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.