Only Use Authority in the Fear of God
Editor’s note: This has been adapted from Mark Dever’s 2022 sermon at T4G.
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I’m stung by Frederick Douglass’ memory of Christian masters being the worst. He wrote,1
Bad as all slaveholders are, we seldom meet one destitute of every element of character commanding respect. My master was one of this rare sort. I do not know of one single noble act ever performed by him. The leading trait in his character was meanness; and if there were any other element in his nature, it was made subject to this. He was mean; and, like most other mean men, he lacked the ability to control his meanness.
In August 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-Side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged in a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before.
Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty. He made the greatest pretensions to piety. His house was the house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night. He very soon distinguished himself among his brethren, and was soon made a class-leader and exhorter. His activity in revivals was great, and he proved himself an instrument in the hands of the church in converting many souls. His house was the preachers’ home. They used to take great pleasure in coming there to put up; for while he starved us, he stuffed them.
Is all authority abusive? Is all authority—by virtue of one person having power over another person—in its very nature, abusive? I ask these questions in a day when accounts of sad experiences with abusive pastors are all too common.
We’ve dealt with issues of authority in the church before. Certain situations are all-too-common: abusive pastors, or pastors covering up abuse by others, or questions about what authority the civil government can appropriately exercise. Many are left wondering about the distinction between authority and authoritarianism. Many are simply exhausted by the whole subject.
How many people in only the last several years have come to understand the situation that they’re in at church—or were in in their last church—as abusive? How many people have listened to accounts of those in authority acting in ways that are uninhibitedly selfish? In a fallen world, can authority only be handled abusively, and in self-interest—even in a church?
One of the greatest statements of what is generally typical of good authority is found in David’s last public words. You can tell how important these words are by the layers of introduction they get! What we find is that human authority is intended to reflect God’s authority. And good authority is both glorious in itself, and fruitful in the lives of others:
Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle of David, the son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man who was raised on high,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the sweet psalmist of Israel:
“The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me;
his word is on my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken;
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
“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 Samuel 23:1–4)
As we consider God’s Word, I pray God will make us better husbands, better parents, better bosses, better coaches, but especially, better pastors.
1. Authority is to be used for good.
To rule justly is to rule in righteousness. Authority must be used consistently with God’s will. That was true in David’s life. David knew, as he said in Psalm 62:11, “power belongs to God” (John 19:11, Matt. 28:18, Rom. 13:1–2). Israel’s kings, with all who hold authority, know they were supposed to use authority for God.
The human exercise of authority is rooted in the very way God made us. We read in Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” And in 1:28, the command is given to God’s image-bearers: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth.”
It’s not just kings that reflect God’s own image and likeness; it’s every human. We reflect God’s image in the way we are able to personally relate to him and to others—and especially whenever we have the opportunity to love others by treating them as we ourselves should be treated. Our acting in love, for the highest good of another, is a reflection of God’s own character in making us, and in caring for us.
As dependent beings, authority is not something we can avoid, either in being under it, nor in exercising it. God has hard-wired such relationships of power and dependence into the very way that we are born and reared. It’s true of our lives physically, and it’s also true of our lives spiritually.
Since the Fall of our first parents, none of us are born good. We’re all born needing to be reconciled with God, needing to hear from someone else the news about Jesus Christ, news that we’re not born knowing. In that sense, under God’s sovereignty, our spiritual lives are every bit as much dependent on the actions of another as are our physical lives. We did not give ourselves birth in the flesh. We did not give ourselves the second birth in Christ.
The creation hope for humanity that our rule would reflect God’s rule would be perfectly fulfilled in the Messiah. Remember Isaiah 9:6–7?
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
And the government shall be upon his shoulder,
And he name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
From this time forth and forevermore.
The truth that God speaks to and through David in 2 Samuel 23 about kings also has its applications for those of us who oversee local churches. In so far as we have authority, we are to use it justly and rightly. We pray that our influence will be used to increase righteousness. That’s why, among other things, we read in 1 Timothy 3 that the overseer must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money,” (1 Tim. 3:2–3).
Authority is to be used for good.
2. Good authority is rooted in the fear of God.
In 2 Samuel 23, notice the phrase after, “When one rules justly over men”: “ruling in the fear of God.”
