A Brief Primer on God’s Ordained Spheres of Authority
Written by Managing Editor on February 6, 2019
By Toby Sumpter
We live in a world obsessed with power and power disparities. On the one hand, the modern world professes not to trust power – e.g. power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely – and of course there is no shortage of examples of power misused, authority abused. But the current modern egalitarian gospel is the good news of no more authority, no power disparities. This is the whole point of the socialist, communist, egalitarian impulses of the left: if we can just flatten out all the privilege and power disparities between majorities and minorities, male and female, rich and poor, black and white, etc., then everybody will stop fighting, stop taking drugs, and peace and harmony will break out all over. The problem is that in order to get there – to that point of absolute equality – you have to be coercive, you have to force people to give up their power and privilege, which means in order to get to that supposed non-authoritarian utopia, you have to exercise, um, what shall we call it? … authority.
And all of this is a longish way of saying that authority and power are really inescapable. There will always be some with more influence, more gifts, more strength, more authority, and yes, more power. The question is not whether there will be powers and authorities, the question is whether the authority and power will answer to anyone or whether it will be autonomous – a law unto itself. The terror of the modern progressive project is the deeply laced lie that authority is only temporary until everything is completely equalized and then authority will just fade away into the sunset like a child’s lost balloon. In many cases, they no doubt have come to sincerely believe this, but this assumption that power will be voluntarily relinquished assumes that people really are basically good, which is a complete lie, but even on their own accounting the whole thing is illogical. If power corrupts then how can you even use power to destroy power? If authority is inherently evil, then how can you use the authority of elections or the authority of the law or the authority of politicians or the authority of science or the authority of anything to accomplish the dissolution of authority? On their own grounds, it must be admitted that authority can function as a good. But it is apparently only a good when it pushes the world toward a less authoritarian state. But this is like saying that a circle is only a good when it can be a square. Good luck with that, fellas.
So instead of embracing an inherent contradiction, Christians submit to the world that actually is, the world that was manifestly created and ordered by a Creator. This creation implies authority. Authority implies an author. The One who wrote this place has complete and exhaustive authority over it all. Not only did He authoritatively speak it into existence in the beginning (Gen. 1:1), but His powerful Word continues to uphold all things that exist (Heb. 1:3). This means that God’s power is what gives everything that exists its unique power. Birds have the power to fly. Trees have the power to grow. People have the power to be people.
People have the power to live as human beings – things like breathing, talking, walking, but this includes (along with the rest of creation) a glorious diversity of giftings and powers. Some people have the power to paint, some have the power to sing, some have the power to organize, some people have the power to make new human beings inside of themselves. And alongside these powers, nature and Scripture teach us that some people have the power to lead other people.
Now before we get much further, we need to stop here and insist that the first level of government and authority in the Christian worldview is self-government. And self-government in a fallen, sinful world is relatively impossible apart from the grace of God. In our natural, fallen state man is enslaved to his sin and passions. He is dead to God and righteousness. Paul describes our former state well in Titus: “For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another” (Tit. 3:3). So the first and most fundamental reformation that must occur before freedom can break out in a society is the reformation or regeneration of the individual. “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him” (Rom. 6:6-9). When the old man is crucified with Jesus and raised to new life, it is the Spirit of the resurrected Christ that takes up residence in that believer, and it is the Spirit that begins to govern the individual, giving the gift of self-control, or self-government. This is the foundation for all biblical authority and government.
This regenerate life, and all other human power, is a gift from God, and this establishes the basic and foundational Christian assumption that all power and authority is from God. There is no true authority, no true power apart from God. All true authority is delegated or derived authority. This is why it is appropriate to describe all human authority as ministerial – it is a ministry on behalf of the God who authorized it. This doesn’t mean that all human authority is under the church, but if it is true authority, it is derived from God. Another way to say this is that you do not have any real authority in this world if you are not under authority. There must be a source for your authority and power, otherwise you are just a tin-pot tyrant. You’re just making it up as you go along. You’re just a dictator. But God delegates particular authority to particular people in order to minister His grace and truth in this world, even through the “ministries” of police officers, judges, and city council members. In the biblical understanding, legitimate authority is a gift from God Himself for the good of the world.
