Spiritual Authority

Posted on February 24, 2013
Filed Under Authority, Specials, Theological | 1 Comment

Authority, for my purpose, is the ability to direct the activities of another person in a way that they would not otherwise chose and in which they do not see any direct benefit (other than avoiding the consequences of disobeying). In this sense the reason for the authority (governmental, spiritual, or otherwise) is not relevant. But in many cases the source of one’s nominal authority can determine whether that person has any effective authority or not. Badges, signs, and seals are used to endorse governmental authorities, signifying that the force of the government will be used to enforce the claims of the authorized individual. Spiritual authority is then authority which is understood to come from God–from representing God, from correctly interpreting or relaying his will and commands.

The Bible separates spiritual authority from every other authority. That is, no authority always has spiritual authority or speaks for God. Individuals are sometimes shown to speak for God, and God in cases supports that authority through acting directly against disobedient people; but that authority always comes when people speak for God (contingent upon them actually and correctly representing God) and never from a persons office or position alone. Some offices and positions were established by God and have authority (such as the priests and kings in Israel), but that authority is specific to its role (priestly and kingly) and does not speak, necessarily, directly for God. God speaks for himself through whomever he chooses, and when he is recognized as speaking he is obeyed regardless of who is delivering the message.

There are more examples in addition to the above which amply demonstrate that no authority can be relied on to always speak for God. Even people who ordinarily and routinely declare the righteous truth of God sometimes stray from it, and it is appropriate to call them out on it when they do. Some who in their hearts hate God and should never be considered reliable guides nevertheless at times give voice to his truth. Spiritual authority cannot be fit into any fixed relationship with any other authority or office, but derives its authority from its truth. Paul emphasizes this to the Galatians, writing, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9 NKJV). Paul disqualifies himself from having any authority if he speaks outside of the truth that he has previously declared. This is an amazing thing you are not likely to find with any modern authority. You can find someone who will tell you that they have God’s authority over a church or a family or this or that other thing, but it will be hard indeed to find one among them who will say that he should also be cursed if he goes beyond the gospel.

It is absurd and misleading for anyone to say that we should listen to them because they speak for God. Spiritual authority is always recognized before it is obeyed. Nobody honors God by obeying someone because that person claims to be speaking for God–that honors the person by assuming what they say (that they speak for God) is true even though you can’t see it. We can honor God by listening to someone when we realize that what they say is true even when we normally would not respect or rely on that person (Amos 7:14-16). But anyone who is truly speaking for God realizes that God must grant the hearing as well as the speaking, just as Peter first confessed recognized Christ (Matthew 16:17). Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12 NKJV), and to the Thessalonians “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13 NKJV). It is the Holy Spirit in us which causes us to recognize God speaking, and not some man insisting that some verses in the Bible qualify him to speak for God. John confirms this, writing “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him” (1 John 2:27 NKJV).

It is quite possible for someone who is speaking for God to be ignored. It happens all the time and it happened to the best of us. Christ himself said that his audience could not hear God speaking (Matthew 13:13-14; cf. Mark 4:12, Luke 8:20, Acts 28:26). To reinforce the point, it happened quite literally when God spoke from heaven and some people thought it was thunder (John 12:28). Jesus’ reaction to this lack of hearing (and the reaction of his apostles after him) was not to set up rules and try to force people to follow him because he knew he was right. He let his sheep who heard him follow him, and the ones who did not hear were led astray by other voices. Spiritual authority is obeyed by those who recognize it, and anyone who must insist that he has spiritual authority and ought to be followed is not relying on spiritual authority at all.

This is the fourth part in a series on Authority. You can find the other parts here.


The Faces of Authority

Posted on February 24, 2013
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In keeping with our great distinction between experts and despots, we make much sharper distinctions between different types of authority than was common in the culture of the New Testament (or Old Testament, for that matter). Consider these two passages from Matthew:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:1-13 NIV)

Here the landowner engages the services of free men to do a definite task for a price. It’s a simple hiring transaction with no long-term obligation, not much different than a employer-employee relationship today.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35 NIV)

In this case, not only is the servant jailed for debt, he is also tortured. This is an atrocity in our contemporary culture. It is unthinkable that someone would be tortured for a debt. But the same word (kurios, Strong’s 2962) is used for the landowner in the first story (“the owner of the vineyard,” Matthew 20:8 NIV) as is used for the master in the second story (“in anger his master handed him over,” Matthew 18:34 NIV). Both stories are parables of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven recorded in Matthew. Although the two masters have different specific relationships to the servants in the two stories, their authority is not considered essentially different in the way that we would distinguish ‘office manager’ from ‘slave master’.