The King is to enforce the justice and righteousness of God. The one in authority is reminded whose the authority really is, whose steward he is, whose people these really are, and to whom he will give an account. David here echoes Samuel’s statement in his farewell address in 1 Samuel 12:14: “If you will fear the LORD and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandments of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well.”
Only when we’re under God’s authority are we fit to be in authority over others.
Back in Exodus 18:21, we read that those to whom Moses would delegate authority were those “who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe.” In other words, they’re not self-interested. They shouldn’t be the kind of people who would take a position of authority, to decide disputes, in order to charge people for a favorable ruling. And notice what prevents that kind of self-serving use of a position of authority—they fear God. Notice the connection between fearing God and hating a bribe.
The accountability we have to One above us stops us from abusing the one below us.
This makes complete sense because of the nature of our work. Moses charged the judges of Israel in Deuteronomy 1:16–17, “Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone”—and here’s the reason Moses gave them for this impartiality, this inability to be intimidated by anyone—“for the judgment is God’s.”
It is his rules you’re reading and applying. It is for his glory. And it is in fear of his unerring evaluation of us, and of all that we do, that these judges were to do their work.
It’s the same principle with the rulers that are in view in David’s last words in 2 Samuel 23. Learning to be under authority well would enable the king to be in authority well. In the Bible, neither kings nor judges are to do wrong themselves, and they are not to allow others to do wrong, especially not to wrong others, because all others belong fundamentally not to judges, not to kings, not to you, pastor, but to the Lord! And this is why sincerely fearing the Lord is such a fundamental ingredient of good authority, wherever it is exercised.
Pastor, whatever you can do to grow your right, accurate, true fear of God will help you in your use of the authority you have in your local church.
Knowing who we are accountable to helps us make best use of that which we’re accountable for. So it makes sense that knowing that you have to return the book to the library helps make you careful with the book. It’s not yours! It belongs to someone else! Ever borrowed something from your parents when you were younger—like their car? Hopefully, knowing that you would have to account for any damage to it made you extra careful. Remembering that we don’t own those that we’re in authority over helps us to treat them carefully, as we should.
Brothers and sisters, consider the serious problems that follow when God is no longer presented as fearful. It is no surprise that righteousness breaks down. Because justice is founded in the fear of God—in an accurate estimate of and reverence and regard for him and his will. If we think lightly of God, and think little of the account we will give to him, then we may begin to forget the seriousness of our charge as pastors, and may begin to use the sheep as if they were ours—for our benefit. Even our redeemed, fallen selves may not think perfectly righteously about others, especially when a decision would have some effect on us, or when we prefer one outcome and not another.
Good authority is rooted in the fear of God.
3. Good authority bears good fruit.
King David was to rule for the good of those he was ruling over. This is true of all good authority, which brings us to 2 Samuel chapter 23:4. Notice the effects of such God-fearing, just ruling:
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.
Two factors—light and rain—combine to create the fruitfulness of the earth. So good authority blesses those underneath it. And this is how David, at least largely, ruled. David’s own rule is described earlier in 2 Samuel 8:15: “So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people.”
Solomon clearly learned this from his father. Solomon, in Psalm 72, wrote a prayer for the king. You can hear the echoes of his father’s words:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!
May they fear you while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations!
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth!
In his days may the righteous flourish,
and peace abound, till the moon be no more! (Psalm 72:1–7)
And then, down in 72:16 there’s a great prayer for our cities! “May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.”
Pastors, we know that God’s Word is especially fruitful. Remember Isaiah 55:10-11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there
but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Again and again, we have the light and the rains, those things which bring forth such good fruit.
Edification is the building up of something. Initially the word comes from buildings. But as an image, we use it of the congregation as a whole. So in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul wants everything min the assembly to be done so that the church may be built up (1 Cor. 14:26).
This may or may not mean that the congregation becomes more numerous; but it will mean that the congregation spiritually matures. Such edification is the rule of thumb for all our interactions with individual Christians, too. We read in Romans 15:2, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” We labor for good fruit in the lives of our congregation, but we know that the seed my lie under the earth until we do, and then spring up.
Pastors, we serve to bless the sheep. So many of you show it in your love and service of your families. As one author wrote, “Serving does not lessen one’s authority or leadership. Instead, it enhances it—especially the leading-by-example aspect. One who leads as Christ leads . . . is willing to sacrifice his own comfort and even his own well-being for those he leads.”2
So, back to 2 Samuel 23: good authority shines forth light, increases knowledge, and its rain brings fruitfulness. Good authority blesses those under it. And we all know that! That’s why every kid wants to go over to the home with the good parents; every student wants to be in the class with the good teacher, and wants to play on the team with the good coach; everyone wants to work at the company with the good boss. I could go on. Good authority reflects God’s character and blesses those underneath it.
