Parental authority. Civil authority. A husband’s authority. Pastoral authority. What is authority, anyway?
That was the slogan of a generation disillusioned by what they saw as the abuses of those in power. A steady stream of foreign policy failures, presidential scandals, and corporate abuses left an entire generation skeptical of authority.
According to some educators, for example, the only way to teach children to have a balanced view of the world is to teach them to skeptically question everything in the curriculum or the text. Nothing is to be taken for granted; everything is to be examined as an antagonist.
And for some, “authority” is synonymous with “tyranny.” There is no essential difference between the exercise of authority and responsibility for others and a repressive boot pressed across the neck of the people. To the “Question authority” bumper stickers and buttons have been added:
- “Question authority before they question you”
- “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism”
- “Oh well, I wasn’t using my civil liberties anyway”
It seems that some have moved well beyond calls for an alert mind, discernment, legitimate concern about the abuse of position and power, and a “balanced view of the world” to the outright rejection of authority itself.
And the Christian church and faith have not escaped this rejection. Spiritual authority, too, is besieged by individualistic, anti-submissive skepticism. We may find the attitude in places as diverse as some strands of the house church and emergent church movements. And we’ve long recognized the rejection of biblical and ecclesial authority in some theologically liberal quarters. An authority-rejecting attitude and posture existed in Jesus’ day as well. Perhaps that’s why the Master was “amazed” when he encountered a man who both respected authorities over him and exercised authority over others (Luke 7:8-9).
Jesus once asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). The question makes it clear that there simply can be no proper and healthy participation in the Christian faith without submission to authority. And moreover, the Christian owes a joyful submission to authority, not just the skeptical, reluctant “caving in” of a person who has no other options. In our skeptical, individualistic, and morally relativistic age, perhaps we need a fresh examination of authority, its exercise, and benefits.
What Is Authority?
The simplest answer is perhaps the right and ability to control, command or determine the proper responses of others.
First, authority involves the right or legitimate claim to lead or rule in some sphere. For example, police officers have the authority to arrest a criminal, but not the right to determine which computer you buy.
Second, authority includes the ability or power to exercise that claim. The idea of authority necessarily implies some level of hierarchy, if not always in position then certainly in responsibility.
Who Has Authority?
God seems to have woven authority and hierarchy into the very pattern of life and faith. We can see this in at least six spheres of human life.
First, all creation is to bow to the sovereign rule of God himself. He is the highest authority, and from Him all lesser rulers derive their right to lead. King Nebuchadnezzar had to learn this the hard way. The Lord sentenced him to live with wild animals until he “acknowledged that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes” and “acknowledged that Heaven rules” (Daniel 4:25-26).
Second, God has placed authority into the hands of governments. Governing authorities exist by God’s establishment. “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Romans 13:2). Government leaders are ministers of God, and it is necessary to submit to them both for conscience sake and to avoid punishment for resisting the rule of God through government (Romans 13:1-7).
Third, authority to steward the natural world is given to man at creation. God tasked Adam to subdue and cultivate the earth, to tend the Garden, and to spread the glory of the Lord (Genesis 1:28-30). Man sits at the apex of creation and, being made in God’s image, receives the responsibility and power to rule over the animal and plant kingdoms.
Fourth, authority finds expression in the family and home. A husband is to lead his wife and children as they submit to his headship and care (Ephesians 5:22-32; Colossians 3:18-21). The indicative of Ephesians 5:25 places the husband in a position of “inescapable headship” as one author put it.
Fifth, God establishes authority in the local church. Christ is the Head of the church, ruling her by His Word (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). And there are human under-shepherds in the church as well; those who oversee, rule and lead. The first requirement of such rulers in the church is that they desire the noble task of oversight, that they desire authority (1 Timothy 3:1). However, the pastor’s authority is derived from the authority of God inherent in the Word of God; it is “ministerial and declarative” to borrow language from The Book of Church Order. Pastoral authority, then, is limited to the sphere of the church and spiritual matters addressed by Scripture. Congregational submission to this kind of leadership from qualified men is meant to be a joy to all Christians (Hebrews 13:17).
Sixth, men are to exercise control or authority over themselves. We’re told that emotionally “a wise man keeps himself under control” (Proverbs 29:11). That’s true sexually, as well. “Each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5). Unfortunately, this authority over the self often gets pitted against other forms of good, God-established authority. Autonomy, or self-rule, becomes the highest value as people become more and more enamored with individualism and carried away by personal preferences.
God laces all of life with some form of authority. It’s clear, then, that a wholesale rejection of God-ordained authority leads inexorably to anarchy, instability, unrestrained desires, evil, and the judgment of God.
How Is Authority to Be Exercised?
Authority and love are spouses. God has joined them together, and they are never meant to be separated. Both are critical, and neither sufficient, for life as God intended. So, all those who occupy positions of authority are only legitimately doing so as they reflect the loving authority of God himself. This doesn’t mean that loving authority never corrects, rebukes or punishes; it most certainly does. Ask any parent. But it does mean that the proper motivation for even the corrective and punitive actions of godly authority is love and the desire to foster righteousness (see, for example, Hebrews 12:9-11).
