On Authority and Spheres of Governance
What does the Bible say about authority in general, and what does it say about government authority in particular? These are the questions this post aims to address. Scripture is not silent on these issues, and they are important ones we should grapple with so as to obey God’s Word in all areas of life.
The first thing that must be said is that God is not against authority. He himself has authority over the entire universe and exercises justly this authority. Psalm 103:19 says “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” Jesus said in Matthew 28:18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”. This should not be a controversial point for Christians. It is a fundamental tenet of Scripture that Jesus is Lord of all, and there is no inch of the universe over which he is not King. Thus, God endorses and enforces authority.
But what of earthly authority? It is one thing to say that the sinless, perfect God of the universe carries authority; it is quite another to say the same of sinful, imperfect men. Does God promote earthly authority, and if so, under what parameters?
It is human nature to resist authority. We firstly resist God’s authority over our lives. We want to determine what we will do apart from God’s will for us. But our resistance to authority doesn’t stop there. We also resist human authority. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do. We may justify this resistance by noting that human authority can be arbitrary, incompetent, and unjust. Human authority is often arbitrary in that the authority someone has or doesn’t have seems to be inconsistently applied. It can be incompetent in that many people with authority are not good at leading those under their supervision. And it can be unjust in that some abuse their authority to hurt others or advantage themselves. Aren’t these good reasons to reject human authority?
Again, Scripture must guide us. Just because human authority is not always carried out well does not mean the Christian worldview is against authority altogether. Quite the opposite. Scripture supports the role of human authorities and calls for them to be consistent, competent, and just. Failure to execute authority well does not negate the value of authority altogether; rather, it calls us to strive for better.
Human authority is ordained by God. It is part of God’s will and design for life on earth. Knowing that God is the King of all does not undermine this truth. This is because all earthly authority is delegated authority. In other words, the authority that men have on earth is not inherent to them. Rather, it is granted to them by God. Jesus himself said to Pilate “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). God delegates his authority to human authorities that carry it out on his behalf.
This is where the concept of sphere governance or sphere sovereignty comes in. God has ordained that society not be one large mish-mash of random individuals with no structure of authority, but rather an organized and interconnected web of different spheres of social dimensions of culture. Scripture, for instance, mentions at least four spheres of life and a delegated authority over each.
The first sphere is the individual. People are not merely part of collective wholes. They also exist as independent, autonomous individuals. God created human beings in his image not just generally or collectively, but also individually. Each person is given responsibility by God to live a godly life under his Lordship. The authority in the life of the individual is their conscience. God has given human beings an “inner compass” as it were, known as a conscience, that helps guide their decision making. Our conscience is a gift given to man by God to help us live as God would have us. When we are tempted, our conscience alerts us. When we sin, our conscience guilts us. When we do good, our conscience is clear. Though it is somewhat outside the scope of this article, Scripture speaks much about the role of our conscience. We can harden our conscience through ignoring it and persisting in sin (1 Timothy 4:2). Thus, it is not fair to say that our conscience is always right. We ought to bring our conscience under the Lordship of Christ and his Word. Sometimes we damage our conscience, ruining its proper function. But doing something against our conscience is considered a sin by Scripture (Romans 14:22-23).
This is why personal freedom is a high value in cultures that have been influenced by Christianity. In the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the freedom of conscience is the first protected right under the law. Why is that? Because forcing people to do things against their conscience is both coercing someone into sin and aiming to override God’s chosen means of individual governance. God gave us consciences. We should be very slow to resist that. The founders of Canadian law (and even more explicitly, American law) understood the importance of individual conscience. This insight they gleaned from Scripture.
The personal conscience, however, must not be the only governing authority in society. Such a viewpoint is seen in Scripture during the time of the judges, where the Bible tells us that “in those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Even a surface reading of the book of Judges reveals that chaos was the end result. This political philosophy, known in modern times as strict libertarianism, is unscriptural. This is because the Bible outlines other spheres of governance where authority from God is given.
The second sphere is the family. The family unit is not a Western social construct as many modern educators assert. Rather, it is a God-ordained means of organizing society. Right from the beginning of creation we see God bringing together a man and woman in marriage, with the design that they will bear children and become a family unit (Genesis 2:24, 1:28). Later, those children will age and splinter off to create new family units. This is the first and most fundamental communal grouping of human beings.
In the family unit, God’s authority is delegated to the parents. Exodus 20:12 tells children to “Honor your father and your mother”. Rebellious children become a grief to both fathers and mothers (Proverbs 10:1). Even beyond this, Scripture places a particular emphasis on the husband/father to be the primary leader in the home. Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church”. Furthermore, the consistent pattern of Scripture reveals the husband/father to be the representative of the family unit in both family and community affairs.
Once again, the fact that parents in general and fathers in particular do not always exercise their authority well does not mean God hasn’t still granted them that authority. Scripture never negates the authority of parents; rather, it calls on parents to exercise authority in godly ways (Proverbs 22:6, 29:15, Ephesians 6:4).
The third sphere is the church. The church of Christ does not exist as an individual person, nor does it exist as merely a family unit. Rather, it is a collective of individuals (that may or may not be part of the same family unit) that make up a unique and distinct entity, that being, the household of God. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 tells us that an overseer “must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” This verse clearly notes that a church family is larger than a single family unit. The two are not the same.
