by Kristen Rosser ~ aka KRwordgazer
God has ordained authority structures in every area of life. In every enterprise someone has to be in charge– otherwise there will be anarchy and chaos. Even within the Godhead there is authority: God the Son submitted to the will of the Father. Doesn’t a solidly biblical worldview require a chain of command within the Christian family? A family is not a democracy, after all. In saying husbands should not be in charge of the home, aren’t you just attacking one aspect of God’s divine plan for authority?
It cannot be denied that human societies need some form of law, to protect people from being harmed by one another, among other things– and that laws need someone with the power to enforce them, or they are useless. But is this idea that “someone always has to be in charge,” that there is a chain of command in every area of human life, actually taught in the Bible?
First of all, let’s define our terms. What is “authority”? How is the concept of authority treated in the Bible? Here is a definition from an online dictionary:
“Authority: The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge.”
The meaning is similar in the dictionary favored by many in the Quiverfull movement, Noah Webster’s 1828American Dictionary of the English Language:
“Authority: Legal power, or a right to command or to act; power, rule, sway.”
For purposes of this study, I’d like to draw a distinction between “authority,” or the power or right to command, and “leadership,” which is the actual act of leading or commanding, or the state of being the one leading or commanding.
The first mention of authority or rule in the Bible is found in Genesis 1:26-28. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth. . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them. . . “[H]ave dominion over . . . every living thing that moveth on the earth.”
Notice first of all that the word “man” here includes “male and female.” The meaning is “human beings,” not “male humans.” Notice also that there is no hint here of an authority relationship between the male and the female; both are to have “dominion” over the creatures, but nothing is said about either being in “dominion” over the other. Neither is there any indication of an authority structure within the ranks of other creatures. God does not say, “the animals that are bigger shall rule over the smaller animals, all the way down to the insects,” or anything like that (this may seem like an unimportant point, but I’ll get into why it’s important later in this series). In fact, other than the humans ruling together over the animals, there are no earthly authority structures in view in the first chapter of Genesis.
When do we see the first mention of humans ruling over one another? In Genesis 3:16, right after the Fall of Adam and Eve. God tells Eve then that the man will begin to rule over her, as part of the consequences of the wrong that has come into the world. Note that this was not part of God’s divine plan from the beginning; nor does God tell the man to rule the woman (contrast this with Genesis 1:28, where God does tell the man and the woman to rule the creation, giving them a legal power or right as the source of their authority). In Genesis 3:16 God gives no command; He simply informs the woman that this consequence of the Fall is going to take place.
Some Christians teach that because Eve was not yet created when God gave the command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Adam had to convey God’s words to Eve, and that automatically put him in charge of her and made him an intermediary between her and God. But those are assumptions that are read into the text. The Bible never actually says anything like that. Instead, it says that God made Eve out of Adam’s own flesh, so that there was no way he could say, “this is a different/lesser sort of being than I am.” It says Eve was his “face-to-face strong aid,” which is a literal translation of “help meet for him” (Gen 2:20). The Bible is actually silent on whether God spoke directly to Eve about the forbidden tree (though it does show Him speaking directly to both man and woman in Genesis 1:27), or whether Adam told Eve about the tree. It does not tell us one way or the other. Eve knows about the tree in Gen. 3:2, but how she came to know is simply not told. It’s important, if we make assumptions about what a biblical text is telling us, that we know the difference between what we are assuming, and what the text actually does or doesn’t say.
What else does the Old Testament say about human authority structures? The next few chapters of Genesis after the Fall of humanity say nothing whatsoever about anyone being a ruler or leader over anyone else, by God’s plan or otherwise. Babel is set out as a story of human organization and structure, but no specific leaders are mentioned, and God deliberately scatters the people there. Abraham, of course, becomes a tribal leader with servants under his authority, but God seems curiously uninterested in that aspect of the matter, being more concerned with the covenant under which Isaac will be born.
God is shown as choosing individuals to further His purpose of preparing a people through which to bring the Messiah; but an interesting dynamic runs though this entire process: God almost always chooses a younger son over the firstborn. Primogeniture, the idea that the firstborn son had the legal right to inherit and to become head of the family, was a basic assumption of Ancient Near East societies, but God turns primogeniture on its head over and over again. He chooses Jacob over Esau, Joseph over 10 older brothers, David the youngest of eight, and so on.
