I fight authority, authority always wins – John Cougar Mellencamp – circa 1984
The subject of authority is a bit of a sensitive one in our culture today. At the dusk of Western Civilization we have brought our individualism and autonomy to its logical conclusion. Many of us have a profound disrespect and disdain for authority. Admit it, we do. Yet rightful, God ordained authority is a good gift and necessary for our lives. No person is an island, no person need to operate without being under a good authority for their lives. Yet authority is often abused where human beings go on trips of power over one another. Indeed, Jesus said it this way in Matthew 20:25-28:
25 You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So there is a lording over and a servant sort of authority with the latter being both commanded by Jesus and more pleasant to live under. Nobody likes to work for a boss who is a jerk, a little Napoleon with a King Kong sized ego. Yet simply because some authority is abusive does not mean that all authority is bad. In fact, Scripture shows us that good and just authority is the outflow of the plan of God.
There are many layers of authority surrounding each person all the time. Parents are responsible authorities in the lives of their children; the worldview of MTV notwithstanding. Governments have a God ordained authority in the lives of their citizens; the worldview of the anarchist notwithstanding. Pastors have a responsible authority for those in their care and men have a responsibility for their families. The latter will cause squirming in both irresponsible, passive men and the women who despise them. Yet how do all these spheres interact. What follows will only be a brief attempt to theologically state my theological perspective on authority for follows of Jesus. I will proceed according to certain assumptions so I will briefly lay those out so it will be easier to track with me.
First, I believe that God is the highest authority for all creation and every human being. This is true whether we acknowledge it or not. His authority is then vested at various levels through various institutions – the home, the church, the state. Second, I believe that the church and state have different realms of responsibility given by God so I support the separation of church and state and oppose theonomy1. Third, I believe the Holy Scriptures are true and binding over all humanity but they are NOT the instrument and code of civil government nor should the worship of Jesus be compulsory, so I also oppose theocracy2. Fourth, I believe in human conscience in relation to parenting and believe that Moms and Dads to be the primary authority in raising kids; children are not wards of the state.3 Finally, I believe the church and the individual Christian are bound to conditionally obey all governments under which they are living. In other woods, unless the government is ordering/compelling one to sin, the government should be obeyed.
Authority from the Ground Up
Children and Parents
The Scripture in several places declares an order to the human family in that children are to obey their parents and parents are to love, instruct, teach and discipline their kids. In the 10 commandments we find that God tells us to “honor your mother and father” (See Exodus 20). Additionally, this is restated in the New Testament in Ephesians chapter six: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Furthermore the same passage encourages fathers to “not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This of course echoes the call of Deuteronomy 6 for parents to teach their children to know and follow God. When this responsible authority is abdicated in the home children grow up lonely, insecure and many times turn to alternative “families” such as gangs or other groups to find identity. Additionally, when parents do not both love and discipline children, the kids do not develop respect for authority. As a result kids can be either pressed towards rebellion or live in complete unruliness. Serving in communities with rampant fatherlessness or watching one episode of Super Nanny are sufficient as examples. This unit of the home is then under the care and authority of local churches and its leadership.
Pastors and Churches
Pastors were once held in high regard in our culture but times have changed. First, there is a lack of trust in church leaders who through repeated moral failure or financial scandals have repudiated a respected and holy office. Additionally, today’s church shopping consumer mindset in matters of religion makes the pastor out to be a producer of religious goods and services. If someone does not like the product – be it preaching or instruction, many will just move on to another house of worship or a new religion to suit their purposes. If a pastor tells someone he is acting like an idiot by running around on his wife and to knock it off, the man can simply move on to a man who will not challenge his sinful behavior. Yet it is clear in Scripture that God places his people in churches for their good by giving them spiritual authority.
Hebrews 13 teaches us this in two ways. First, the pastor/elder is to set a good example: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7). Second, we are to obey our leaders and submit to their care: 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 (Hebrews 13:17).
It is to be said that churches should give much care in calling their pastors. Scripture insists that such men be wise, responsible, godly, qualified men (See Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3). Pastors and other Christians in the church should walk together in community so that families are cared for and that parents are instructed and helped lead their homes. Finally, there is a lost calling not practiced by many cowardly clergy and passive Christians which must also be a part of life together, that of discipline. Frankly put we should call each other to standards of integrity, our marriage vows, loving our kids and doing what is right in our communities. If someone sees me screwing up I really want to be called to account; this is good and should not be neglected in the church.
The Authority of Government
Followers of Christ and their families are shepherded in the church by qualified pastors/elders, yet Churches also exist in a broader culture under various forms of governing authorities.4 Let us be clear that Scripture is not silent on the believer’s relationship to government. We are to pray for our leaders and submit to their government. Two passages of Scripture are quite relevant, 1 Timothy 2:1-3 and Romans 13:1–7. We’ll quote them at length in turn.
1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.
1 Timothy 2:1-3
1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
The clear teaching of Scripture is the government is given by God to enact and enforce good conduct in a society. Wrong doing should be punished and the government has been given the sword to hold evil doing at bay. This means that Christians under all manner of governments are called to be good citizens. Now, a huge rejoinder must be made. It is also clear that government should not be obeyed when it commands and compels its citizens to do evil and disobey God. There are many examples of this. The Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 and the apostle’s civil disobedience when commanded not to share the gospel in Acts 4 are most often cited. When a government is compelling evil, the believer has a duty to do what is right and refuse the unjust law. A modern example would be a doctor refusing to obey a government which might make him to perform abortions. It is my opinion that non violent civil disobedience is the path in such cases and that taking up arms against a government is not advisable unless in self-defense. I will leave that complicated discussion for another time.