After self-government, the Bible teaches that there are three spheres of public authority: the family, the church, and the state. We derive these three categories from the Bible, which expressly recognizes the authority of heads of households, elders/pastors in the church, and civil magistrates. While there may be other analogous authorities (employers, teachers), those authorities are actually extensions of one of these three basic spheres – and mostly extensions of the family sphere. Because life is messy, these spheres should not be understood as water-tight, iron clad jurisdictions but rather true assignments with real limitations but which nevertheless may overlap in real life.
The family is the ministry of health, welfare, and education. This is established when Paul says that a husband must love his wife like Christ loves the church and nourish and cherish her as he does his own body (Eph. 5:29). The words “nourish” and “cherish” literally mean “feed” and “keep warm.” Paul is likely drawing from the Mosaic law where polygamy was suppressed through the requirement that a man provide food, clothing, and sexual rights for his wife. If a man took a second wife and diminished any of these three, the first wife was free to leave (Ex. 21:10-11). Likewise, in 1 Timothy, Paul insists that the first line of defense for the care of widows is the family: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). In context, Paul is instructing Timothy when it might be appropriate for the church to support a widow. We should note that Paul never suggests that a widow sign up for Roman Medicare. Finally, we note that the Bible explicitly charges fathers with the duty of providing a thoroughly Biblical education: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:7). “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). The word for “bring up” is the same word Paul used in Ephesians 5:29 for “nourish” or “feed,” and the words for “training and admonition” mean “counsel and culture” respectively. God has granted particular authority to the family to feed, nourish, and provide for health, welfare, and education.
The church is the ministry of the word, sacraments, and discipline. Jesus gives this authority to the church as a whole, but the church is ruled through called and qualified men called pastors and elders (1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1). Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” to the apostles, who were the foundation stones of the church (Mt. 16:18-19, Eph. 2:20). These keys are entrusted to the church for the purpose of opening and closing the kingdom of God. This opening and closing is done centrally through the proclamation of the gospel to every creature: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20). The sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper) are the signs and seals of the kingdom, and those who have professed faith and been baptized who persist in unrepentant sin are to be put out of the church through excommunication after due process (Mt. 18:15-20, 1 Cor. 5, Tit. 3:10). Church membership is required by Hebrews 13:7 and 17, which commands Christians to be subject to elders, and it insists that elders will give an account to God for those they are responsible for. While there may be different mechanisms for keeping track of this, church membership simply means that you know the names of the elders you are to submit to and know them well enough to follow their example, and those elders must know your name and care for you so that they can give an account to God for you.
Finally, God gives limited power and authority to civil magistrates, both lesser and greater magistrates, from local city officials up to supreme court justices, presidents, and congressmen. This authority is primarily the ministry of the sword, executing justice, punishing evil doers, and protecting the innocent (Rom. 13). This includes declaring and conducting just wars. The civil magistrates are also entrusted with the duty of ensuring equal weights and measures in a land – things like a standard measuring system and guarding the stable value of money (Lev. 19:35-36, Prov. 16:10-12). Civil magistrates must make judgments in disputes without partiality to the faces of people (Deut. 1:16-17, 25:1). Taxes may be collected in order to fund these limited duties (Rom. 13:6-7), but a civil magistrate ought not tax higher than God’s tithe of ten percent (1 Sam. 8:15-17). When kings take more than a tenth, they are oppressing God’s people and stealing what is not rightfully theirs. However, when civil magistrates rule in these limited ways, according to God’s word, as ministers of God’s justice, they are “foster fathers” and “nursing mothers” and a nation is greatly blessed (Ps. 144:15).
In this world, authority is inescapable. The only question is whether human authorities will submit themselves to God—the origin of all lawful authority and power—and so limit their jurisdictions according to God’s word or whether they will make it up as they go along, blindly grasping and demanding and oppressing. Power is not evil, but power is only used for good when it ministers according to God’s creational design. The foundation for all right government and true liberty in this fallen world is self-government, and this is only possible through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. While God is free to cause great reformations working from the bottom of society to the top or from the top all the way down, He always works from the inside out, remaking people one at a time, saving them and empowering them for obedience in families, churches, and society. Families were designed to care for the health, welfare, and education of their members. Churches were designed to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and discipline their members. Nations were designed to adjudicate disputes, prosecute crimes, carryout just penalties, protect the innocent, and ensure equal weights and measures. These powers are the respective glories of these spheres of sovereignty. When each sphere does what it was created to do, the people of that land are happy and free.