We do see a couple of systems of governmental hierarchy set up in Genesis 41 and Exodus 18. In Genesis 41:31-35, Joseph suggests that the Pharoah set up an agent, with officers under him, to gather surplus food in preparation for a coming famine. In Exodus 18:13-27, after Moses had led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the people began coming to him to judge disputes between them. Moses was getting worn out, being the sole judge, so his father-in-law Jethro advised him to set up rulers over groups of 10, 50, 100 and 1000, to judge disputes between the people. In both these cases, there is no mention of God having directly instructed the setting up of these hierarchies. It is Joseph who requests the system of officers in Genesis 41:33. In Exodus 18:23 Jethro advises Moses to be sure God agrees, but the idea is shown to be Jethro’s.
In fact, God appears to make no direct law establishing any hierarchical authority structure in the Old Testament except for the priest/Levite orders, in which neither priests nor Levites are given any governmental authority. They are to run the tabernacle/temple and administer the sacrifices and holidays, and that is all. It would have been so easy to make the priestly class into the ruling class—but the Law simply does not go there.
Israel’s actual governmental systems reveal other interesting dynamics. First, although Deuteronomy 17:14 anticipates that Israel will decide to set a king over itself, God does not seem to actually desire them to do so. God does not give them a king, but rather raises up judges (often from the most unlikely sources!) until the people of Israel actually voice a desire for a king. And in 1 Samuel 8:7 God says that in desiring a king, Israel is actually rejecting God as their ruler. God tells Samuel to tell the people that the king will use his power to oppress them— and though the people say they want a king anyway, it seems to be a concession on God’s part to give them what they want. God also limits the power of the king by making him subject to the law and forbidding him priestly powers. 1 Samuel 13:10-14.
There is a consistent theme in the Old Testament of the sovereignty of God over human authority. Daniel 4:32 says, “The Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whosoever he will.” However, the context here is God restraining a king’s self-glorification. God is depicted in many texts as having power over what authorities exist and who gets to be in authority. But often—and certainly here in Daniel 4 as in 1 Samuel 13— God seems more interested in restraining human authority than He is in creating it.
In fact, God’s plan seems to be more about raising up individual leaders than setting up structures of authority (please keep in mind the definitions set forth earlier). The leaders God does raise up act in accordance with God’s authority, rather than being given some inherent right or power of their own to command— with the exception of the kings, which God apparently would rather not have given Israel at all.
It is interesting, if the Bible teaches that God is so concerned with making sure there are authority structures in every area of life— if having someone “in charge” in every sphere of human relations is such a vital part of His divine plan— that God in the Old Testament seems so reluctant to establish authority structures in Israel, so careful to limit the ones He does establish, and so ready to overturn human assumptions about who should be in authority.
Let’s move on, then, to the New Testament. In the New Testament we see again the idea of God’s sovereignty over earthly human authority. Romans 13:1 says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.” This chapter continues on from Romans 12, in which Paul gives practical advice for Christian living. “Higher powers” refers specifically to earthly governing authorities. The word “ordained” is the Greek word “tasso,” which refers to placing in order or assigning a place to something. It does not mean that earthly authority figures are granted “divine right” to rule or that we must slavishly obey earthly powers, right or wrong (see Acts 3:19). Paul was repeating the Old Testament idea that God was the ultimate Source of all authority—but being a scholar of the Old Testament, he probably also kept in mind Hosea 8:4, where God denounces those who “have set up kings, but not by Me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.” Paul is not saying that God has exercised His sovereignty so controllingly that every earthly ruler, good or evil, is there by God’s divine plan. Paul is saying that God has assigned places to earthly authorities for the benefit of all: “for he is the minister of God to thee for good” (Rom. 13:4).
