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How Can I Tell the Difference between Legitimate and Abusive Authority?
by Pastor Douglas Shearer
It’s hard for us – living in 2001 and on the cusp of 2002 – to imagine how our grandfathers and great grandfathers thought about authority. Authority was “a given” for them. No one gave it very much thought. It was just there – hardly visible because it was so much a part of everyday living – just one more bit of furniture in the room of life – unobtrusive and pretty much unquestioned.
In fact, what today we call “authority” went by another name back then: “duty.” If you were to cull through the literature of that era – its dime store novels, its high school and college texts – its boy scout and girl scout manuals - you wouldn’t find the word “authority” used much; instead, you’d find extensive use of the word “duty” – and, of course, its synonyms: “responsibility” and “obligation.”
Today, on the other hand, the word “duty” isn’t used much; it has been replaced by the word “authority” – which, when it’s used, is almost always cast in a pejorative light. We don’t examine anymore the contributions authority makes to personal well-being and social cohesion; instead, we examine its perversions and abuses – how it’s used to exploit the poor and protect the rich – how it’s used for purposes of greed and self-aggrandizement – how it represses the development of personal identity and self-development.
How different it was for our grandfathers and great grandfathers! Our great grandfathers were drafted into the army during World War I and fought in Flanders and along the Somme not because they were compelled to do so, not because someone put a gun to their heads and told them to go, but because it was their duty. They felt morally obligated to go. They were shouldering the responsibility of citizenship. They never thought to seriously question that responsibility – or the moral authority underlying it.
Likewise our fathers and grandfathers were drafted into the army during World War II and fought in Normandy and in the South Pacific – all because, once again, it was their duty to do so. They too were shouldering the responsibility of citizenship. And they did so willingly – without hardly a murmur of protest.
Duty! Responsibility! Obligation! That’s the guise authority was clothed in when our grandfathers and great grandfathers were children. They grew up, got married, held down jobs, and raised their families against the backdrop it provided.
Moreover, our grandfathers and great grandfathers linked honor to duty. The one was unthinkable without the other.
But that all began to change in the late 1960s. Duty, responsibility, and obligation were shunted aside and eventually all but discarded. Why? Because self-sacrifice - the virtue which sustains an ethic of duty – that virtue was overthrown. And what replaced it? Self-fulfillment! Pop psychologist Fritz Perl summed up the transition in his well known Gestalt Prayer:
I do my thing, and you do your thing,
I’m not obligated to live up to your expectations,
And you’re not obligated to live up to mine,
You are who you are and I am who I am,
And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
It was this prayer - with a slight twist - that was popularized in the booklet Jonathan Livingstone Seagull - which every “baby boomer” read and, to some extent, bought into:
I owe nothing to anyone; but only to myself.
I can’t be true to you unless I’m first true to myself; and if being true to myself leads me to abandon my responsibility to you, so be it.
And if I do so, it’s because we were never meant for one another.
Let’s be free! Above all, let’s be free and let’s be happy!
By 1972, the ethic of self-fulfillment had become so entrenched that a well known whiskey manufacturer was marketing “Johnnie Walker Black” using the slogan: “Honor thyself!”
One of the best selling books of the 1970s was entitled Looking Out for Number One: it unabashedly advised:
Clear your mind. Forget tradition - the moral standards others have tried to cram down your throat; forget the standards of right and wrong people have tried to intimidate you into believing.
It has been thirty years since self-fulfillment replaced self-sacrifice – thirty years since the link between duty and honor was severed. What that means is profoundly simple: for thirty years now, authority has been “walking about” stripped of the mantle our grandfathers and great grandfathers habitually threw over it: duty, responsibility, and obligation - and linked to that: honor. That’s why we so often cast authority in a pejorative light – why we’re so suspicious of anyone in authority:
The only meaning the word “authority” conveys anymore is “constraint” – and illegitimate constraint at that. I’ll show you what I mean: turn with me to Hebrews 13:17.
Obey those (meaning pastors) who rule over you and be submissive...
Doesn’t that grate on your sensitivities? I know it does mine – and I’m a pastor. It’s a lot like listening to someone scrape his finger nails over a window pane or a blackboard. “Rule over me! What do you mean, ‘rule over me’? No one rules over me.”
We’re almost repulsed by it – especially if it’s used by someone who expects us to actually honor it. No fair-minded pastor would ever trot out Hebrews 13:17 for that purpose. At least that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe.
And what about the wedding vows brides and grooms exchange today? What bride anymore promises to “love, honor, and obey” the man she’s marrying? When was the last time you heard that? She may promise to “love, honor, and cherish” him or “love, honor, and comfort” him; but certainly not “love, honor, and obey” him. And when occasionally “love, honor, and obey” is actually used in a wedding ceremony, heads turn and eyes roll – and there’s a very noticeable rustling throughout the entire sanctuary. I know – because I’ve presided over lots of wedding ceremonies.
