Authority: God’s Good and Dangerous Gift
Authority is better than you think and worse than you think. It is God’s good and dangerous gift.
WHAT IS AUTHORITY?
The issue of authority goes to the heart of your existence and mine. You and I were created to rule. The idea is there in Genesis 1. God created Adam and Eve in his image, and then he gave them “dominion” over all the earth. He even tells them to “subdue” it (Gen. 1:28). How does humanity image God? By exercising authority.
Authority is not just power. It’s the moral right to exercise power. It’s an authorization. You might say that authority is the God-given moral right to make choices. Some have the moral right to make choices (exercise authority) over whole kingdoms, some over the thoughts inside their head. Yet everyone has some authority, some domain they rule.
Why did God give us authority? To create. To author. Authority authors. It creates and empowers and arranges and organizes and builds and encourages. This is what God did with his authority: he authored a world. And this is what he means for everyone created in his image to do.
A GOOD GIFT
Good authority doesn’t just work from the top down, but also the bottom up. Let me be the platform on which you build your life. I’ll supply you, fund you, resource you, guide you. Just listen to me.
Good authority binds in order to loose, corrects in order to teach, trims in order to grow, disciplines in order to train, legislates in order to build, judges in order to redeem, studies in order to innovate. It is the teacher teaching, the coach coaching, the mother mothering. It is the rules for a game, the lines on a road, a covenant for lovers. Trust me, and I will give you a garden in which to create a world. Just keep my commandments. I love you.
Good authority loves. Good authority gives. Good authority passes out power.
King David, who knew a few things on the topic, offered this: “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.” (2 Sam 23:3–4 HCSB). Good authority strengthens and grows. You know this if you have ever had a selfless and loving parent, teacher, employer, coach, pastor.
What a glorious gift God has given by making us each kings! To rule in his image for his own glory.
A DANGEROUS GIFT
Yet our first parents and we chose not to use our authority according to God’s commandments. We stopped asking for God’s moral permission, but relied on the serpent’s since he appealed to our desires for supremacy. He promised loosing without binding, growing without trimming, innovation without study.
What has resulted is a rebellious and cursed world. We use our authority selfishly and so ineffectually. And since ineffectually then violently, believing violence will achieve our ends. Cain is not worshipped for his “worship” so he kills.
Sin, in other words, is nothing more or less than humanity’s misuse of authority. Adam’s bite and Pharaoh’s bloodshed belong to the same class, operate by the same principles, possess the same authorization. Pharaoh merely swung a much bigger hammer.
Bad authority discourages, cripples, wilts, sucks dry, dehumanizes, snuffs out, annihilates. It uses, doesn’t give. It is political imperialism, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, business monopolization, social degradation, child abuse.
Of course, bad authority doesn’t always wear such monstrous faces. Often it charms and persuades. It borrows truth and offers empathy. I know how you’re feeling. I recognize your troubles. Here is the solution. So listen to me. Keep my commandments.
Bad authority, don’t you see, takes a good and glorious gift that God has given to humanity and employs it for evil. It is a liar and a charlatan. Yet it is so very real, at least for a time.
Yet realize that such authority is not actually authority. It’s an illegitimate and unjust assertion of power—a bully’s club. Authority, remember, is what’s been authorized, and God does not authorize abuse or oppression. A Christian might decide to submit to an “unjust” master broadly speaking (1 Peter 2:18). Yet even then, “avail yourself of the opportunity” for freedom if you can (1 Cor. 7:21; see also, Prov. 22:3). And you’re certainly never morally constrained to submit to an act of abuse or oppression. Again, such acts are not authorized.
TWO DIFFERENT REDEMPTIONS
Westerners today have beheld the corpse-strewn battlefield of authority’s misuses and determined to dispense with authority altogether. This can’t actually be done since someone always has to make decisions for the group, moral and otherwise. Yet it’s easy to sympathize with the tactic. A world of androgynous gray seems safer. Call everyone special. Give all the kids an “A.” Forget the old rules. Claim that love doesn’t require covenants. Revolt against the autocracies of gender. Flatten church hierarchies and tear down the walls. Tell people to “Define yourself!” even if they end up laughing at the same shows, wearing the same clothes, adopting the same beliefs, making the same moral judgments, and becoming pathetically and predictably the same, consumers enslaved by appetite, lap dogs who bark at the slightest sound of an all-caps GOD standing outside the door.
It’s a perspective that recognizes the realities of the fall, but believes redemption comes through denying the categories of creation. Since those categories are inevitable, woven into the fabric of the universe, this perspective “works” only as long as it quietly relies upon that which it repudiates.
Might there be another way? Might we reclaim the truths of creation but through the demands of redemption? Can we imagine brightly blooming wives who rejoice in the sunny warmth of their husband’s Christ-like leadership? Church members who enjoy their elders’ authority like dry earth the rain?
STRIKING THE BALANCE
Christians must recognize the fallen nature of authority, including the potential inside of each of us to abuse it, even with the best of intentions. But to be suspicious toward all authority is both naïve and harmful. It leaves you isolated and cynical. You become incapable of trust, vulnerability, and true relationship because everything must remain on your terms.
The difference between what people call “community” and what the Bible calls the “church” finally comes down to the topic of authority. The assembly is not only a fellowship but an accountability fellowship, led by God’s good gift of pastors and teachers. The Christian life will grow best, flower most beautifully, when nourished in this greenhouse. But beware the dangers. The weeds and toxins remain.
Our first order of business, perhaps, is to simply re-introduce the topic: What is authority? How is it a good gift? And a dangerous one?
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 Andy Crouch says this about power in his excellent book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.