All Authority? (RJS)

All Authority? (RJS) October 9, 2018

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Mt. 28:18-20

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. Quite the encompassing statement! There are a number of other references in the Gospels to the authority with which Jesus spoke, his authority to forgive sins, to command demons.

I am updating, editing, and reposting a series on biblical womanhood. The first post (A Look a Biblical Womanhood) considered the stories of women of the Old Testament. The second post (Women of the New Testament) summarized many of the women of the New Testament. The range is impressive. These range from the “expected” roles of wife and mother to judge, prophet, builder, business women, evangelist, one-on-one teacher, witness, student. We can argue, as someone does any time the topic is raised, that a woman is a prophetess rather than a prophet – but it doesn’t appear to be a difference in role, calling, or office, rather it is a distinction of gendered language.

But any discussion of biblical womanhood in the evangelical church today will eventually come to the issue of authority, specifically human authority. Someone will point to 1 Timothy 2:12 … “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Much has been made over the word “authority” in this verse, extending far beyond leadership in the church.

Before beginning to tackle this issue, it is important to first understand what the New Testament models and teaches about human authority. This post is not an exhaustive study of the issue. It is an attempt to start a conversation to look at the form that proper human authority takes in the New Testament.

What does the New Testament teach about authority?

Paul was a marvelous Christian leader. But he was only a man, as he well knew.

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. … So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. Cor. 3:5-9, 21-23 (and more of the section from 1:10-3:21)

He taught with authority. But he was not an authority. Any legitimate authority in his teaching came/comes from God, and from his Son, Jesus the Christ. He had a responsibility and a calling that was to be faithfully carried out, a race well run. But he was not in authority. Nor were Peter or James. They all stood before Jesus Christ as the authority. Paul was given authority – to build up, not to tear down (2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10); but again, a gift for the purpose of service to others. Paul exercises his authority by teaching and cajoling and reasoning … not by demanding obedience or loyalty.

But the most pertinent teaching on human authority comes from Jesus –

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28; also Mk 10:42-45, Lk 20:24-27)

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Mt 23:8-12)

The Gospel of John puts the point across in a different way, with an enacted message:

After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. … When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. John 13:5-17

Servant leadership gets a bad rap at times … it means you, o “leader”, should do whatever I want, right? But this isn’t what it means. It means looking out for the best for others, putting the needs of others first, forgoing the “privileges of rank.”

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is particularly relevant here. When I wrote on this topic the first time a commenter brought it to our attention.

[A]s you point out, Jesus’ instructions in Mt. 20, 23, indicate that there is not to be any real hierarchy among his people.

I think this is very much the case with elders/bishops. The leader is to be the one who serves; who follows the pattern of Christ in Phil. 2:6-8 (cf. 1Pet. 2:21-25). Interestingly, the one time Paul specifically addresses bishops and deacons is in the Philippian letter – which means they are called specifically to emulate the descending humility, self-emptying and humiliation of the cross. There is no domination, no power over, no coercive action associated with Phil. 2:6-8. It’s purely emptying self, entering the world of another, and serving their best interests through complete sacrifice – even to the point of suffering shame. This downward direction is everything, imo. It completely eliminates power. It is a beautiful gift from God but also the calling for all – so that we elevate the other in importance (Phil. 2:4-5).

Philippians 2:1-11 is a powerful message on the nature of Christian leadership and “authority.”

Many years ago I attended a high school weekend retreat at the local denomination camp. The speaker was a charismatic man … a powerful speaker (I have no idea today who it was). I came home inspired, and talked with my parents about the message. How we as Christian youth were called to obey and serve our parents. Their needs and wants came first. Our time would come when we were adults with families of our own. This was God’s ordained order of things! To my surprise, my parents immediately and completely disagreed. Their responsibility as parents (servant leaders) was to see to our best interests, even when it meant self sacrifice. Proper parental “authority” is a gift of service. The same with other forms of Christian leadership and authority.

It seems to me that the assumption of or desire for authority … has been at the root of many of the most egregious failings of the Christian church and especially the conservative evangelical church. I find authoritarian churches, authoritarian structures within churches, and authoritarian leaders, male or female, quite frankly, scary. I could name some here, but this isn’t really the point. Human “authority” is, by its very nature, frail and subject to abuse. All authority is given to Christ alone. We follow Christ alone. Any authority we have is a gift from God to serve others. This is not the way the world thinks – but it is the way we as Christians are called to think and act.

We have one Teacher and we are all brothers and sisters before him.



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  • LT

    >>>He taught with authority. But he was not an authority.<<>>Paul exercises his authority by teaching and cajoling and reasoning … not by demanding obedience or loyalty.<<<

    Not always. At times he did demand obedience, and at other times, he said he could have demanded it but chose not to.

    I would not overlook these things in search of a point. I would enlarge the point to include the full revelation on this topic, which I think is important.

    Far too many pastors and husbands (and people in general) are overbearing jerks in the name of "strong leadership." It is sinful. But the answer is not to overlook the biblical teaching but to uphold the biblical teaching.

  • Tim

    I thought that was an interesting argument right up until the compare/contrast at the end. Saying that the prescribed path for authority is “not the way the world thinks.” In contrast to the Church.

    I really don’t think that’s true. At least in our corner of this globe. There’s a strong tradition of deferring to ideals rather than authorities here in America. And…outside of tribal partisans….when our leaders and authorities betray those ideals we turn on those leaders. There’s a fiercely independent quality to our country like that. We believe in servant leadership across much of this nation. A nation that was founded to be by the people. For the people. Where authorities are held to account by we the people.

