It can rightly be said in the early twenty-first century that we have a crisis of authority. This has many causes: American individualism and democratic ideals, the influence of both modernist and postmodernist philosophies, and natural human nature.
Matters of religious authority have also been affected, although disputations regarding religious authority are nothing new. Authority, in many instances, is discussed ad nauseam, and I have no desire to cause further nausea. It is important, however, to bring to remembrance many of the fundamental aspects of authority and our need for it. These fundamental aspects revolve around the nature of authority, faith, and the nature of man.
The term “authority” is often thrown around rather casually, and it is easy to forget precisely what is under discussion. “Authority” represents “power,” and most often refers to “delegated” power. There is generally an authority figure, and persons act according to the will of that authority.
The Bible’s claims regarding authority too often conflict with modern American sentiments of the same. In modern America, people are raised under the banner of the “power of the people,” that authority comes from the people and is delegated to various representatives. While this authority hardly has any substance, it is a powerful mental concept, and one freely proclaimed at any hint of perceived overreaching of any figure invested with authority.
The Bible would proclaim quite the opposite, as the interaction of Jesus and a centurion clearly indicates:
And the centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goeth; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he cometh; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he doeth it.”
And when Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8:8-10).
The centurion understands authority– as a “middle officer” in the highly regimented and disciplined Roman army, he certainly should! He understands that when a person with authority speaks, those under the authority should listen; he takes this understanding and applies it to Jesus.
The centurion recognizes the authority present in Jesus of Nazareth. The people did too; their response to what we call the “Sermon on the Mount” indicates as much:
And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).
The scribes (among others) attempted to establish authority much like we do today: provide Scripture from God, interpret it, and indicate the application. The scribes and others had no authority of their own to establish here, but pointed to the authority of God. Jesus did no such thing in the “Sermon on the Mount;” He boldly stated truth in His own terms (“I say to you, etc.”). Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, had authority.
It is interesting to see that the result of the centurion’s statement in Matthew 8 is that Jesus marvels at him for his “great faith” (Matthew 8:10). Such faith is not found even in Israel. What is meant here is how the centurion trusted in Jesus’ power– the centurion knew that Jesus only had to say the word, and his servant would be healed, for he had confidence in Jesus’ power over the natural world.
Faith is the necessary corollary to authority: one must have true confidence in the source of authority. This cannot be mere lip service– it must have substance. As it is written:
And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him (Hebrews 11:6).
From Hebrews 11 one can find plenty of examples of this kind of faith– people who have more confidence in God’s authority than any other. Abraham had enough confidence in God’s power to leave his country and go to another. Moses had enough confidence in God’s power to stand against the most powerful man who lived in his day and prevailed. The prophets also represent great models of faith in God’s power, and perhaps none so as Elijah: standing up against king, queen, false prophets, and people, confident in the authority of God.
One must therefore have faith– true confidence– in the source of authority. Consciously or unconsciously, this ends up really being the bone of contention, for too often people will cloak their own desires or traditions with the mantle of God and call themselves justified. True confidence in the source of authority will do no such thing, but allow the authority to properly speak.
This again represents the downfall of modernistic and postmodernistic views of authority. Too many have embraced modern philosophical views of reality and truth and then have passed it off onto God, ascribing to individuals or collectives that which is due to God. We would do well to heed Paul’s warnings about such seductive philosophies (Colossians 2:1-9) lest we get puffed up in our own minds.
Yet this is the natural human tendency– to skew proper perspective by elevating man’s capabilities and positive characteristics to the detriment of his faults. According to the Scriptures, we must have none of this. As it is written:
Trust in the LORD with all thy heart, And lean not upon thine own understanding: In all thy ways acknowledge him, And he will direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes; Fear the LORD, and depart from evil: It will be health to thy navel, And marrow to thy bones (Proverbs 3:5-8).
There is a way which seemeth right unto a man; But the end thereof are the ways of death (Proverbs 14:12).
O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).
What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we before laid to the charge both of Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin; as it is written,
“There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none that understandeth, There is none that seeketh after God; They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable; There is none that doeth good, no, not, so much as one: Their throat is an open sepulchre; With their tongues they have used deceit: The poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood; Destruction and misery are in their ways; And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it speaketh to them that are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:9-23).
The testimony of these Scriptures is clear and not easily denied: human beings are sinful, all too willing to justify their own desires, and it is not within them to direct their own steps. Human nature indicates the need we have to have confidence in God as our authority.
And this requires humility. We must humble ourselves before the One who has authority, and continually subject ourselves to His teaching, as it is written:
Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness (Romans 6:16-18).
This is why many of the terms used to describe Christians involve positions of subservience: servant, slave, disciple, follower, and so on. We must entirely subject ourselves to the Heavenly Authority.
Thus it is written:
And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17).
Considering what we have said above, this idea makes perfect sense: if we subject ourselves to God’s will and have confidence in God as the ultimate Authority, we will seek to do all things according to His authority.
We must accept the reality that all authority belongs to God, that we must have confidence in Him and His authority, and subject ourselves to that authority, since it is not within ourselves to direct our own steps.
Few Christians are going to consciously disagree with what has so far been put forward. The matter of disputation has always been in how we understand this authority.
Many understand this authority in terms of the Spirit: they read passages indicating how God has given us of His Spirit (Romans 8:9-11, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and then that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17), and reason that their decisions represent the promptings of the Spirit, and such is sufficient justification. Yet such seems to manifest a very American understanding of freedom which is not commensurate with the Scriptures. In the New Testament, “freedom” is not spoken of as license; far from it (Galatians 5:13, 1 Peter 2:16)! Freedom, in the New Testament, is liberation: freedom from sin, freedom from the Law of Moses (Romans 6:18, 8:2). It does not mean that we are independent, self-determining creatures: we are still to be subject to the standard of teaching to which we have been committed, the law of Christ (Romans 6:17, 1 Corinthians 9:21). We cannot imagine, therefore, that the Spirit serves to justify that which the previous revelations of the Spirit did not justify: Jesus has not changed, the new covenant has not changed, and we never see any indications that the Spirit gives license where the Word does not; quite the contrary (Hebrews 13:8, 1 John 4:1). The Spirit’s presence indicates liberty from sin, death, and the Law of Moses; it does not indicate liberty to justify our particular selections contrary to the will of God.
Many in Christendom vest authority in men or traditions of men– a denominational organization or a hierarchy of authority figures. Such makes things quite easy for people, yet invariably, the men or the traditions conflict with that which has been previously revealed. Christ indicated that the Gentiles lord over people with authority, and it should not be so among His followers; likewise, many in His day set aside the commands of God, teaching the traditions of men (Matthew 15:3, 20:25-26). The condemnation is just, for in all such circumstances, authority that belongs to God is transferred to people or a set of traditions who have no right to claim them. All such claims, when compared with the revelations of God in the Scriptures, fall short. We cannot look to traditions or to men and vest them with authority.
We must return to the standard– the Word of God. We believe that it is God’s revelation to mankind, to equip His servant for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). How we handle His Word is also too often a contentious matter.
We recognize that much of the controversy surrounds the interpretive model of “command, example, and necessary inference,” often called CENI for short. The controversy tends to surround “ENI:” how binding are examples, and how necessary are inferences? No end of criticism is leveled against these concepts.
It ought to be said that there are times when “CENI” can be abused. Many times the concepts are not well-explained. If the principles involved are not systematically defined, misunderstandings and misapplications can result. Unfortunately, it is also too often true that inferences that are not necessary are deemed as such.
But does this mean that we should cast off the concept of CENI? Hardly. No other method of interpretation seeks to keep the authority where it should be vested– in God and His Word.
The Scriptures themselves speak regarding examples:
Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted….Now these things happened unto them by way of example; and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).
God has not provided narrative within the Scriptures for us to simply analyze and go on our way. Every narrative provides illustrative value, for we can discern from them that which God approves and that which God disapproves. Yes, examples must be properly contextualized, and many narratives pose difficult questions that sometimes make it difficult to apply the examples. Yet, especially in the New Testament, we find within examples ways which we know are right and are not wrong.
People endlessly speculate about matters based upon example: first day of week assemblies, partaking of the Lord’s Supper and taking collections on the first day of the week, and so on and so forth. Are there other ways of engaging in these practices that are legitimate? We can’t know the answer to that question, since it is not revealed. If we’re going to have the complete trust in God’s authority, and the humility to recognize that it is not within us to direct our own steps, should we really be trusting our think-sos over what God has clearly revealed as legitimate and acceptable?