However, the New Testament is not so much concerned with earthly kingdoms as it is with the kingdom of God. Matthew 4:17 and Luke 4:43 make it clear that preaching about the coming of God’s kingdom was the focal point of Jesus’ entire message. How did Jesus envision authority working within the kingdom of God? Is the New Creation that came and is coming through His death and resurrection, different from the old creation in terms of authority structures?Possibly the most definitive statement Jesus made about authority in the kingdom occurs in the context of James and John’s mother’s request that her sons sit one on His right hand and the other on His left, in the kingdom. Matthew 20:20-27. Salome was envisioning a kingdom just like the kingdoms of earth, with hierarchies of power and authority— and she wanted her sons at the top. Jesus’ answer was that it was not His to give places on His right hand or left, but “to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.” Just before this incident, in verses 1-16, Jesus had told the parable of the workers in the vineyard— how those who had worked just one hour received the same wages as the ones who worked all day. “For the last shall be first, and the first last,” Jesus said, indicating how God levels the playing field among His children. Now, in response to the disciples’ anger over James and John’s mother’s question, He calls all the disciples to gather, and tells them this: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister [“servant” in the original Greek], and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant [“slave” in the original].” Those who sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, according to Jesus, will not be at the top of a hierarchy, taking authority over others. They will be at the bottom, lifting up others.
Jesus expresses the same idea in different terms slightly earlier in Matthew— also in response to a question about hierarchy in the kingdom of God: “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1-3.) This was the mentality the disciples knew: the world of authority structures and hierarchical positioning. “Who is greatest?” here is in the same vein as “Who shall sit on Your right and left hand?” a little later on. But here is how Jesus responded in Matthew 18:2-3: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
This was upside-down to the way the disciples had always thought. If there was one kind of person who had no status, no place in the social structure, it was a little child. Even a slave could have authority over other slaves, but a little child had authority over no one. Unless you became like that, Jesus said, you could not even enter the kingdom! We tend to interpret this passage as if it were about some about special spirituality that the innocence of children gives them, to help them enter the kingdom. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. The context of this passage is the disciples’ question: “Who is greatest in the kingdom?” which meant “Who has most authority? Who is at the top of the hierarchy?” And Jesus’ answer meant, “There is no hierarchy. The kingdom of God isn’t like that at all.”
From Matthew 18 all the way through Matthew 23, the theme of human authority in the kingdom builds upon itself. In Matthew 23, the theme culminates when Jesus focuses on the errors of the scribes and Pharisees, beginning with their use of Old Covenant religious authority. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do, but do ye not after their works, for they say and do not.” (Matt. 23:2-3.) What Jesus meant by “in Moses’ seat” has been variously interpreted, but Moses’ main job was conveying the words of the Law to the people, and insofar as the Pharisees were doing the same, they would have been “sitting in Moses’ seat.” Jesus is not telling the people to follow every teaching of the Pharisees, however, just because of their authoritative position— for that would contradict His warning in Matthew 16:12, where He tells the disciples to beware of the Pharisees’ teaching—and also Matthew 15:6, where He faults the Pharisees for making “the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” Jesus wanted people to follow God, not the Pharisees.
Jesus goes on in Matthew 23 to say that the Pharisees “love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplace, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” (v. 7.) He criticizes the Pharisees for seeking power and authority, for desiring high positions and titles. His followers are not to be like that. “But be ye not called Rabbi, for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth, for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters, for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:8-11.)
The non-governmental authority structures of that day were centered around those three things: teachers, fathers and masters. Jesus said that His followers were not to desire titles or seek authority, because they were all “brethren” (the Greek word is gender inclusive) with God as their Father and Christ as their Teacher and Master. Authority in first-century Ancient Near East families was concentrated in the hands of the father, with the firstborn son having the place of prominence among the children. All the non-firstborn children were equal in status. Romans 8:29 calls Christ the “firstborn among many brethren.” Jesus and Paul both pictured the kingdom of God in terms of a spiritual family, in which the authority patterns and hierarchies of the world did not apply. We are not to take for ourselves, or give one another, hierarchical positions or titles of power, like the Pharisees loved to do. Instead we are to see one another as brothers and sisters under God alone.
So how did Jesus handle His status as Firstborn, Master and Teacher? John 13:3-4 says, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girdeth himself. After that he poureth water in a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.” This was the action of a slave. People did not wash one another’s feet in polite society; when they came in from the dusty outdoors, they waited for slaves to perform this menial task. Peter was so shocked by Jesus’ actions that he refused at first to let Him perform the slave’s traditional service towards him, but Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. . . I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” (v. 14-15.) Jesus was showing them a practical illustration of how “not so among you, for whoever is greatest shall be your servant” was to be lived out in God’s kingdom. It was not in exercising authority, but in laying it down. If the Firstborn does this, how much more should the equal-status younger brothers and sisters do the same?
