The Concept of Authority in the Bible
Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt
God and Authority
God alone is the ultimate authority
- Matthew 6:13
- Romans 13:1
- Daniel 2:20,21
Rebellion against God's authority is a serious sin
- Numbers 15:30
- 1 Samuel 15:22,23
Delegated Authority is Biblical and Legitimate
- Daniel 2:37,38 (see also Jeremiah 27:6)
- Matthew 22:21
- Romans 13:1-7
- Titus 3:1
- 1 Peter 2:13-17
- Ephesians 6:5-8
- Colossians 3:22-25
- 1 Timothy 6:1,2
- Titus 2:9,10
- 1 Peter 2:18
- Ephesians 5:22-24,33
- Colossians 3:18
- Titus 2:5
- 1 Peter 3:1-6
- Ephesians 6:1-4
- Colossians 3:20
- 1 Corinthians 16:15-18
- 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13
- Titus 2:15
- Hebrews 13:17
- 1 Peter 5:5
Delegated Authority is Limited in Three Ways
- The scope of the authority is limited to the area of the authority given to them by God. God does not require us to obey delegated authorities outside the legitimate sphere of their authority. This is why wives are urged to "be submissive to your own husbands" - not to all men (1 Peter 3:1; Ephesians 5:22). For the same reason, it is inappropriate for parents to tell their adult children who they must marry, or for civil authorities to tell their citizens what religious beliefs they must hold, or for church authorities to tell Christians what jobs they may take.
- There is no such thing as autonomous delegated authority. All delegated authorities are under God's authority. This is why when scripture addresses those under delegated authority, it also addresses those in delegated authority in the same passage and reminds them of their responsibilities before God.
- God's design for all delegated authority is to serve (Mark 10:41- 45; Romans 13:4). Even though God often permits wicked people to hold positions of delegated authority, the scripture condemns the abuse of that authority for the purpose of exploitation or oppression, and God will personally call them to account for their actions.
Attitudes and Actions
- God calls us to an attitude of submission (respect and the inclination to obey) toward legitimate authorities regardless of the authority figure's character (1 Peter 2:18). While our obedience (following commands) to a delegated authority is conditional, our attitude of submission (as defined above) should be unconditional.
- The burden of proof is on the one under authority to justify why he should not obey, not vice-versa. Unless we are able to demonstrate from scripture or reason that obedience to the delegated authority would constitute disobedience to God, we should obey.
- When we cannot obey the command of a delegated authority because we believe this would constitute disobedience to God, we should seek for a constructive alternative which will fulfill the righteous desires of the delegated authority and also enable us to obey God (see Daniel 1:8-16 for an example of this). In this spirit, we can and should ask questions, make suggestions and even raise objections - so that we will be able to obey.
- Whenever possible, we should be sure that we understand why we are being asked to do something by the delegated authority. This is important because such understanding enables us to follow their instructions more enthusiastically, and to do so out of genuine obedience to God (see Ephesians 6:5,7; Colossians 3:22,23 - "as to the Lord" has this meaning).
- When disobedience to a delegated authority is necessary, we should do so respectfully, not rebelliously or maliciously. We should also make it clear that we believe this action is necessary in order for us to be in obedience to God (see Acts 4:19,20; 5:29).
- Within the church, dissent is different than rebellion or disobedience. We may disagree with delegated authorities over issues, and yet retain a submissive attitude if we handle the disagreement properly. Obviously, we will never agree with our leaders about everything, but most areas of disagreement are minor enough that we can simply go along with those who lead. Some issues, however, are important enough that our conscience tells us we need to take further measures. In these cases, the first thing to do would be to talk about the issue with those who are in authority. Perhaps we will persuade them that our viewpoint is correct; perhaps they will persuade us. Either of these results would end the dissent. If this action does not resolve the disagreement, we must decide how important the issue is. If we believe we are being called on to disobey God or our conscience, we either should:
- inform the leadership that we will be unable to obey and ask what they want to do, or
- leave the group and find leadership which we can follow, making clear to the old leadership what our reasons are for withdrawing, or, if possible,
- inform higher leadership of your decisions and appeal for intervention. If we decide that the issue is one which, though important, does not violate our conscience, we should be able to serve with a good attitude toward the leadership, though in disagreement in a specific issue.
- We could possibly find ourselves unable to agree with the leadership on a fairly important point, but not so important that we feel we should leave the church. In this case, we may declare ourselves to be loyal dissenters. A loyal dissenter is unwilling to remain quiet about his dissent, but also unwilling to leave. Such a posture is permissible, but often questionable. Such dissenters need to exercise special care to avoid division in the church. Their dissent must be shared only in helpful ways, and qualified carefully. They must take care to avoid portraying other's positions unfairly or leaving out important material. Leaders may call on dissenters to restrict their dissent in various ways for the sake of unity and reducing confusion. (For instance, why share your area of disagreement with new people who are still trying to understand the basics?)