Conflicted and Angsty about Authority
We are now in a moment in which we all feel both conflicted and angsty about the idea of authority. After all, we’ve seen authority’s abuses, from George III overtaxing the American colonists to parents abusing their children. There are good reasons why the Western modern and now postmodern tradition have cultivated in our hearts a “hermeneutic of suspicion” toward all authority. In one sense, we’re right to adopt a default setting of suspicion toward those who have authority over us. Power corrupts, as they say. And abuse, which I’d define simply as misusing authority in a way that harms another person, is common.
Still, strangely perhaps, something instinctive in us keeps reaching out to other authority figures to solve the problem of bad authority. During the Civil Rights era, African Americans reached out to the federal government to address the discrimination they were experiencing at the hands of state and city governments. In our own era, the public voices advocating for abuse victims inside churches not only condemn the pastors who handled their cases poorly, they commend the path of reaching out to the police and child-protective services.
We instinctively recognize that the solution to bad authority is seldom no authority, but almost always good authority.
Yet book after book and tweet after tweet in our present moment only highlight the badness of bad authority. Very few attempts have been offered to define, illustrate, and commend good authority. In a world characterized by so many bad authorities, defining the bad strikes me as a necessary job, but the easier job. The harder job is to define and present good authority.
Authority around the World
In my day job, I work with pastors and have had the privilege of spending time with pastors internationally. Whether I’m speaking to pastors in Colombia, Zambia, India, or other places, often they struggle with teaching their congregations the opposite problem: that the senior pastor should not possess all power and authority. My friends in Hispanic and African contexts, for instance, explain that people like the strong leader. Therefore, pastors struggle with raising up other leaders who will do anything more than rubber-stamp the senior pastor’s own preferences. Meanwhile, pastors in southern or eastern Asian contexts, like their African counterparts, feel the challenges that arise within the context of an honor/shame culture. Leaders expect honor; people under them quickly give it.
Every location has its own challenges. A missionary friend in a formerly Soviet Central Asian country, wrote me,
One of the biggest obstacles to seeing healthy churches in our context is the abuse of authority within the church. Our country was part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. The Soviet idea of authority continues to this day in the country’s government, and that idea of authoritarian leadership has seeped into the church and is the prevailing way most pastors and church leaders view authority. There is a dire need for a biblical understanding of authority and how to use it properly in the post-Soviet, Central Asian context.
To make his point, my missionary friend offered two examples. First, a church member asked his pastor if there was church budget money for helping with evangelism and outreach. The pastor responded by saying that the church member had no authority to ask him about church funds. The money is given to the pastor, and he has sole authority over what happens with that money. Nor did he expect to be held accountable for his handling of the funds.
My friend’s second example: in a conversation with other pastors, an older pastor referred to himself as “king” in his church and the members as his “subjects.” He encouraged the younger pastors to anticipate the day when they, too, would be kings in their churches with subjects under their authority.
At best, the pastors in these two illustrations will have ineffective ministries, with few people growing in grace and wisdom. People will wander away until the churches shut down. That’s what will happen if these two pastors lack charisma or competence. If it turns out they are charismatic and competent, their ministries could do great damage in people’s lives and Christian discipleship.
One Eye on the Good, One on the Bad
A right view of authority must always keep both eyes open. One eye must always be fixed on bad authority. This is Satan’s version. It’s authority as exercised in the fall. And one eye must be fixed on good authority. This is God’s version. It’s authority as intended in creation and as exercised in redemption. With both eyes open, we see that authority is a good but dangerous gift.
Good, godly authority “authors” life, like the root of the word itself: authority. As we’ll discover, it doesn’t just work from the top down, but also from the bottom up. Good authority says, “Let me be the platform on which you build your life. I’ll supply you, fund you, resource you, guide you. Just listen to me.”
Good authority binds in order to loose, corrects in order to teach, trims in order to grow, disciplines in order to train, legislates in order to build, judges in order to redeem, studies in order to innovate. It is the teacher teaching, the coach coaching, the mother mothering. It is the rules for a game, the lines on a road, a covenant for lovers.
It says, “Trust me, and I will give you a garden in which to create a world. Just keep my commandments. I love you.”
Good authority loves. Good authority gives. Good authority generally passes out power.
Yet our first parents, and we ourselves, chose not to use our authority according to God’s commandments. We stopped asking for God’s authorization but relied instead on the serpent’s, since he appealed to our desires for supremacy. He promised loosing without binding, growing without trimming, innovation without study.
