter remained a virgin until that time!

There is a passage also in the New Testament that teaches even more strongly the rule of the father in the dating life of his daughter. In fact, it may even seem a bit harsh, but if understood correctly it gives solid instruction. The passage is I Corinthians 7:36-38. The “man” in these verses refers to the father of a young woman. The “virgin” refers to his unmarried daughter. We learn there that a father has the right to keep his daughter home with him or to give her in marriage as he so chooses. It is his right! The father that gives his daughter in marriage does well, but he that gives her not in marriage does better, Paul tells us in the last of these verses. The context of I Corinthians 7:36-38 makes clear under what circumstances the father “does better” by not giving his daughter in marriage. Suffice it to say that the choice is not an arbitrary imposition of will on the part of the father but is one which comes out of serious consideration of all the factors involved. Our point here is only to emphasize that not only the Old but also the New Testament Scriptures give to the father authority with respect to the marriage of his children.

In order to protect our children in the marriages they enter, in order to assist them in forming a lasting relationship that will give them great happiness, covenant parents are in duty bound to exercise oversight of their children’s dating life. And wise children, when they reach the years of dating, will bow before that rule and authority of parents because they know that it will stand them in good stead in the future. Solid marriages in the church will prevail when both parents and youth understand the necessity of parental authority in this important phase of life.

Next article we will address the question: when may a young person date?