Understanding Authority

Since the Fall, man has hated authority. America has built a culture on the hatred of authority, and yet God is still Lord, and He still appoints people over us. What do we do?

The US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Whether he said this or not, the idea of questioning authority has woven itself into the DNA of American culture. But the idea of questioning authority is not new; indeed, it is as old as man. Since the serpent convinced Eve to question God’s authority in the Garden of Eden, sinful man has questioned authority. Even more, we have an inherent dislike of it. The idea that anyone or anything should be “over” us in some way is anathema to man, especially individualistic Americans.

Before we continue, we must define our terms. For our purposes, “to question” will be “to ask” or even “to challenge” authority but not to automatically reject it. We will define “authority” as “the power to give orders or make decisions: the power or right to direct or control someone or something.”[1] Note that authority is not the same as power. Power is simple ability, while authority is ability plus legitimacy. A man holding a gun may have the power to take your money, but he doesn’t have the authority to do so. A tax collector in a democratic government has both the power and the legitimacy, hence the authority, to take your money.

The Bible claims to be an authority in its own right and makes many statements about authority. Matthew 8:5-13 contains one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible. A centurion, a young Roman officer roughly equivalent to a company commander in the modern US Army, had a sick servant. He came to Jesus and asked Him to heal the man. When Jesus offered to go to his house to do so, the centurion refused and replied “Lord, I know how authority works. I am not worthy to have you come to me. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s faith, a reaction He had to no one else in Scripture. This young Roman leader understood authority, and he knew that Jesus had it.

This article will discuss where authority comes from, how we know when someone has authority, how to respond to authority, and how to wield authority.

The Source of Authority

All authority comes from God. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, and His nature forms the informational and moral basis for existence. He is the Supreme Power and the Ultimate Authority. It really cannot be any other way. Christians understand that the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ, has all authority (Matthew 28:18-20). Judging by the texts of the two documents, the Framers of the US Declaration of Independence[2] understood this but the Framers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man[3] apparently did not. The results of this were clear to see – the American Revolution ended in the world’s first constitutional democracy, the “last, best hope of mankind.[4]” The French Revolution ended in the First Republic (1792-1799) and the Napoleonic Empire (1799-1815), during which millions were slaughtered.

God gives authority to man. In one of the first acts of creation, He commanded Adam and Eve to rule over the earth and to take care of it (Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15, 9:2-3). The Lord also ordains governments to regulate the affairs of men (Leviticus, 1 Samuel 9:16-17, 16:1-13, Romans 13:1-7). Governments in Biblical times were generally despotic, benevolent or not, but God’s authority is not limited by the form of government. He exalts and humbles leaders in democratic governments as well. The same goes for businesses and all other organizations; authority is given by the Holy One (John 19:11).

The Lord gives authority to man in three ways. First, God’s authority is fundamentally based in His character, and so God gives man authority by transforming his character to be more like His. The character of the Holy One is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), and so shall be the character of the man or woman to whom He has given real authority. It is an active process, with God and the person working in tandem (Philippians 2:12-13). Godly character is the foundation of all real authority.

Second, the Lord gives authority to man by helping him or her to do things in fulfillment of His will. He teaches doctors to heal, lawyers to argue, leaders to speak, pilots to fly, and businessmen to negotiate. God gives fathers the ability to protect their families, and mothers the ability to nurture them. The list is as endless as the Lord’s will is broad, from artists reflecting beauty to zookeepers tending animals. God has commanded us to keep the earth as a gardener tends her beloved garden, so He gives us the power and legitimacy, the authority, to keep His commands. Knowledge and experience are primary ways that the Lord confers these abilities.

Third, the Lord gives authority to man by providing resources. He gives most people enough money to survive, and to some He provides great wealth. God gives most people positions in the family, the tribe, the business or the government where they can command enough resources to fulfill their purposes, and some He calls to be presidents, prime ministers or kings. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).

One may object that many people use their authority for wicked purposes. This is as true as it is tragic, both for the person and for those harmed by their evil. This paper will not address theodicy, the problem of evil in the world. Nonetheless, what people do with the authority that they have been given has little to do with how they are given it. A person’s importance has nothing to do with his or her abilities, resources or position; a taxi driver who is fully in the will of God is more important in the eternal schema than a president who is outside.

