These days “authority” is often seen as almost a “dirty” word. People show very little respect for authority and remain skeptical about any claims of authority. The news is full of people in whom authority was entrusted who have broken that trust and used their authority for nefarious ends. In the early twenty first century there is indeed a crisis of authority.
The crisis of authority in modern society may seem new, yet it is rooted in many trends which have been developing in Western civilization over the past few centuries. Concern for the individual as an individual is as old as Christianity; waves of reform movements have broken over the Western world repeatedly since the 13th century, and by necessity stand in some tension with existing authority. Yet it was during the Enlightenment in the 18th century when skepticism toward any inherited authority was popularized, and the United States of America is nothing if not a grandiose Enlightenment project. From the Revolution onward Americans have proven very skeptical toward authority figures and claims of authority, even as they affirmed the authority of reason. In the wake of two world wars and the imminent threat of nuclear devastation, even the authority of reason was toppled in the twentieth century. Postmodern viewpoints cast aspersions on human ability to know much of anything for certain; postmodernism, especially with the growth of tolerance and multiculturalism, has almost inevitably led to a level of relativism in understanding truth and even authority: people are left to decide for themselves what is right or what is wrong, who to trust, and who to reject. In this way the individual is enshrined as the ultimate authority for everything, yet one who cannot be certain of anything.
Authority in religion has followed a similar trajectory: greater concern for individuals, reformation of church structure, empowering the individual Christian to understand the truth of God for him or herself, etc. In truth, much good has come from reformation and restoration in “Christendom”: the authoritarianism of the religious institutions of the medieval and early modern periods went beyond anything God authorized in the New Testament. It was, and is, a good thing to rid Christianity of clericalism and abuses of authority. Yet the movement toward reform did not stop with clerical institutions; aspersions have been cast against the authority of the Scriptures and the truths contained therein regarding the work of God in Christ and among Israel. These days many in religion are in the same place as many in society: postmodernist relativism. Religious truth is what a person makes of it, but people cannot be certain of anything in religion.
It is true that authority is easily abused: people claim authority God never gave them, others are willing to give authority to people who do not deserve it, and anyone in a position of authority is easily tempted to abuse that authority to satisfy their own desires. Yet the abuse of authority does not negate the need for authority; our present cultural confusion testifies to the difficulties of the excess of the other side. When anything can be true, how can we know anything is true? If there is no really greater arbiter of what is right, good, and true than myself, and I am flawed, is there any hope to cling to what is right, good, and true? Meanwhile, modern society remains quite oppressive to those who do not enjoy its privileges and benefits, and is even bleak and oppressive to many who do!
Authority always exists, whether we wish to admit it or not. Even if we wish to believe all power devolves onto individuals, people often are really enslaved to some force, idol, or power beyond themselves (e.g. Romans 1:18-32, 6:14-23). The New Testament identifies the existence of the powers and principalities over this present darkness (e.g. Ephesians 6:12): these are spiritual forces which people empower to rule over them in oppressive ways. Revelation 13:1-18 would give us the impression that it is the Evil One who empowers the oppressive governments of the world to do his bidding; this would confirm Satan’s claim to be able to give power over them to Jesus in Matthew 4:8-9. The forms and the attitudes may have changed, but the work of Satan and the powers and principalities of this present darkness remain behind them all.
Yet Jesus died on the cross, and in so doing defeated Satan, the powers and principalities, sin, and death, and was raised in power on the third day, openly triumphing over the forces of evil (Romans 8:1-5, Ephesians 3:10-11, Colossians 2:15). God the Father has given all rule and authority to His Son the Lord Jesus Christ, and all will stand in judgment before Him based on what He has said (Matthew 28:19, John 12:48, Acts 2:36, 17:30-31). Therefore, as Christians, it is not about what we think or feel, but what Jesus said and did is true. Jesus pointed the way of resistance against abuses of authority: embodying holiness and righteousness, speaking truth to power and to the oppressed, suffering at the hands of the forces of evil, and trusting in God who judges justly, finding vindication in Him (Romans 8:17-18, 1 Peter 2:18-25). This does not seem like victory to the world; nevertheless, it turned the world upside down, and always turns the world upside down when faithfully practiced.
To this end all authority belongs to God and comes from God (Romans 13:1); all who are empowered by Him will be called to account before Him (Romans 2:5-11, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28). God has established governmental powers to rule over the nations and will hold them accountable in judgment (Romans 13:1-7). God has established the family and will hold the husband accountable for shepherding his family and his children (Ephesians 5:22-6:4). All Christians are part of the Body of Christ and must work according to the will of the Lord as He has made known through the Apostles in the Scriptures (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28); elders appointed over local churches will be responsible for how they shepherd the local congregation over which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-4). All individuals will be held accountable for what God has given them in terms of their lives, abilities, time, etc., according to the standard of Jesus (Romans 8:28, 14:10-12). At the same time, all who are under those who wield authority will be held accountable for how they lived in subjection: as citizens to the government, as family members to the male head of the household, as Christians to Christ and to the elders of a local congregation where applicable (Romans 13:1-7, Ephesians 5:21-4:9, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 2:11-18).
Terrible, horrific things have been done by those who claim authority and power, both in the world and in religion: this is a distortion of God’s purposes, and God will judge those who do such things. We are perhaps living through such a period of judgment on various forms of authority for what they have done. But authority will remain; the question will be whether we will recognize how authority ought to work and submit to the Lord Jesus and His purposes or go our own way and find ourselves eternally set on our own way away from the life and light found in God in Christ. We mourn and lament for all those who have suffered terribly at the hands of authority figures; Jesus Himself suffered terribly from religious and secular authority figures alike. Jesus provided the way forward: victory through submission and suffering. May we submit to the will of the Lord Jesus, suffer with Him, and thus be glorified with Him on the day of resurrection!
Ethan R. Longhenry