Jesus is Good, Not Monarchy

The Advent season—with its royal purple liturgical color and symbols of kingship—has inspired Peter Leithart to write a brief and baffling reflection on authority for First Things. Leithart’s Advent article is entitled “Monarchy is Good.

The flow of his argument goes like this:

At Advent time, we celebrate Jesus as King. But Americans don’t like authority, which is silly. Americans are like petulant children, complaining that grown-ups are mean. Don’t Americans know that Jesus redefines what it means to be a king and models a different kind of authority—authority that empowers others? Sure, some authority figures use their authority in not-so-good ways. But, because Jesus is a King, authority is good: “Monarchy is good.” QED?

This line of argumentation is almost entirely wrong-headed. The only things Leithart gets right here are: Advent entails honoring Jesus as King and Jesus redefines “kingship.” The rest is a foil he uses to prop up conservative culture war talking points. This article is less about sharing the Gospel of Jesus than it is about taking potshots at progressives and propping up conservative positions with flimsy thinking.

Consider this crucial passage:

Part of the problem is that we’ve been catechized to regard all forms of authority as oppressive. Our world has lost the distinction between authority and authoritarian and blurred the difference between use and abuse. Fathers rule their homes—patriarchal tyranny! Parents correct or spank their kids—child abuse! Pastors discipline unruly members—pastoral exploitation! Want severe punishments for murderers and rapists? You’re a Nazi or a Fascist.”

Let’s break this down. Leithart asserts that the world has catechized people to regard all forms of authority as oppressive. Really? Everyone? Or, is this an obvious Straw Man?

Is Fatherly “Rule” Really Unquestionable?

The first authoritative relationship Leithart points to is “Fathers rul[ing] their homes.” I’m sorry, what? Since when are fathers “rulers”? This isn’t a description of default fatherly authority; this is a highly disputed interpretation. I’m a father, and a Christian, and I don’t have any intention of “ruling” my home. My discipleship to Jesus won’t allow me to assume such an arrogant posture. Not to mention, what would that say about my spouse, the mother of my children? Is she “ruled” over by me as well? This is nothing less than a highly presumptuous and unsubstantiated Complementarian position.

What response does Leithart put in the mouths of those “catechized to regard all forms of authority as oppressive”? He ascribes to them the response: “patriarchal tyranny!” (With an exclamation point for emphasis) But I want to ask: Are Leithart’s imaginary interlocutors wrong though?

Leithart has undeservedly given the father (and only the father) in this hypothetical scenario the power to “rule.” Is there another term for male-only rule besides Patriarchy that I’m unaware of? No? Well, then, yes, it is patriarchal—by definition. It’s not enough that Leithart doesn’t like the label—it’s accurate. Father-only rule is called Patriarchy. “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” But what of “tyranny”? Does this hypothetical father “rule” with a council of elders? Does his rule include a Parliamentary system? Or, is he the sole, unchecked “ruler”? Is tyranny no longer an accurate description of a single unchecked ruler? The American Declaration of Independence seems to think tyranny is the correct descriptor for such “rule” and I don’t disagree.

Is Spanking Really Unquestionable?

The next authoritative relationship Leithart points to is that of parents to their children. Specifically, he points to the parents’ authority to “correct or spank their kids.” This is thinly-veiled sleight of hand. Virtually no one questions whether parents have authority to “correct” their kids. But Leithart sneaks in a second word: spank. He’s not slick. He knows spanking is a highly contentious subject, so he couples it with “correct,” which is too vague to raise anyone’s hackles. But these two words aren’t synonymous at all. Parents can “correct” their children in any number of ways that doesn’t involve physical force or violence. But, to smuggle violence into the “authority” he’s advocating, he couples correction with corporal punishment.

When my spouse and I began parenting our children, we weren’t well-educated about child development. And, we didn’t come from families of origin that modeled for us healthy forms of correction. So, we defaulted to spanking as a form of discipline. It was awful and we deeply regretted it. Of course, we defended it while we were utilizing it. At the time, we felt like we had to. But, the more we learned about trauma, about brain development, about social-emotional development, the less wise or healthy we found spanking.

According to Leithart this makes us one of his hypothetical authority-haters. But we aren’t. We still believe that as parents we serve in a vital role of authority for our children. And we still expect respect and administer discipline. But, we would never promote physical violence as a form of “correction.” Our discipleship to Jesus has taught us to seek nonviolent means of resolving conflict and to model self-giving love. (But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on Jesus’s “authority” later). Leithart would have readers believe that spanking is just good ol’ fashioned “correction” that only authority-haters object to. But, what if violently hitting children actually is abuse? Is that not a possibility?

Is Deciding Which Church-members are “Unruly” Really Unquestionable?

From parents, Leithart moves on to the authority of pastors in the local church. Specifically, he homes in on their authority to administer church discipline. It should be noted here that there may be at least as many perspectives on church discipline as there are Christian denominations. Is Leithart so certain all the editorial staff of First Things agree on this matter? I doubt it.

For arguments’ sake, let’s assume that First Things is united in its doctrinal stance regarding church discipline. Would that necessarily mean they are in agreement on who constitutes an “unruly” church-member? What exactly makes a church-member “unruly”? Does holding conservative or progressive political views make one “unruly”? Knowing how touchy Conservatives are on this subject, I’m not going far out on a limb to guess that the editorial staff of First Things would take vehement issue with a pastor labeling some Conservative church-member “unruly” based on their political views.