Good authority bears good fruit.
4. Authority can be used badly.
That’s the opposite of the kind of authority we’ve been considering. Badly used authority, misused authority is the authority that uses those underneath them for their own good, that is, for the good of those in authority. This is the kind of authority in Scripture that is regularly condemned. No place is this seen more sharply in Scripture than in Ezekiel 34.
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
. . .
“Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.” (Ezek. 34:1–16, 20–24)
Friends, the shepherds of Israel—the kings and other leaders were to lead Israel for the benefit of the people, not for their own benefit! That’s the way it always is with good leadership—it’s meant to produce good fruit, to bless those who are under it, to protect them and to make them fruitful.
I wonder if this helps us understand a brief account given a little bit later in 2 Samuel 23. After these words of David, his 30 mighty men are recounted. And embedded in the list of David’s mighty men, right there in 2 Sam 23:15–17, is a story that has seemed curious to many people.
And David said longingly, “Oh, that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!” Then the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate and carried and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it. He poured it out to the Lord and said, “Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. These things the three mighty men did.
Brother pastors, even when David’s men wanted to use themselves—put themselves at risk for David—David knew that that was the opposite of what God had called him to do as their king in authority over them, for their good. David would not be like the later shepherds of Israel that God condemns in Ezekiel 34 who had been feeding themselves instead of their sheep.
This kind of abusive authority is actually what the serpent implied about God back in the Garden of Eden, as he said to Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Gen. 3:2). Notice the feigned regard for God’s Word, the show of religion, the false appearance of the fear of the Lord—when his very question distorted God’s Word and tempted the woman to suspect God’s goodness. Could God really love us if he tells us “no”?
That in many ways is the core of abusive authority. It lies about God. And it uses those underneath it. It taxes and strains the peoples’ trust in God, where it should encourage it and build it up. On the other hand, authority well used reflects God’s character and blesses those underneath it.
That’s why biblically justifying racial slavery here in America was such a particularly heinous sin against fellow creatures made in God’s image, and so ultimately against God himself. This is why other situations, in which biblical roles of authority in the family—husband, father—or in the state are used unbiblically and abusively, can be so deeply destructive. We mourn over sisters in Christ not protected but abused by those in churches.
On the other hand, good authority can be recognized by the way it spends itself for those in its care. To be a pastor or an elder is to sign up to bear the burdens of others. How thankful should we be for good elders and pastors that we know, who have served us and others we love, often at a cost to themselves?
Brother pastor, how are you tempted to use the sheep entrusted to your care for your own benefit?
Let’s go back to 2 Samuel 23, and the story of three of his chief men risking their lives to get him a particular drink. David may rightly reject the service offered by his men at too dear a price, but is there not a foreshadowing of the service another would perform, where instead of precious water being poured out, precious blood was poured out—not from the physical well of Bethlehem, but from Bethlehem’s better well—the true source of living water? The Son of Man poured out his own blood, providing that which no sinner could do for himself. Isn’t this what Jesus told his followers he had come to do?
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42–45)
This also sounds like the ultimate example of the Good King that David spoke of in his last words.
Keeping the gospel central is crucial to exercising authority well in our churches. It helps us to unite and divide in the right places, over the right issues. Bad authority unnecessarily divides churches and Christians. Good authority helps us unite around the gospel and the issues we need to agree on to have a local church together.
We should beware of authority used badly.
5. How can we as pastors exercise authority well?
Pray for God to raise up elders and pastors. If Ephesians 4:11 tells us that shepherds and teachers are gifts that Christ gives to his church, then we do well to follow Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 9:38 and pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. And pray for those who are in positions of pastoral authority, including yourself, brother pastor! Every time you pray, you remind yourself that you’re utterly dependent on the Lord and under his authority. And every time you pray in public you are acknowledging that and teaching others of your subordinate position.
Practically, understand how authority is held and exercised in your congregation.
