Limits of Authority
The last two articles on this subject covered the issue of the Biblical basis and nature of authority, and how we see that modeled in the Trinity itself. In the first article, I promised to try to answer a very difficult question, and that is how we deal with the inevitable abuses of authority.
I say “try to answer” because it is indeed a very difficult question, dependent on many circumstances. Hopefully this will be helpful.
Everyone would agree that some abuses are so extreme that they render obedience to the authority unnecessary. There is no obligation for me to line up for the cattle cars in obedience to a government that is trying to kill me and my family. Jesus told us that if they persecute us in one city we ought to flee to another. Israel was invaded by foreign enemies a number of times in the book of Judges, and the minute the invader gained physical control of the nation, they did not become the legitimate government, as God raised up leaders to help the Israelites resist them.
Another good example is the Hebrew midwives in Egypt, who refused the Pharaoh’s command to kill the Hebrew boys when they were born. They disobeyed their government when they issued a command that was clearly against the will of God, but they went further than that; they lied to the Egyptians about the reason, saying that the Hebrew women were very robust and thus usually gave birth before they got there. Now taking a more absolutist position on obedience to the government, you might argue that the midwives should not have killed the baby boys (that being a sin), but should have told the Egyptians the truth about the reason (since doing that would not have been a sin, and obedience to government is required). I think their action is perfectly defensible, however, since the government’s action is so totally outside the legitimate bounds of their authority, that they have given up any right at that point to command the obedience of the Hebrews, a people they are actively trying to destroy.
A similar example is Rahab’s lie to the guards about the Israelite spies. This example is especially helpful since it is called by Hebrews 11 an act of faith. It was a lie, but it was also a deliberate act of rebellion against the government. What can justify such an act? The nation was doomed for their wickedness by the decree of God, made manifest by the arrival of the Hebrews. Rahab believed that, and went over to the Hebrew side. She was not obligated to believe “my country, right or wrong.” Believing that her nation was in fact doomed (an act of faith) she took sides with Israel, who was at war with Jericho, and doing so saved her and her family from destruction.
I think we can draw from this the conclusion that when obedience to authority becomes an act of suicide, we are not obligated to obey. We have to grant exceptions for situations like when your general calls you to charge into a battle that is necessary but will almost certainly result in your death. But the exception proves the rule. Ordering a charge into a dangerous battle is a necessary function of the military. Oppressing your own people even to the point of death is not. The North Koreans are not obliged to obey their government’s prohibition against buying food on the black market since doing so would result in their starvation. Abigail disobeyed the direct command of Nabal because doing so would have resulted in the slaughter of the whole house, and she is praised as wise for doing so.
Authority is particularly given to serve others in different ways. The father uses his authority to serve his family; the parents have authority to do good for their children. The master’s authority exists for him to use his wealth for the good of the community as a whole, including those who work for him, and the state exists to punish evildoers for the good of the innocent. When power which is given to serve is used instead to hurt and destroy the very ones they should be serving, then that power especially has become abusive and has overstepped its bounds. When this is the clear case, those under that authority have no obligation to submit to their own destruction.
Humility in Response
So there are limits. But at the same time, we would never accept that any sin or failure on the part of the authority is grounds for disobedience. Far from it, or else all human authority would be impossible. Peter says,
“Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.” (1Pe 2:18-20 NKJ)
Peter commends the one under authority for putting up with the failures of the one in authority. All exercise of authority is going to be unfair and sinful at times. Certainly, at the time the New Testament was written, it would not have been very remarkable at all for a man to beat his wife, or a master his servant. So when Peter and Paul are calling on us to submit to authority and patiently bear with it, they are calling on us to bear with many things that would be viewed as really abusive and cruel today.
When a master beats his servant in an effort to train his servant in right behavior (a common practice throughout most of history especially in Bible times), his action may be excessive, but it is not disconnected from the function of his authority. Even today, a boss will reprimand or otherwise punish an employee who is not doing his job well, up to possibly firing him. But if he beats his servant just because he’s violent and likes to beat people, then he has badly abused his authority. The Old Testament allowed a master to beat his servant as long as he did no permanent damage. If he permanently maimed his servant, then his discipline cannot possibly be construed as necessary or helpful, and therefore his servant was to go free.
