Good Authority Submits

Good Authority Is Not Unaccountable but Submits to a Higher Authority

Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”—John 1:49

The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.—John 5:19

I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. —John 8:28

Jesus is king. Jesus obeys. How do we hold those two truths together? And what does it teach us about any authority we’ve been personally given?

Passages like these three in John’s Gospel offer us far more than “principles of good leadership.” We should be careful about merely trying to draw moral principles from passages that focus on the identity of the incarnate Christ and his relationship with the heavenly Father. Still, these passages do offer us such principles. For instance: good authority is never unaccountable, but always submits to a higher authority.


Jonathan Leeman

Through Scripture and engaging stories, Jonathan Leeman shows that godly authority is essential to human flourishing and presents 5 attributes of biblical authority.

Jesus, the God-man, came to be declared king. Yet throughout his ministry on earth, he submitted himself perfectly to his Father in heaven. He spoke only what his heavenly Father taught him to speak, and did only what his heavenly Father taught him to do. Or as the apostle Paul put it, “the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).

Does Jesus Christ’s submission demean him? Only if righteousness and rule are demeaning.

Authority and submission are two sides of one coin. To be in authority you must be under it, and to be under it is to be in it. Furthermore, we exercise authority in order to uphold something that is righteous or true, and when we submit we render the judgment that that something is righteous or true.

Jesus’s submission to the heavenly Father was the declaration that God is righteous and true. For Jesus to rule, furthermore, he had to conform himself perfectly to the rule of the heavenly Father. He could rule like Adam was supposed to rule by submitting in a way Adam and Israel never submitted. By submitting, then, he ruled together with the heavenly Father in perfect righteousness.

Another Illustration: A Symphony Orchestra

Let me offer a less exalted illustration of how good authority always submits to a higher authority. My friend Susan offered me this one. Susan has played viola in a number of orchestras over the years. Generally speaking, a standard symphony orchestra has ten first violins, ten second violins, ten violas, eight cellos, and six double basses. Typically, the most skilled player plays the “first chair” of each section, also called the “principal,” and everyone in the section follows that principal. All the viola players follow the principal viola player, all the cellos the principal cellist, and so on. The principal of each section, in turn, follows the first chair of the first violins, called the “concertmaster,” who follows the orchestra conductor. The concertmaster tunes the entire orchestra before a concert, and then leads every string section when it comes to matters like timing, bowing, and so forth.

String players can adjust their bowing in a multitude of ways, each of which gives a piece of music a different interpretation. When do you bow up? When down? What style? How hard onto the strings? How lightly off? A piece written by Bach might call for one kind of bowing, Beethoven another, Debussy still another. But the point is, all the strings must bow together. And it’s up to the concertmaster to make this judgment, based on his or her understanding of the conductor’s direction. The principals of each section follow the concertmaster, and the players in every section follow their principals.

Everything in an orchestra, in fact, works according to such a hierarchy. People sitting in the even-numbered chairs (2, 4, and 6) turn the pages for people sitting in the odd chairs (1, 3, and 5), who rank slightly higher. If someone in a lower ranking chair has a question, she doesn’t raise her hand and ask the conductor. She asks the person in the chair in front of her.

If that person can’t answer, the question is passed forward person by person until it reaches the principal of that section. From there, a question would go to the concertmaster, and if the concertmaster cannot answer it, only then does it go to the conductor. If an orchestra tried to operate like a democracy, with all the members having their own say and choosing their own tuning, timing, and bowing, the music would sound terrible. Only by working within a strict hierarchy does an orchestra sound unified and glorious.

Susan recalled a rehearsal in which she played principal violist, and the man sitting in a chair behind her kept playing his notes early. She tried to signal with her body language when to come in, but he didn’t pick up her cues. Finally, she turned around and reminded her entire section that they needed to watch her body language and come in when she came in. The speedy offender replied, “But you’re coming in late.”

Susan responded, “I’m coming in with the concertmaster.”

The man again replied, “The concertmaster is coming in late.”

Susan then explained, “You might be right, but we need to be together. If you want to be the principal, you can, and I’ll follow you. But as long as I’m here, you need to follow me. You cannot keep asserting yourself and coming in early.” Another violist quietly thanked her, and shortly later the conductor himself said something similar to the whole orchestra.

As the principal violist, Susan had authority over the violas, and she exercised that authority by calling this man to account. Yet she also knew that her authority meant submitting to the concertmaster, who in turn submitted to the conductor. Susan’s authority was only as good as her submission. And this is how orchestras make beautiful music.

