Authority. We begin a series of articles unpacking that word, with this article spelling out the ABCs of the topic. Why a series on this subject?
First, this matter of authority is foundational. Q&A 93 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that the Ten Commandments are divided into two tables: “…the first of which teaches us how we must behave towards God; the second, what duties we owe to our neighbor.” Within that second table of the law, the fifth commandment is first. And that fifth commandment concerns authority. The order of the commandments is not arbitrary. In God’s wisdom, it is not, for example, the sixth commandment (the neighbor’s life) that is first, or the eighth commandment (the neighbor’s possessions), but the fifth commandment. Proper attitude toward authority, which the fifth commandment is about, is basic to “what duties we owe to our neighbor.” We will revisit this matter in more detail later in the series.
Second, authority is such a prominent part of our life. Everyone is under authority: employees, the citizens of a nation, the people of a congregation, and many others. But especially is this true of young people who live in the home and are under the rule of their parents: authority is more thickly weaved through the life of the child and teenager than any other age group. Just like anything else, you want to learn as much as you can about something that is so commonly found in your life. Do you eat and drink every day? Then you want to study up on healthy eating and nutrition. Have you started at a new job? You will want to learn the ropes carefully. Similarly, in our youth we encounter authority daily. Do we not desire to grow in our knowledge of what it is?
Third, what authority is might be somewhat fuzzy to us. This is not to say we know nothing about it, but only that the sharpening of our understanding never hurts. If someone walked up to you at church or in the hallway at school and asked you to define authority, could you do that? And notice the question: not who is in authority, but what authority is. The answer to that question is not some abstract, non-essential matter in life and relationships. Rather, the definition is vital and will shape the way you view and treat authority.
Fourth, authority is challenged today, which drives us to see what the Bible says about it. Many are the voices in the world shouting for our attention, telling us what to think about this matter. These voices are like so many battering rams, seeking to undermine authority at every point. Rebellion against and the total disregard for those set in their positions by God is as common as it is appalling. Turn on the local, national, or world news: you need not wait long to see disobedience on full display. These voices in society are loud enough that the church hears them. Some view the ecclesiastical ruling bodies with an eye of suspicion, as if they are corrupt and abusive power structures. The anti-authority message reaches the ears of young people through media of all sorts, encouraging disrespect toward parents in the home. Even as we read this paragraph, we must confess: this challenging of authority is found in our hearts. How necessary, therefore, to hear about authority and our attitude toward it from a biblical perspective.
We make a beginning in these articles by getting at the idea of authority. To that end, let’s take a fill-in-theblank quiz. Authority is . How would you fill in that blank?
What is authority?
As you take pen in hand, you might fill in the blank with, “Authority is respect.” That is, if a person is respectable or over time earns my respect, I can recognize that he is in a position over me. Or you might write, “Authority is agreement.” That is, if I can agree with what my dad and mom have decided, then I will submit to it. Or you jot down, “Authority is muscle and size.” If that police officer who walks up to my open car window has a commanding bodily presence, then I’ll be quicker to cooperate with what he says. Or you scribble, “Authority is intelligence.” That is, if the teacher, parent, or officebearer is smarter than I am, then I can look up to such a one. The implication in all of this, is that if someone is not respectable, convincing enough, sizable, or intellectually capable, then he or she may be disobeyed.
Filling in the blanks with those words will guarantee you a failing grade on this quiz.
To be sure, one in authority might very well possess all those qualities (and we certainly wish that someone over us would be respectable, in particular). But someone in a position of authority might not have these characteristics. We must fill in that blank with another definition.
The correct answer for the quiz is: “Authority is the right to rule.” This rule involves fixing laws, making determinations about obedience or disobedience, meting out penalties for disobedience, and so much more. Importantly, the right to do all of this does not originate from those in authority positions. The town mayor, the father in the home, and the elder at church do not have authority in themselves. Rather, it is a rule which is given to them.
This immediately shifts our attention to the Triune God with the man Christ Jesus at His right hand. God has all authority, has conferred authority upon Jesus Christ according to His human nature, and through Christ has bestowed the right to rule upon certain people in the earth. Let’s unfold this a bit.
God has all authority and all authority is from Him. God has the right to rule, and He has that in Himself. He, the sovereign God, is the Creator of heaven and earth with all that is in them. He owns all things that He has created. God is God!
The Triune God has conferred authority upon Jesus Christ according to His human nature. Follow the path of Jesus’ suffering: He walked that dark road, beginning already in Bethlehem. On that way He continued, heading steadily and willingly to the cross. On the tree He hung suspended between heaven and earth, suffering for sin. He died for all His sheep. Having satisfied the justice of God, He was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. The ascended and exalted Lord Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, has all authority (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:22).
Through Christ God has given authority to certain people on earth. That is, God has bestowed upon certain individuals, in various spheres, the right to rule.
#1: The home. Foundational is the authority God has given to parents. So basic is parental rule, that the fifth commandment specifically mentions father and mother: “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Ex. 20:12). Also in the home, God has appointed the husband as head of his wife (Eph. 5:23). There is the school, the extension of the home, where teachers stand in the place of parents.
#2: The church. God has set in His church officebearers, who occupy a position of rule in the congregation (I Thess. 5:12, 13).
#3: The government. This includes figures on the national, state, and local level (Rom. 13).
#4: The workplace. This is a phase of life into which you have likely transitioned or in which you will soon find yourself. The Word of God teaches us that the employer has authority over employees (Eph. 6:5).
#5: The gray head. This has to do with age and Scripture’s call for us to honor those who are older (Lev. 19:32).
Clearly, the Bible speaks to the various spheres in which God has given authority. So do our confessions. If asked where in our creeds we would find something on authority, most of us would mention Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 39, an explanation of the fifth commandment: “What doth God require in the fifth commandment? That I show all honor, love, and fidelity to my father and mother and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” These few sentences pack in many truths we will take the time to expand upon later in the series. But there are other confessional references. Perhaps Article 36 of the Belgic Confession comes to your mind: God has “appointed” the magistrate; furthermore, we are to “subject [ourselves] to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God….” Take some time on a few Sunday afternoons to read through the creeds. Where else do you find the idea of God-appointed rule?
There it is—the ABCs of authority: God has all authority, has conferred authority upon Jesus Christ according to His human nature, and through Christ has bestowed the right to rule upon certain people in the earth. This helps us have the proper perspective toward those set above us. When dad is carrying out discipline, or the teacher is setting down classroom rules, or the elders come knocking for family visitation, you must not merely observe a dad enforcing, a teacher talking, or an elder walking in. But you must see, by faith, God in heaven who has through Christ given that dad, that teacher, or that elder to rule over you. Lord’s Day 39, based on the fifth commandment, teaches us about our father and mother (and all in authority), that it “pleases God to govern us by their hand.” Oh, how this changes the way we view authority and the attitude we have toward them—we look past them to God Himself! God grant you, by His grace, to have this perspective more and more.