But which is more in keeping with God’s word: “love, honor, and cherish” or “love, honor, and obey”? Clearly, it’s “love, honor, and obey.” Turn with me to Ephesians 5:22.
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
Nevertheless, we’re all likely to find “love, honor, and cherish” far more to our liking than “love, honor, and obey” – and not just women, but men as well.
It’s hard for us to get past our revulsion of authority, isn’t it - so that, with little or no bias, we can examine its real meaning – the meaning God has actually given it? But let’s give it a whirl. Turn with me to Matthew 3:1-2.
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying
Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
That was the theme of John’s whole ministry: the kingdom of heaven is at hand. But did you know that Jesus himself preached the very same message? Turn with me to Matthew 4:17.
From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Think about what’s being said here:
Turn with me to Colossians 1:12-13.
…giving thanks to the Father …
who has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of his dear son…
The word “power” in verse 13 is the Greek word “exousia” - and it’s more accurately rendered “authority,” not “power.” The word “delivered” is better rendered “rescued.” And the word “translated” is the Greek word “metestésen” - and its more accurate meaning is “transfer.” Salvation, then, is mostly a matter of rescuing us from the devil’s authority – and transferring us to or bringing us under Christ’s authority. Again, “authority,” “kingdom,” and “salvation” are interconnected themes.
It’s important, then, to get a handle on authority, isn’t it? So, let’s try.
• First, we’ll look into its meaning;
• then, we’ll examine its purpose.
Turn with me to Romans 13:1 – where we have a straight forward, unabashed definition of authority.
Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities...
Romans 13:1 tells us that authority and subjection go hand in hand. The one implies the other. And what does subjection mean? It means to obey. It’s that simple. Don’t try to make it any more complicated than that.
The same link between authority and subjection is found in Luke 2:51.
And He (that is, Jesus) went down with them (that is, his parents), and came to Nazareth; and he continued in subjection to them…
Here, in Luke 2:51, we’re told that even Jesus subjected himself to his parents’ authority – meaning he obeyed them.
But there’s more here than meets the eye. Follow me closely: the word “subjection” in both Romans 13:1 and Luke 2:51 translates the Greek verb “hypotasso” - and in both verses, it’s cast in the Greek middle voice – which implies that in Romans 13:1 it’s not the governing authorities who put us in subjection; instead, we put ourselves in subjection. Likewise, in Luke 2:51, it’s not Joseph and Mary who put Jesus in subjection; rather, it’s Jesus who puts himself in subjection.
The same is true of Ephesians 5:22.
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands.
It’s not the husband who puts his wife in subjection; it’s the wife who puts herself in subjection. In short, any husband who bullies his wife into obeying him is in violation of Ephesians 5:22. Why? Because the “putting,” so to speak, is hers, not his. If he does the “putting,” it’s not authority that he’s wielding, it’s raw, naked power. And nowhere in scripture is that countenanced.
We now have a working definition of authority. Authority implies obedience; but it’s an obedience that the person under authority effects, not the person in authority.
Now, let’s take up the purpose of authority. Turn with me to Psalm 82.
God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers.
How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked?
Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.
They neither know nor understand; they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High.
Nevertheless you will die like men, and fall like any one of the princes.
Arise, O God, judge the earth! For you, Oh, Lord, possess all the nations.
In this psalm, the curtain which enshrouds the hidden realm of eternity is pulled back - and we catch a glimpse of God calling to account the wicked angelic hosts who have rebelled against him, but who still wield authority over the earth. What’s in mind here is the very same truth revealed in Ephesians 6:12 - where, again, the same curtain is momentarily pulled aside - revealing, just as in Psalm 82, what lies behind all the authority governing the kingdoms of this earth.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
The phrase “rulers of the darkness of this world” is not quite accurate. It should be translated “world rulers of this darkness” - with the phrase “world-rulers” a translation of a single Greek word: kosmokratoras. And in secular Greek, that word, “kosmokratoras,” is almost always used in reference to Zeus, or Hermes, or any of the other gods who purportedly governed the affairs of men and ruled over the nations.
We know that there is only one God, not a pantheon of gods; but frequently in the Old Testament, the word “gods” refers to angels - in this case, fallen angels under the dominion of Satan.
In short, the earth is at present under the dominion of evil angels who have rebelled against God. And in Psalm 82, God is calling them to account - and telling them to mend their ways - to use their authority for the purpose it was intended.
The purpose of authority, we’re told in this passage of scripture, is fourfold:
Authority, then, is meant to protect the weak - to provide justice for those unable to provide it for themselves. That’s why authority is conferred! That’s its moral rationale! Authority is not meant to benefit the person upon whom it’s conferred, but to benefit those called upon to submit to it. If the benefits of authority accrue mostly to the persons wielding it rather than the persons expected to submit to it, that authority is abusive.