Merging the Two Illustrations

At the risk of getting a little messy, I wonder if we can merge the illustration of the divine Father and the incarnate Son together with the illustration of the orchestra. Suppose the orchestra of humanity were tasked with playing a symphony entitled “The Love and Righteousness of God.” In the first attempt, each of us decided that, on our own, we would act the part of player, concertmaster, conductor, and even composer. You can guess the result. The music would be cacophonous and discordant.

We’re to submit as Jesus the second Adam submitted.

But then suppose the composer sends his son to conduct this piece. The son knows precisely what his father means by love and righteousness, and so he submits his conducting to it entirely. He radiates with his father’s love and righteousness and in turn conducts the orchestra according to that love and righteousness. The concertmaster, in turn, submits and leads. The principals of every section, too, submit and lead. And the orchestra, playing the notes as intended by the composer and as transmitted through conductor and concertmaster and principals, participates with the composer in the glory of the music. Every one of them, down to the tenth chair of the second violins, proves through submission that he or she can lead still others if called upon. He or she knows and can play the notes of love and righteousness penned by the composer.

To be sure, the illustration of a symphony orchestra playing has its limits for describing what God intends for humanity. God doesn’t mean for all of us to be playing the same symphony. He intends, remarkably, for each of us to be composers on our own, some of us writing classical, some jazz, some bluegrass, some rock ’n’ roll. He does not intend mass uniformity. Where the illustration applies, however, is in the call to live and apply God’s own principles of love and righteousness. Here Jesus calls us to be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). We’re to submit as Jesus the second Adam submitted.

Unaccountable Authority

Now let’s consider the flip side. Can you think of an unaccountable leader? Maybe you’ve known one or have been under one. My friend Tony (not his real name) worked on the pastoral staff of a megachurch pastor who wasn’t accountable to anyone—not to his fellow elders and not to his congregation. Through intimidation, mockery, and strength of personality, this pastor managed to make his elders his minions. He taught them to do his bidding—or be removed. He’d scream and curse at people privately. When a few of the elders tried to place limits on him and keep him accountable, they found themselves publicly denounced before the church.

Tony remarked, “As a staff member, you learned what got pats on the back and what didn’t. The closer you were to the center of power, the more loyalty you were expected to have to him over everything.”

“But loyalty can be a good thing,” I responded. “What’s the difference between good and bad loyalty?”

“With unhealthy loyalty,” he replied, “you cannot be honest and push back on the person. The person doesn’t welcome or invite questions or critique. Just the opposite: you walk around on eggshells, because you know you’ll get yelled at, mocked, or fired. Plus, it’s really hard to get a straight perspective from people who are closer to the center than you. They just give you the company lines.” He summarized: “On the church staff there was a culture of fear, and in such an environment you’re trained to be more loyal to the person than to the Lord. You ask, ‘What will please this man,’ instead of ‘What will please God?’”

A leader who doesn’t view himself as being inside an accountability structure effectively becomes a law unto himself. He teaches everyone under him to fear him, when it’s only God whom we should fear.

Loyalty to a leader is indeed a good thing, but good loyalty is loyalty to his leadership under God and anyone else under whom God has placed him, like fellow elders or a congregation. Good loyalty says, “I’m committed to you and your success as a leader, and that means I cannot follow you into folly or unrighteousness, because it’s bad for both you and us.”

Increasingly, this pastor used this church for his own glory. On one occasion, Tony found himself sitting on a private jet with the lead pastor to rush back to the church after a conference. “We see tithes go way down if I’m not preaching in the pulpit,” the pastor said. “So the elders allow this.” While on the plane, he also offered Tony tickets for a professional hockey game back home, with seats in the skybox. “They’re cutting prime rib!” the pastor said. Tony thought to himself, “What an alternative universe this is.” He also felt like he was being bribed.

It’s hard to say it loud enough: good authorities submit. If you cannot listen and follow, you should not lead. At all. Every person on earth, from the highest to the lowest, should assume a posture of submission to other authorities established by God. Even the president of the United States must submit informally to the counsel of his cabinet and formally to other branches of government, the voters, and the Constitution.

To act otherwise is to make yourself God, like so many Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Caesars did explicitly, and that we all do in varying degrees. And those who make themselves God by discounting all accountability, if they go unchecked long enough, eventually destroy whatever they lead, whether a family, company, school, nation, army, or church. They also set themselves up for a terrible judgment.

This article is adapted from Authority: How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing by Jonathan Leeman.

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