Photo by Chad Runge / Creation Swap

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Coming Under Authority

Coming Under Authority

What comes to mind when you think of “authority?”  Is it the local law enforcement?  Is it your boss or supervisor at work?  How about the government, such as the President of the United States?  The word authority probably conjures up some picture of what your experience with authority might be.

You, perhaps, might be given authority if you’re a supervisor at work.  As a mom or dad, you also exert a certain amount of authority over your children.  Believe it or not, even if you work in a place of employment and you direct and guide customers to receive their goods and services you also exhibit a certain amount of authority.  For example, if you are a waitress and direct a customer to sit at a table you are using the authority that you were given by your employer to take this particular action.

Authority, however, doesn’t always carry a positive connotation.  Every one of us, perhaps, has a memory of some type of authority that has affected us negatively.  Maybe it was a teacher who “had it in for you” and treated you badly.  You might still be carrying those scars today into adulthood.  It could have been your father who was MIA (missing in action.)  Though this kind of affect from authority takes on a different perspective it still had/has a profound effect on you.

Authority is a power of influence that was instituted by God.  In fact, God is the Ultimate Authority over life and over each one of us.  Authority takes on different meanings and is important to understand if we’re to see authority as God intended.  Authority, as defined by The Free Dictionary, is as follows:

a. The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge.
b. One that is invested with this power, especially a government or body of government officials: land titles issued by the civil authority.
2. Power assigned to another; authorization: Deputies were given authority to make arrests.
3. A public agency or corporation with administrative powers in a specified field: a city transit authority.
a. An accepted source of expert information or advice: a noted authority on birds; a reference book often cited as an authority.
b. A quotation or citation from such a source: biblical authorities for a moral argument.
5. Justification; grounds: On what authority do you make such a claim?
6. A conclusive statement or decision that may be taken as a guide or precedent.
7. Power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience: political observers who acquire authority with age.
8. Confidence derived from experience or practice; firm self-assurance: played the sonata with authority.

So how important is authority?  Or to put it another way, what happens when authority is used incorrectly?  Authority has such a significant effect on society that if abused it can cause irreparable harm.  Given this fact authority is often viewed badly.  We may even rebel against authority.  Many people in history have been given certain notoriety because of their complete disregard and disdain for authority.  This is particularly true in times and places when authority was corrupt.  You may think of the old Wild West in the United States back in the 1800s.  Or maybe the mobs and gangs of Chicago in the early to mid-1900s.  Whatever your thoughts or memories, abuse of authority has often resulted in an unpopular opinion.

Although authority is often abused, does that give us just cause to rebel against said authority?  In our minds we may think so.  If you’re a citizen of the United States you may regard your right as an American as a reason to rebel against authority.  If things aren’t going the way that you think it should go you may speak out harshly against the government because they’re not doing their job.  You may say that you’re a registered voter and you’re the one that gave that power or authority to the public officials.

As Christians, this is where I think we need to be careful in understanding our proper role in God’s purposes and plans.  In studying Romans 13: 1-7, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that God is the One who has not only established the role of authority but has placed the ones who are in authority.  This is perhaps one of the more difficult aspects to grasp.  How could God have placed someone like Adolf Hitler as ruler and leader of the German people?  Or someone like the Emperor Nero during the time of the early church?

These are difficult questions that we may not completely understand.  However, I believe we need to wrestle with these questions under the lenses of a Christian worldview.  One thing that comes to mind is the fact that we live with sin natures in a sinful world.  In a perfect world without sin, authority would be perfect as well.  The moment sin entered the picture it changed everything.  The reason perhaps that authority is often corrupted and abused is to help us as a people to understand that our most pressing and desperate need is a Savior.  If our lives were left without problems and struggles and persecutions, would we naturally turn to God to save us from our most pressing problem – sin?

Let’s first look at the passage for Romans 13: 1-7:

Submission to Governing Authorities

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Notice in the first verse that “there is no authority except that which God has established.”  Clearly, as believers we are to submit to these authorities, whether good or bad.  Paul lists out some reasons why we should obey the authorities that seem logical.  He even tells us that if we rebel against these authorities that we are in effect rebelling against God.  But also notice that Paul doesn’t condition this command by stating that we should submit to the authorities only if we agree with them.  Or submit when there are good kings and rulers.  No, Paul doesn’t state that.  But what he does say is that “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.”

Many times throughout the Scriptures we have examples of God’s people submitting to authority even when those in authority were undeserving.  Joseph rose through the ranks of authority and was given authority under the rule of Pharaoh in Egypt.  David submitted to King Saul even though Saul sought to kill him.  Daniel was even subject to King Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon that took the Israelites captive.  Jesus submitted Himself even under the authority of Pontius Pilate, although Jesus had every right to rebel because He was completely innocent.  The apostles during the time of the early church submitted to the governing authorities of the Emperor Nero, a vicious ruler and persecutor of Christians at the time.

But we also see a glaring example of what happens when we rebel against God and His authority.  What happened to the Israelites after God rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians?  He brought them out to the desert.  It was during this time that the Israelites complained, murmured and grumbled against God.  Instead of inheriting the promise that God would give them a land of milk and honey, they incurred God’s wrath.  Those that lived during that time for 40 years died wandering out in the desert.  Why?  One of the reasons is a complete disregard for God’s authority over them.

Another thing that we see is that as Christians how do we respond to abusive authority?  When faced with the question of obeying authorities that are overstepping their power, do we obey God or man?  We see this question raised to Peter when he and the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin.  When the issue was to obey man’s laws when they contradicted God’s commands, Peter says this, “We must obey God rather than men.”  Even Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had this to say to the ruler Nebuchadnezzar when confronted with worshiping a false idol, which they were commanded to do:

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.

It’s important that if we are to follow God, we need to understand from a Biblical standpoint how and when to submit to authorities and unjust laws.  It may not always be clear cut.  It may often take prayer and spiritual discernment.  But the general rule of thumb must be that unless it completely contradicts God’s Word, we should submit to those authorities that God has placed over us.

In addition, when we’re the ones in authority we should examine our own hearts and motives.  Think about the fact that God is our Ultimate Authority.  When God is the One who has given us authority, we should exercise this authority with caution.  Even the centurion who came to Jesus asking for healing for his servant understood this concept.  He understood that though he has authority that he too was a man under authority.  (emphasis mine)

The Faith of the Centurion

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

The question for us today is how do we submit to authority?  Do we submit to President Obama when he purposely enforces laws that go against our conscious such as abortion and same-sex marriage?  I would say that in every situation where God has given President Obama authority we should respect him as our President and not speak ill-will of him.  In fact, we should pray that God grant him wisdom and understanding.  We want him to do well because the country will do well if he does what is right.  But in areas where laws obviously contradict God’s commands, we respectively state that we must obey God rather than man.

What happens if we incur some persecution in response to obeying God?  Though Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego obeyed God, they were still thrown into the fire.  They submitted to the consequences of their choice.  We, too, need to be aware and willing to submit to the consequences of following Christ.  Will it be unpopular?  Will it cause pain?  May we end up in prison or endure hardship?  All of these are possible scenarios.  But we must remember that we are witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ.  It may be through these circumstances that unbelievers witness our obedience (even unto death) that they may be won to Christ.

Jesus often said that there is a cost of following Him and being His disciple.  He emphasized that we need to count the cost and consider the consequences of our choices.  Jesus understood the cost and even went to the cross on our behalf.  He endured hardship, suffering and even death.  Jesus pointed out in John 15:20, “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.”

Are you willing to follow Christ?  Are you willing to submit to authority?