There’s a young adult event coming up in a few weeks that I’m planning on going to. The theme is “How true Christians relate to authority in the world and in the church.” This is a topic that’s been nagging at my mind for some time now anyway, so with this event coming up I thought it would be a good time to start studying what God has to say about authority.
I’m going to blame American/Western cultural influence for why the word “authority” sometimes rubs me the wrong way. And I’m sure I’m not the only one with that reaction, even though the Bible, not our culture, is supposed to be what’s guiding how we respond to things. But just because authority might leave a sour taste in our mouths doesn’t mean it isn’t an important concept for Christians to understand.
Who Gets To Be Lord?
One thing Jesus made clear in His earthly ministry is that authority among His people works differently than in the world.
Jesus summoned them, and said to them, “You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45, WEB)
In the nations, rulers exercise authority and lord over people. The word “lord over” is katakurieuo (G2634). It comes from kata (G2596 — preposition meaning down, which acts as an intensive) and kurieuo (G2961 — lordship/dominion). The compound katakurieuo means having mastery over others or putting them down in subjection. Peter uses this word when telling elders how not to behave.
shepherd the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, not for dishonest gain, but willingly; neither as lording it over those entrusted to you, but making yourselves examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:2-3, WEB)
Paul makes a similar statement when he says church leaders don’t “lord it over your faith, but we are fellow workers for your joy” (2 Cor. 1:24, LEB). People entrusted with authority in the church aren’t given license to dominate their brethren. Christ is the only one allowed to be Lord in the church, and even He doesn’t “lord it over” people (kurieuo and its root are used of Christ, but never katakurieuo).
Being Careful Not To Overstep
The second word Christ used to describe earthly rule is katexousiazo (G2715). Once again, it comes from kata paired with another word, in this case exousiazo (G1850 — power/permission/authority). It means “to exercise authority against or over someone.” It’s a perversion of exousia, which combines “the two ideas of right and might” (Zodhiates G1849).
Exousia is the word used when Jesus said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28: 18, WEB). In English, authority means “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience” (Google definition). The Greek word for authority means you have both the right and the power, and Jesus and His Father are the only ones who have both in an absolute sense.
Jesus gives a certain amount of authority to His followers for specific purposes, but they all stay under His authority. Paul talks about his apostolic authority as something “which the Lord gave for building you up, and not casting you down” (2 Cor. 10:8, WEB). He even talks about forgoing some of the rights he had power to claim because he wanted to be a better example of service (1 Cor. 9:12; 2 Thes. 3:9). Being sure not to overstep his authority or use it in a negative way was more important to Paul than showing he could exercise authority.
Types of Shepherds
Being given authority in the church doesn’t, or shouldn’t, involve elevation over other believers. It’s being set apart for service in God’s temple, which means serving the church which is Christ’s body. Ministry doesn’t mean being in charge or having an extra measure of the holy spirit. It means following Jesus’ example of being a servant, as He talked about in the scripture we opened with from Mark 10:42-45.
There are two Old Testament passages that proclaim woe to the sort of ministers, or shepherds, who abuse their authority among God’s people. They “destroy and scatter” Yahweh’s sheep, refuse to feed those in their care, and profit off their positions (Jer. 23:1-4; Ezk. 34:1-3). They don’t comfort or heal, don’t bring back what they drove away, and won’t seek the lost. Rather, they “have ruled over them with force and with rigor” (Ezk. 34:4). Sounds like something we see all too often today, doesn’t it?
God does not take such abuse of authority lightly. In these passages from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, He promised to come and take over as Shepherd personally (Jer. 23:5-8; Ezk. 34:11-31). Later, Jesus identifies Himself as this promised good Shepherd (John 10:7-16). He does still entrust humans with feeding His sheep here on earth (John 21:15-17), but He holds the ultimate authority and stays actively involved in shepherding.
Back To Christ-Like Leadership
We started out this post with the question of how true Christians relate to authority, and ended up on the topic of how Christians are meant to respond when they have authority in the church. And I think that’s a necessary preliminary topic before we dive deeper into how those who aren’t in authority relate to those who are. Because it’s going to depend, in part, on how those in power use their authority.
As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, surely because my sheep became a prey, and my sheep became food to all the animals of the field, because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my sheep, but the shepherds fed themselves, and didn’t feed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear Yahweh’s word: Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my sheep at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the sheep; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; and I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, that they may not be food for them. (Ezk. 34:8-10, WEB)
The sort of abuses described in this passage are partly why so many Christians today don’t trust the ministry. Resistance to authority isn’t all because of an individualistic “just me and Jesus” mindset. It’s also because we’ve seen selfish, hypocritical men in the church who lord it over the sheep and exercise authority the way worldly leaders do rather than as Christ commands.
That’s not to say all ministers abuse their authority, or that we don’t get into an equally problematic situation if church members go around stirring up dissent or taking everything into their own hands. But if we want to get back to true Christians responding well to authority, then the authorities also have make sure they’re using their positions the way God tells them to.