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by an anonymous friend.
Knowing exactly what authority is and what it is not, is absolutely critical in a world where we face it everyday. When a policeman flashes his lights behind you and tells you to pull over, by what basis does he have the authority to make you do what he says? When your child in the backseat orders you to stop at the supermarket to get ice cream, by what basis does the child not have sufficient authority over you so that you can continue driving on a clear conscience? Because people give us orders on a daily basis, it is essential to determine what our filter is by which we discern which authority is valid and demands obedience.
We live in a world where authority and submission are two very distorted terms and neither of them are very attractive words. We hate the thought of domineering authority, and we hate submitting to that authority. However one thing all humans have in common is that we desire to have authority over others. This paper will attempt to redefine these two terms from a biblical standpoint so that we can have a fresh and healthy understanding of what it means to submit and what it means to have authority and what it means to really be Christ-like in the area of leadership in the 21st century.
Authority Redefined: The Second Mile
Firstly we must look at what Jesus says on the issue. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 is a startling passage. One with demands on humanity that such a minute percentage of Christians actually adhere to. In verse 41 Jesus says “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” At first glance this seems to be simply a passage on generosity, which it is, however Jesus was specifically dealing with authority in this passage. The Roman rule over Israel of the 1st century was a very oppressive and dominating government. Craig Keener says in his commentary on the situation:
“Because tax revenues did not cover all the Roman army’s needs, soldiers could requisition what they required. Romans could legally demand local inhabitants to provide forced labor if they wanted and were known to abuse this privilege.”
In the same way in Matthew 27:32 when Simon was forced by a Roman soldier to help carry the cross that crucified Christ, they could at any time force anyone into service by hypothetically making them walk a mile with them. Nothing was more hated or unjust in the eyes of Israel then their Roman oppressors and here Jesus seemed to be encouraging allegiance and submission to these brutal soldiers. “But wont it then look like we are helping our enemies fulfill their agenda?” Such questions must have been circling through their minds. Instead Jesus commanded allegiance above and beyond what the oppressive Romans would ask of them!
Is Jesus actually teaching ultimate submission to all authority, even ungodly authority such as that of Rome? Surely not! That would be simply ridiculous and contrary to Scripture elsewhere. What if the preaching of the gospel was outlawed, as it was later in the century? Surely in that case rebellion against authority is required. There must be another solution. Let us look at another passage from Matthew that seems to teach the exact opposite of such an idea.
Authority Redefined: Christ Calls for Anarchy
In Matthew 23 Jesus utters probably the most profoundly offensive rebuke against a group of people than that of the entire New Testament. An entire chapter is devoted to this sharp judgment against the pharisaical religious authority system. In verse 8 he says:
“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your [Leader], and you are all brothers …Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB)”
What a radical thought! Essentially Jesus said “You are all brothers and you have no leadership authority over you except for me!” If taken literally, almost 100% of our current Christian congregations are disobeying this command! Let us attempt to see what Jesus was teaching about leadership by looking at another passage.
Matthew 20:25-26 says
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you!”
Here Jesus is issuing another painful attack on authority. The most honest interpretation of the passage (both from the words used and the grammatical structure of the Greek) is that Jesus is not only condemning the misuse of evil authority here but simply the act of “exercising authority over” people! So what is the answer? In Matthew 5 Jesus seems to demand recognition of all authority, and here he openly condemns the use of authority! Jesus provides the answer in the verse directly following his statement in Matthew chapter 20. It all has to do with our understanding of submission.
Redefining Submission: The Autocratic Slave
Jesus says in Matthew 20:27 referring to leadership “whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” Here Jesus is directly equating authority with slavery. Those who have authority according to Jesus are those who are powerless to execute any authority on a human level. Looking at the parables of Jesus, we have a window on the position of the slave in society. The slave owes his master exclusive and absolute obedience (Matt 8:9), for no one can serve two masters (Matt 6:24). His work sometimes earned neither profit nor praise, for he was only doing his duty (Luke 17:7-10).
Slaves are those disgusted and despised individuals; those at the lowest place in society. If one word could describe this group of people it would be “submission”. Slaves submit; by definition they can do no other. So in equating authority with slavery, essentially Jesus is equating leadership with submission. They are the same in His eyes. It is a radical paradox. Do you want to lead someone? Submit to him. Do you want to exercise authority over someone? Be his slave. For according to Jesus we “are all brothers” and we have no leader but Him. Ephesians 5:21 says “ Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Paul is teaching that we mustn’t simply submit to our leaders, but to “each other”. Submitting to “each other” means everyone submitting to everyone. That’s the gospel; being slaves to each other. There is no one in the body that we must submit to that isn’t submitting to us in return. There is no pyramid structure with a man or a group of men at the top. The gospel teaches that there is Christ on top and then a group of slaves on an equal level serving Him and serving each other.
