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Biblical Perspective of how Jesus Viewed Authority

Greater fleas have little fleas

upon their backs to bite em;

And little fleas have lesser fleas,

and so, ad infinitum.

Whoever wrote the foregoing fragment of doggerel wonderfully encapsulated probably the most prevalent notion of how authority operates. However, as an incomplete view it lacks integrity, which I define as ‘an unreduced or unbroken completeness or totality’.

Properly understand, authority is one of the fundamental keys to understanding the nature of God’s universe; something that has informed my Christian paradigm and the Bible that guides me through it.

A good place to start is the derivation of the word, which is Latin. Authority stems from the root ‘auctor’, from we also derive the word ‘author’, and essentially carries much the same meaning, namely: originator, progenitor, founder, a person of influence, a leader, etc. It is from this that we get the word ‘auctoritas’, which we directly translate as authority.

Auctoritas literally means: source; lead, responsibility; judgement; opinion; bidding, guidance; decree; power, influence and prestige. All the attributes in fact, we would normally attribute to authority.

Just as this article proceeds from the mind of its author, authority proceeds from whosoever possesses it. From time immemorial, authority has been understood in terms of an attribute which flows down from a higher source, extending its influence over a lower subject or beneficiary. A father possesses authority over his family: A sovereign exerted authority over their realm, while our law courts exercise their authority through the administration of justice.

From such examples then, authority became synonymous with rank; descending from those at the top of the social order who would exert it over those lower down the pecking order than themselves. This order is also known as a hierarchy, in Greek, literally meaning sacred rule’; an idea still recognised in Britain where the Sovereign is considered ‘above the law’ and unprosecutable, as is any foreign head of state or ambassadorial representative.

In short, authority is generally synonymous with government, of whatever persuasion. However, this is usually where human ideas diverge from the divine order revealed in the Bible.

In my experience, the question most people never ask, either because they don’t recognise the concept or presume they know the answer if they do, is: ‘What does God call authority?’

The surprising answer can be found in Matthew 20:25, when Jesus Christ, arguably the greatest political realist the world has ever known said:

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.’

Jesus’ perceptive observation was that the nature of human government is to wield authority, not for the benefit of the governed but the good of the ruler.

However, Jesus did not leave the matter hanging there, continuing in verses 26-28:

‘But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

The verb ‘minister’ literally means to ‘serve’; as a noun it means ‘servant’.

The British Government is composed of Her Majesty’s Ministers, chief among whom was once simply called, First Lord of the Treasury; better known nowadays as the Prime Minister, meaning First Servant.

Returning to Jesus’ words; is not God ultimately sovereign? Surely God can simply wield his infinite authority to right wrongs and settle scores.

This has probably been the single most prevalent misunderstanding of divine authority throughout history and, I suspect, the greatest moral objection to God’s goodness expounded to justify atheism:

If God is good and all-powerful, they argue, there would be no sickness, no death and no suffering; in short, no evil in the world. Evil exists, however, so there can be no God – QED.

This is possibly the most disingenuous example of cart-and-horse-theology I know of, because Genesis 1:26 makes it abundantly clear that it is precisely because of God’s immutable goodness and infinite powerful that he tolerates evil, because he devolved his authority to man who became responsible for it.

This is the often missed crux of authority: that there can be no legitimate authority without responsibility. They are, in fact, the flipsides of the same coin. Its corollary Jesus presented as one example of illegitimate authority: namely, authority wielded without responsibility. That is not true authority but tyranny; exploiting others for personal benefit. This too, has a twin: the burden of responsibility imposed without the authority to carry it. In that instance, we call it slavery.

Tyranny and Slavery are the flipsides of non-reciprocative exercise of the Authority-Responsibility equation.

In the employer-employee relationship the reciprocity is manifest in the employer’s exercise of authority over his employee, balanced by his responsibility to paying that employee’s wages and taking care of his working conditions. Similarly, the employee reflects his employer’s authority by virtue of his right to expect a wage in return for discharging his work responsibilities.

This correspondence of ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ is the basis of the legal principles of ‘contract’ and ‘covenant’, and is the rationale by which one party may sue another or the State may prosecute a wrong-doer, for their failure to fulfil or accept their contractual responsibilities or civic duty, to live peacefully and with integrity towards his neighbour.

Yet, have you noticed how the pernicious creed of political correctness so often sneers at the very idea of personal accountability when to be accountable is to be liable to give an answer; to be liable to answer is to be liable to respond; and to be liable respond is to be responsible?

Nevertheless, as we have seen, no-one can be truly deemed responsible for anything over which they have no authority.

And that is why we so often sense the inherent wrongness of political correctness, even while finding it difficult to put our finger on quite why that is: Because political correctness so often seeks to tyrannise and enslave us.

As a simple and straightforward example, consider money. Money talks, as they say and no more so than in the arena of taxation. I know of no-one who actually enjoys paying taxes, although we acknowledge their necessity. To live in a well-ordered society, secure from enemy invasion, where the rule of law prevails, the infrastructures of transport, power and communication are well-maintained and the poor and vulnerable are fairly protected requires money. Taxes are therefore inevitable.

Nevertheless, we still resent having to pay them.

Not only that, but there is an almost universal belief among those who contribute, that taxes are too high. Show me a country where the basic tax rate is only ten percent and I’ll show you either a basket case economy, an oil-rich state, or a tax haven. The money to govern has to come from somewhere.

Why is it, if we can rationalise the necessity of taxation, we still feel this visceral indignation at paying them? Again, the answer lies in the inherent imbalance of the authority-responsibility equation.

You and I are responsible for providing our government’s revenues, yet enjoy no corresponding authority over how they are spent. Nor are taxes voluntary, we don’t decide how much we contribute, the government does. – Bad enough if we believed our taxes were being well spent, but increasingly we are left with the impression that our taxes are being squandered.

While we appreciate the necessity of supporting our armed forces and police, how many would voluntarily share from their own humble earnings towards the lavish salaries, expenses and pensions enjoyed by our politicians: to pay people more to be idle than they can earn: or to pay for some self-indulgent individual’s reverse sex-change? I have to question whether my money might not have been better spent.

Demanding my taxes while disregarding my preferences on how they are spent effectively makes me the slave of the one spending the revenue.

Regrettably, the West’s inexorable drift towards Big Government shows an inevitable trend towards an enslaved society: Accountable to a State with more authority over my personal affairs than I have.

So, there you have it. Authority without responsibility is tyranny; responsibility without authority is slavery. In relation to other people, God never intended man to exercise the one or be burdened by the other. Man was to have dominion over the world and the things, not the people, in it. Man was to be answerable to God alone.

Human government was never meant to be an instrument of oppression but a vehicle for blessing. Governments are supposed to be there for the benefit of the governed, not the governors. To govern is to be conferred the privilege to serve. That’s not what we see in the world, nor was Jesus blind to that fact or surprised by it, because the world we live in is not the world God created – but a fallen creation that mankind spoiled.

God knew that man in his infancy would spoil it and made ample provision for our salvation. Not because he intended that we sin, but because God knew we would have to learn how to govern ourselves in order to fulfil our potential and govern the Universe. Because God knows there is a king in every one of us – and kings don’t like to be told what to do.