The Bible’s teachings on authority come not primarily though a set of terse doctrines set forth in a few lines, but rather through hundreds of stories. We learn about God’s authority and humanity’s original rebellion in the Garden of Eden. We encounter Moses’ authority, and the challenge it represented to the authority of Pharaoh in Egypt.
We learn that words spoken with authority can bring death, such as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts. On the other hand, godly authority has the power to bring life. Jesus often healed the sick, the lame, and the blind with the laying on of hands and words of authority.
When Jesus spoke in the synagogues, the people marveled at the authority with which he spoke. He opened the scriptures, not as a dead letter to be adhered to, but as a promise and a challenge to be received with joy and trembling. Jesus’ authority – the power of his ‘yes’ to truly mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to mean ‘no’ – was a hallmark of his ministry.
There is a thread in the biblical tapestry that argues clearly and forcefully for subjection to authority. Romans 13 comes to mind as an important – and often abused – example of this line of thinking. All authority is instituted by God, says Paul. The governing authorities are to be honored and obeyed, not just out of fear, but for the sake of conscience. God wants us to obey.
This is fascinating, coming from Paul. After all, Paul regularly tussled with the established authorities – religious and political – publicly challenging their world view. He was no one to shy away from upending the religious and cultural chieftains of his time and place. It’s not a coincidence that he regularly had to flee for his life. He spent much of his time in jail. How strange that among his teachings should be the idea that a violent, often tyrannical government like that of Rome should be honored and obeyed.
It’s not just Paul. We encounter this unexpected message in the life of Jesus, too. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – not because he was in need of repentance, but “in order to fulfill all righteousness.” John’s ministry possessed authority, and Jesus found that in submitting himself to John, he was submitting himself to the Father.
Jesus didn’t submit himself to every authority. Jesus openly defied the life-denying teachings of the Pharisees and priests that dominated Jewish religious and political life. He challenged Herod, the notoriously unjust local strongman who murdered John the Baptist, even calling him names at one point. Jesus seemed to have no problems picking fights with those in authority.
And yet, when Jesus was arrested by the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, he ordered his disciples not to fight. He submitted himself, first to the abusive authority of the priests, and later to the state violence of Rome. According to scripture, Jesus had no defiant words for the Pilate. The Roman governor was amazed at his passivity! Jesus exercised a ministry characterized by direct confrontation with those in authority, yet he was led to his death without resistance.
No matter how much some of us may resonate with the maxim, “question authority,” the Bible gives consistent witness to the importance of obedience. Jesus himself is the ultimate authority. In him all things hold together. Everything that does not join with him scatters. All authority is instituted by God; it is the skeletal system of the God-created cosmos. The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but power.
We live in an age in which almost all of our authorities and civic institutions are being ripped down. The individual reigns supreme. In the absence of authority, truth becomes a moving target. With no one able speak with authority about the things that really matter, we are all relegated to the realm of “alternative facts.”
Despite the twistedness of our human authorities and value systems, we clearly need them. God instituted authority when he said “let there be light!” and divided the day from the night. Through his supreme, creative authority, God drew us out of chaos and into a beautiful, ordered universe. Only God’s authority can overcome the chaos and confusion that now reigns in our personal and civic life.
Yet there’s good reason that so much authority has been rejected. Our authoritative institutions in government, business, and religion have all been thoroughly discredited. Corruption abounds. It’s hard to see how we should submit ourselves to an authority that is so hollowed out, so rife with injustice and hypocrisy. The Bible supports us in this conclusion, too, with its many stories of resistance to an unjust social order.
How do we reconcile this biblical ambiguity? Are we to submit to the governing authorities – to the civic and religious institutions that govern our society – even when they’re wrong? Or is it more important to stand up for truth, even if it means trashing the authority structures that lend shape and coherence to our communities, nations, and the world at large?
It would be easier if we could simply say, “submit to authority, always” or “question authority, no matter what.” Black-and-white rules are easier to follow than principles guided by conscience. But for better or worse, we don’t live in a black-and-white world. God has given us free will, in clear anticipation of the challenging and nuanced choices we are called to make.
What does it mean to imitate Jesus in our relationship to authority? What does it mean when he teaches us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which belongs to God”? Like so many profound teachings, these words of Jesus contain a tension that demands discernment on our part. We are to subordinate ourselves to the authority of the state. Yet we can only rightly submit ourselves to human authority in the context of our ultimate submission to God.
Who are the authorities in your life? Police, the IRS, employers. The money economy, church leadership, social expectations. Fashion, loyalty to sports teams, family. Here in the United States, we like to think of ourselves as free and independent people, beholden to no one. Yet there are so many authorities that we answer to. What does it mean to obey – or to resist?
Paul, who in Romans calls us to submission to the civil authority, also writes, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” All authority is instituted by God, yet not all authorities are to be obeyed. How does Paul navigate this dilemma? How do we?
Though not an author of the Bible, C.S. Lewis provides a clue when he writes that the devil doesn’t create anything. The Father of Lies can only twist the good creation that God has made. God created all authority to bless and give life, but through our rebellion against that holy and healthy authority, we have allowed the creation to become twisted. Authority no longer works as intended. Rather than acting as a skeletal structure for the body of Christ, it can be misdirected to empower evil.
How do we tell the difference between authority instituted by God and demonic strongholds that must be challenged? Sometimes it seems impossible to sort out all the mixed motives in our relationships and institutions. Fortunately, the author of all authority is available to guide us in our discernment. Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would be present, speaking through us as we interact with authority. As we submit ourselves to God, we can be instruments of healing and reconciliation for earthly authorities that have become twisted with rebellion and diverted from their God-given purpose.
This process of courageous discernment requires that we maintain an awareness of who is in control. All authority is delegated by God, and so all authorities are answerable to God. The Holy Spirit lives and speaks in us, so even the weakest of us can be called to speak in God’s authority. We are called to submit to the governing authorities, and to all authorities that God has instituted over us – citizen to government, child to parent, worker to employer. Yet in all these relationships of authority, God must always reign supreme. Each one of us stands or falls before our own master – the Lord Jesus. We are primarily and ultimately responsible to him. We must be mindful of our obedience to him even in the midst of our subordination to lesser authorities.
As the early church said to the religious authorities who ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”