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Authority Issues

In the 1960s, a generation of young people grew up with the slogan “Think for Yourself. Question Authority.”

Earlier, the noted physicist Albert Einstein had observed “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

No one, however, gave us more reason to think twice about authority than Jesus. On the night before His crucifixion, He told His disciples that, although kings of other nations lord it over their subjects and are honored for doing so, it wouldn’t be that way in His kingdom. Instead He said, “He who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves” (Luke 22:25-26 NKJV).

Then as they shared a meal together, Jesus got up from the table; and like a common house servant, He insisted on washing their feet (John 13:3-5). After joining them again around the table, He asked, “Who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves” (Luke 22:27 NKJV).

If we stop at this point, it might seem that with a few words Jesus has just told us everything we need to know about the right use of power.

But we cannot put the issue of authority to rest before coming to terms with statements that were later made by His apostle Paul. In letters that Paul wrote to first-century churches, he gave counsel that sounds quite different than Jesus’ teaching on authority. Paul didn’t just tell children to obey their parents and citizens to fear the rightful use of governmental power. He also told wives to submit to their husbands, slaves to their masters, and people of the church to those who rule over them.

Once again, if we stopped here, we might conclude that Paul was encouraging an unthinking respect for authority. But if we accuse him of just being a traditionalist, we will fail to see the wisdom he used in moving his readers from where they were to where Jesus was leading them.

On other occasions, Paul urged his readers to bring the heart and mind of Christ into the social order of the day. In his letter to the Philippians, for instance, he reminded them that even though Jesus was the King of kings, He lived among us as the Servant of servants (2:7-8).

Rather than advocating social changes that would have been met by great resistance, Paul urged his readers to let Christ change the attitudes of their own hearts.

Without calling for an end to the practice of slavery, the tradition of patriarchy, or the excesses of pagan governments, Paul reflected the spirit of Christ in advocating a life of love that violated no one’s sense of tradition, law, or order.

Because his strategy was to teach the people of God to live as citizens of heaven within the social order of their own world, he repeatedly called for servant attitudes from followers of Christ. This was his approach to all, regardless of whether someone was on the giving or receiving end of social power and authority.

The result is good news for any of us who’ve had issues with the misuse of power. Wherever we are in the “chain of command” or “pecking order” of life, Christ offers us a new way to see authority. As the source and possessor of ultimate authority, He shows us that any power we have is not an entitlement to be served but rather a responsibility to serve.

According to the New Testament, all rightful authority and power belong to and have their source in God. Even more specifically, Jesus told His disciples that His Father had entrusted all power and authority to Him.

As the Father authorized Jesus to speak on His behalf, so the Son now gives His followers the right and the power to speak and to act on His behalf.

In His kingdom there is more authority in the possession of His truth, wisdom, and love than there is in an appeal to the authority of an office, position, badge, or title.

For the same reason that we call some people an authority in their profession or realm of expertise, so we may understand the authority of those who, from every rung of the social ladder, can show what it looks like to live in the example, spirit, and love of the King of kings—who is also the Servant of servants. 

Father in heaven, could it be possible? Have we done it again? Have we been using the strengths and assignments You have given us in order to control and lord it over one another? Please forgive us for acting as if Your Son didn’t tell us that in His kingdom the elder must be as the younger, the greater as the least, and those who rule as those who serve. —Mart De Haan

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