What has resulted is a rebellious and cursed world. We use our authority selfishly and therefore ineffectually. And since ineffectually then violently, believing violence will achieve our ends. Cain is not worshiped for his “worship,” so he kills.
Sin, in other words, is nothing more or less than humanity’s misuse of authority. Adam’s bite and Pharaoh’s bloodshed belong to the same class, operate by the same principles, possess the same authorization. Pharaoh merely swung a much bigger hammer.
Bad authority discourages, cripples, wilts, sucks dry, dehumanizes, snuffs out, annihilates. It uses, but doesn’t give. It is political imperialism, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, business monopolization, social oppression, child abuse.
Good authority loves. Good authority gives. Good authority generally passes out power.
Of course, bad authority doesn’t always wear such monstrous faces. Often it charms and persuades. It borrows truth and offers empathy. It says, “I know how you’re feeling. I recognize your troubles. Here is the solution. Listen to me. Keep my commandments.”
Bad authority takes a good and glorious gift that God has given to humanity and employs it for evil. It is a liar and a charlatan. Yet it is so very real, at least for a time.
Ever since the fall, the world has offered a mix of good and bad. The good comes sometimes from God’s special grace, sometimes from his common grace. Even apart from Christ’s first coming, history offers comparatively good and bad kings. Think of Pharaoh at the time of Joseph versus Pharaoh at the time of Moses.
The first coming of Christ, the perfect king, represents the beginning of the end of the bad. Yet now, in between Jesus’s first and second comings, good and bad uses of authority remain mixed together, even among God’s people, even in a single person. One day I’m the father I want to be. The next day I’m not.
Wisdom today is knowing how to keep our eyes on both good and bad uses of authority. Just as the Bible tells us there’s a time to tear down and a time to build up, a time for war and a time for peace (Eccl. 3:1–8), so there’s a time for Luke Skywalker to rebel and for Anakin Skywalker to submit. We must talk about the goodness of authority as God intends, yet we must not have idealized expectations for how well people in this world will use it.
The Bible is acutely aware of both good and bad authority, and it intends for us to study both. Consider an Israelite king. The king is over his kingdom. Yet he’s a good king only insofar as he puts himself under God’s law and with his fellow Israelites. Look at God’s instructions for him, and notice what I have italicized for emphasis:
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law. . . . And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deut. 17:18–20)
The kings of Israel were supposed to make themselves accountable to God’s law, and to acknowledge a basic equality between themselves and the people. “If you are over others,” says God, “you had better be under me, because then you realize you’re no better than anyone else, and that you’re only a steward, a landlord, a guardian of what’s mine!”
What Good Authority Should Look Like
The take-away lesson here: Good human authority is never absolute. Good authority is always accountable. Good authority drives inside the lines that God has painted on the road. In fact, good authority is always submissive!
You shouldn’t lead if you cannot submit or stay in your lane, because good leadership is always in submission to God and anyone else whom God places over us. Only God’s authority is absolute and comprehensive, being accountable only to the law of his own nature. The authority of creatures is always relative.
Furthermore, good authority, as set down in Scripture and as I’ve witnessed it, is seldom an advantage to those who possess it. It involves leading and making decisions, to be sure. Jesus led. But what the godly leader feels day to day are not all the advantages, but the burdens of responsibility, of culpability, of even bearing another’s guilt. Good authority is profoundly costly, usually involving the sacrifice of everything. It requires the end of personal desires. Meanwhile, those “under” good authority often possess most of the advantages. They’re provided protection and opportunity, strength and freedom. For instance, I would much rather have my job than my boss Ryan’s job. Ryan has to deal with the tough stuff. He has to absorb blame when things don’t go well. He has to pick up the slack when others leave it. Meanwhile, he continually provides me with a track to run on, and I’m free not to worry about the tougher things.
Furthermore, isn’t this precisely what we see in Jesus’s use of authority, leading up to the cross? He took the hard stuff on himself so that we might have the freedom to grow and run.
When we stop believing authority can be good, we grow in cynicism. We grow incapable of trust. We insist the world operates on our terms, which is another way of describing “individualism.” When this becomes widespread, community breaks down, because authoritative relationships teach us how to defer to other people, even in relationships where no hierarchy exists.
When we stop worrying about authority becoming bad, we grow in pride and self-deceit, because we assume we’re right. We lack sympathy for the vulnerable, because we assume the decisions of the hierarchy are just. We condone sin in our leaders or sin performed on behalf of the group.
Every husband, parent, pastor, policeman, politician, officer, and employer needs to understand this good and dangerous gift of authority and handle it with care.
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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