Authority in Christian Thinking

In a previous discussion the issue of authority was raised, and how we as Christians view it. This is a big issue, and something Christians have really wrestled with throughout our history. Overthrowing the pagan conception of authority was one of the major accomplishments of Christian civilization, and one that brought some of the greatest societal advantages.

I find when I talk about these issues with people a constant need to clear away assumptions about what is normal and what everyone supposedly thinks. The idea of limited human authority is itself a Christian idea. This is because to the pagan, authority is based on superiority of nature, and authority is really only limited by my ability to exercise power over someone else and their ability to resist it. The exercise of power therefore becomes its own justification. The fact that I have power over someone else means I am superior to them, and therefore it is right that I have power over them. So we can’t just take the Christian conception of authority for granted.  We have to recognize what our default mode is, so that we can guard against it.  Pagan conceptions of things, the way people think about things in the absence of Christianity, does a good job of showing us what the human default mode is.

Jesus takes this issue up a few times in the Gospels:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mar 10:42-45 NKJ)

This came in response to the disciples engaging in their usual jockeying for status. Power in the Roman Empire depended heavily on patronage, on who you know. If you made a connection and gained the attention of a powerful man, he might take an interest in you and help you along in your career. You would be loyal to him and support him any way you could, and in return he would use his influence to advance your career. You in turn would then use that increasing influence to surround yourself with supporters of your own. The disciples were engaged in this kind of power play, and we really shouldn’t blame them too much. This was the only world they knew. A lot of the discussions about who Jesus was willing to dine with, and why the Pharisees would dine with him even though they hated him, have to be understood in the context of this kind of patronage system. It was bad for your social standing to be seen dining with people too far down the power chain (and these kinds of dinners were usually semi-public affairs). On the other hand, it was good for you to have dinner with people perceived as important or influential, like Jesus.

Why would the Pharisees care who Jesus ate with? Because they had complicated networks of social inclusion and exclusion based on who was an observant Jew and who had political power. This was an important aspect of their approach to Judaism. By excluding people (“sinners”) who were too far outside of the pale in terms of their behavior or observance of Jewish law, they would be encouraging people to stay observant or encouraging non-observant people to reform their ways. But this was often as much about social status as it was about religious principles. The Jews operated in the same patronage system the Gentiles did, with the additional feature (for some Jews like the Pharisees) of religious observance playing into the status equation. And that aspect of it worked both ways. To the Pharisees, religious observance and social status were closely related things. Not only did religious observance convey social status, but it, perhaps even more importantly, also signaled social status. The way the Pharisees conceived of what it meant to be truly observant required wealth. It took a lot of time and a lot of study, and it required either being a full time student of the Talmud or having access to a teacher who was. The modern Talmud is over 6200 pages long in normal type, and most of this was already in place in the time of Christ, though it was still orally transmitted, making it even harder for the layman to understand. All this meant that your average laborer or subsistence farmer would have a very difficult time being really observant. It would be like requiring everyone to have mastered Calvin’s Institutes, Thomas’ Summa Theologica and Augustine’s City of God before they could be considered good Christians. Consider the various things the Gospels tell us about the greed and envy of the Pharisees.

So when Jesus, a respected rabbi, was willing to dine with those considered very much outside acceptable culture, he presented a great threat to the system of social status and recognition that the Pharisees treasured so much.

(Incidentally, my wife is fond of saying that she cannot accept any form of piety that requires that I am a wealthy American to exercise it. It seems that some see godliness in going to lots of conferences, buying lots of books and tape series, and spending lots of time in church functions instead of working for a living or raising a family. This makes me think that we have the same issue in modern Evangelicalism, where often the various pieties people exercise doesn’t just require wealth, but their very purpose is to signal that wealth. Jesus warned us constantly about doing religion to impress others. If I think you’re required to do things that cost lots of money in order to be a good Christian, then I do not understand the gospel.)

So authority in the Jewish and Roman world was all based on status—who was higher up the chain than you.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The ancient world very much believed that being of higher status was evidence of a higher essential nature. If one people exercised power over another, that proved they were of a superior race. They did not believe anything similar to the sort of race theories that arose from Darwinism, but they did believe that the gods commingled with men, and that some people were partly descended from gods. The emperors or pharaohs were the highest of all. They were seen as god-men. Great heroes by their act of heroism earned their places in the divine pantheon. So social status, and the rule that derived from it, was seen as coming from divine favor. Men ruled because they were superior, higher kinds of human beings than those they ruled. Thus the freeman was ontologically superior to the slave, the man to the woman, the ruler to the ruled.

