Monday, February 11, 2013

What Authority Do You Have Over Me?



Back when I was fifteen, I used to referee for a homeschool flag football league. My job was to make the calls and keep track of the points. Most of the time, it was easy. But one play stuck with me. The action was right on the sideline opposite me. I saw the kid step out-of-bounds as he dashed all the way down the field. Thinking he had scored, the boy danced triumphantly around the infield. I, however, made the call—he had gone out-of-bounds. I started to set the ball. The kids immediately began arguing with my decision. But I was in charge, and I had made my call. Just then, a “helpful” mom came over and offered me her video camera. Apparently, she had recorded the alleged touchdown.

She started to play it back and within a few seconds the dancing kid was cheering. The video evidence confirmed: he had stayed in bounds. I was less than thrilled. I had made my call. I was the authority on that field. I wanted to hold my ground. It was my RIGHT to say no. The problem was that it would have been wrong for me to do so.

A pastor once told me that fixing everything isn’t my job. He explained that there are certain institutions in life that have authority over people. The Bible talks about authority in relation to governments, families, churches, businesses, and friendships. Each of these have unique applications for what kind of authority they have and how it can be used.

The government has the authority to punish evil and reward good. Along with that comes the command authority to make laws and enforce them on society. Under certain extreme circumstances, a higher authority may require that we disobey a tyrannical government, but, in general, we are under the government and we must obey its agents; they have “command authority” over us.

Authority in the family is a bit different. The Bible calls on children to obey their parents much as it calls on everyone to obey government. But, as children grow up, the biblical requirement changes from obeying their parents to honoring them. Parents move from a role of “command authority” to a position more like that of an adviser. We respect them and give special weight to what they say because they have wisdom for us and because they have known us longer than anyone else. But, in the end, we are responsible for our own actions. (Within familial authority, there is also husband-wife authority, but I will not even try  to go into that here. This post is already way too long and even starting on that subject would turn it into a tome.)

Church authority is interesting because an individual pastor doesn't seem to have much authority at all. It is almost the opposite from the governing authority. Generally a church doesn't have command authority, but there are exceptions. Church authority comes into play when faced with a need to confront ongoing sin and (sometimes) to excommunicate people from the church. The rest of the time, however, the authority of a church is more like the authority of an adult’s parent; it’s primarily a source of wise council.

Business authority is unique in that it’s based primarily on contracts. This means that business authority can go from involving extreme amounts of command authority to involving almost none.  Regardless, we are commanded to work hard for our bosses and that includes submitting to them for as long as they are over us. In a sense, they own our labor, and we must honor that.

The last area where I see a Biblical grant of authority is an area that almost never comes up in this context. It’s the authority that friends have in our lives. This kind of authority is special because, unlike the rest, this authority only goes as far as it is given. For example: You can talk with me about girl problems because I let you. I didn't have to let you, but I do. This allows you to get serious and ask probing questions that we are both okay with. Accountability based relationships operate on the same principle. You give someone authority over part of you.  It is all based on trust and relationship. If one of these isn't strong, then there isn't real authority there.

Matthew 18 explains that we can confront a fellow believer if they have sinned against us, but this isn't permission to try to fix every Christian we run into. It also isn't permission to call out every problem. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible for us to try to fix everyone we meet without usurping either the authority of friendship or the authority of the church.

There are many problems that God has placed within each of our individual spheres of authority; it may be our duty to engage these issues. But there are also many problems in areas outside of our spheres, and we must resist the urge to act outside of our authority in our zeal to right wrongs. Sometimes we need to step back and analyze things so we can to figure out whether we have proper authority to try to fix a problem.

When I first figured out this concept, it was incredibly freeing. I realized that the problems God has placed within my authority are more than enough to keep me busy—I don't need to try to right every wrong.

But turn it around for a second: not only can you not fix every problem, but not everyone can fix your problems.

For instance, imagine a policeman. He may very well be a wonderful guy. But you should not go to him for help with leaving a drug habit. He might be forced to arrest you and you won’t get the mentoring that you need to deal with the spiritual problems that underpin the issue. That police officer is doing what God has called him to, but some ministry opportunities are now closed him.

I hope some of this is somewhat helpful. I like to paraphrase Lewis who said that he wrote to help people understand. If it helps, great! If not, discard it. I will not be offended.

Post by Jeremiah Lorrig 
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