Necessary inference also gets targeted quite a bit. While the concept can be abused, we cannot just remove the idea from consideration! Consider what Jesus teaches below.
But Jesus answered and said unto them, “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as angels in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:29-32).
Jesus condemns the Sadducees for “not knowing the Scriptures”, neither the “power” of God. What, exactly, do they not know from the Scriptures? While we may groan about the obnoxiousness of the question they pose to Jesus, based on the letter of the Old Testament itself, the question is legitimate. What they do not understand is what must be inferred from God’s statement: He is the God of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob, and therefore is the God of the living. If He is the God of the living, that means that there is life after death and thus paves the way for the resurrection. This argument– no small argument, by the way, for it demonstrates the legitimacy of the core of the Christian faith– is entirely based in the inference derived from God presently being the God of people who have passed on.
While there may be legitimate grounds for discussion as to the extent to which we ought to use necessary inference, we have to recognize the legitimacy of the principle.
Another matter of contention regards God’s silence. In fact, most of the conflicts do not involve that which is revealed, but what is not revealed! Again, we must consider the Scriptures.
For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. For he of whom these things are said belongeth to another tribe, from which no man hath given attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord hath sprung out of Judah; as to which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priests (Hebrews 7:12-14).
The Hebrew author indicates that God’s silence is certainly telling: we know that Jesus cannot be a Levitical priest since He descends from Judah. Yet we recognize, of course, that God is not fully silent– He chose the tribe of Levi to be priests to Him (Numbers 1:47ff). God’s specific choice of Levi excluded any other tribe, and this truth represents the foundation of the Hebrew author’s argument that there is a change of priesthood and law, and Jesus is a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.
There are also times where there is liberty– in fact, many times. Where God commands and provides no specific means by which the command is to be completed, there is liberty. There are many areas of our lives where God has not provided specific legislation, but has provided general principles for us to consider. Liberty prevails in these contexts.
We speak of these things, technically, in terms of “specific authority” and “generic authority,” and rarely are the concepts themselves under fire– instead, the applications are disputed.
We can see from the above that these interpretive principles, while not explicitly enshrined in Scripture, do represent means of discerning God’s will so that we may live and act according to His authority and His guidelines. The failure of these principles is less about the principles and more about those using them.
We again go back to being humble servants of God, seeking His will and authority, not trusting in ourselves to establish our own paths but having full confidence in our Creator. Only when we do these things first and foremost can we truly interpret God’s will.
Other means of interpretation are often put forward, yet all provide more license or leeway for people and less reliance on God. Sincerity of people in their endeavors may not justify the doctrines, and such people can be sincere yet not truly trusting in God’s authority as expressed in God’s Word. Systems that break down the Scriptures in terms of what God explicitly approves versus what is explicitly condemned, providing liberty for whatever is in the middle, erodes confidence in God’s Word as providing all good works to equip the Christian (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and seeks to undermine God’s guidance in principle, example, and proper inference.
In all such matters we must return to God: do we seek to die to self and live to Christ, or justify ourselves in the name of Christ? Are we really willing to see ourselves as Jesus’ slaves, no longer possessing ourselves but being God’s possession, following His every direction? Or do we chafe under the idea that, yes, even under the new covenant we have a law that we must observe? Are we willing to say, “not my will, but Yours be done,” even when it goes against deeply cherished values of our society? Are we willing to be honest with ourselves and see that many times when we rebel against authority, we do so not because of God’s prompting in the Scripture, but because we still want some say in calling the shots?
Unfortunately, interpretive methods get abused. Yet we must interpret. We should seek to interpret, recognizing that we are dust and ashes and God is quite great. We should seek to rely on our own understanding from our own minds less and more on what God reveals.
Let us not be content to be as Pharisees, but to exceed their “righteousness” by having the right attitudes in place. Observing God’s will in detail is not antithetical to humility, love, justice, mercy, and compassion– it represents loving and trusting in God, denial of ourselves, and a willingness to be conformed into the image of Christ.
Conformity to the image of Christ– that ought to be our goal while we have life within this flesh. Let us strive to understand all things in accordance with that goal.