Proverbs 15:5 ESV
A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
We humans hate authority. Toddlers are the most honest about it; they regard ‘no’ as a horror beyond belief. Unfortunately, as much as we like to think otherwise, we don’t really leave our instinctive hatred for the word behind when we have our fourth birthday. Every time we’re told to do something we don’t want to do or to not do something we do want to do, we rebel, at least a little, in our hearts. Now, it would be nice if we could just stop here and say, “Listen to authority, folks, even when you don’t like it.” It’d be simple, at least. In the real world, though, authority is often wrong. In fact, in the real world, authority is often false, might rather than right. In order to avoid the actions of the fool who despises authority, then, we need to learn what makes authority real and right, what gives reproof the force of truth.
First, what is the difference between power and authority? The distinction is, after all, essential to understanding this case. Power is the ability to do something; when power is substituting for authority, it’s the ability to coerce obedience or compliance. Power is a seven foot tall man with brass knuckles coming up to you and telling you to eat the broccoli or else. Authority, while it often correlates with power, is not a mere ability to coerce beyond the subject’s ability to resist. Authority is the right to say ‘do so’ and have it done; disobeying authority results not in pain, as in disobeying power, but in guilt, because authority is moral in nature. Authority is you being a kid, and your parent telling you to eat the broccoli because they’re your parents.
Ultimately, all authority is God’s. How do we know this? We know this because God is the Creator of all that exists, and because He is the Judge by Whom morality is known (Gen 18:25). God has the right to tell anybody and anything ‘Do so,’ and if they do not do it, they will be guilty of treason against Him, guilty and meriting the retribution His justice demands. He is sovereign, and He exercises that sovereignty. Any authority that contradicts God’s is not authority at all; there can be no moral imperative to do an immoral act. If a father commands his child to kill himself, the father has no authority in that command, because he commands something contrary to God’s commands.
If all authority is God’s, though, how can we say that parents or rulers or elders have any authority? We can say they have authority because God delegates authority to them. He grants authority over certain spheres to certain people, by position or by name, giving them the right to issue moral imperatives in certain ways and certain places. A parent, for instance, is given by Him authority over his children. This authority is not complete, either in breadth or depth.
Man’s authority has limits of extent. A parent has authority over his own children only; an elder has authority only over the church in his care; a ruler has authority only over the citizens of his own nation. These positions, admittedly, generally grant a certain numinous authority to their holders, an authority greater in extent but different in nature than their primary authority. A father therefore has some authority to reprove the children of others as being a man of greater wisdom, though he lacks the authority of a father over them. Likewise, an elder in a church has some authority to speak and lead those beyond his church, but that authority is not the same as his authority over his own church, is granted in recognition of his elder-authority but not as part of it. Thus, man can hold many places of authority, can hold one position of authority in virtue of another, but none of these is without limit in its subjects. No man rules all men.
Nor, if he did, would the depth of his rulership be absolute. Man has only the depth of authority which God gives him. At its most basic, this means that no authority under God has the ability to contradict Him without losing that authority. If the state demands I murder a child, the state in that moment has no authority; God’s law rules. If the leader of a social group (whose authority I have entered into the sphere of by joining that group, whether it’s a business or a club or a political movement) demands I lie about somebody’s gender, call a man a women or a woman a man, that command has no authority at all. It contradicts His greater command, to love Him and my neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40).
This means too that different authorities can command different things with true authority. The state may command me with authority to pay my taxes (Matt. 22:21). It may command me to refrain from defrauding my fellow man (Ex. 22:1-4; Prov. 20:23). It may command me to exercise due caution to not endanger the lives of others (Deut. 22:8). The state, however, has a limited reach of authority. If the state commands me to change my beliefs, to change in a matter of conscience, it oversteps and thereby loses all authority in that command. God has not given the state that right. So parents have no authority to mutilate their children or order them mutilated; so church officers have no right to the sword (which is the state’s) (Rom. 13:4).
Other sources of authority have been offered by man. ‘Might makes right’ is an old creed, one loved by men like Stirner (a contemporary of Nietzsche) and which I used myself in my novel for a character. Postmodernity has adopted a somewhat different version of it: the ability to control the narrative makes right. Postmodernity, after all, denies the existence of objective truth, and therefore if a you can get your narrative to the top, it becomes true and therefore authoritative.
On the other hand, Americans often turn to a somewhat less philosophical source, consensus. We appeal to the ‘will of the people’; we say ‘vox populi, vox dei’ (‘The voice of the people is the voice of the gods), ignoring the totalitarian statism of Rome even in its Republic stage (for Rome claimed in every stage of its life the right to control all parts of its subjects, heart and soul and mind and body). Like all sources of authority besides God, though, this source is a false one. Indeed, whenever we claim an authority independent of God in itself or in source, we claim a false god by arrogating to it the authority of God (for ‘service’ is indeed a greater offering than ‘worship’, as Calvin notes in Book One, Chapter Eleven of his Institutes).
Authority, then, comes from God and no other; He delegates this authority to men in different measures and flavors. What does this mean for us? That, unfortunately, is for Part Two to consider.
Written by Colson Potter.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.