Separation of Church and State
Both church and state have been called by God to govern and have authority in the lives of Christians. The church is a body of believers called out by God together as a covenant people by the gospel. As such the highest authority in our lives is the Word of God, the Scriptures. Yet each church is in a realm of state authority as well so the lines of separation must be discussed. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church and the magisterial reformers (Luther, Zwingli and Calvin) held to a unification of church/state. The state was legitimized by God and the church endorsed this legitimacy. Additionally, the state enforced and permitted the establishment of religious authority and unity in a realm. This view had long standing back into Greek and Roman times. A state and its gods were one. However, this was questioned by many reformers and evaluated in light of Scripture. Did not Jesus teach that the rule of Caesar was different than the rule of God? Does not a marriage between worldly power and the church have a corrupting influence on both? Such questions in Western culture led the founders of the American experiment to articulate clearly the relationship between church and state. It is found in the well known establishment and free exercise clauses of the first amendment of the US Constitution. Here is how it reads: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The meaning of this statement is quite clear but the implementation has always been a bit fuzzy. What it means is that there will be no official state religion or church in our country. Additionally, the government will not prohibit law abiding citizens from freely practices their religion. It does not make a religion free zone in any portion of society nor does it create a religion of which all citizens must participate. It means we have freedom of religion – a gracious gift to the people of America. If this is the case and I take this to be a just solution, how are the authorities of church and state established.
The Authority of State – Natural Law
Many thinkers in history, particularly Aristotle, Aquinas and John Locke have taught that there is a law built into human experience which dictates to conscience basic categories of a just society. I do not have space here but I discussed various types of law briefly here5. Natural law would be defined in the Christian tradition as follows:
Natural law is the law “written on the heart” (Romans 2:13) – the conscience by which people know Good and Evil – right from wrong. Sin mars this faculty in man, but it remains none the less. These are things that people “Can’t Not Know” – i.e. that Murder is wrong, it flows from the moral nature of God and presses upon people. People suppress this and hold it down in wickedness, many becoming callous as to be seared against God’s witness in conscience. See Romans chapters 1 and 2. This is shared by both regenerate and unregenerate – though our Reformed brothers (and I consider myself part of that team) some times do not like saying that non Christians know right and wrong. Thomists think Natural law is evident to right reason, reformed scholars say that the noetic effects of sin blur, mar, even destroy this capacity in people, though some make room for “common grace insights” i.e. that murder is wrong. Some recent works on Natural Law would be found in the writings of Princeton scholar Robert George and J. Budzizewski of the University of Texas at Austin.
The state then governs in accord to the law written on the heart expressed in basic morality found in all cultures. The so called “second tablet” of the Ten Commandments is reflective of such basic moral foundations. The natural law is an expression of God’s authority on all peoples and we disobey this moral law to our own peril and destruction.
The Authority of Church – The Word of God
Christians however are called to a higher authority than even the state, the authority of the Word of God. Scripture is the Supreme Court in all matters of life and teaching for Christian believers. It is to be obeyed and headed out of love for Jesus Christ who is revealed in this Word. It reveals the laws of God which demonstrate to us our sinfulness and need of grace. It reveals the gospel by which we are saved and restored to right relationship with God. It reveals the mission of the church in the world as the in breaking of the ultimate rule and reign of God in the Kingdom of Heaven. It reveals that we are citizens of two realms…the Kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of God. Scripture instructs us as to when civil disobedience is warranted while simultaneously calling us to submit to just and reasonable laws. In this age church and state are separate spheres of authority with Scripture guiding the church. When Jesus returns he will set up a perfect divine monarchy with himself as King of Kings. Aristotle once wrote that the best government would be by a perfect and virtuous ruler. Yet none of this metal is to be found among the sinful throng of humanity. In the current state of affairs it has been said that democracy is the best of all bad forms of government. Yet a day will come when authority will be always good, kind and just.
During our days on earth we are called to love rightful authority and submit joyfully to it as a gift from God. We are also called to stand against injustice in its various forms. Parents should embrace responsibility and children should submit to their parents. Mothers and Fathers should be responsible for their homes and families, pastors should willfully and humbly shepherd the church and all citizens should obey the laws of their lands. None of this will happen in perfection so love must cover a multitude of sins. The ultimate high treason against authority is humanity’s rebellion against God. In this case the highest of rulers came to earth as a lowly servant. This servant died to save rogue rebels from the justice they deserve. All of history will one day be wrapped up when that same servant will come back again with full authority to judge the living and the dead. We may bow our knees today in light of his love and grace or face the fury of the wrath to come by persisting in our rebellion. When we realize that we can entrust ourselves to a fully loving, fully good, fully just God – we realize that this is an easy choice to make. May he reveal this to you by his Spirit and may we find repentance and faith.
- Theonomy is the idea that the laws of the state should be the literal laws of God. Islam practices this and some Christians have advocated for this as well. As is said, we do not.
- Theocracy is seeing God as the head of the civil state and requiring submission to a certain God for all citizens by law. We oppose this because the worship of God should be from a persons heart and from conviction.
- The view that people belong to the state is an ancient view prominently on display in Plato’s classic work The Republic.
- For more on Christians existing under various forms of government throughout history see my Relating to Caesar, Christians and Governments http://www.powerofchange.org/2009/3/28/relating-to-caesar-christians-and-governments.html
- See Christianity and Nation States…Law and a Just Society-http://www.powerofchange.org/2005/5/3/christianity-and-nation-stateslaw-and-a-just-society.html