Shepherding a Child's Heart - leans toward authoritarianism

Shepherding Childs Heart critique of authoritarianism

In Shepherding a Child’s Heart (SCH), one of the things Dr. Tedd Tripp strongly emphasizes is the authority of the parents.  That's not problematic.  The problem in my opinion, is that there is an unhealthy, unbiblical, and unbalanced emphasis on authority and obedience.  Apparently, this is because he believes most parents, including Christian parents, do not know they have parental authority or have not exercised much of it.

The first time I read the book, it bolstered my view that I was the king of the home, the boss, the buck-stops-here big man.  Looking back, the challenge was it encouraged me to view the home as my little kingdom to do what I wanted when I wanted. I have since come to see that Tripp’s book presents a Christianized authoritarian model for parenting. On many levels, this position, while popular is quite wrong.

It's all about authority, right?

Throughout his book, Tripp drives the point home that parents, especially the father, have quite a bit of authority.  For example, he states, "Our culture does not like authority. It is not just that we don’t like to be under authority, we don’t like being authorities. One of the places where this is most clearly seen is in our discomfort with authority in the home” (Kindle Location 28-29).

Perhaps this assessment is based on his comparison with the model of family life in the U.S. from before the late 1950s?  It is such a negative and untrue statement to paint an entire culture like this.  Some thrive on power, control, and authority.  Some do not want to have authority.  However, it is silliness to say this is true of the whole culture.

From this premise comes one of the key themes, if not the most important theme in Shepherding a Child’s Heart - authority.  Dr. Tripp emphasizes parents are the authority in the home and children are to always obey them without question (KL 578).  He claims the foundation for this authority is from God himself.  He says, “Your right to discipline your children is tied to what God has called you to do, not to your own agenda” (KL 597).  He emphasizes this several times, such as, “When you direct, correct, or discipline, you are not acting out of your own will; you are acting on behalf of God” (KL 621). 

Really?  Taking this at face value, it would be easy for a parent to justify all aspects of discipline, including corporal punishment simply because the parent is “acting on behalf of God.”  Indeed, I have known fathers who have done that and I continue to meet men who take this stance - wielding power and control in their homes like a tyranical dictator. Once again, is this what the Bible teaches?

Biblical authority is essentially a benevolent one

To be clearer, in the Bible God gives parents the right and responsibility of benevolent authority to discipline in various ways but within defined limits.  The father is not an unchecked patriarchal magistrate and the mother is not invested with the divine right to be a dictatorial queen.  What is presented as the leadership ideal, to include parents, is not an authoritarian style (autocratic, directive, rigid, control through fear and by punishment, totalitarian, unresponsive and generally disapproving) but an authoritative style (high standards with clear guidelines that are explained and lovingly enforced, assertive, supportive, flexible, and responsive).

Parents are worthy of honor.  This means their role as parents are worthy of attention, obedience, and respect (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20).  Like other honorable positions (kings, rulers, masters), they have an “office” of authority and responsibility (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5; Lev. 26:13; Psa. Lk. 9:59-60).  Children learn to show healthy deference and respect as a consequence of the parent’s proper reverent fear and respect for God and by the close connection they have with their parents.  Children also learn respect for the parents who demonstrate a loving respect for them.  Honor includes humility and obedience.  The Bible also indicates a third way to show honor later in life is by supporting the parents with time and finances.  The opposite of honor is cursing (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9; Prov. 20:20; 30:11) or despising the parents (Prov. 23:22). 

The circle of safety and blessing?

In admonishing parents, Tripp claims,

Submission to parents means honoring and obeying. Within that circle is blessing and long life. As soon as your child steps out of that circle of safety, he needs to be rescued from the danger of stubborn independence from your authority.  Your authority represents God’s authority. (Remember, you function as agents of God.)  The rescue squad is Mom or Dad, armed with the methods God has given—namely the rod and communication (KL 2422).  