So Jesus’ statement quoted above is truly revolutionary. According to the values of the kingdom of God, rule and authority is not by personal right or ontological superiority. Rather, it is based on service. Jesus does not deny the existence of authority at all. Jesus clearly exercises authority over the disciples, and says when He ascends that “all authority” is given to Him (Matthew 28:18-20). The issue is the nature and source of that authority. Here he says that greatness is predicated on being the servant of others. In Philippians 2:9-10, Paul makes the case that it was Christ’s ministry, His service to God and to others even to the death of the cross that gave Him the name above every name and the authority greater than all authority in the kingdom of God.

He illustrates this particularly vividly in John 13 with the washing of the disciples’ feet. This was not any kind of dramatic or extraordinary thing that Jesus was doing, as it appears to us. It was a common task normally performed by the lowest slave in the house. But Jesus washes their feet as an illustration of what real leadership looks like. He again does not deny authority. On the contrary, He states in verse 13, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.” His example shows the nature of that authority, that it is used to serve.

A right understanding of human authority in all spheres is simply that God gives people certain jobs to do, certain services to perform for others. As He gives those jobs, He also gives the authority necessary to do the job. A father must raise his children, protect his household, and ensure that his household is one that is well-governed to the glory of God. He requires authority to do these things. But that is the limit of his authority—the authority necessary to perform the function. Likewise, church officers such as pastors and elders have functions to perform and likewise have authority limited to the performance of those functions. In Hebrews 13:17, we read:

Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. (Heb 13:17 NKJ)

We are to obey those with authority because to fail to do so makes it impossible for them to do their jobs. We do not obey those in church authority because they are superior to us, godlier than us, or more knowledgeable than us. We do so because they are those that God has put in their position with particular services to perform, and without authority they cannot perform those functions. Civil government likewise has a function—to punish the evil and protect the innocent, and they need authority to do so. Thus we see that authority, Scripturally, is never tied to essence, to ontological superiority, and always to function.

Therefore, any exercise of authority that is not tied to the function of the authority is illegitimate. A husband cannot demand his wife’s agreement with his musical or artistic tastes, or hold particular political views. A government cannot demand that its people work in particular jobs or spend their leisure time in particular government-approved ways. A father cannot exercise absolute authority over his son long after his son is grown and out of the house. A church leader cannot dictate what kind of profession people have, how they spend their money, or how they raise their children (as long as they do not explicitly violate God’s law in any of these endeavors). Any of these exercises of authority are arbitrary, not tied to the purpose of the office in question and are therefore illegitimate.

No authority can therefore be absolute. We all understand that no authority can legitimately command another to violate God’s law. That’s a good starting point. But the limits of authority go further than that. Any absolute authority must necessarily exceed the function given to the authority. So a husband does not have absolute authority over his wife. The father does not have absolute authority over his children. The pastor does not have absolute authority over his congregation.

As an example, a husband cannot command his wife to hop on one foot until he tells her to stop. Now this exercise of authority does not command her to sin. It’s not a sin for her to do this. Nonetheless, this command cannot be rationally related to the service a husband is required to perform for his wife and children, and therefore the command has no basis. A pastor cannot require or even suggest that the females in his congregation wear their hair in a certain way, since the Bible is silent on the issue and therefore the pastor’s authority does not extend to this matter. It would be no sin for a woman to wear her hair in a particular fashion, and therefore the pastor is not commanding her to sin. Nonetheless, this exceeds his rightful authority and therefore is sinful and oppressive for him to use his pastoral authority to try to compel them to wear their hair the way he likes it. Because so much of the pastor’s authority is moral and influential in nature, it would even be wrong for him to suggest that it would be more godly for them to do so, even if he does not absolutely require it.

Now of course people violate the limits of their authority all the time, raising the constant question of obedience. This gives us good principles for exercising that authority, but what happens when we are the ones under authority and the authority exceeds their limits? This raises many complex questions, which I hope to address in another post, since this one is probably long enough already.

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