Someone might bring up Hebrews 13:17 at this point: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account.” The words “watch for your souls” means that the Hebrews author is referring to spiritual leaders. Was the author of Hebrews commanding obedience to hierarchical church authorities?
Some interesting translation issues arise in this passage. First, the word translated “obey” is not the word that generally means “obey” in the original Greek. The word that means “obey” is “hypakouo.” This word in Hebrews 13:17 is “peitho,” which actually means to trust, listen to or be persuaded by. “Have the rule over you” is also a problematic translation. It is the noun form of a verb which is usually translated “to consider.” As a noun, it conveys not so much a sense of rule or authority, as leadership by example. Hebrews 13:7 confirms this: using the same word, “hegaomei,” this verse counsels the readers to follow the faith of their leaders; it does not say to follow the leaders themselves. In Philippians 3:17 we see the same idea, as Paul encourages his readers to followhis example— and in 1 Cor. 3:4 he discourages them from following himself or Apollos, telling them that Paul and Apollos are nothing and that they should follow God.
In fact, the early church was characterized by a plurality of leaders rather than a hierarchy of authority. 1 Peter 5:1-3 says, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder [note that Peter does not give himself any title here higher than those he is addressing] . . . feed the flock of God which is among you. . . neither being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.”
Daughters of the Church by Tucker and Liefeld offers this analysis of the nature of leadership during the ministry of the original Apostles:
“Even where there was a ranking of importance of gifts (as Paul seems to do in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 – according to their value in edifying the church), it has to be said that ‘in reality there hardly existed any hierarchicaldifferentiation between the various functions or, in other words, no function at the time of Paul’s letter writing was legally subordinated to any other.’ . . . . The New Testament speaks of a plurality of leadership, rather than of individual authority. Some elders lead well and some are good at teaching (1 Tim. 5:17), but there is no indication that elders in the New Testament exercised authority as individuals over others.” Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), p. 469, quoting in part Holmberg, Paul and Power, Fortress (1978), p. 119. Emphasis in original.
A possible rebuttal might arise from Titus 2:15, “These things speak and exhort, and rebuke with all authority.” ButDaughters of the Church notes as follows:
“What authority there is resides in the Scripture that is being taught, not in the teacher. . . . The word [in Titus 2:15 translated “authority”] was not the familiar exousia [the usual word for authority] but epitage. This word was often used in ancient times to refer to a command from God (or in paganism, from a god) that is to be passed on. . . Timothy and Titus were apostolic delegates. The terminology, therefore, seems not to indicate that Titus was vested with ongoing ecclesiastical authority as an individual, but that he was to convey God’s commands in their full force.”Ibid, p. 468.
Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-19, “All power has been given to me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore. . . .” Jesus sends His followers out in His power and authority, rather than vesting them with hierarchical authority as individuals.
So again the question must be asked: If structures of authority are so necessary in God’s mind—if God has “ordained” that someone must be in charge in each area or sphere of life—why does Jesus teach that God’s kingdom, God’s spiritual family, is characterized by laying down authority and becoming equal-status siblings? Why does Jesus Himself, as Master and Lord and Firstborn in the kingdom, set us an example by doing a slave’s job? And why do Jesus, Peter and Paul emphasize groups of leaders leading by example, none of whom is in authority over the others, rather than structured systems of authorities wielding individual, hierarchical power? Is this whole idea that there “has to be someone in charge” in every area of human life, actually from God?
Part 2 will address the question of Jesus’ submission to the Father, and will also look into where the idea actually came from that there is a divine chain of command, with hierarchical authorities in each sphere of life.
The online dictionary used is located at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/authority
See the NLQ FAQ “The Bible and the Nature of Woman” for more information about the meaning of”help meet” and woman’s relationship to man. http://www.takeheartproject.org/faqs/nlq-faq-the-bible-and-the-nature-of-woman/
See Michael Kruse’s “Household of God” series for more information on first-century family structures and the status of the firstborn. http://krusekronicle.typepad.com/kruse_kronicle/2007/09/household-rev-1.html
Discuss this post on the NLQ forums! Comments are also open below.
[Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based.]
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce