Authority: How Does it Work?
There seems to be growing interest in the subject of authority these days. I read the other night where an exasperated woman said she was “claiming her authority” over a desperate situation, as if this might help resolve her problem. I think statements like this reveal part of the problem with our understanding of authority. Most of us know we’ve been given authority from God, but we don’t know how it works.
One thing to consider is the relational aspect of authority. It is often (though not always) the case that authority is permission granted to one person to represent the interests of another person who prefers not to manage their affairs personally. Authority is granted by one person and exercised by another. This arrangement makes authority dependent upon a relationship of trust.
The authority that a person receives usually gives them the freedom to make decisions without requiring special permission before exercising their authority. Authority is permission to act without permission. The exercise of authority is generally at the complete discretion of the one to whom it was granted, even if the exercise of authority is not wise, or beneficial to the one they represent. The one who has been granted authority has the right to make both good and bad decisions. Generally, the wise exercise of authority provides an opportunity for promotion to a higher level of authority, while the poor exercise of authority leads to a reduction or complete removal of it.
The concept of authority is illustrated in the kingdom parables where Jesus spoke about servants who were given charge of their master’s affairs while their masters were away. (For example, see the parable of the faithful and wicked servants in Matt 24 and the parable of the talents in Matt 25.)
I’d like to illustrate how authority works in everyday life:
A shift supervisor who works at a factory has authority over the operations on his shift, which might include personnel management, scheduling, ordering supplies and resolving employee disputes. But his authority is restricted to the hours that he is at work and to the specific factory he works at. He doesn’t have the same authority during another supervisor’s shift or at a different factory. His scope of authority is limited and it is also relational. It was granted to him and can be revoked by the manager of the factory if trust is eroded.
The manager of the factory has similar authority. It is likewise limited to the factory he works at, and it is relational. The CEO of the company is the one who grants his authority and it can be removed at the CEO’s discretion. The CEO has similar authority. It may have been granted by the company’s board of directors, who were appointed by the shareholders. His authority gives him the right to make major decisions involving the company’s interests and it can be revoked at their discretion. Everyone in the chain has authority that is given to them by someone else. Any of them can be promoted if they exercise their authority well, or have their authority removed if they exercise it poorly.
Christians have been given a multitude of different types and levels of authority. As God’s personal representatives on earth, our authority encompasses many areas, but unlike in the world where people are given authority over other people, we are not given such authority. Some people will disagree, but the New Testament believer is subject only to the authority of Christ. We do not have other humans in authority over us. While we may have teachers and people who encourage and train us, these individuals do not exercise authority over other believers. Authority that is exercised over individuals is the model that has been used throughout history by governments and military institutions. It was specifically this model of authority that Jesus said would not be allowed among His disciples.
Instead, Jesus gave us authority over such things as sickness, disease, and storms, and each of us is given authority to speak on certain subjects. (That will be discussed in my next message.) Some of us are given authority to influence the communities of music and art. Others are given authority to influence the fields of physics and chemistry, while still others have authority to represent God’s interests in the field of medicine. These are just a few examples of the areas of society in which God grants us authority to operate. As we identify the areas of authority that God has granted to us and as we represent His interests in accordance with His desires, our level of authority increases.
The relationship we have with God is the key to it all. We must begin by asking Him what areas we’ve been given authority in. That requires us to develop the ability to communicate with Him. Next, we must learn how He wants us to exercise our authority in those areas. Again – this requires a deeper relationship. As our relationship grows, we’ll be given more details about how He wants us to exercise the authority He gives us with wisdom and righteousness.