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.
- Aaron, the anointed High Priest, was wrong to make the golden calf (Exodus 32) and to grumble against Moses (Numbers 12) with his sister Miriam (even though she herself was a prophetess, Exodus 15:20).
- Balaam prophesied the truth about Israel even though he was corrupt and also advised their enemies how to ensare them (Numbers 22-24 , Numbers 31:16).
- Nathan was right to confront David even though David was the anointed king over Israel (2 Samuel 12:1-12).
- The prophet who rightly spoke out against Jeroboam was wrong to stay and eat with the old prophet; the old prophet who was wrong to lie and say that God had told him to stay was right to prophesy that the prophet who stayed would die for his sin (1 Kings 13).
- Caiaphas the High Priest prophesied correctly about Jesus, although he hated him and helped plan his death (John 11:49-52).
- Peter was wrong to separate with the Jews (Galatians 2:11-21), though he himself had rightly said that gentiles were equal in the faith before (Acts 11:1-18).
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.