The Problem with Authority


As a husband and a father and a pastor, I have a delegated authority. What does this mean? This means that Christ has delegated a certain type of authority to me within my spheres of influence. This also means that I may not impose a rule that is not authorized by Christ or does not operate within the boundaries of Biblical wisdom. Christ guards my wife, my children and my flock from unjust rule by limiting my authority with the Word and by various other authorities who are accountable to Him. As a result I don’t expect unquestioning allegiance to human authority.

A number of pastors and theologians have rightly pointed out that we are called to honour those in civil authority, pray for them, and encourage them. They are right. This is the direct command of Scripture.

But when interpreting Scripture, we stand in a long tradition of using Scripture to interpret Scripture. Reformed theologians have traditionally accepted some understanding of spheres of authority: parents, Church, state, etc. While certain Reformers looked to the State to defend the Church, other Reformers wrote fiery letters to those who persecuted the Church. When draconian rulings have been passed down, we have followed the example of the Apostles in obeying God and not men.

This is because all human authority is delegated. There is no authority that is transferred. By ‘transferred authority’, I mean ‘exclusive’ or ‘total’ authority. All human authority stands accountable to God.

Let me share two quotes from the Belgic Confession, the first referring to the authority of the church and the second referring to the authority of the state. We read in Article 32, regarding the Church: “We also believe that although it is useful and good for those who govern the churches to establish and set up a certain order among themselves for maintaining the body of the church, they ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us.” We read in Article 36, regarding the state: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.

This is why the state does not have the authority to force a father to allow his daughter to have a transgender surgery. This is why the state has the authority to bear the sword against office-bearers in the church who are using their authority wrongly to abuse women and children. This is why John the Baptist had the authority to rebuke Herod for marrying his brothers wife and Luke commended him for preaching the gospel (Luke 3:18-20). This is why the Reformer John Knox was able to rebuke not only insubmission but the abuse of authority. All men must bow at the throne of Christ and seek their life in Him: and that includes Presidents and Prime Ministers and scientists.

There is a time to submit, there is a time to ask questions, and there is a time to rebuke. There is a time for everything. There is a time to pray and there is a time to work. Or as John Calvin once said: pray and work. This is where Biblical wisdom comes into play. There are wisdom and judgement calls to make at every time. Asking questions can be done in an unwise manner, or with a bad attitude, but to limit questions is to limit learning opportunities for all and to leave authority unchecked. In order to move from submission to questions to rebuke, we need to be clear on the concept of delegated authority.

There seems to be an authoritarianism at work in many Reformed Churches. I have often appreciated the the approach of the Presbyterians in the Westminster Larger Catechism to the 5th commandment. It rebukes the sins of both those under authority and those in authority. Yes, there is authority. It is hard for those in authority. There are challenges and wisdom calls to make in having that responsibility. It is part and parcel of leading people. But that does not justify a blind submission to those in positions of human authority. Just as Reformed churches need to be on guard for an abuse of authority, so our civil governments need to be on guard against an abuse of authority. Am I being cynical? Read your history books. If we don’t learn our lessons from history, there will be much harder lessons to learn today.

Criticism of the positions of a man (or a group of men) in authority is not necessarily an attack upon his office. It might be. But not necessarily. King David obviously had criticisms of King Saul and He obviously had a backbone. And yet he wouldn’t raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed. The prophet Nathan came to David himself with serious criticisms, and King David took the hit like a man, repented and started out again with a new perspective.

We should be careful to cling to all of Scripture and not just our favourite Bible texts. There are many people who cherry pick through Scripture to justify their abuse of authority. Biblical ethics are not simplistic, even if many of its commands are straightforward. We are given all 10 commandments, not just the 6th or 7th commandment. We are given all of Scripture (like Judges and Samuel and Kings and Acts and Revelation), not just Romans 13 and I Peter 2. Scripture interprets Scripture. We are commanded to honor those in authority. Sometimes that means pointing back to the Word of God. Sometimes that means asking questions concerning the commands of God. By all means. Begin everything with prayer and supplication.

The problem with authority is that we must remember that human authority is delegated authority. Human authority is not absolute. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecc. 12:13-14)

PS: If I find the opportunity, I hope to comment further on authority and truth.

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

Footnote: I took my explanation of delegated and transferred authority from Rev. Donald Van Dyken’s book for Public Profession of Faith, “With all My Heart”. You can find what he says in Lesson 21 on the Government of the Church.

4 thoughts on “The Problem with Authority

  1. Thanks for this Pastor Nathan!
    Praying and working…together… is absolutely important.
    And informing our wayward leaders by engaging with them in conversation, however that may take place, is important… after we have engaged in praying for them.
    I am curious what kind of government engagement you have been able to have in PEI.


    • Hello Mark! I am pretty new out here yet but I have expressed thanks and prayers and asked some questions via email and phone. Working together with other churches is also important in considering their approaches and thoughts and wisdom. Blessings! NZ


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