Understanding authority in the Bible is essential for the Christian lifestyle, from the relationship between men and women to spiritual warfare. Yet, biblical authority is a topic that is not well understood, and it can often spark fear and subsequent rebellion in people with an unhealthy view of it. The application of biblical authority is typically misunderstood because we conflate it with the world’s interpretation of authority, but worldly authority and biblical authority will manifest themselves in very different ways.
What is Authority?
Let’s begin with a simple definition. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as, “The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge.” A father has the authority or the power to get his kid to do his homework. Your boss has the power or authority to get an employee to meet a deadline. A dictator has the power or authority to force his entire population to obey his every command. Authority doesn’t always require force. While a dictator may use violent means to coerce his subjects, a boss isn’t going to beat his employee to get him to do his job (at least I hope not). There is an understanding and mutual belief that the boss has the position to tell his employee to what to do and the employee submits themselves to that view.
The centurion in Matthew 8 explains authority pretty well.
8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”Matthew 8:8-9 (ESV)
It is that simple. A person can tell those under their authority to go and they go and to come and they come.
What do I mean by Biblical Authority?
There is one ultimate source of authority and that is God alone. He is the only that can remove any person from power as He so chooses.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.Romans 13:1 (ESV)
However, people who have been given authority can either follow the biblical example God and Jesus modeled for us when exercising their authority, or they can follow the world’s example. So for this article, when I use the term “biblical authority,” I am not referring to the authority derived from God, but the application of that authority in a way that aligns itself with Christian principles. For example, God may have given Hitler authority, but his application was evil and worldly. God gave Moses authority, but his application was generally good and biblical.
How Trauma Can Affect Your View of Biblical Authority?
When someone with a traumatic past comes across authority in the Bible, it can be scary. Their experience of authority has often involved abuse of power and they apply that to biblical authority. To put it simply, the abuser had authority and power and they used that to abuse another. That was certainly my experience and why I often struggled with authority in the Bible. That worldview can be summarized like this:
Authority = Power = Abuse
But you do not need to come from a traumatic background to have this worldview. We can all recognize that many people in power abuse the weak. And many men abuse women, even within the Christian church.
But God’s worldview is much different.
True Biblical Authority According to God
In God’s worldview, the correct application of authority can be summarized like this.
Authority = Responsibility = Sacrifice
In Exodus 16, Israel has been delivered from the grip of Pharaoh and they are now in the wilderness. The people have just witnessed one of the greatest miracles in history. They saw the Lord split the waters of the Red Sea so they could cross safely to the other side. And yet, now, in the face of fear, they begin to grumble. What is God’s response? God takes responsibility for them. He provides for them. They grumble that they don’t have bread and meat and God provides bread and meat to fill their bellies. This all-powerful being who has ultimate authority could have squished them like ants for their complaining. But He does not. Instead, He provides for them as He continues to provide for our needs today.
Now read John 3:16.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.John 3:16 (ESV)
What does God sacrifice for those under his authority? His only begotten son. It is the ultimate sacrifice.
True Biblical Authority According to Jesus
In John 17, Jesus recognizes that His authority comes from the Father in verse 2. He follows that by taking responsibility for those under his authority and giving His Father an account of the people He placed under Him. Now, how did Jesus treat those in His care? With love, with affection, and yes there was correction at times and with those that should have known better (like the Pharisees), he was more direct. But was there ever abuse? No.
If you see the interaction between Jesus and women, even women caught amid sin, He was so kind and gentle even while pointing them to the truth and calling out their sin (See my work on Jesus and Women). Jesus exerted his authority with love.
And what does Jesus ultimately do for those God put under His authority? He died for them. He sacrificed his life so that they could have life everlasting.
This is how God and Christ have modeled exercising authority for us and it is the essence of biblical authority.
Authority is Not a Reward
Another way that we tend to conflate biblical authority with worldly authority is that we mistakenly believe God-given authority is a reward for skills, capabilities, good work, or behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth. God does not give people positions of authority as a testament to their greatness. King David was a skilled fighter, but he was a lousy father and husband. Moses almost got himself killed (by God no less) for failing to follow one simple commandment. He needed his wife Zipporah to come to the rescue. Deborah was not a skilled warrior, but a prophetess, and yet God used her to lead men to battle. Peter was a fisherman, not an educated scribe of the law, and yet he was chosen to help found the early church.
God gives people positions of authority, so that He may be glorified. In the Bible, He sometimes picked people especially inept at the position so that there could be no question as to who really brought about the victory. So while in the world, leadership positions are given to the most skilled, and most qualified, that is not how things work in God’s kingdom. He doesn’t need skilled and talented people because in whatever area they fail, God can fill in the gaps as He so pleases to bring about His desired outcome.
Why Does This Matter?
There are several reasons why this is so important to understand. I will only touch on two here because I believe they are the most applicable to women. The first is that we need to differentiate between biblical authority and worldly authority so that we know when it is okay to disobey as we choose to obey the higher authority, God, over ungodly men or women. Here are some examples of when disobedience becomes the right thing to do.
- A child is free to disobey a teacher who wants to sexually exploit them (See Godly Disobedience, Protecting Kids From Sexual Predators).
- A congregant is free to disobey her pastor when he asks her to sleep with him.
- A woman is free to disobey the Nazi government when she is protecting the lives of her Jewish friends (See Shiphrah and Puah).
- A wife is free to disobey her husband when he is endangering her life (See Abigail).
The second reason we need to understand authority from God’s perspective is so that we can understand submission in the correct light. If we use a worldly worldview of authority, we’ll be inclined to equate the act of submission as a reflection of a person’s skills, worth, or abilities.
Here are a few examples:
- God doesn’t want a wife to have authority over her husband because women are not as smart as men.
- God doesn’t want me in a position of authority because I am worth less than the leader God chose.
Both of those views are unbiblical. That your husband has a higher authority than you is not evidence that he is more capable or smarter than you. Sometimes the opposite will be true, but we submit out of faith in the One who will fill in the gaps where your husband will fail. The same applies to the relationship between congregants and church leadership, citizen to government, student to teacher, etc.
Choosing Biblical Authority
I presented two ways that someone can exert their God-given authority, a worldly one and a biblical one. Most of us at some point or another will have authority over another human. If we truly want to honor and glorify God, we will follow the example set by God for us. We will recognize that authority comes with responsibility and we will understand that sacrifice is at the heart of the leaders God wants. Authority is never about exalting ourselves, but about exalting the God who gave us that position. Choose to model biblical authority, and repent quickly if you have veered into the worldly kind because the God we serve is a God who “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” Luke 1:52 (ESV)
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