But, let’s give Leithart the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he has in mind some legitimate matter that calls for pastoral intervention. Does one need to be a catechized authority-hater to question whether church discipline could potentially devolve into exploitation? Or, based on what we’ve seen with our own eyes in far too many American churches, is that a legitimate and appropriate concern?

Is Severe Punishment for Criminals Really Unquestionable?

The final authority relationship Leithart uses as an example is that of the state and its power over criminals. According to Leithart, the hypothetical authority-haters in this scenario really over-react. They accuse those who want “severe punishments for murders and rapists” of being “Nazis and Fascists”.

Is this realistic? Are proponents of stricter sentencing guidelines for perpetrators of sexual assault routinely accused of being Nazis? That doesn’t track. I think the clear implication here is the death penalty. Despite the caricature on the Right, liberal prosecutors aren’t letting murderers and rapists go free. Prosecutors, regardless of whether they vote Democrat or Republican, prosecute criminals. And I can’t remember any prosecutors of sexual assault cases being accused of being Nazis or Fascists.

But if, as I suspect, Leithart is using “severe punishments” as a euphemism for the death penalty, then it makes slightly more sense. I still don’t think proponents of the death penalty in America are routinely being compared to Nazis or Fascists. But, at least the comparison would be in the same ballpark.

Are catechized authority-haters the only ones who question whether the State should be imbued with the power to take life? Or, as history would show us, is this an ethical matter that has resulted in much wrestling among some of the church’s greatest minds? It would seem to me that, if Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Augustine weren’t unanimous on the matter, then it shouldn’t so flippantly be considered settled.

But, what of restorative methods? Are Christians prohibited from even considering whether a person who has committed a heinous crime like murder or rape can be rehabilitated through restorative means? Are Christians only allowed to consider “severe punishments” in such cases? I don’t recall the Apostle Paul ever being “severely punished” for his role in the murder of St. Stephen, but maybe I missed that part.

Whence Comes Real Authority?

The crux of Leithart’s argument is that because Jesus is a King, authority is good. But, Leithart also argues that Jesus redefines what it means to be a king and to have authority. He writes,

Jesus revolutionizes authority. He asserts his claim on the world by humbling himself. He doesn’t enter the world as an oiled ancient warrior, but as a helpless baby. The King isn’t born in a splendid palace but in a manger, as the son of a carpenter or mason. In his adulthood, he humbles himself further, even to death on a cross. As Tom Holland demonstrates in Dominion, the message of God on a cross permanently altered what we think authority is and what it’s for.”

Now that’s good preaching! Leithart forcefully asserts that Jesus turns our assumptions about authority upside-down, calling them into question. We would think a king would be born in a “splendid palace,” but Jesus wasn’t. We would think a king would be an “oiled ancient warrior,” but Jesus wasn’t. (I want credit for ignoring the part about warriors being “oiled”) We would think that a king would rule over the world with an iron fist, not humble himself to the point of being executed by the state, but that’s what Jesus does.

So, Leithart correctly argues, Jesus’s radical redefinition of “kingship” calls into question all our assumptions about power and authority.

But Leithart goes even further. He next argues that Jesus’s form of authority was actually the authorization of others.

When God’s kingdom comes, he gives those who receive him the authority of sons, heirs, co-rulers. Through his gift of filial authority, the Father’s Word enables us to reach our created destiny. The Word’s authority authorizes.”

Amen! I agree wholeheartedly with Leithart here. Jesus’s radical redefinition of “kingship” not only calls into question our assumptions about power and authority, it is characterized by sharing power and giving it away. “Co-ruling” is sharing power, in case anyone missed that. And “authorizing” others is giving them power.

If, as Leithart concludes, Jesus and his kingship teach us that “true authority doesn’t beat people down, but raises them up. Ruling isn’t lording over others, but serving them,” why would it be unfaithful to Jesus for anyone to question highly contentious and debatable methods of authority figures?

If, as Leithart concludes, “all authorities are called to mimic the heavenly king,” why would it be unfaithful to Jesus for anyone to question Patriarchy, Spanking, or the Death Penalty?

The implication is precisely the opposite. If Jesus and his Kingship define authority for us, and Jesus’s Kingship is characterized by “raising people up” and “serving them,” then Jesus’s disciples Must question all potentially harmful methods of exercising authority. Jesus’s disciples Must question whether fathers should “rule” their homes or parents should spank their kids. Jesus’s disciples Must question whether pastors should be able to label congregants “unruly” and discipline them without accountability, or whether the State should be able to take the life of a prisoner!

By teaching the Gospel of Jesus’s upside-down Kingdom authority, Leithart hasn’t made a case for the protection of Conservative positions, he’s completely undermined them. By teaching the Gospel of Jesus’s upside-down Kingdom authority, Leithart hasn’t made the case for Authority for Authority’s Own Sake, he’s completely undermined it. By teaching the Gospel of Jesus’s upside-down Kingdom authority, Leithart hasn’t made the case for Monarchy at all—he’s completely undermined it.

Democracy is more of a reflection of the shared power, others-authorizing, and servant-authority of Jesus than monarchy.

Egalitarianism is more of a reflection of the shared power, humility, and servant-authority of Jesus than Complementarianism.

Nonviolence is more of a reflection of the shared power, humility, and servant-authority of Jesus than “severe punishments.”

At every point, the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus leads us further and further away from the positions that Leithart takes as default modes of “authority.”

The message of Advent and Christmas isn’t that Authority is Good (much less Monarchy). No, the message of Advent and Christmas is that Jesus is Good and his life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection are the very definition of godly authority—authority that is so radically unlike our assumptions of authority that it calls into question and exposes the sinfulness of all human rule and authority.