One may argue that authority comes from the people, whether an army which is supporting a dictator or a voting bloc which is supporting a candidate. This argument is partly true but it is limited, because men and women help each other gain authority in far more than just governance. Mentors help men and women develop good character, teachers build knowledge and skills in their students, investors and customers provide money, and voters provide votes. This argument is also partly false because individual actions make the crucial difference between a champion and a ne’er do well. Men and women take what they have been given and transform their lives into gold, silver and precious stones or wood, hay and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:12). In a real sense, man creates his own authority. And behind it all is the sovereign grace and power of God.

Another problem with the position that people are the ultimate source of power is that this position mistakes recognizing authority with conferring authority. God is the one who gives a man the raw material (health, intelligence, etc.) with which he works and enables him to develop into who he becomes (intelligence, skills and character). These characteristics enable a man to “direct or control someone or something.” God confers authority. Other people recognize the man’s intelligence, skills and character, the real source of authority, the “power or right to direct or control someone or something.” But even if Man A fails to recognize Man B’s authority, that fact in no way diminishes Man B’s authority, because in the final analysis Man A didn’t give it to him…God did.

Jesus is the ultimate example. He is God incarnate, the rightful Ruler of the Universe. He possesses ultimate authority, and yet many of the people failed to recognize Him. That does not diminish His authority. It only eliminated the blessings that His doubters would have received by following Him.

There are many other examples. Moses had no votes, no army, and no money compared to Pharaoh’s awesome power, but who had the greater authority, whose work changed the course of history? Paul had none of these things compared to Emperor Nero, who had him beheaded. But Paul’s labors have lasted for millennia and Nero’s perished when he did. Augustine, Aquinas and Luther were neither kings nor princes, boasting of little wealth and station, but they tower in the annals of mankind. Even today, who had more eternal significance, Billy Graham or Pol Pot? People did not give these men the authority that they commanded…God did. At first, people did not even recognize the authority that God gave them, but that fact did not decrease their power. Sometimes the man who is passed over for a position, whether by jealously or fortune, holds the real authority.Remember, the things that we hold as most powerful, armies and nations, are little more than nothing in the eyes of God (Isaiah 40:15-17). He does not evaluate the world as we do (1 Samuel 16:7).

The best that people can do is to confer what authority they can wisely, in all of the ways mentioned above, and recognize that God, not man, is the ultimate source. In democratic governments, voters hopefully will choose the leaders with the greatest industry, skills, intelligence, and most importantly, character. They will thus select through the popular vote the leader that God, who wants the best for their nation, had chosen for them.

This truth does not negate the value of democracy but endorses it. The judgment of a godly people must be heeded. As hard as it can be to determine the will of the Almighty, the vote is the best way yet devised to choose leaders. It is better to have many people participate in selecting their government than just a few. Also, the separation of powers is the best way yet devised to limit the abuses of government.

Viewed from another angle, the German sociologist Max Weber identified three sources of authority. The first was rational-legal authority, such as a sergeant has over the privates in his squad. The second was traditional authority, such as that of a king over his country or a father over his family. The third was charismatic authority, such as that a religious leader claims God gave him over his followers. In actuality, God is the prime mover behind all of these types of power, using them for His purposes.

How do we know when someone has authority?

The first test of a man or woman’s authority is his or her character. God confers authority to all who will serve Him ably. Followers of Christ exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit” noted above, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Those who seek leaders with God-given authority must look for these traits. Of the current American presidential candidates, the current front runners show the least fruit, which is probably an indictment of the American electorate, the media, or both.

The second test of someone’s authority is the results of their work. A doctor whose diagnoses and treatments are sound and whose patients get better is a doctor with authority. A preacher whose parishioners learn the Bible and grow in their faith is a preacher with authority. A chief executive officer whose customers are satisfied and whose business makes money possesses authority. The results confirm the blessings of God, the ultimate source of authority, on their actions. Jesus’ success in teaching and healing was proof of His authority.

The third test of a person’s authority is their knowledge and experience. God is the source of all knowledge and experience, and He confers authority on this basis. I have authority in medicine, the military, and Christian ministry by virtue of 27 years of training and experience. Because of decades on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia has authority in the realm of US law and government. Alan Greenspan has authority in finance and Warren Buffet in business for the same reasons. In every case, the Lord provided knowledge and experience in various areas to people, thus giving them authority in what He called them to do.