We think of a slave master, an employer, and a high-ranking politician has having three fundamentally different kinds of authority. The first we consider inherently wicked and perverse; the second, generally a mutually beneficial relationship; and our view of the third depends wildly on whether we believe that particular politician represents our interests. The politician might be considered as corrupt as the slave master or more beneficent than the employer, all depending on our political views. But the ancient lack of distinction is starting to creep back up on us. Although generally we do see employers and employees as both benefiting, in some crowds the employer’s benefit dwarfs the employee’s to the point where we now use the term “wage slave.” In our use this is an entirely derogatory term, pushing an employer into the category of a wicked and corrupt slave owner. In ancient contexts the view was more mixed; although it was generally considered better to be free, a slave or bondservant might consider themselves to enjoy such advantages from a good master than they voluntarily continue the relationship when they might get out (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). But we cannot even suggest today that a slave might choose his service without being considered racist and dishonest – a legacy of the race-based slavery in the United States.

It might be worth stating here explicitly that preferring to remain a slave or bondservant has always been the exception and never the rule. When Paul writes to the Corinthians about freedom in Christ, he says “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity)” (1 Corinthians 7:21 ESV). It is assumed unless demonstrated otherwise that everyone would prefer freedom. Perhaps today a lifetime career with a single company is about as common as voluntary bondservice was then – you can find it, but it is not considered normal.

The modern notion of a “wage slave” ironically helps us bridge the gap to the ancient perspective on bondservice. There are some jobs in our economy that we would conventionally say nobody would chose. Stereotypically, working in fast food or big-box retail would never be anyone’s first choice. Yet most of us do not regard holding such jobs as being subject to evil. (Some, of course, would say so.) For most people, these unpleasant jobs are something to work your way out of and to avoid as much as possible, but they are not institutions of evil to which no person should ever be subjected. In some ways they form a part of the overall continuum of jobs, along which we are always trying to move to a “better” job. Typically a “better” job is one with more responsibility and more monetary compensation. This kind of improvement was available to at least some servants in New Testament times (Luke 19:11-19).

The ultimate difference between our conception of authority and the understanding of the New Testament authors is that we see authority as antithetical to love. A relationship of authority cannot be a relationship of love. We have established this in widespread regulations prohibiting romantic involvement between a boss and an employee. Such a relationship is certainly open to abuses, but relationships of authority are always open to abuse, inherently so. Prohibiting sexual activity between boss and employee is not effective–neither at preventing such activity nor at eliminating abuses of power. But since we have generally confused sex with love, we prohibit sex and then pretend that no kind of love exists between authority and subject. We can talk about how we admire our boss or respect him; we can speak of our boss as a mentor and perhaps even as a friend. But it is taboo to say that you love your boss (in any genuine sense, beyond the trivial use of ‘love’ that can be applied to any passing fancy). Likewise, although it is permissible to love your country, it is weird and taboo to love the president. We just do not see authority and love as compatible. If we do love any person in power, we may only love them ‘as a person,’ as distinct from their role of authority. That ‘person’ we love does not have authority, of course, only the office… the walls and the desk and the chair, but not ‘the person.’ Even many parents are at pains to try to relate to their children as equals, and remove or disguise the authority that they have over their children. Finally, we apply our dislike of authority to God himself. In all the traditional notions of God, God has power. In our modern notions God does not have power, or cannot use his power, or chooses not to use his power, because a God who is actively more powerful than ourselves is beyond our love (so we think). God cannot be both lovable and powerful. Power is bad, so God becomes a helpless good.