Having understood this, the passages we discussed earlier make a lot more sense. Why should we obey an ungodly Roman soldier who demands us to go with him a mile? Because it’s an opportunity to submit to him and be his slave! What a great opportunity to show the love of Jesus and to be “first” in the eyes of the kingdom even though you are last in the eyes of the world.
Why according to Matthew 23 should we call no one a leader? Because there is no human being on earth who demands submission that in turn is not commanded to submit to you in return. Even the head of the biggest denomination or the president of the United States, is commanded to submit to his brothers and ultimately to us! It’s a level playing field.
Slavery: The Answer to Both Submission and Authority
According to Jesus this difficult subject of submission and authority can be summed up with slavery to God and service to men. Let’s look at Jesus’ example. The ruler of the universe who has “all authority” (Matt 28:17) and “upholds all things by the words of his power” (Heb 1:3) came to be the ultimate servant of humanity.
Luke 22:27 says
“who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
If Jesus came as a servant how can we, in our organizations and church structures claim to exercise authority over others in the name of Christ when Christ himself never did that while he was on earth? Isn’t it odd that in the gospels there is not one example of the ruler of the universe exercising or lording His authority over another individual? Not even one example of Him making someone do something they don’t want to do from his own authority.
If we look at the life of Jesus, we find a very different model of authority. No-one could deny his effectiveness – nor that he changed the world – but he never lorded it over anyone – or forced people to accept his teaching. In Jesus, people encountered the authority of a love that was prepared to give its life for them.
We have transformed Jesus’ teaching into something it was never intended to be. What Jesus came to uproot and turn over in the gospels we have quickly “Christianised” and placed in our church structure. We have embraced the way the gentiles do leadership when Jesus said so strongly in Matthew 20 “Not so with you!” Look at our examples of church “leaders” in the New Testament, the apostle Paul being the most prominent. Did he lord his authority over his church or did he lay his life down as a slave for his flock? The latter is clearly the case. The man poured out his life through pain, suffering, persecution, manual labor, weeping in prayer, travailing in intercession. He was not their Lord; he was their slave. A leader in our current western church structures might demand such things from their followers, instead our New Testament examples are revealed as ultimate servants.
Application: Ultimate Obedience and Necessary Rebellion
Through this teaching we can know which authorities to obey and recognize and which authorities to disregard and rebel against. In saying there is no authority except from God (Romans 13:1) or there is no Leadership but Christ, the New Testament is making a sweeping statement completely illegitimizing all other worldly authorities claiming authority in themselves. We should look at worldly authority as an opportunity to be a servant and to lay your life down, however it may happen that the Lord commands you to do contrary to that which they command of you. Why is it that the apostles were called revolutionaries and rebels, accused of organizing nationwide rebellions and upturning cities? Because they recognized that there was no authority from God and that it is always necessary to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We can discern when obedience is required and when disobedience is required, simply by being a slave. There is no authority valid on earth except for Christ’s; our responsibility is simply to be the servant of all.
When the government says you cannot pray in schools, we must react by not recognizing that authority as legitimate, and ask the question “how can I best be a servant and slave in my school?” As a slave to God and men, prayer is absolutely essential and so rebellion to that rule is necessary. When the government says do not preach the gospel, we must react by saying “I do not recognize that as a legitimate authority on my life and in order to be the world’s servant I must disobey.” When a policeman pulls you over, you can best be his slave by obeying. When your child asks for ice-cream, you can best be her servant or slave by disobeying her command knowing that it would spoil her appetite before dinner!
The answer to being the best leader in a congregational setting or any other setting is simply by being the ultimate slave. In the same way, being the ultimate follower of God and other human leaders has the same answer, ask yourself how you can best be their servant and slave. Submission means consistently putting others’ needs and benefit before your own. The moment you look at your needs as more important than others you have disqualified yourself from being a Christ-like leader or follower. If our congregations and church structures were to embrace this principle, we would see a people resembling the Church Jesus came to redeem, and the Jesus people would truly begin to arise.
March 21st/2012 Edit
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