Teach the congregation about the authority that they have, according to Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 2:6, Galatians 1:8–9, and 2 Timothy 4:3. Teach the elders about the responsibility the elders collectively have to lead the congregation together. Some of us have a unique responsibility as senior pastor. If you’re a lone pastor or the senior pastor, look at your church’s constitution or by-laws to see what is unique about your role and responsibilities, and make sure the other elders and the members of the church understand that. And then, brothers, be careful about how you use even that granted and agreed upon authority.
Some Dos and Don’ts
- Be an example for them of loving familial authority, like Paul said he was with the Thessalonians—gentle like a mother, exhorting them like a father (1 Thess. 2:7–12).
- Be transparent (e.g., 2 Cor. 1:12)—open communication, for example, about staff changes possibly coming. Let them be able to pray and help influence pastors’ choices to go elsewhere in ministry. This helps your congregation to learn to trust you and know that you, pastor, are thinking about the congregation and their well-being.
- Be willing to be misunderstood, misrepresented, and disliked. We may be slandered for being abusive, even as we work to prevent it. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matt. 10:25). It doesn’t matter very much what people think of you, does it? Sincere humility is a spiritual superpower, and it leads to even more!
- Do cultivate the respect of the congregation for other leaders in your congregation. Just as social media creates envy, so our church’s culture should encourage contentment in Christ. And that spreads a humility that encourages others to be raised up. Humility helps leadership, doesn’t it? Humility before God, fellow leaders, those under them, and to delegate others. Be an example of treating other people well. In fact, cultivate their respect for the pastor of the next church they may go to after yours, where they may, in fact, prosper even more spiritually! Wouldn’t you want that good for all of Christ’s sheep? We are not Christ’s only undershepherd.
- Do create lots of teaching opportunities for others beyond the sermons that you preach on Sunday morning.
- Don’t require unanimous elder votes; be willing to lose votes on the eldership. Quietly encourage others when they vote differently than you—especially other staff elders. Real unity can happen without unanimity when elders disagree respectfully with love and when we are prepared to submit to each other, trusting the ultimate authority is the Lord.
- Don’t nominate men for elders. Let others do that. Make sure the eldership doesn’t end up simply as a subset of your circle of friends.
- Look for the Spirit’s fruits, not merely the Spirit’s gifts. Character above brains, ability, or looks every time.
In all of this, you see that as the main teacher of the church, you want to make sure that the lines of responsibility in the church are clear. You realize that the health of the church as a whole is important, which almost always means the unity of the church is paramount. And understand the utter importance of more leaders/elders being raised up.
One key point to notice here. Do not hear this as saying that issues of good authority have nothing to do with the women in the church merely because the men are elders. Most members of your church are women. Most of the sheep Christ died for and who are in your church are women. Most of those who’ve called you to shepherd them are women. So you and your church have a great interest in seeing more women raised up in their godliness, praying, giving, attending, supporting, instructing one another, hungering for Scripture, discipling, showing hospitality—this is most of your congregation! Just like you want to see the men in your congregation evangelizing and discipling men, you want to see the women in your congregation evangelizing and discipling women. Authority well exercised works for the building up of the entire body.
Build Up Others
Realize your own role here, pastor. A couple of Sundays ago at CHBC, we were installing Matt Schmucker as an elder (again!). And part of what we do is to have all the currently serving elders come to the front to visibly stand with the new elder being installed, as he takes his vows and as we pray for him. So we had probably 25 men come forward and stand there together. Merely the sight itself was an encouraging testimony to the congregation of God’s rich provision for us. Reflecting on some of his marked kindnesses to us for the last couple of decades, I would say that the large number of elders we’ve seen raised up in our congregation is one of the main evidences of God’s provision for us, and one of the main means of blessing our congregation, and others through us.
Multiplying pastors is the way the Great Commission has always been fulfilled. And you see that missions, church planting, evangelism, and edification all are closely related to multiplying elders.
Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:15, “As grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” Glory to God increases as more and more people glorify him! We are part of that coming about!
These are simply a few reflections for pastors about exercising our authority well.
Here is a brief summary, brother pastor, in five points.
- Use the authority you are given.
- Use your authority in the fear of God.
- Use your authority in humility with other elders and members.
- Use your authority for the good of those you shepherd.
- Use your authority for the glory of God.
 Frederick Douglas, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, pp. 67-68 [LofA edition, pp. 51-53]. (Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).
 Stuart Scott, The Exemplary Husband, pg. 129. (Focus Publishing, 2000).