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Authority – The key to understanding enablement, entitlement, and boundaries.

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It will not take long, when counseling within the realm of family dynamics, to encounter the concepts of enablement, entitlement and boundaries. Whether you are a counselor or not these words are prevalent in our culture. They are, however, words that can be confusing, particularly due to their misuse.

 Further, these are not words seen explicitly in Scripture, so we might question their biblical legitimacy. Are these ideas present in scripture, and if so, how might we re-frame them and rightly apply them through a biblical worldview and gospel context? I would propose that without a proper understanding of authority, these ideas will continue to be misapplied.

Let’s begin with the idea of enablement. My cultural understanding of enabling was limited to the negative sense of the word. I understood it as resourcing someone’s ability to continue in rebellion. Where scripture began to challenge this idea was in the parable known as the “Prodigal Son”. In this parable it would seem that, without argument, the father grants the son’s request and further funds his son’s rebellion by giving him the share of inheritance he would have received upon the father’s death. If this is a picture of God and his heart toward his children…what in the world is going on here? After reflection, I concluded God at times does allow us to rebel against him, even providing resources for that rebellion. I was left wondering if this idea as it is often used was even biblical.

Subsequently, seeing this parable through the lens of authority allowed me to see what I suspect both the younger son and his father already knew. In scripture, we see authority as a covering, a safe place. Those in authority are responsible for provision, protection, presence, direction and discipline. Those under authority are responsible for submitting to that authority. In the parable, the father, as one in authority, is assumed to have set boundaries as to what is acceptable under his covering. The son is assumed to have understood, thus his decision to leave was informed. Authority is a package deal and the son is choosing to no longer live under his father’s authority, even counting him dead. The father gives him all that he would be entitled to upon his death. The son would have nothing to come back to claim, which would place him at the father’s mercy and grace. The younger son takes all that he has and squanders it with loose living. To the father, reconciliation is still on the horizon.

Now back to the question, did the father enable him? In the sense that I had understood it, yes. But in this case, it must not be a bad thing (God does not do evil). When we mix in the idea of authority, we see that the father did not allow his son to live under his covering without consequence. The son understood that he could not live the life he desired and continue under his father’s authority. His father’s release helped to expose his son’s already rebellious heart in a way that may not have been possible if the father attempted to control him instead. The consequences of the son’s foolish decisions brought clarity to the futility of his rebellion and, ultimately, a change of heart.

In contrast, this is not what happened with Eli’s two sons (1 Samuel 2), who were priests under Eli’s authority and were treating the sacrifice with contempt. Although Eli rebuked them, he allowed them to remain as priests without consequence. God held Eli accountable and even put his sons to death.

From the perspective of the one in authority, we see enablement as sinful when allowing one under authority to live in rebellion without consequence. From the perspective of the one under authority, entitlement is sinful when we are presumptuous in expecting the benefits of living under the authority without being willing to submit to that authority. It believes we are entitled to the benefits without the responsibility.

It is the responsibility of the one in authority to clearly provide boundaries as to what is acceptable under that authority and the consequences (discipline) for rebellion. It would be a misapplication to attempt to set boundaries for something or someone outside of our authority. Boundaries would be misappropriated if I go to my neighbor’s and set boundaries as to how they will landscape their yard. However, if I am the HOA, then I may have that authority. Equally as silly is a citizen, upon being pulled over for speeding, telling a police officer to get back in the police car. However, a police officer instructing a citizen to get out of the car is generally appropriate.

It is the choice of the one under authority to decide whether or not to submit to that authority and live within the boundaries. As image-bearers, we have been given the ability and responsibility of which we choose. I can choose to work for Starbucks, but in doing so, I have a responsibility to work according to their policies and procedures and under the direction of my supervisor (unless this contradicts our highest authority, God, as rebellion against Him is sin). Our submission to authority has limits.

With this understanding, why is it a misapplication of enablement for someone counseling biblically to instruct a wife whose husband has a drinking problem not enable his rebellion by kicking him out of the house? Against whom is he rebelling? This is the crucial question. It is not a question as to whether or not he should be held accountable, but a wife is not her husband’s authority (except in how he uses his body sexually) and it is not her place to impose discipline. She can, however, not enable him by going to his authority. If he is a believer and sinning, God has given a process within the church for accountability and discipline. If he is an unbeliever, as one under the law, and is breaking the law, then she has the civil authorities. If he is acting unethically at work, his authority is his employer. If he is cheating on his taxes, the IRS is more than willing to impose discipline if he won’t listen.

For the believing wife, her aim must be gospel-centered, with the primary hope that her husband be reconciled to God at the level of the heart through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Similarly, should there be a separation, it is a misapplication of boundaries for a counselor to look to a wife to set the terms of a husband’s coming home. This is not her responsibility. She should look to the authority He has placed over them (ideally the church under the counsel of God’s word) to set those terms. Through Christ’s sacrifice (represented by the fatted calf in the parable) the cost of our reconciliation has already been paid. God’s terms are faith and repentance. What follows is a celebration!


Posted on September 25, 2013