Within the church, there should be recourse and help for these kinds of situations. If a man is sinning against his wife in such an egregious fashion, or a master mistreating his servants, then the church can call them to repentance and bring them under formal church discipline. There are many passages calling the church to correct one who falls into sin, such as Galatians 6:1, and the way a man treats his wife or a master treats his servant is no exception to this principle. If a husband refuses to repent and leave off his mistreatment, then he by that church discipline would be declared to be outside the church of God, and that would clear the way for a divorce on the grounds of abandonment. This is not the place for a full discussion of divorce and its proper grounds, but I hold to the common Reformed understanding, that adultery and abandonment are both grounds for divorce, and abandonment should be construed more broadly than simply physically leaving. Any behavior by which one party manifestly and unrepentantly demonstrates a complete unwillingness to abide by the marriage covenant should be understood as abandonment. So, physical abuse, a failure to provide financially, serious drunkenness or substance abuse or similarly egregious behavior can all be construed as abandonment. In other cases of authority, the church might counsel the person or help them be free of the abusive authority situation in a wise and careful way.
And that, I believe, helps us arrive at a larger principle. When an authority clearly commands something that is completely unconnected to the office that authority has, then they exceed their office, and if such behavior is continuous despite attempts at redress, then the subject can at length break off the relationship. A lesser political entity can resist the authority of the greater; the citizen can flee the state; the wife can divorce the husband; the member can leave the church.
We said before that all authority was connected to the function performed. Anyone possessing authority has that authority in order to perform the function attached to that office. A husband is to provide for and protect his family, and to ensure that his family runs in such a way as to honor God, so he has authority to perform that function. Exercising authority in a way disconnected to that function is exceeding his right, so that a man, for example, had no right to command his wife to hop on one leg, that having nothing to do with the office he is given (even though by doing so he is not commanding her to sin). A pastor’s job is spiritual oversight of his flock, to look out for their spiritual state. His authority therefore could not extend to telling them to come wash his car or what fashions of clothes or hairstyles they should wear.
But we who are under authority should be extremely cautious here, since we are prone to sin ourselves, and one of the most common ways our sin manifests is by rebelling against authorities. The general thrust in the Scriptures is to submit, to be patient and humble and to obey those in authority over us. This command is repeated in very many places and usually without any caveat. If we feel we are in a truly abusive situation where authority is expressed purely arbitrarily, then we should seek out counsel to help us understand the situation and what the right thing to do is. The elders of the church should be especially helpful in such a situation.
Though we do assert that right in extreme cases to resist or disregard authority, we should always approach such a situation with a firm awareness of the fact that this life is only temporary, and vengeance belongs to God. It is better to suffer under unjust authority and know that God will avenge us and punish evildoers, than it is to rebel against that authority and become the evildoer ourselves, even if it gives us temporary relief from the oppression. Our hearts are deceitful and this life is short compared to eternity, and it would be much better to suffer for a short time in obedience to God. Sometimes situations are very clear, and sometimes not.
Consider some examples here. Joseph was under very unjust authority both as Potiphar’s slave and in the dungeon. In both cases, he submitted to that authority, worked for their good, and was rewarded. Daniel served King Nebuchadnezzar and his successors, including the Persians when they took over. Paul acknowledged the authority of the high priest and repented of his verbal attack against him when he realized who he was, even though the high priest was acting directly contrary to Christ (Acts 23). Lots of other examples could be cited.
In short, when dealing with authority we believe to be abusive—err on the side of submission, involve the church if possible, seek to redress the situation, and resist or disregard the authority only in extreme situations. No authority is absolute, and authority which is exercised arbitrarily, independent of the function of that authority, is excessive and may in flagrant cases be ignored or even resisted, especially when power is used to destroy the very ones that authority should be serving and protecting. But we should recognize the naturally rebellious and deceitful natures of our hearts, and take this step only carefully and with counsel from others, if possible. Better to suffer under evildoers than to become evildoers ourselves, for God sees, and rewards and punishes.