Thursday, May 5, 2011

Question Authority?

"Question authority" was the watchword of the 1960s in the United States. How is the Christian to respond to this? We cannot embrace it wholeheartedly, but should we jump to the opposite extreme of unquestioning obedience to any authority? Where is the proper balance?

The reason we cannot embrace it wholeheartedly is that if we do, sooner or later we get to the question of the authority of Scripture (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; Psalms 12:6,7). Further, if we throw out the authority of Scripture we are left with a vague, watered-down Christianity which is practically meaningless. But if we go to Scripture, we find it advocates other authorities (Hebrews 13:17; Romans 13:1-7; Ephesians 5:22-24; 6:1-3). However, it also puts limitations and restrictions on these authorities (1 Peter 5:1-4; Proverbs 14:34; Ephesians 5:25-31; 6:4). More importantly, Scripture states that there is a point where we must serve God rather than men (Acts 4:19; 5:29; Daniel 3:17,18) and that we must test all things by Scripture (Acts 17:11; Galatians 1:8,9; Isaiah 8:20). Further, Scripture provides a basis for correcting those in authority if they are out of line (2 Samuel 12:1-14; 1 Kings 21:17-26; Galatians 2:11-16).

Now to reject all authority leads to anarchy, which the most superficial observation of history shows is always destructive. It also leads to tyranny, because when you are living in anarchy you are willing to accept any dictator who will restore order. Nor does this work out much better in our personal lives. You see, it really is not possible for every person to be totally original. In fact, I suspect there are only a small number of basic approaches to life that are endlessly recycled. Therefore, if people throw out all reasonable authorities they are left to follow trendsetters (celebrities, entertainers, merchandisers, and the like) whose distinctions tend to be superficial at best. But behind these, there is normally  some philosophical or scientific theory which, to be consistent, should also be questioned. The irony is that to really rebel against an authority you need another authority to base it on. Therefore, you are merely trading one authority for another. In the 1960s, that new authority was most often Marxism, one of the most authoritarian forms of government on the planet.

The question then is not whether we will have an authority (we will), but what authority. In this I would advocate Christianity as a concept that provides authority, but also provides a basis by which the particular authorities can be questioned if they are out of line. There are other possible authorities that would also make such claims, and they need to be evaluated as to whether they are true. But the most dangerous authority is one that works behind the scenes and does not show its true colors and so cannot be questioned. Therefore, we need to question authority, not to throw out every form but to decide which is best. Otherwise we could be saddled with whatever sneaks in the back door.


  1. Nice thoughts Mike. I think that most civil authority (like paying taxes and the like) simply needs to be followed. But when we talk about spiritual authority the lines are not quite so clearly drawn. Generally speaking, I think that we are under the authority of the scriptures. And when it comes to people we are mutually submitted and accountable to each other.

    For me the issue is love. I am really not interested in submitting myself spiritually to folks who do not know and love me. To me this kind of authority is more an issue of influence. And when we love we provide a very positive influence.

  2. I agree that love should be the basis of Christian authority. But sometimes even well-meaning people can come out at loggerheads. I remember a dispute over a relatively minor issue with a previous pastor. I ended up feeling that to preserve the relationship and the peace of the church it was better to back down rather then argue my case. Sometimes it is good to go along with the one who is it charge, even if you cannot agree though not on fundamental Scriptural issues.