What place does “authority” have in the life of the Christian? It’s a loaded question to me, and I’ll admit, in my low moments, I want to answer it by running screaming from the room shouting “IT SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU!” over and over again with my ears plugged, but that’s not really helpful for dialogue. There is a place for authority in our Christian lives, though I believe it looks nothing like what I grew up with, and certainly doesn’t deserve the ears plugged screaming reaction all the time. I’d like to ramble about that for a few paragraphs.
First off, I’d like to keep this in mind for any concept of authority we bring to the table in our New Testament life:
“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:25-28 KJV
Basically he’s saying, look around you and reject the power structures and control and everything fallen man chases after. “It shall not be so among you.” Power, control, and status was a goal, as it usually is today, still, because we haven’t changed any. It’s one of the stronger statements he makes, and he makes it to his closest disciples, the ones he knows will be the leaders or pioneers of the early church. He didn’t come to set up a new kingdom on earth in the same spirit as every other current power structure, just nicer, or with superior doctrine. No benevolent tyranny to replace the twisted tyranny of the Pharisees and Romans of the day. “It shall not be so among you.” Whatever authority in the Body of Christ looks like, it’s “not that.”
So what is it then? Here’s where I’m at these days. I’m going to leave out parental authority in this discussion as it’s something I know nothing about, although some of these principles may apply.
Authority can be defined in a few ways.
1. “The power or right to give orders or make decisions”
2. “Person or persons who exercise administrative control over others.”
3. “An expert whose views are taken as definitive.”
Which one of those strikes you as being consistent with New Testament living and the words of Jesus, and the fact that we believe we have the completed word of God available to us all, along with the guidance of the Spirit in every believer? I think some of these aspects of authority come into play in our daily lives, but confusion between them can cause serious problems.
In my church history, the pastors were all three of those definitions, together, with no real lines between them. Spiritual, administrative, and intellectual authority in one package. He could use his claimed spiritual authority to control anything, down to the food served at a church picnic, or where a young adult gets a job. Yes, these men were crazy, authoritative alpha-males outta control. But they got to those positions because a lot of folks think that’s how things should be, albeit with the power wielded by “nicer” men. Benevolent tyranny. But let’s take a look at things closer.
I’m going to look at #2 first. This seems to be a functional necessity wherever a significant number of humans gather, and as such there is a place for it when needed. I would say the emphasis is on function and ability, like the apostles appointing the first deacons to help do some of the practical applications of kingdom life – division of labor to prevent burn-out and keep order and make sure people’s needs don’t slip through the cracks. There are clearly no rights involved here – no need to over-spiritualize it – just willing and able servants, elected or volunteered as needed. There’s no status here either. We’re all servants, members of the Body with strengths we choose to use for its purpose, as (hopefully) led by the word of God and the Spirit.
Let’s look at #1. Where are we explicitly given any right or power to decision-making over others, biblically? The NT is full of commands about submission, but I’d argue from them that submission is always to each other as fellow members of Christ’s body, or to Christ as our Lord, or to the apostles’ doctrine (more on that later), or to existing earthly power structures for the sake of peace, “that the gospel be not hindered”. As Christians we try to work within existing systems to transform them and show Christ to others. But that does not mean we bring them into the Body – that’s what Galatians 3:28 is all about. No matter what the earthly situation is, when we meet, we are equals, children of God. Man and woman, one race or another, slave and master, rich and poor (James 2). My boss may be my boss at work, but “around the communion table”, he has no more authority over me than anyone else. We have one Lord – the Word of God. He embodies everything God wanted us to know about himself. He is our one authority. We have no right to this kind of authority between us.
What of Heb. 13:17? *
“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
I’d be more than happy to read a few takes on this passage. I’ve always heard it interpreted from the pulpit as meaning submission to church leaders who “serve us by exerting godly shepherding authority over us dumb sheep”. In light of verse 7 (“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”), perhaps the writer of Hebrews is referring to civil authorities in verse 17, and Christian leaders in verse 7. I personally think that interpretation holds more weight – the mature ones in the faith go before and show the younger ones how to walk by their example and wisdom gained from experience. This also seems supported by the various qualifications of elders given in other epistles.
It raises a red flag when anyone attempts to fight for some extra level of authority in the church, whether wielded by themselves or others. We all have the same standing – access to the Spirit of God in us as children of God, and we’re blessed in this country to have access to the word of God everywhere. Which brings me to the third definition.
