Principles of Authority

 

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” 

(Matthew 28:18) 

 

So spoke our Lord Jesus Christ in His last discourse, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.  Authority cannot rightly be exercised, then, if it does not rise from God's revealed truth.

Recently, the Episcopal General Convention made disastrous decisions, violating the authority of Scripture, such that the decisions made the headlines as far away as Africa. I predicted earlier that the General Convention probably would be a train wreck because the constellations by which they are navigating are relative and subjective, rather than based on revealed eternal principles from God. The events of the week seem to have borne that out.  

Anyone who "navigates" without regard to God's revealed truth in Jesus Christ and Scripture is headed for a big problem; disaster is certain, but the timing of when the crash will manifest is not. An analogy can be seen in imagining three buses simultaneously driving off three different cliffs. All three have a certain end, but the manifestation of the end may come at different moments. The bus that drives off a 200-foot cliff will manifest its end before the one that drives off a 400-foot cliff. The one that drives off a 600-foot cliff will have the same end as well, just a little later than the other two. TEC is not being guided by Scripture. The “bus” has gone off the cliff. Tidying up the bus or cleaning the windows on it while it is falling may make some of the occupants feel better, but it is not going to stop the crash that is certain. 

We can avoid such disasters only by following certain principles of authority given us in Holy Scripture.

First Principle: Authority Rises from the Trinity

In the wonderful revelation of One God in Three Persons, we see a great modeling of truth and authority. While co-eternal and equal, in the divine economy, God the Son submits to the Father. God the Holy Spirit elevates the Son. Neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit is unfulfilled in serving the divine economy in this way. They are utterly fulfilled, and God is glorified. There is a wonderful way to see this fullness. Try crafting an extemporary prayer to the Holy Spirit. What you will surely find is that as you pray, you will find that the name of Jesus Christ will be on your lips. God the Holy Spirit is not diminished by this focus in any way. He is fulfilling His purpose and adds to the magnifying of both the Son and the Father. 

The Trinity has modeled authority and submission for us to emulate. 

Second Principle: Authority Rises out of Revealed Truth 

As I said last week, The Bible speaks of authority that rises from truth. The Greek word is ex-ousia, which means "out of being," or "out of essence." One could argue rightly that genuine authority rises "out of truth." Authority, in order to be authentic, must be true. God has revealed truth in His Son and in Scripture. 

God establishes truth in and of Himself. As a result, truth emanates from Him and authority emanates from truth. There is a wonderful passage in Hebrews that demonstrates this:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself… (Hebrews 6:13)

Contrariwise, lies emanate from the devil.  We have the record of Scripture, where in Genesis, the first lie is that of the “serpent”:  “Has God indeed said?” (3:1)  In that initial questioning of the authority and validity of God’s Word is a picture of what is being perpetrated today – nothing new under the sun!  We also have the words of Jesus Himself to those who rejected His words:

Ye are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.  (John 8:44) 

Third Principle: Submit to Authority 

There are a number of principles dealing with obedience to authority. The first is that authority, like the revealed truth from which it rises, is given for our blessing and protection. The general rule for dealing with authority is to submit to it. Parents, teachers, and even governments are given to us for our blessing.  Paul explained it this way:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.   Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.   For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.   For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.   Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.  (Romans 13: 1-5)

In Western nations, people are instinctively nervous about authority. Western individualism has had a huge cultural influence. When Descartes wrote, “Cogito ergo sum “(“I think therefor I am”), he derived that he knew that he existed because he had thoughts. In many Global South cultures, existence is derived differently. In the Kenyan liturgy, there is an example of this difference. Just before receiving Communion, there is this exchange in the liturgy:

Minister: Christ is alive for ever.

People:  We are because He is.

That phrase from the liturgy is echoed in a common phrase in East Africa, "I am because we are." These statements are examples of the awareness that people are part of a community. There is a much greater sense of connectedness among many African and Asian people than is found in most Westerners. My observation is that their sense of connectedness leads to a greater appreciation of, and submission to, authority. When authority is given to our lives, the appropriate response is to submit to it. That does not, however, mean submission with no limit.

Fourth Principle: One Must Submit to God, Not to Faulty Authority 

Sometimes it is difficult to determine nuances, but there is a basic rule of thumb: When an authority figure tells us to violate God's revelation, we are called to obey God. Obedience to God is not usually complicated. It is, however, often costly. Standing up for God's revelation should be done with a humble heart, but also with a settled sense of confidence in His revealed truth. 

I lived in the city of Nürnberg, Germany when I was growing up, in an area called Fürth. We lived very close to where the War Crimes Trials were held. In the 1950s, the trials were so recent, they were still an open wound. In the trials, those who had carried out atrocities that led to the deaths of millions of Jews put forward the defense that they were just following orders. That defense was rejected, and they were held accountable and found guilty. The verdict was that following bad orders, which would lead to countless deaths, was not acceptable. The soldiers were accountable for their own actions even though they had been given orders. In those trials, there was an appeal not only to law and natural justice, but also to Christian foundations that were violated by the actions of the accused.  

There are many examples of churches violating God's teaching. When it is done with sweeping clarity, such as has been done in Canada and in TEC, it is much easier to see. In other places, it may be much more subtle, but the issue is the same. If there is a violation of God's revealed order, we obey God.

In our lives, usually, things are not as starkly manifest. The point remains, however, that we must obey God, not just follow orders.   If your boss, rector, or even bishop requires you to do something that violates God’s revealed truth, your responsibility is to be obedient to God, regardless of the cost.  This commitment has cost many bishops, priests, deacons, and laity in TEC, and it has been costly to many people in the workforce.  We cannot, however, claim to follow Jesus, if we are, as those of His days were, following a lie and, therefore, the “father of lies.”

Peter and the other Apostles were jailed and beaten and expressly forbidden not to teach about Jesus or in His name. Simply put, they said, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). That is the right thing to do, though it may be costly.

In many parts of the world, fidelity to the revelation of God in Christ is costly to the point of death. But still, twenty centuries after Jesus submitted to God, died, and rose, fidelity to God is just as important and just as worthwhile. The martyrs of Sudan, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and many other nations have not backed down from the cost of discipleship. Their faithfulness has fueled amazing expansion of the Gospel. I pray we learn from them as Western culture is increasingly hostile to revealed truth. Sadly that hostility is often most harsh against the name of Christ. 

Forces that come against the name of Jesus Christ are working in league with a spiritual force that the Bible calls Antichrist. Whether wittingly or not, attempts to suppress the name, Kingdom, or authority of Jesus Christ are cooperating with the darkest powers in creation. We must stand up to that. Thank God, we don't have to do it in our own strength. We have been given supernatural power. Thank God.