“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”Jesus
I want to noodle over with you the notion of authority, the right to impose one’s will on something or someone else, which also comes with the right to inflict pain upon the non-compliant. Jesus claims all authority in heaven and on earth, which means he has the right to impose his will on anyone or anything. He will reward those who comply and punish those who don’t.
Jesus’ universal authority rests on at least three immovable foundations: One, he created everything, and as creator retains full authority over his creation. Two, Jesus is God, and no one or no thing can have any authority over God. The third is related to the second, but concerns the workings of the Trinity: the Father gave all authority to the Son.
But the Bible is also clear that God has delegated some of his authority to people. “Subdue the earth,” he told Adam. Thus, man has the right to arrange the earth as he sees fit. We don’t have to ask grasshoppers for their permission to cut the field they call home or chickens if they mind us eating their eggs. We can cheerfully massacre mosquitos by the millions with no better justification that they’re annoying. They are living in our world, not we in theirs, and there’s something terribly upside down and even evil about man serving creation (Rom 1:25) instead of ruling it (Gen 1:26).
However, man’s authority over other men is a little complex and requires some careful thought. Since God’s authority knows no limits or boundaries, “there is no authority except from God” (Rom. 13:1). Thus any legitimate authority must be granted by God, with any and all attendant limitations and qualifications He may place upon it.
And this is so whether those having authority recognize it or not.
Therefore, “those [authorities] that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). This begs the simple question, what authorities exist? The Bible seems to define three broad categories (or spheres, if you like) of authority: the family, the church, and the state.
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1). Why should children obey their parents? What right do parents have to exercise authority over them? The answer should never be because parents are bigger and stronger, or even more honorable and/or intelligent, but rather because God gave parents the right, the authority (and responsibility) to aim their children in a certain direction, and children who rebel against their parents’ efforts to do so are ultimately rebelling against God’s authority. Furthermore, if parents (particularly fathers), shirk this responsibility and don’t exercise authority over their children, letting them do whatever they want, they’re in rebellion against God, who told them to use their authority for their kids’ well-being (Eph. 6:4).
The tool God gave parents to use to enforce their authority is “the rod” (Prov 22:15). Parents have the right (and responsibility) to inflict pain upon their children when they rebel against them so they will return to proper, productive behavior. That looks different in different situations, ages, personalities, etc., but the principle is the same. Fathers who are unwilling to inflict pain actually hate their disobedient children (Prov 13:24).
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls” (Heb 13:17). Church leaders must meet certain qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-13) before being entrusted to wield the authority to direct the church, and they’d better not misuse that authority for their own personal benefit at the expense of others, as did the shepherds in Ezekiel 34:1-4. If so, they’ll face the wrath of the chief shepherd someday. Here’s looking at you, Joyce, Kenneth, Joel, Creflo, etc. ad nauseum. Since church leaders, particularly elders, will have to “give an account” for the souls of church members, God has given them the authority and responsibility to maintain worship, protect doctrine, and even require certain conduct according to Biblical standards (Acts 15:19-20).
Church leaders who reject this responsibility and allow aberrant teaching or immoral behavior to go unpunished will bring on themselves the wrath of Jesus himself (Rev. 2:14-16, 20). The tool Jesus has given the church and its leaders to enforce their authority is “the keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16:19), which in simple terms is the authority to lock or unlock the doors of church membership and participation in the sacraments, which is symbolic of entering into or being locked out of “the kingdom.”
God has also granted authority for the governance of civil society. This includes the right of taxation, the right to raise an army, and the right to pass and enforce proper laws. The state’s primary task is to maintain a peaceful land, allowing their citizens to conduct their affairs unmolested by enemies from outside the nation and criminal elements within it. Wars waged and laws passed must be in compliance with God’s moral laws and intended for the creation and preservation of a just society in which all citizens may enjoy their own (self-evidently) God-given rights to freely own property, raise a family, conduct business, and worship according to the dictates of conscience. Or, to protect the right to life, liberty, and to pursue happiness.
Hitler’s proper authority did not extend to exterminating his own Jewish citizens, so it was good and proper for other citizens to hide Jews in the basement and lie like crazy about their location. Kim Jong Un has no proper authority to prohibit the production and distribution of Bibles in North Korea, so it is good and noble that some make it their mission to do just that. But even though Roman Caesars were generally wretches who did unspeakable things to little boys, when they crucified murderers, imprisoned thieves, or defended their people against Barbarians, they were absolutely right to do so, and when they asked Jesus to pay his taxes, he rendered to Caesar what was Caesar’s.
The tool God has given the state to enforce its authority is “the sword” (Rom 13:4), which is the right to kill certain lawless people. The state abuses or neglects the use of the sword to its own detriment and that of its citizens.
Ruling Within the Borders
God’s authority knows no limits. He can turn the heart of a king anytime, anywhere, to any extent he likes. God is well within his rights to draw the Devil’s attention to Job and tear down his protective hedge, just as God may allow little girls to die of brain tumors without being required to stand before a court and offer a satisfactory explanation. God is the judge and requires no jury.
But God doesn’t grant boundless authority. Any authority he does, he limits.
When God grants authority to family, church, or state, he is granting some of his rights in a limited way to be properly exercised for the good of all under the umbrella of that authority. These limitations and boundaries ought not be crossed. God has not given the state the right to withhold church membership or baptism from serial adulterers, nor has he given fathers the right to convict and punish murderers, or church leaders the right to use the rod on kids who refuse to go to bed on time. And since all authority properly comes from God, whenever a family, a church, or a state oversteps its bounds, it is the duty of the one whose authority is being trampled to attempt to maintain and reclaim it for the good of everyone.
A few weeks ago I stood beside my eldest daughter Natalie when the question was asked to a gathering of a hundred and forty or so: “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” I said as firmly as I knew how, “Me.” She was, after all, my daughter to give, and no human being in all the world save me had the right to do so. Pastor Bob, representing the church, had no right, nor did President Trump, representing the state. Only me, her father. If the church or the state starts claiming the right to give away our daughters in marriage, we are looking at dark days indeed (see Judges 21, perhaps?). And if the deacon board is tasked with making the contingency plans in case of nuclear attack, well, they’re a good lot, but still, that’ll be a pretty dark day.
In the United States we hold to a firm separation between church and state, not as a political position so much as a simple recognition that the state has no right to encroach upon the church’s God-given authority, nor the church upon the state’s. The church cannot imprison criminals, declare war, collect taxes, or write speeding tickets, while the state cannot collect taxes from the church, make or remove members, or demand that worshipers stand on one leg. To put it in Old Testament terms, Saul, as the head of state, had every right to declare war and no right to offer sacrifices, and God wasn’t terribly amused by the king playing priest.
In medieval times, the Roman Church claimed for herself the right of coronation, a symbolic way of exercising authority over the state. After all, whoever has the right to crown a king has the right to dethrone him, making the Pope head of church and state. So it’s no surprise that the church started executing heretics, because when lines between church and state become blurred, heresy (which divides the church) is tantamount to sedition (which divides the state).
More common today is the state claiming for itself authority over the church. In China right now, locked-down churches are required to sing the national anthem in order to reopen, as if the state has the right to either open or close a church. Here at home, under the Supreme Court’s recent Bostock decision, it’s possible that the state may begin to punish churches for exhorting anyone identifying themselves on the LGBTQ+ spectrum (and who knows what’s lurking in the ‘+’ that isn’t found in the other letters) to return to a lifestyle consistent with Biblical morality.
So long as the authorities of family, church, and state stay within the boundaries of their God-defined domains, exercising their granted authority and wielding the tools of enforcement according to God’s design, we must obey them with the same spirit as if submitting to God himself. Even if the authorities are a mess of corrupt louts, buffoons, and rank hypocrites (Matt 23:1). But wherever God’s prescribed boundaries are crossed or authority is unfaithfully handled, we are right to encourage, and even demand the transgressor to return to their proper realm.
Similarly, wherever those boundaries are abandoned, we are right to encourage the delinquent magistrate, father, or elder to return to his post.
Magistrate, you must rise up and protect the unborn from being slaughtered. That’s part of your responsibility from God. You must protect private property from looters and rioters. You must not turn a blind eye to the criminal affairs of the rich and powerful.
Elders, guard the teaching and the doctrine, lest families under your care be ruined (Titus 1:11). Don’t tolerate wickedness in your midst, lest those in your charge be forever lost (1 Cor 5:5, 13). And don’t turn your authority over to the state, either, as if protecting, leading, or regulating worship is anything the state has any authority from God to do.
Fathers, lead your families well. All family problems are your problem. That’s not quite the same as saying your fault, but it is to say it’s your job to handle them. Love, cherish, protect, lead, and in so doing, beautify your wife, who was, happily for you, already beautiful when you got her. Raise your children in the instruction and admonition of the Lord, appropriately using the rod to remove the foolishness bound up in their hearts, lest they be ruined for lack of restraint and you die in disgrace (1 Sam 3-4).
All power is given to Jesus. All of it. But take note of both the boundaries and responsibilities that come with each disbursement, and let us encourage one another to be faithful in executing our assigned tasks.
The more technical term for what I’m describing here is “sphere sovereignty.” There’s an interesting discussion of it here
Originally written for the Lewis Lake Covenant Church newsletter.
top picture is a screenshot from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/authority