#3, in application to church life, seems to me much less spiritual than simply practical. None of us are experts on everything. Most of us aren’t experts on anything, although surely in our small circles we can always bring something to the table. For instance, I’ve been working my career for a long time, and I’m good at it – I have a good amount of experience. To the people around me, I could be considered something of an authority on the subject. Where relevant situations arise, it might be wise to ask for my opinion on the matter before proceeding.
But, in reality, my word is only as good as I am close to the truth of my sphere of knowledge – the real standard of authority. For spiritual matters, most believe that authority is the Bible alone. In that sense, folks today who have gone to seminary, diligently study daily, have devoted their lives to teaching and nurturing people, and have been faithful can certainly be considered to speak as “authorities”, or authoritatively. They’ve earned it. Their words carry weight – again, as much as their words match our real authority.
One of the central tenants of the reformation is the priesthood of every believer. Every believer has the privilege and ability to have and read God’s word for themselves and discover His will for them. We all have the same access to God. It doesn’t have to be filtered through men and councils or denominations to bring it down to the level of the layman.
In this country, we have the luxury of time and resources and freedom so folks can become “authorities” on the Bible, and we can learn much from their study. But it’s just that – a luxury. Every one of us can dive in and learn for ourselves. And besides, nobody needs a degree or hours of study every day to share what Jesus has done in their lives, and that’s really what we’re here for, right?
Unless you concede that there are apostles and prophets delivering new words from the Lord today, then I think we have to ground any authority simply on the word of God alone, and that authority is held by every believer. Everyone I’ve grown up with have not allowed for any sort of new apostolic authority today, and therefore any claims to that level of authority seem extremely dishonest to me. One of my old pastors claimed to have the mantel of Elijah as a pastor, though, and while that’s clearly off the reservation in most evangelical or reformed circles, some still take essentially that same level of authority to themselves and the appointed church elders – blurring the lines between merely expert (#3) or administrative (#2) authority and “rightful” (#1) authority . I struggle to see the basis for any such claim in the New Testament, apart from the Apostles’ authority before our New Testament was written. We can’t have it both ways – we can’t trash the pope for claiming to speak for God on earth, while also claiming the Bible as our authority and simultaneously hold a similar authority in a local church or a denomination by virtue of a “calling”. That’s dishonest.
So what does this mean for me, the ordinary church-goer?
Authority then is more dependent on a mutual relationship and trust than some claim to a calling. If I start attending a new church, I will follow a healthy administrative lead for the sake of peace in the local assembly, and I might grow to respect the pastors’/elders’ wisdom and experience – that’s the goal. Learn from and be changed by those who’ve been there, done that, and are smarter and more mature than I am, while also hopefully bringing my own strengths to the table.
But, I’d be grossly negligent if I didn’t learn anything from my own church history and realize that yes, it is entirely possible for fallen men to not take their influence seriously, to abuse the respect and trust they’re given, or to outright fake a “calling” to gain control over people. A claim to a calling means nothing to me. Seeing “Pastor” in front of someone’s name is more likely to put me on high alert than put me at ease. Church leaders have no right to spiritual authority over me because I walked through the church doors, or because they were ordained and I’m not.
It’s only common sense that everyone needs the guidance and relationship of more mature believers – that’s partly how we grow, and a reason we meet together, so the ones who have been there and done that can guide those who haven’t.
But an elder or pastor does not get to claim that they are more mature than I am and that I need his or her guidance or authority over me. I ask for or accept guidance based on a trust built by observed or established character. In that sense, authority (#3) is given after it is earned.
And a final thought from experience. My faith has in the past suffered from not having those older mature believers in my life, either from having none available early in life, or from apathy and inability to trust on my part. Sometimes both. I have a few of those folks now, and they’ve done wonders. So please don’t assume I want to throw off all guidance and go it alone with just me and a vague idea of the Holy Spirit, my bible – and maybe not even a bible. I want to discover afresh what it means to be accountable to others, to trust others with my faults and struggles and successes. Because I tried submission to others based on office or calling. Because I try going it alone.
I find I need people.
But I have no use for anyone who wants me to need them. That’s not how this works.
PS: I write this assuming we believe that we are ALL bearers of God’s image, and that that carries authority, and that is enough right for anyone to be heard and respected. I shouldn’t have to have this reminder, but it seems to be easy to forget.
*This article has recently come to my attention regarding those Hebrews 13 proof texts. I think it’s informative, simple, and refreshing. Thank you, Joshua.