The modern contradiction between authority and love is not known in the Bible. The most obvious example of a lovable (rightly beloved) authority is Jesus himself. Peter’s word ‘Lord’ below is the same word as in the two parables earlier, with the hired field workers and the indebted servant:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17 ESV)

There are of course countless other examples of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples involving  both authority and love. Arguably, any relationship we are to emulate in the New Testament that involves authority also involves love. But one in particular will serve to illustrate how deeply opposed we are today to allowing authority and love to mix: Peter’s comment to wives about submission. “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:5-6 ESV). We cannot in our culture imagine a wife calling her husband ‘lord’ or anything even close: ‘master,’ ‘boss,’ even ‘sir’. By “we” I mean myself if no one else. It is frankly appalling to me to imagine a wife referring to her husband this way. It does not sound romantic. It does not sound like a term of love or an address that expects to be loved. But this proves that my hearing is wrong, because whatever the situation actually was between Abraham and Sarah (flawed humans, both, and not in all ways good examples), this is the same way that Jesus’ own disciples addressed him. If there is truth in the love of Christ, then, it cannot be impossible to combine with that word ‘lord.’

This is the third part in a series on Authority. You can find the other parts here.


Qualified Authority

Posted on February 24, 2013
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We have a bit of cultural schizophrenia about authority. Authority is something unpleasant people use to force us to do things we do not wish to do. “The authorities” are bad people summoned to punish people we dislike. But “an authority” is a wise person who knows what he is talking about. Changing from a plural to a singular noun changes the connotation from negative to positive, from forced compliance to admiring compliance. The difference is in the notion that a person has demonstrated competence qualifying his authority. This notion of qualification influences all our thinking about authority. Even when we are looking at the authorities as powers which compel us against our will, there is still in the background a sense of collective choice, a notion that some large group of people chose this authority to wield the power that it does. People speak against this underlying assumption with foolish and obnoxious comments like “He’s not my President,” implying that since the man in question doesn’t meet with their approval his authority is null and void. We think of authority as bad and “not ours” if we disagree with it, and good, trustworthy, and justified if we agree with it.

Such a notion is an historical absurdity. Even the more forgiving rulers of yesteryear who did not insist on being worshiped or even liked required their subjects to recognize and accept their authority. Saying “Well, he’s not my king,” would not earn you any kind of sympathy or score any political points. Although power-holders have always tried to legitimize their power with stories of divine mandate, noble bloodline, or some other supernatural endorsement, the modern conceit that a ruler is recognized by all his subjects as qualified to rule reverses the historical pattern. Now we say that the ruler has power because people recognize his authority (expertise in governing); before it was understood that a ruler commands authority (respect, obedience) because he has power to punish or compel. A centurion gave an example of authority that Jesus commended when he said: “‘For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it’” (Matthew 8:9 NKJV). The centurion does not say “I am an expert, so my men trust me to lead.”

We are accustomed to thinking that authorities must be qualified to rule (by popular opinion if nothing else). But the competence and justice of authorities cannot be assumed in the Biblical context. The prophet Samuel warned Israel about their desire for a king,  saying

“This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:11-18 NKJV)

Saul’s reckless kingly decrees jeopardized the life of his own son (1 Samuel 14:44). A proud and temperamental man, Saul could not be called a good leader despite his occasional military victories against the Philistines. But David would not raise a hand against him because Saul had been established as an authority in Israel (1 Samuel 24). David’s grandson Rehoboam was also a poor leader. He ignored the advice of his mature and experienced counselors (1 Kings 12:1-21). Although Rehoboam was self-centered, arrogant, rude, and mean, those who rejected his authority are described as “in rebellion against the house of David to this day” (1 Kings 12:18 NKJV). Authorities in the Old Testament kingdom of Israel were not always experts.

To deal fairly with the New Testament teaching on authority, we should recognize that more “modern” and “enlightened” forms of government were already in the historical record when apostles lived and wrote. The Constitution of the United States is based on a notion of government representing the public interest (rather than an individual monarch’s interest) that is drawn largely from the Roman Republic, with influences from even older Greek democracies. If early Americans were unwilling to call their leader king, the Romans were even more unwilling; even the emperors refused the hated title “king” (rex), instead adopting the last name ‘Ceaser’ as their designator.   The basic principles of American government were already old news by the time the New Testament was written.

