Our relationship with authority often comes out very early in childhood and is no more evident than when a child says to their sibling, "You aren't the boss of me!" Even as toddlers, it is clear to us that there are certain people who are in authority over us and people who are not. That same toddler will even question those who are in authority (their parents, teachers, etc.) to determine extent and limits of their authority. Typically, this is in an effort to retain as much authority as possible for themselves.
As we grow older, we continue in the same pattern, questioning the structures and boundaries of authority in our different spheres of life. We have a natural inclination to understand that some people have authority, and some do not. Some seem to deserve their position of authority because they use it wisely, and some do not. We also have a general desire to hold onto a sense of personal autonomy.
When tainted by the sin nature that is common to each one of us, our relationship with authority can be rocky at best. We tend to run from under authority any time it stifles what we naturally want to do or violates our opinions of how things should go. When we find ourselves in a position of authority, it can be easy to use it for self-serving or identity-defining ways.
Much of our society has become so disillusioned by abuses of authority that they assume that anyone in a high position must be corrupt and full of vain ambition. Some would even go so far as to throw out all semblance of order so that each person can do what is right in their own eyes. This societal adversity to authority can easily creep into the church as well, because sadly, the church has not been immune to abuses of authority. We have too often adopted the world’s definition of authority and applied it to God’s design for the home and the church, which is a recipe for disaster.
We have too often adopted the world’s definition of authority and applied it to God’s design for the home and the church, which is a recipe for disaster.
Therefore, we must regain a biblical vision for authority, understanding the origins, structures, and limits of God-ordained authority in our lives. Below I’ve addressed seven facts about the relationship between humans and authority. As you read the list, consider, “What is my attitude toward authority and why?”
God is the ultimate authority. – This may seem obvious, but it’s important that we do not assume it. The Lord rules heaven and earth because he is creator. “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers” (Ps. 24:1–2). This means that authority must not be intrinsically bad, because it is founded in God. It also means that certain expressions of authority are intrinsically good because God is intrinsically good. Do you believe that it is good for God to be in ultimate authority?
God created mankind to have authority. – Authority was not a part of the fall, but was part of the original creation mandate. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28, ESV). This mandate to have dominion or authority is part of what it means to be made in the image of God (like we discussed in the New City Catechism question 4 this week). We were created to be representative rulers on the earth. Do you naturally embrace taking on authority, or do you shy away from it? Do you see the benefits of God delegating some authority to humanity?
Sin disordered our relationship with authority. – In the curse, we see good and perfect God-ordained authority structures get subverted and distorted. Humanity abdicated our authority to the serpent by giving into his temptation. In the curse, the beauty of authority in the home is upended as God tells the woman, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16b, ESV). The woman will want the authority in the home that God has given to the husband, and the husband will misuse his authority. Sin constantly distorts our understanding of authority and drives us to use it in ungodly ways. Are there any places in life where you have either given up authority where you should have owned it, presumed authority where it wasn’t given to you, or misused authority that was given to you?
Jesus reorders authority, returning it to its proper place. - When defining authority, especially within the structures of the household and church, we must realize that God’s definition of authority looks very different from authority in the world and authority that feels right to our flesh. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant…” (Matt. 20:25-27). In other words, Jesus defined authority as “the responsibility to lead by serving.” It’s not that there are no authorities or no “great ones,” but that the great ones use their power to serve others, and they are held responsible by God to do so. The author of Hebrews points us to this kind of accountability for church leaders when he says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (see Heb. 13:17). The proper use of authority or power is the flourishing of the people entrusted to that authority’s care. Do you find yourself in a position of power or authority? How are you using that position to serve and care for those entrusted to you, causing them to flourish?
God has ordained certain structures to exercise proper authority. – The God-ordained structures for authority are the home (see Eph. 5:22-6:4), the church (see 1 Tim. 3:1-16), and the government (see Rom. 13:1-7). God has also established ways for authority to operate within contractual relationships such as first-century slavery or modern-day employment. Within these structures, husbands are given a measure of authority in the home, elders a measure of authority within the church, and governments are established according to their own laws to delegate or centralize authority in a variety of ways. In the same way, employment relationships must abide by their own pre-determined agreements to govern the lines and boundaries of authoritative power. In all of these structures, God’s desire is that those with authority would use that authority to fulfill his kingdom purposes. What authority structures do you find yourself in? What are God’s purposes for that structure, and how can you use your role to fulfill God’s purposes there?
God has ordained the limits of authority within each structure. – Because God is the ultimate authority, and because sin disorders our relationship with authority, God has limited the authority of each structure. No leader or body of leadership has the authority to demand something contrary to God’s law. They also generally do not have authority outside of their realm. For example, a husband is not the head of every wife, but only his own wife (see Eph. 5:22, ESV). Governments have not been given the right to oppress the weak, but rather have been given the mandate to work for the common good and avenge evil (see Rom. 13:4). Are the authority structures in your life operating within their God-given limits?
The authority structures hold one another accountable to abuse. – God’s design for authority is to bring order and flourishing to his people. This particularly happens when the weak and vulnerable are protected. This is why it is especially egregious when power is used to oppress or abuse. The other authority structures are designed in such a way that they can provide protection against such abuses. If a workplace or school situation is harming the family in some way, the husband must step up and lead his home to a different solution under the contractual agreements available. If a husband is spiritually or emotionally manipulating his wife, the elders of the church must step in and provide accountability and/or discipline, and if he is physically abusing her, the governmental authorities such as the police should be involved. Do you see any authority structures being abused within your sphere of influence? How can you use your influence to bring accountability to that situation?
When these seven facts are applied, we see that God’s order for authority is beautiful and for our good. Yet we live in a fallen world where authority is often misunderstood and despised by those who have it and those who don’t. The more we pursue God’s design for authority, the more we will enjoy the fruits of his heavenly Kingdom to which we belong.
So what is your heart attitude toward authority? Go back and review your answers to the question at the end of each point. Seek God’s good design for authority and use it to serve those around you this week.
For Further Reading:
Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch
Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey
Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders