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.