Must we submit to authority to have authority?

One of the popular beliefs in “Covering” circles is that for people to have authority they must come under authority. I’ve never seen a good explanation of this doctrine coming from anywhere in the New Testament. Paul talks about having authority as an apostle but claims his apostleship was from God and no human agency and on top of that he seems reticent to use it. There is one place in scripture where someone is directly offered authority if only he would submit to authority. It is found in Matthew 4:8-10.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur. And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ “
(Mat 4:8-10 NET.)

The word translated worship is proskyneo which according to BDAG (the best lexicon in the game) means: “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure.1The word describes a physical act of bowing usually offered to kings and emperors and many of those in Jesus’ day were considered gods. To Jesus and the hearers of that time such a deep level of reverence and submission was considered worship and that is the reason why this word is translated worship. In authoritarian churches the authority figure often offers all the blessing he can muster in exchange for submission. If you submit to authority you will be given authority, you will praised in sight of others and offered special privileges and access to personal attention. In reality it is just another leader selfish for personal gain offering people ways to sell out. I’ve seen many fall for this. They become the leaders’ favoured son or daughter for a season but are rejected as soon as someone more enticing comes along or he or she is no longer seen as someone who contributes enough to the leader’s agenda.

Another thing this passage illustrates is that there are really different kinds of authorities and different kinds of jurisdictions. Satan could only offer him the benefits of his kingdom. Jesus knew this was a trap and refused. He never challenged or attempted to sway political realities of the day because he knew he was king of a different kingdom. Nor did Jesus take away from the realities of authority and ownership in this world. Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mar 12:17). Caesar had his kingdom and Jesus had his. He cared about the authority of his kingdom, and not the kingdom’s of this world. He was offered all the human authority he wanted as long as he sold out to someone who wanted to exploit him for his own gain. In the same way a church leader can only offer anyone the benefits of their own agency. All the blessings of God’s kingdom come in Christ and not through any human agency. Our agencies can cooperate with Christ’s kingdom or we can fight it. If our domain is a boat Christ’s domain is the wind. On our boat we might have deck hands and captains but none of these things matter unless the boat is set to capture the direction and power of God’s spirit. We either align our sail to the direction of God’s kingdom or we put in our oars and row our own way in our own power. No church leader can offer you authority in Christ’s kingdom any more than a ship’s captain can make you lieutenant of the wind.

In the church we find reason to put people in leadership and they have authority in that realm. The New Testament has some instruction on how that should look but we can never, ever, equate anything we create with God’s kingdom. If we are faithful our sails capture the wind of the spirit and a result we become a physical manifestation of God’s work. We can point to where we are, where we’ve been taken and where we are going and say praise God. The higher reality is every human agency we construct is only worth something so far as it cooperates with the work of God’s spirit in moving people to a new place. There is nothing our human agency that can limit what God chooses to do in his kingdom. They are different domains. So it seems that in many cases one gains authority by submitting to authority but only in our own human agencies. Be careful as not all authorities are aligned with God’s purposes. We can never acquire authority in God’s kingdom. All authority in Christ’s kingdom has been given to Christ. Our lives may or may not witness to that authority, we may be moved by that authority but all the authority in this domain is only found in Christ.  

1Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Above Reproach

A recent controversy surrounding a prominent author and perceived leader in organic church circles lead me to come back to scripture and consider one of Paul’s qualifications for leadership. In one of his letter’s to Timothy Paul wrote:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (1Ti 3:2-3)

The one qualification I looked at is the first one. What does it mean to be “above reproach?” Digging into my lexicon I find that the greek word here is anepilemptos which more literally means “unable to take hold of” or “unable to seize.” It carries the meaning being unassailable or beyond rebuke or disapproval. As I size it up I’d say that leaders must be free of any potential legitimate accusations about their character or actions.

Looking at the rest of Paul’s life I’d say that being above reproach doesn’t necessarily being perfect or sinless. Paul confessed his own weaknesses (2Cor 1:8), sin (Rom 7:15), inabilities (2Cor 11:6), and the dark aspects of his past (Acts 26:11). One key aspect of being above reproach is to not have anything hidden that people can accuse you of. Bringing our past in to the light is one indicator that we have truly changed.

Another indicator that we have truly changed is whether we are willing to make amends with the people we have hurt. If we have truly taken ownership of our mistakes and we truly care about the people we have harmed we will do what we can to remedy them. Far too often leaders claim they have repented but just ignore the carnage left in their wake.

To be above reproach is to act with integrity and consistently exhibit Godly character and to be honest and upfront when making mistakes or struggling with sin. There should be legitimate concern if there is a pattern of evasion or dishonesty about the past. If a potential or current leader gets defensive quickly when questioned that is another warning sign.

It has been disastrous when we don’t hold our leaders to account. So many have found themselves in high profile positions and when the truth of their flagrant sin and pattern of deception is revealed it sets off a terrible explosion in the body Christ. The damage reaches far and wide. Some leaders are abusive and exploit others and the damage can go on for years. It is one of the reasons we have so many wounded Christians. This keeps happening because we don’t require our leaders to be above reproach.