The fourth and least important test of a man or woman’s authority is the position he or she holds. We also know when a person has authority by the position that God gives them. When He places a person with inherent authority by virtue of their character into a position of authority in a society, such as a governor, that person receives additional authority from the consent of the people (at least some of them). Most inhabitants from the lowest to the greatest recognized the rational-legal authority of the centurion in Matthew 8, but some Jewish nationalist zealots did not.

Consider again the example of the centurion. He recognized Jesus’ authority in His character, His knowledge and His ability to teach and work miracles. Though without formal education, Jesus had awesome personal authority (Mark 1:27). The centurion himself had authority in his character (he cared for his servant), his abilities (he picked the right guy to ask for help), and his position (a leader in the Roman army).

How do we respond to authority?

The first thing that Christians must do is question authority, to seek its source in leaders we encounter. Jesus did not ask others to accept His authority blindly. Rather He lived a sinless life, spoke powerful words and performed mighty deeds, attributing His power to God the Father. Jesus based His claim to authority on the evidence of who He was (character) and what He could do (abilities), despite His lack of wealth or position.

Doctors and other professionals claim power to heal, teach, practice law, or whatever they do, on the basis of training and experience. Bureaucrats and businessmen base their claims on the positions or money they hold. If a person claims charismatic authority, they had better be prepared to back it up with Scripture, or other evidence that God has really called them. None of these, however, have real authority unless they have godly character, as reflected in their actions. We shall know a tree by its fruits (Luke 6:43-45).

Questioning authority is an ongoing task. Mankind is nothing if not unstable, and the best leaders can go rapidly astray. Followers must ensure that their leaders stay accountable to the pertinent laws and to the needs of others. Peter was a mighty man of God and worked amazing miracles, but he needed to be rebuked by Paul when he fell into sin. King David is another tragic example.

Once we are convinced that a leader has authority, we must follow him or her. Our words must support our leaders, and our acts must align with their priorities. Whether or not we like our boss, our governor, or our president, we must pray for him or her. Insofar as leaders have authority over us, we must follow them. In Romans 13 Paul taught that Christians should obey those placed in authority over them. The only exception is when a leader says or does something which is clearly against the will of God. In that case, Christians must disobey the leader and face the consequences (Acts 5:29).

Christians should be slow in giving their loyalty to others, but slower in taking it away. There is no perfect leader on the earth, and we should expect none. There is also no perfect follower. Sometimes leaders make mistakes, and sometimes they intentionally do wrong. Sometimes followers misinterpret a leader’s action as a mistake or an intentional wrong when in reality it was the best that anyone could have done in that situation. Sometimes leaders do the same vis a vis their followers. Rather than discard relationships like yesterday’s newspapers, followers of Christ must show grace towards one another and stay together unless it becomes impossible to do otherwise.

How do we wield authority?

Everyone has to be a follower at some point in life, and everyone has to be a leader. Whether a garbage man or a general, a homemaker or a high ranking bureaucrat, everyone follows someone and everyone leads someone.

As God is the ultimate source of authority and will remove it eventually from everyone who misuses it, the way to wield authority is to do so as God does. Jesus had the power of the Almighty, even over life and death, and yet He used it to bless others. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, taught the confused, forgave the sinners and raised the dead. While our power is limited, we must do the same. God never gives power so that a man can enrich himself; He always empowers someone to accomplish His work.

Therefore, leaders must wield authority with character – the fruits of the Spirit. We must demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in all of our actions. Sometimes I give money to the needy, an act of authority since God has provided me enough money to give. However if I remind the receivers of my largesse towards them, I am not wielding my authority properly.

Whether a leader’s authority is based on their knowledge, experience, position, or (more likely) a combination of these, they must also wield their authority in such a way as to produce good and enduring results. Good intentions do not equal good results, as President Ulysses S. Grant realized. An executive might throw open the doors of her hospital and provide free care for all comers, but bankrupt the hospital in a few months. She exercised authority but not in a way that produced enduring good results.


Authority, the power or right to direct or control someone or something, is a great mystery. To varying extents everyone wants it, everyone needs it, and no one wants others to have it over them. God holds all authority and dispenses it to men for a time as He sees fit. Authority comes from God through what a man is (character), what he can do (training, experience), and what resources he controls (wealth, position). Christians must question authority, follow authority, and wield authority for the glory of the Lord and the good of others. We must never wield it for our own selfish good.


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authority

[2] http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[3] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp

[4] Annual Message to Congress 1862 — Concluding Remarks, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm

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