Summary: The crisis of authority

Know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other (Deuteronomy 4.39).

As a nation we are in the midst of a crisis of authority. Many people distrust those in political leadership and the natural, albeit sinful, propensity to be suspicious of authority is thereby exacerbated. Additionally, the parental authority of the family, which traditionally has been uncontested, is increasingly under attack. The entertainment industry frequently reverses the roles of parents and children: parents are caricaturized as incompetent adolescents while the child is portrayed as a storehouse of wisdom. In short, there is a confusion over who is vested with legitimate authority. Beyond that, the legislature and the courts are sending mixed signals regarding parental authority and the rights of children. Children sue parents for abuse and the courts jail parents for lack of control. There is a frightening trend toward the privatization of authority: each person becomes a law unto themselves.

What is the source of legitimate authority and what are its limits? How does the Christian differentiate a legitimate authority from an illegitimate one or is Paul suggesting that every governing authority is legitimate and must be obeyed? Does he make a distinction between submission and obedience? A number of years ago Leon Jaworski raised the question about final authority in his book, The Right and the Power, but the question was never answered. Current events in American politics are once again making this issue headline news. Indeed, it is the key sociological question of the day. We are, it seems, in the midst of an ideological paradigm shift that some social prophets think may shatter the cohesive fabric of the society. Without the internal moral constraints of virtuous leadership the constraints of the law become less and less effective. Frankly, the common fear facing most Americans centers on personal safety. This is a result of people depending on the external force of the law which is unable to restrain the heart. A society which loses its moral authority also loses its ability to act authoritatively. Are we in the process of moving from a constitutional republic to a state of individual autonomy (government by poll) where the individual becomes the moral arbiter? In the midst of such radical change what is the proper response to authority? What powers are legitimate and what powers are illegitimate? Is a person obligated to serve a corrupt system? What does God require of the Christian?

The Bible teaches there are seven authority / submission relationships: 1. God and man (James 4.7; Joshua 24.15). 2. Man and nature (Genesis 1.28). 3. Husband and wife (Ephesians 5.22-23; 1 Peter 3.1,7). 4. Parents and children (Ephesians 6.1, Colossians 3.20). 5. The government and the governed (1 Peter 2.13-14; Romans 13.1-7; cp. 1 Timothy 2.1-4). 6) Employers and employees (1 Peter 2.18-20; Colossians 3.22-4; 1 Peter 6.5-9). 7) Spiritual leaders and the spiritually led (Hebrews 13.17). Having said this, it may be worth mentioning what may be obvious to most, namely, that God cannot violate his own moral nature. Moreover, a lesser authority cannot countermand a greater authority. Thus, a father does not have the authority to tell his children to do anything that is morally wrong. Governing authorities are subject to and limited by other governing authorities that have jurisdiction over them. Of course, all governing authorities are subject to the commands or moral laws of God; whether they adhere to them is another matter (cp. Acts 4.7, 13, 19-20; 5.27-29).

When the constraints of God’s law are ignored the violator is subject to the natural causality of his sin and he will inevitably be enslaved by his own wanton self-interests. When Adam sinned he died spiritually and thereby contaminated the whole human race with an innate predilection for disobedience. The sin of self-interest corrupts governments, causes labor unrest, and destroys families; it is the fetid evil of self-serving religions. Indeed, it is at the root of most sin. When the Christian submits to the absolute authority of God, he begins to recognize his obligation to every other legitimate authority established by God. Ultimately he will understand that his compliance with the law of the land (where that law does not violate the higher moral law of God) becomes a vehicle for honoring God. What makes the times in which we live so perilous is that when liberty without moral constraint captivates the masses, the society will soon find itself enslaved to its passions and it will shatter like an expensive crystal goblet dropped on a marble floor.


In Romans 12.1-2 Paul exhorts Christians not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. Knowing what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5.17 about being a new creation in Christ, it may appear surprising that the believer has any obligations to the governments of this world; after all, Christians are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3.20). So being subject to a secular and pagan government seems to present the reader with an ethical dilemma not unlike that which faced Habakkuk. But Paul addresses an immanently practical issue for the Roman Christians. “In Rome they had the palace within view; everyone spoke of Caesar and his delegates. Therefore the question was always present: How is one to evaluate them and associate with them in the light of God’s will in the service of righteousness? It would be strange if the norm that orders the community’s relationship to the state were missing from the message to the Romans. … Could God’s people be subject to Caesar? Did they not renounce their heavenly king if they submitted to the one person who claimed to be the absolute Lord of all?” (Adolf Schlatter, Romans: The Righteousness of God, p. 240).

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