We will address those methods at some other time.  He gets submission right but one is hard-pressed to find in the Bible this idea of a circle of safety or as some others call it, the umbrella of authority with a “hedge of protection” (ala Bill Gothard, IBLP and ATI).  This is another instance where his black or white perspective comes to play.  Scripture and its proper applications must define and describe what is the mark of that “circle of safety” - if indeed that is what the Bible teaches.  We must be careful though, Scripture does not use that language or metaphor.  Not that he can't use metaphors but at least they should be as biblically informed as possible.  Nearly all metaphors and examples break down but this one does so significantly.  Where is the line of that circle?  How does a child know when she is in line or has stepped out of line?  How does a parent even know the exact demarcation of that circle? What if the child has one foot outside the circle? Is she out or is she safe? What if the child steps out of that circle because of the danger of the stubborn abusiveness of the authoritarian father?  

The Bible calls parents to guide their children in their walk of life on the path of wisdom toward permanent blessings (for example, see Deut. 6). This walk is a much better metaphor than seeing children standing inside some invisible sphere.  When it comes to marking the boundaries of the path, some things are explicitly defined, as we see with Proverb's restatements of God's Commandments #1-5. Other things are not so clear. That’s life.

Even though Dr. Tripp claims “[f]ailure to obey Mom or Dad is, therefore, failure to obey God” (KL 1872), this is not always true.  Not everything a parent says or does, even when he disciplines, is from God.  There are limits to delegated authority and limits to submission.  As said, the rules of the Christian home must be informed by all of God’s directives, not some random desire or demands of the parent.  Israel’s king was not even allowed to do that (see Deuteronomy 17).  Sadly, there are parents who equate their authority with God’s authority.  It is not!  It is analogous to God’s authority in some ways but not the exact same thing.  Further, not a few parents tend to believe their agenda is God’s agenda when it may or may not be.


Contrary to Tripp’s emphasis, the Bible tells us submission involves active obedience, but with exceptions.  What are those exceptions?  When the command violates God’s Word.  When the parent demands to receive reverence on the level reserved for God alone.  When the parents command the children to sin (eg. Daniel 1; 3:8-18; Acts 4:29) or pressure them to make a choice between them and God, or when such commands frustrate the tar out of the children (Eph. 6:4), or are sinfully oppressive.

SCH, Proverbs and the home

Tripp’s emphasis on authority, obedience and submission is supposedly based on Proverbs. Since the focus of SCH is primarily on Proverbs, we need to understand Proverbs’ standards for the home are derived from the The Law or Ten Commandments.  It appears Tripp stresses the negatives of the commandments instead of both the blessings and the curses of them.

The Law is the core of God’s ethical and holy character and standards. They represent ten key perspectives on the whole of what constitutes an ethical, holy, and godly life and are based on God’s holiness, righteousness and love. Love was and is always the disposition for keeping the commandments (Matt. 22:36-40; Rom. 13:9).  The ground for obedience was and is God’s love for his people and their love for God and for others.  The ground of true obedience is not simply because it is commanded but because our sovereign and holy God has redeemed his people and did so from love. True obedience is a love response (this is a topic for another time).  Therefore, God’s people are to have a faith-response of gratitude expressed through love.  What Tripp emphasizes in his book is pure obedience with little reference to love. His description and expectations for obedience is akin to the military’s.

In his commentary, Dr. T. Longman points out that the commandments for how to love others (commandments 5-10 in Exod. 20:12–17) are reinforced in Proverbs:

·      Fifth: Honor father and mother (1:8; 4:1, 10; 10:1; 13:1)

·      Sixth: Do not murder (1:10–12; 6:17)

·      Seventh: Do not commit adultery (2:16–19; chap. 5; 6:20–35; chap. 7)

·      Eighth: Do not steal (1:13–14; 11:1)

·      Ninth: Do not bear false witness (3:30; 6:18, 19; 10:18; 12:17, 19)

·      Tenth: Do not covet (6:18).

(Proverbs - Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, KL 81).

So much of SCH accentuates the negative aspects of the Law, the warnings, and the horrible consequences for disobeying the Law. What’s more, one can easily assume that the parent, standing in God’s stead is the Law. That is not only wrong but it is heretical. SCH does not reflect the Bible’s positives and negatives, the blessings and the curses, the mercy and grace with justice and righteousness. It uses the Law and Proverbs to establish a warped argument for authoritarianism in the family.

Granted, Tripp does make a point to use the Law and parental laws to show how corrupt a sinner the child is, in order to teach the child how to repent of his or he sin. There is mention of Jesus’ forgiveness for sins but I contend such a mention pales in comparison to the predominance of authoritarian themes of law, control, disobedience, and disciplinary punishment.