Acts: The church discerns leadership and direction together

How do we pick our leaders?  The bible isn’t entirely explicit on the topic.  There are a few examples and indications scattered throughout scripture. 

The first example is Judas’ replacement chosen in Acts 1.  I’m thinking that was a pretty unique circumstance.  Although I’ve heard of some churches using lots to choose elders and it worked out pretty well.  The churches in question discerned who might be qualified for eldership by picking people who had strong character and in particular humble.  They through all their “names in a hat” and picked their next elder.

There are other examples in Acts involving Paul, his appointment to ministry and the appointment of elders in the churches.  Based on these examples I see pattern develop.  The church sought the direction of their ultimate authority and it was discerned mutually.  It was important for people with different strengths and different gifts to come together in the discernment process.  While there is nothing to indicate that the church voted to make decisions people depended on each other in the process.

In Acts 13 Paul is back on the scene.

Act 13:1  Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood ) and Saul.
Act 13:2  While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."
Act 13:3  Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off.

There are a couple things I noticed about this passage.

  • Luke starts out by mentioning the people involved in the process were prophets and teachers.  I found that interesting because a) there are no apostles b) prophets and teachers have traditionally been at odds with each other.  I have charismatic/prophetic leanings but I’m often dismayed by the lack of good foundational teaching among the people who have similar leanings.  Similarly I’ve been around teachers who couldn’t express an opinion without footnoting someone else let alone be led by faith.  Could it be that these giftings and strengths need to be properly held together in Christ to accurately discern God’s direction?
  • The people were not seeking an answer from the Lord or asking Him to bless their vision or project they were simply “serving the Lord.” 
  • They make it clear who was doing the appointing: The Holy Spirit
  • The implication is that was a group of peers seeking the Lord together, not the head of a hierarchy
  • Then they were sent.
  • In verse 13:2 “set apart” has been translated “appoint” (CEV) or “dedicate” (NLT)

At the end of Paul’s first journey we see this.

Act 14:21  After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch.
Act 14:22  They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, "We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions."
Act 14:23  When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed.

Those who favour a more hierarchical view of church leadership often point to the Paul’s practice of appointing elders.  He also instructed Titus to do so (Tit 1:5).  I believe the same process that the church used to appoint Paul and Barnabas was being used here.  If they relied on the Holy Spirit to guide them before I imagine they would do it again.

It is also interesting to note the word translated “appointed” is cheirotoneo?. 

Thayer’s Lexicon has the following

1) to vote by stretching out the hand
2) to create or appoint by vote: one to have charge of some office or duty
3) to elect, create, appoint

Vine’s has the following

primarily used of voting in the Athenian legislative assembly and meaning "to stretch forth the hands" (cheir, "the hand," teino, "to stretch"), is not to be taken in its literal sense; it could not be so taken in its compound procheirotoneo, "to choose before," since it is said of God, Act_10:41. Cheirotoneo is said of "the appointment" of elders by apostolic missionaries in the various churches which they revisited, Act_14:23, RV, "had appointed," i.e., by the recognition of those who had been manifesting themselves as gifted of God to discharge the functions of elders (see No. 2). It is also said of those who were "appointed" (not by voting, but with general approbation) by the churches in Greece to accompany the apostle in conveying their gifts to the poor saints in Judea,

There is nothing in the meaning of cheirotoneo? that conflicts with the kind of Spirit led discernment we observed with Paul and Barnabas in Antioch.  The assumption here is that Paul would have discerned with the church who had already emerged as elders in the church and confirmed it. 

This word is also used in 2Cor 8:19 to indicate a communal or community discernment.  The churches (plural) had chosen this particular brother as a travelling companion.

2Co 8:16  But thanks be to God who put in the heart of Titus the same devotion I have for you,
2Co 8:17  because he not only accepted our request, but since he was very eager, he is coming to you of his own accord.
2Co 8:18  And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his work in spreading the gospel.
2Co 8:19  In addition, this brother has also been chosen by the churches as our traveling companion as we administer this generous gift to the glory of the Lord himself and to show our readiness to help.

We also see the church discerning together in Acts 15.  People had come up from Judea and were introducing some destructive teaching.  The issue was so important that the church appointed a delegation to go to Jerusalem to settle the matter.

Act 15:1  Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
Act 15:2  When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement.

At this point Paul is clearly an Apostle but it was the church in Antioch that appointed him to go to Jerusalem.  The pattern seems to indicate that God leads and directs through the whole church.  It is clear from Paul’s epistles that he had a lot of authority to establish proper teaching but even he could be appointed by a church to carry out a task.  The pattern I see is that ultimately the Holy Spirit is the authority but different people have different gifts and different roles to play in discerning God’s direction.  They all need to be working together to accurately hear God.  If someone appoints themselves as the one through whom all direction flows they are cutting out many necessary people from the discernment process.