    Now I get it. I do. I was raised in a Church that operated off the same playbook. “The world does this, but we do…or are called to do…that.” As a way to motivate people towards desired behavior or views. And the constant casting of one’s secular friends outside of the church in this light, whether true/deserved or not was considered an acceptable casualty. As it’s a useful foil to motivate the faithful ever onward and upwards, right?

    But despite whatever rhetorical value these methods may hold, I just don’t think they often are based in truth. The secular “world,” at least here in America, is no more deferential to human authorities than the “Church.” As far as I can tell. And perhaps a good deal less so if compared to Evangelicals.

  • Chad V

    I agree with your basic premise about authority and servant leadership, and I too find authoritarian churches and people, as we tend to understand authoritarianism today, quite scary. It should be pointed out that the words translated “authority” in 1 Timothy 2 and Matthew 28 are two very different Greek words. The first is a strong word that tends to mean authoritative, autocratic ruling while the latter refers to power, and in the case of Jesus that power is absolute. Jesus had and has all authority in every sense of the word and yet he was the ultimate servant. Something to ponder in today’s either/or theological climate. Peace.

  • Inquirer

    In English, authority carries at least two meanings: having a right to act, enforceable within a structure which includes an ability to coerce, or having power to influence, which is not enforceable by means of a structure of coercion.

    Additionally, those who wrote our inspired New Testament manuscripts used several Greek words which indicate a granting or holding of authority, including at least “put in place,” “set down,” “make,” “arrange throughout,” “decide,” “mark off,” and “elect.” These are translated into English (not necessarily in the same order as the listed Greek words) as “appointed,” “made,” “placed,” “kept” “put in charge,” “destined,” “established,” and “ordained.” It is important as well to consider at least five unique Greek words which are all translated into English as “rule” (exercise authority), and at least four additional unique Greek words which are all translated into English as “obey.” And for more complete interpretation it is important to understand the context in which all are used.

    If scholarly work is ever done (or uncovered) to address the variety of situations in the New Testament indicating authority and necessary response, with application made for our modern context, we might be able to move away from our individual opinions toward common understanding. Meanwhile, we are called to “serve one another through love.” Galatians 5:13

  • It’s worth mentioning, with reference to 1 Timothy 2:12, that the Greek word there translated “assume authority”, is the only time that Greek word (authentein) is used in the New Testament. Other times, when a translation might say ‘authority’, the Greek word is exousia. Scholars have to dig around in other Greek sources to find how the Greek word authentein is used. A strong case could be made that authentein actually carries the connotation of domination, or misused and abused authority.

  • Chad V

    That’s certainly a plausible understanding of how “authentein” should be understood though, as you noted, it’s hard to be dogmatic given the lack of Scriptural context.

    Turning the passage around, then are we to understand that Paul wants men to exercise authority over the women? And if so, what might that look like? Certainly Paul is not assuming the role of men to be that of dominance or abusiveness over women? I wonder if the word should be closely associated with teaching, with teaching being the expression of authority that Paul has in mind? This would be in keeping with Paul’s keen interest in order in the first century assembly.

  • “Servant leadership gets a bad rap at times … it means you, o “leader”, should do whatever I want, right?”
    Insightful, RJS.
    1 Cor 4: *Messiah’s* servants (v.1) aren’t preoccupied with meeting people’s expectations (v.3), since God knows whose approval we seek (v.5).

  • My understanding is that Paul was reigning in a church that was really getting wonky, especially with the influence of the fertility cult in Ephesus and the general “new Roman woman” cultural trend going on (Scot describes this in Blue Parakeet). The women were starting trouble and subverting everything, not just traditional, complementarian gender roles. Naturally, they were not equipped to teach Christian doctrine. So Paul essentially was telling them to stop talking, stop trying to take over, and stop believing the cult’s teaching that Eve came before Adam. That’s the best information that scholars have about the situation, and what I described is all we have about “authentein”, which is all admittedly sparse.

    Even then, the other Greek word for authority is exousia, and that isn’t used a ton, either. Paul uses it in 1 Cor 6:12 and 1 Cor 7:4. Definitely not the contexts one would want if one wants a picture of authority as a traditional, powerful Christian leader!

    This is why this article is intriguing to me, because the notion of authority in the Bible tends to be read through the lens of powerful leaders and wanting to affirm that image. Certainly, Paul is stopping women from “authentein”, probably because that is what they were doing at the time, and Paul probably would stop men from doing the same, whatever that was.

    I’m borrowing from Greg Boyd here, but the notion of “power under” rather than “power over” is how I see Christian leadership and authority. Those in power have actual power, with the expectation that others would submit to them, but that leader serves, rather than dominates, and has their best interests at heart. I think that is in line with what the author of this article is saying, and that would include what you suggest as teaching being an expression of authority.

  • Chad V

    Good points. What you are describing in your last paragraph is what I would call kingdom oriented authority…the last shall be first, greatness comes in service, etc. There is indeed the possessing of actual authority and that authority should be acknowledged by all, but the rub is in how that authority is exercised. The model Jesus gave us in Matthew 20:24-28 seems clear though certainly not easy. Peace.

  • Rom 13.1-7?

  • RJS4DQ


    This post isn’t about the Christian attitude toward civil authorities. That is an interesting topic that needs to be considered broadly. Since many, includeding Paul, were executed by civil authorities as “rebels” the answer isn’t total compliance. God’s commandments come first.