Why the emphasis on authority?

It appears that Tripp puts heavy emphasis on the subject of authority because “Our culture tends toward the extreme poles on a continuum.  In the area of authority, we tend either toward a crass kind of John Wayne authoritarianism or toward being a wimp” (KL 145).  I recently read that 15% of parents in the U.S. have a permissive style.  Contrast that with 15% of parents who are authoritarian. Thankfully, 32.5% of parents have an authoritative style. Sadly, the remaining 37% parents are uninvolved in their children’s lives in any meaningful way.

I would say that our culture always tends to swing toward the extremes in many areas, not just with authority.  It would be fair to say many parents have been afraid or do not understand the level of command and influence they have in their parental role.  While the author makes a point that he is opposed to authoritarianism (KL 119), he communicates in such a way as to appear, even advocate as one who is authoritarian.

His view on authority expresses judgmental (condemnatory) statements, such as when he writes, “Our culture has no notion of intelligent, thinking persons willingly placing themselves under authority” (KL 573).  This broad and harsh comment reveals his view about authority in our culture. But is it true?  Hardly.  Just consider, for example, children participating in arts and dance clubs, gymnastics, martial arts programs, the scouts, high school ROTC programs, and much more.  I submit that what appears to be a prevalent contempt for authority in our culture is not a rejection of authority per se but what has become an acceptable contempt and mistreatment for those in positions of service, such as domestic help, nurses, parents, police, teachers, and waiters.

SCH also emphasizes obedience and strongly so

Along with the subject of authority in SCH is a repeated emphasis on obedience.  The author says, “Obedience is the willing submission of one person to the authority of another. It means more than a child doing what he is told. It means doing what he is told— Without Challenge Without Excuse Without Delay” (KL 2264).   Tripp makes a point the way to teach obedience is through the use of the rod (spanking):  “The child whose parents use the rod in a timely, appropriate fashion learns to submit to authority” (KL 1834).

To some this sounds great.  This advice certainly validated my view years ago.  However, I must again ask if this is biblically correct?  Willing obedience is one important goal but not the only goal.  A child’s obedience in and of itself may not be willing.  The child may conform and become compliant out of fear but not out of loving respect.  So, intentional or not, in SCH one cannot escape the idea that submission to authority is an ultimate objective for children. For SCH, it is the high and lofty ideal to which all children should aspire.  Frankly, it is not! Obedient conformity is the goal for authoritarian systems (found in most religions, cults, ideologies, and patriarchal families). Obedient conformity is not God’s main goal and as such, is not taught in God’s Word.

Loving obedience is a means to the goal of wisdom: becoming like Jesus Christ.  Good submission does not include blind obedience.  Obedience out of fear, motivated not from love but from not wanting to be hurt may be effective for compliance but it tends to contradict parental instruction, is inclined to provoke the child to anger (Ephesians 6:4) or break their spirit (Col. 3:21), tends to be oppressive, and risks being abusive.  Sadly, I’ve observed enough Christian parents whose default method to secure compliance for even the most insignificant little things (such as sneezing during church service) is almost always reactionary, angry, and selfish.  Hence, it is abusive and fosters a toxic home. This is wickedness in the guise of piety. The type of wickedness Jesus scorned and rebuked with the Scribes and Pharisees.

Such immediate, unquestioning, and complete obedience through swift and painful punishment is what cults do, what oppressive regimes use, what “repatriation” programs practice through so-called brain washing, and to some extent what the military employs.  It can be very effective, such as the world witnessed with the society of geniuses in Nazi Germany or in present North Korea.  These societies may never question their authorities who practice unwavering compliance. Such societies exist in a living hell. Yet they model the type of obedience SCH advocates.

What is the objective for the child?

The objective for the child is not merely or only to obey the parents but to own God’s values as her or his own.  They are to do so “as unto the Lord” (Eph. 6:1).  It is out of respect that one submits. And obedience is one aspect of submission. The central means for instilling godly respect and loving submission is not by the rod (which is addressed in another blog).  This is where SCH is quite off balance and narrow in scope. It is through loving, healthy, trust-based relationships modeled by parents, and expressed between the parents and the children. Destroy trust and you undermine the foundation for real discipline, which includes chastisement.

What’s more, the definition that obedience is “without challenge, without excuse, and without delay” is highly questionable. It is certainly not biblical.  While this was our operating principle when parenting our children, it became clear that to continually demand this kind of obedience in all circumstances was abusive.  After many years of applying this approach, it dawned on me to question where this idea even came from.  We had heard this in homeschool meetings, Christian parent seminars, and popular Christian books.  Yet, I cannot find it in the Bible.  In fact, adults do not obey in this manner (with some exceptions in the military)!  Christian adults do not even do this in their daily walk with Christ, but we expect our children to obey like this?  When was the last time you read a command in the New Testament such as to love one another (John 15:17) and you obeyed it without challenge, without excuse, and without delay?  If you did, then for how long? God does not treat us with such strict and swift punishment when we do not obey in this manner.

Disobedience to parents IS NOT disobedience to God

SHC also declares, “Failure to obey Mom or Dad is, therefore, failure to obey God” (KL 1872) and “Christian parents must clearly understand the nature of godly parenting and children must be trained that God calls them to obey always” (KL 578).  While this is somewhat true in principle, it is not true when Mom’s or Dad’s orders contradict God’s Word or are rooted on the whims and personal, random wishes of the parent.  You’ll hear me say this a number of times to drive home how erroneous it is to believe our personal rules and regulations are equal to God’s.  I’ve known parents who have this philosophy and expected their children to comply with every expectation or rule the parents had.  Along with the demand to obey, these parents often shame their children by playing the God card:  “If you don’t do what I tell you to do, God is going to bring his heavy hand on you.”  Really?  What’s worse, there are many professing Christians who grew up under this parent model who are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually wrecked, who believe they are never good enough and never will be good enough for others, let alone for God.  Some express what’s been drilled into them by saying they could never be holy or they will never do anything right as far as God is concerned (I am not saying that all Christians who hold this shame do so because of harsh parenting).  Even though they have heard the Gospel of Christ’s forgiveness and gift of his righteousness, it is hard for them to receive that good news because it contradicts what their parent(s) beat into them in childhood.  

They are enslaved to false guilt and shame, like the woman who was convinced for over twenty years that God punished her by killing her child.  Why?  As a newly married woman, her military husband was given orders to go overseas.  Since his tour was for a few years, he could bring his pregnant wife with him.  However, her parents vehemently objected and demanded she stay in the States.  Not wanting to be away from her new husband or to keep him from seeing his children, she went against her parents’ wishes and moved overseas.  Her parents pulled the “Thou shalt obey your father and mother and if you don’t God will curse you” card.  One of her babies died.  The parents said, “we warned you,” and she held that false guilt and terrible shame for too long.  This is one of thousands of examples of authoritarian parenting in the name of Jesus.

Dr. Tripp uses the Proverbs to justify his parenting style. He advocates the use of the commands in Proverbs to support an authoritarian parenting model and practice. This is classic proof-texting - taking selected Bible verses to support an idea or teaching, which may or may not be supported when comparing Scripture with Scripture.

I’ll end this section with insightful words from Dr. Longman,

In a word, Proverbs are principles that are generally true, not immutable laws. Bearing this in mind makes a world of difference when reading the proverbs. Someone reading Proverbs 23:13-14 from the New King James Bible, and having a mechanical view of the application of the proverbs, may well end up with a dangerous view of parenting: ‘Do not withhold correction from a child, For if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, And deliver his soul from hell’ (NKJv). Taken as a law, this would lead to parents beating their child out of fear that otherwise the child would end up in the fire and brimstone of hell. Indeed, a literalist would say that only a rod will do; that spanking with the hand is not permissible. But this is not a law. It is a general principle that encourages those who are reluctant to use a form of discipline by telling them that it is permissible and even helpful for delivering a child from behavior that may result in premature death.  As with the fool in the earlier example, though, one must know what kind of child one is dealing with.  Some children won't respond at all to physical punishment; indeed, it may hasten their path to the grave.  Others may not need physical punishment but simply a strong reprimand.  The key is that parents must know their child and the situation as they apply any proverb. (Longman III, How to Read Proverbs, KL 484-492).

So, yes, I believe there is a very unbalanced emphasis on parental authority and obedience in SCH. It is another reason why no one should follow its teachings.