Nevertheless unrighteous rule does in fact exist in government, family and the church. Acknowledging that God has ordered all of life to be governed by appropriate levels of authority does not excuse or endorse unjust and evil leadership. Neither does it suggest that all leadership will be good leadership, administering justice, mercy, and truth well.
But in the face of wicked leadership, we must avoid two extreme reactions. First, we must avoid complying with evil for “the wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men” (Psalm 12:8). If the Christian ceases to be salt and light by complying with evil dictates of authority figures, there will be little preservation of righteousness or light of Gospel truth available to society.
Second, Christians must avoid the mistake of rejecting authority altogether. The fact that something can be abused doesn’t mean we discard it wholesale. Many people abuse pain killers. But there can be little doubt of their value when properly used in medical surgery, for example. We are to resist the injustice and evil that sometimes corrupts authority in a fallen world, while simultaneously recognizing the God-intended benefits of authority itself. In our reaction to unjust rule, we don’t want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath.
What Are the Benefits of Authority?
Authority benefits us in several ways when we welcome it in our lives.
First, submission to authority leads to freedom from fear of those in authority (Romans 13:3). When we live a righteous life, complying with the just laws of government and society, freedom from fear results. Our lives are commendable before God and man, and the reward of righteous submission is a conscience free from fear.
Second, obeying those in authority over us protects us from the effects of unruly living. When we heed God-ordained authority in government, home and the church, we experience the safety of remaining in the bounds of good guardianship.
Third, submission to authority is a mark of humility which is met by more grace from God (1 Peter 5:5-6). When our pride prompts us to refuse the rule of people God places in our lives, the Lord himself opposes us. Through our pride we may break our backs on the anvil of God’s rule, or through humility we may receive divine assistance to live the Christian life of submission.
Fourth, submission to the authority of spiritual rulers yields spiritual advantage to those who submit. We are not helped by rejecting the counsel, oversight and care of those who lead us in our churches. But we and our leaders are blessed spiritually when we submit to their care (Hebrews 13:17). We receive teaching and instruction, correction and care, and the benefit of practical models and examples of godliness to emulate (1 Timothy 4:12; Hebrews 13:7).
Enjoy the Blessings of Loving Authority
How, then, can we grow in our appreciation for and submission to authority? What are some practical ways of realizing the God-designed benefits of rule and hierarchy in life?
- Conform to the Word. The primary way the Lord makes His will and rule known to us is in His Word. We cannot appropriately consider ourselves followers of the Lord Jesus Christ if we are inattentive to His Word (Luke 6:46-49; James 1:22-25). But attending to His Word, we may experience His good and perfect will and be transformed more and more into His likeness (Romans 12:2).
- Obey government authorities. Most people in the West live in countries with governments that basically protect human liberty and freedom. None of us live in perfect countries or submit to perfect governments. But the perfection of the government is not the litmus test for our obedience to them. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote Romans 13 to people living under the idolatrous rule of Rome. Surely we are not to bow to idols. But even idolatrous leaders are established by God, and therefore, deserving of as much honor and obedience as we can rightfully give them. Obeying our governments leads to peace. Are we careful to obey those in authority and every just law?
- Embrace biblical roles for men and women in marriage. Men and women are equal beings. And men and women are assigned different but complementary roles in marriage. Those roles properly (that is, by God’s design) distribute responsibilities in marriage. And that distribution frees us from the oppression and stress of attempting to do things we were not called to do. There is joy as well as liberty in conforming to God’s pattern for marriage.
- Obey leaders in the church. Pastors are not gods or demi-gods. I’m a pastor; I know. We are flawed individuals, sinners saved by and in constant need of God’s grace. Though we can probably all name exceptions, it’s generally the case that pastors want to faithfully and biblically serve their people, working for their joy and spiritual well-being. So, generally the benefit of the doubt should be given to pastors. We are to receive their teaching — not as skeptics who question everything — but as people of faith who trust God and hope in Him. We can apply some basic screens like, “Is what the pastor asking of me illegal, immoral or unethical in some way? Does the request have positive biblical warrant and lead to edification?” Assuming the answer is “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second, submission to our leaders is warranted, even if we don’t understand all the ins and outs. That submission will work to our joy.
My mama frequently warned us children against being “hard headed.” Her favorite quip was, “A hard head makes a soft behind.” And on more than one occasion my little behind was soft to the touch!
Today, there are many who would revile my mother for disciplining us in that way. The truth is we needed it. With great love she was teaching us to honor authority and to recognize the joy and protection of obeying those in authority.
It’s a sorely missing lesson today. And society is paying the price for its absence. May it not be the case with God’s people. May we reflect the goodness of authority by the way we submit to every leader and ruler the Lord places in our lives. And in doing so, may we display the goodness of God to a creation that sorely needs to see Him clearly.
Copyright 2007 Thabiti Anyabwile. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Thabiti Anyabwile is the full-time husband to a loving wife, Kristie, and father to two daughters, Afiya and Eden. He serves as senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, and worked previously as an assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Thabiti holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in psychology from North Carolina State University. A former high school basketball coach and bookstore owner, Thabiti loves preaching, reading, sports and watching sci-fi films.