People today are scared of authority. Yet should they be?
From elementary school through graduate school, Western educators teach us to question authority, the authority of
- the church because it silenced Galileo
- the king because he stole his power from the people
- the Bible because of its alleged contradictions
- the majority because of its tyrannies
- men because of abuse
- science because of paradigm shifts
- philosophy because of language games
- language because of deconstruction
- the market because the rich just get richer
- religious leaders because of “drink the Kool-Aid”
- politicians because of “follow the money”
- the media because of bias
- the police because of brutality
- superpowers because of imperialism
- whites because of privilege and supremacy
There are few authorities left to question, and not without reason. Common grace in a fallen world means that not every assertion of authority will be as bad as it could be. But humans will still use authority to benefit ourselves, even at a life-stealing cost to others.
To trust any human authority absolutely is a kind of idolatry. So stay suspicious.
But . . .
Keeping Two Eyes on Authority
What is authority? It’s the freedom of choice. It’s an author-ization. It’s a moral permission slip to make decisions within a particular jurisdiction. God gave Adam and Eve the permission slip to exercise dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26–28). He gave governments the permission slip to exercise the sword in the face of injustice (Gen. 9:5–6). He gave churches the permission slip to wield the keys in matters of doctrine and membership (Matt. 16:13–20; 18:15–20; 28:18–20). And on we could go.
To have authority is to have the chance to create.
More than all that, authority is what belongs to an author, which is why the Creator of all things is the ruler of all things. To have authority is to have the chance to create.
Really, people don’t hate authority, because we all love the freedom to decide things and to create. We just don’t like other people’s authority, because we like deciding and creating things for ourselves.
The Bible’s bigger lesson is to keep two eyes open when it comes to authority. Keep one eye on the ever-present potential for the abuse of authority in the fall, and another eye on the good of authority in creation and redemption.
Let’s think about the latter, since that point is what so often goes missing from our meditations on authority.
David’s Last Words
King David, who knew a few things about the topic, offered this description of authority in a section described as “the last words of David” (2 Sam. 23:1):
When one rules justly over men,
ruling in the fear of God,
he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth. (2 Sam. 23:3–4)
These verses offer a lovely scenic view for parking the car and beholding. You see a sherbet morning sky. The sun rises, changing it to blue. Its light warms the earth, giving life and vitality to everything and everyone scurrying about. Then the rain comes. Each droplet trickles into the dirt, soaking roots and strengthening leaf and blade, so that moist grass glows green under the returning sun.
This is what good authority does.
Good authority strengthens and grows. It authors and creates. It’s the teacher teaching, the coach coaching, the mother mothering. It’s the rules for a game, the lines on a road, a covenant for lovers, the lessons for a child, the chance to grow and expand and eventually take dominion ourselves.
One of history’s greatest secrets . . . is that God means his authority to grow and expand us, not to shrink and snuff us out.
One of history’s greatest secrets, hidden by the blindfold that Satan and sin places over our eyes, is that God means his authority to grow and expand us, not to shrink and snuff us out. God means for us to be like him—conformed to his image—rulers and authors and builders who create for the praise of his beauty and grace. Yet Satan uses our appetites (as well as the bad examples of authority figures failing us) to convince us that God will fail us.
Wielding Authority Like the Perfect King
Gratefully, God sent a Son of David to offer us a perfect picture of such authority. Later in Psalm 72, we find the picture of a king who judges with righteousness. He defends the cause of the poor, delivers the children of the needy, and crushes the oppressor (Ps. 72:1–3). He rules
like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth! (v. 6)
This king promises to usher in history’s broken-spell moment (like in a Disney princess movie). From him will come “an abundance of grain in the land” while the “people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field” (v. 16).
How will you use whatever authority God has given you? Will you use it like Satan wants you to use it—to the detriment of others and your own self-indulgence? Or will you wield it like the perfect Son—for the growth and good of all whom you would lead?
Start by driving back to the scenic view of authority found in David’s last words. Park there and meditate on Christ’s authority for a while. Allow what you see there to transform you, and then go do it. Exercise that kind of authority in the world and see what happens. It won’t produce utopia, but as the rain falls and the grass sprouts, it just might provide a small but imperfect preview of the day when “the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus” (Isa. 35:1). “And that,” as Gandalf said, “is an encouraging thought.”