But the authors of scripture did not experience governments operating on “modern” ideals. The Emperors had replaced “we the people” and were on their way toward considering themselves gods. The homeland of the New Testament authors had a status somewhat akin to a colony; although Jews had exceptional privileges for a subject nation under Roman rule, they did not represent themselves in the imperial government. They had taxation without representation. The Romans kept slaves – with varying legal protections (although how well legal protections always extended to “voiceless” citizens is always up for debate), but under conditions which eventually provoked a revolt that ended in mass executions.  In the early history of the Church the government became increasingly hostile toward Christians. There is no plausible reason to think that New Testament writers assumed just government, liberty for all, self-determination, or any other principle we might today hold as a prerequisite for submitting to a governmental authority. Autocratic pagans proclaiming themselves gods are about as far from evangelical American Christian notions of “just government” as it is possible to get, yet somehow we manage to read an idealized version of American government into New Testament teachings.

This is the second part in a series about Authority. You can find the other parts here.

Life and Death Authority

Posted on February 24, 2013
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Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18 NIV)

I usually try not to lead my point with an Old Testament citation because so many arguments which rely on the Old Testament miss the clarity of focus on Christ given to us in the New Testament. But I believe the Old and New are reconciled in Christ and do not point to different things or rely on different principles; and in this case I think Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have a bit better presentation of the same point that Peter and company later made also:

The high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”  But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:27-32 ESV)

There is much in common between these two accounts. In both cases the people of God did not dispute the authority of their adversary. Nobody here claims a right to freedom of religion, free speech, freedom of assembly, or any other right we are taught today that we possess by divine mandate. Neither is there any record for us of threats of God’s punishment in retaliation for anything done to the believers. Anyone can infer that a god will defend or repay his followers, so there is an implicit threat, but the kinds of imprecations we expect from a threatened believer do not appear in the record. Although in neither case do the defendants challenge the authority of their adversary, nor even dispute their own liability for punishment if they continue, still in both cases they insist that obedience to God trumps any other authority.

These two points are equally important. We take it for granted that obedience to God (or really, in our thinking, to conscience) trumps any other authority. We forget or ignore that this does not escape us from the punishment or retaliation of those lesser authorities. “Conscientious objector” today suggests someone who departs from the expected course without direct penalty; in the context of either of these accounts that role could is synonymous with “convict.” We might say that nobody has the right to command us to disobey God, but it would be more accurate just to say that we are never right to disobey God. The consequences of obeying God and disobeying that other power are still real; we will most likely be thrown into the fire, and it is up to God how we come out of it.

Take note that Peter was beaten for his impudence after this fine moralizing speech. Not much later Peter’s friend Stephen was stoned to death with the tacit approval of the local authorities. This is the Peter who writes for us, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:13-15 ESV). Some have tried to interpret this as a qualification, that only those authorities who punish evildoers and praise those who do good must be obeyed. But Peter and the apostles have personal experience with hostile authorities and speak of submitting to them, as far as obedience to God allows. Paul also says “Let 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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13:1-3 ESV). But he also admits that he himself used authority to persecute the innocent: “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them” (Acts 26:10 ESV).

The perspective practiced by Peter and Paul is not one of inalienable rights but one of absolute authority, as Jesus himself said: “Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above'” (John 19:11 ESV). Jesus was subsequently put to death by the authorities. Our best information indicates nearly all of the apostles were as well. Around the same time, a revolutionary movement in Jerusalem exploded into open revolt. The political will for revolution was present around the apostles, and they suffered nearly every injustice known to man, but their default posture and recommendation remained submission to authority. Christians had died by the time Peter and Paul wrote their letters (Paul had a hand in killing some of them himself), but nevertheless their instruction remains “submit to those in authority.” Their confidence for this command was not the fair treatment of law-abiding citizens but the surety that true life belongs to the risen Christ, and the only harm Christ’s own can suffer is a temporary harm to a temporary body.

Neither the supreme power of the Babylonian empire nor the religious authorities in Jerusalem could compel God’s people to disobey. But their faithfulness was not a free pass out from under those authorities. Although Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not singed, they certainly realized as they stood before the king that they might be. Peter and his friends escaped with their lives but not without real bruises (and likely worse). Obedience to authority does not mean freedom from oppression in the Bible. God’s obedient and faithful servants suffer more economic, physical, and emotional hardship than they deserve.

This is the first post on a series about Authority. You can find the other parts here.

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