But the New Testament lifts authority to an even higher and nobler level. Psalm 82 tells us that authority is conferred to protect the weak; but Ephesians Five tells us that a husband’s authority is conferred not merely to protect his wife, but to “nourish” her and “cherish” her. The word “nourish” translates the Greek word “ektrephei” – which means to “cultivate potential.” And the word “cherish” translates the Greek word “thalpei” – which means “to enhance value.” Authority, in other words, is never conferred to enable a husband to get his way, but to help him cultivate his wife’s full potential and to enhance her value.
That’s why Jesus says again and again in the Gospels that a leader is expected to serve rather than be served.
That, then, is the purpose of authority: it’s conferred
And isn’t that exactly how Christ wields his authority?
There you have it: both the meaning and purpose of authority:
That’s the shape and form of godly authority – whether it’s wielded by husbands, parents, employers, teachers, governors, presidents – whomever.
We build the kingdom of God whenever the authority we wield measures up to this definition – and we tear it down whenever it falls short of this definition.
And the same holds true for church officers - pastors, elders, and deacons.
One final point: the Bible makes it clear that authority is not personal; it’s institutional – meaning it inheres in an office. It’s a simple but often overlooked principle that’s true in both the secular and spiritual realms. It’s not George Bush, the person, who’s entitled to your obedience; it’s George Bush, President of the United States, who’s entitled to your obedience. It’s only when he’s installed in the “Office of President” that he’s invested with the authority entitling him to your obedience. And when he steps down from that office – for whatever reason – he’s divested of that authority – and can no longer assert a moral claim to your obedience. No person, on his own, possesses the authority to legitimately lay claim to your obedience. He can force your obedience through the use of overwhelming power; he may even inspire your obedience; but he cannot assert a moral claim to your willing submission.
And so it was with Jesus himself: his authority to forgive sins derived not from his person as such, but because he was installed in the “Office of Messiah.” Turn to Acts 10:37-38.
That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached;
How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.
It’s important to bear in mind that John didn’t baptize Jesus for the remission of sins. That’s a silly suggestion on the face of it. Jesus was wholly righteous - wholly without sin - and, therefore, without any need to repent for sin. The baptism Jesus underwent was both an installation and an investiture - it installed him in the Office of Messiah and invested him with all the authority pertaining thereto. The key word in Acts 10:37-38 is the word “anointed” - to which the Bible gives four meanings: (1) to dedicate unto God; (2) to call to an office; (3) to install in an office; and (4) to invest with authority.
It was only when Jesus was installed in the Messianic Office along the banks of the River Jordan that he was invested with Messianic Authority - which Luke 4:14-21 tells us was the authority to forgive sins - and it’s that authority Jesus drew upon during the three and a half years of his public ministry.
Once again, authority is not personal, it’s institutional. It inheres in an office - meaning nobody can assert a claim to your obedience on the basis of any personal character trait or special gift endowment. Authority is never a personal possession. We may - through installation and investiture - be its steward; but that’s all.
Again, it’s not a gift or a personal attribute that confers authority. Authority inheres in an office – and only installation in that office – whatever it might be – invests a person with authority and entitles him to assert a moral claim to your willing submission.
Moreover, authority is always limited. It’s never all-inclusive. My authority as senior pastor does not entitle me to tell you what career you should pursue, or whom you should marry, or what college you should attend, or where you should live. My authority as senior pastor is indeed quite real and substantive, but If I exceed the limits of my authority - which are clearly defined in the New Testament - you are under no moral obligation to obey me. In that case, your disobedience does not make you a rebel. As a matter of fact, it reflects wisdom and prudence on your part. Again, authority is always limited – including the authority of both husbands and fathers. And if its limits are transgressed, it can be legitimately resisted. That’s the whole point of Acts 5:27-29 – where Peter asserts his right to disobey the commands of the Sanhedren.
Cult leaders are forever violating both of these truths: (1) they habitually lodge authority in themselves and assert a moral claim to your obedience on the basis of some personal attribute – usually a gift of some kind - or a special relationship with God - or a special “revelation” from God; and (2) the authority they claim is never limited; it’s all-inclusive. Shades of David Koresh and Jim Jones!
We’re heading into very troubling times – tumultuous times – and it’s always during tumultuous times – when anxiety is rampant – that cult leaders arise and authority is terribly abused – leading even the elect astray. Jesus himself says exactly that in Matthew 24:24
Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it.
For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.
I want you to be able to distinguish between legitimate authority and illegitimate or abusive authority. It’s my job to do that – because in so doing, I’m protecting you from evil - which is what Psalm 82 tells me is the very purpose of my authority.
But in helping you to make that distinction, I’m also encouraging you to overcome your fear of authority – and to once again clothe it in the mantle your grandfathers and great grandfathers did: duty, responsibility, obligation, and honor. It’s your duty – your obligation – your responsibility – to obey – so that the church can move in one accord – so that we can act decisively in the weeks, the months, and the years that lie ahead.
May God bless you richly as you ponder the truths I've outlined for you this morning - and may his grace rest upon you in glory.