This same passage also notes that God’s delegated authority for the church are elders or overseers. Scripture uses the terms “elder”, “overseer”, “pastor”, and “shepherd” virtually synonymously. They all refer to the same office. These references are also always in the plural, meaning that local churches are not lead by one “pastor”, as is the model in many North American churches. Rather, they are local bodies led by a plurality of pastor/elders who function as a team. Hebrews 13:17 clearly states that God’s authority is delegated to these church leaders: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
Note the phrase “submit to their authority”. Local churches have leaders with authority. However, this authority (like the other spheres) is not without qualification. These leaders should lead “as those who must give an account”. This implies that their leadership will be judged by God as a right use of authority or a wrong use of it. Some authority is godly, some is not. Again, there is a temptation among many Christians to see the abuse of authority within churches and presume that God must not want any leaders with authority in the church. This is a false conclusion. Scripture plainly states that the antidote to ungodly authority is not no authority at all, but rather the godly use of authority. The Bible makes many other references to the need for church leaders to be men of character who use their authority well (1 Peter 5:1-5, 1 Timothy 3:1-16).
The fourth sphere is the civil government. The government (ie. “the state”) is another area of society to which God has delegated his own authority. Romans 13:1-2 is strikingly clear on this point: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” Paul clearly understood that governing authorities are not a human cultural experiment. Rather, they are instituted by God himself. Government is God’s idea—even human government. Such authority is established by God.
The continuation of this passage (verses 3-7) reveals God’s purpose for human government. It exists to punish evil and promote good. Therefore, government authorities are called “God’s servant” on earth, those who carry out God’s punishment on evildoers. 1 Peter 2:13-14 elaborates even further: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” This verse notes that human governments often have various levels to them, with some authority being “higher up” and others carrying out a “boots-on-the-ground” role. Today we would include presidents and prime ministers all the way down to local police and everything in between. All levels of authority are to be respected and obeyed. Again, government authority is put in place by God to serve his purposes of punishing the wrongdoer, and so it remains under his ultimate Lordship. There will be times and places when government authority should be resisted if Lordship to Christ is to be maintained. For more on the details of disobeying government authority, a future post is coming.
It is worth noting that our current model is significantly different than that of Old Testament Israel. In those days, Israel functioned as the people of God and a literal earthly state combined. This is known as a theocracy, somewhat similar to what we might call today a “state-sanctioned religion”. In such a scenario, the inhabitants of a state were under the rule of a state religion whether they wanted to or not. The laws of the land were directly connected to the state religion. With the coming of Christ, the Old Testament theocracy model was disbanded and the Church and state were separated. God no longer rules as King through only one nation on earth. Rather, his Kingdom is currently a heavenly one that rules in the hearts of his people who are scattered over every nation of the earth.
There may also be other spheres of authority. The primary one that comes to mind is that of the workplace. Scripture, for instance, calls on slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-25). It also calls on masters to treat their slaves with dignity (Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1). While slavery is not an accepted modern-day institution, perhaps a comparable model would be that of the modern workplace. Workplaces have both employers and employees, and generally Christians have accepted that employers have delegated authority to tell their employees to do what they were hired to do. These passages on slaves and masters have often been used to speak to the relationship between employers and employees. It should be noted that some forms of ancient slavery closely resembled modern forms of employment, far more than the images of race-based chattel slavery such as would be commonly pictured in the United States. Again, another post for another time.
What is the purpose of outlining these spheres of authority? If we are to have a Scriptural worldview, then we must allow the Bible to guide our thinking. The Bible outlines various structures in society and different means God has put in place of governing those structures. He has ordained the conscience to govern the individual, fathers to govern families, elders to govern the church, and kings/magistrates along with appointed law enforcement to govern the civil realm. The reason many theologians have called these “spheres” of governance is that each appointed authority should largely remain inside its own sphere. Practically speaking, it is not the role of elders to govern a family unit. Neither is it their role to govern the affairs of another church body. It is not the role of the state to govern local churches. Neither is it the role of the state to govern the people of another jurisdiction. It is not the role of one person’s conscience to govern the conscience of another. And so on and so forth. These actions violate God’s order for society. Each God-appointed authority must remain in its God-appointed role governing its God-appointed sphere of life, ideally to its God-appointed outcome.
This does not mean that governing authorities will never overlap. Perhaps “overlap” is not even the right word to use since it implies that everything laid out in the above paragraphs is erasable under certain circumstances. Let me try to put it differently. Situations may arise where one governing authority will be forced to override another governing authority and would be right to do so. For instance, if a child is being harshly abused by his parents, the state should intervene in that situation. This would not fairly be described as operating outside of their God-given bounds, but actually operating within their God-given bounds, since they are called to punish the evildoer. This is not so much an “overlap” as it is the proper relationship between connected spheres.
Remember that for this to work best, we must begin with the foundational premise that all authority is God’s authority. Any human authority that exists is not inherent; it is delegated to them from God. Human authority does not get to determine their own goals and bounds. Rather, those goals and bounds are dictated by God. Without this starting point, all human authority eventually devolves into a war-zone between competing groups of power. This is precisely why human authority is often so disastrous. As the perspective of authority and society becomes more secular and disconnected from God, those in authority are more likely to pridefully govern by their own whims rather than in humble submission to God. Again, is the fact that authority is often so ungodly a good reason to discard it altogether? No. Rather, we must fight to bring all human authority under the authority of God as he intends.
One practical question might arise. How exactly should we “fight” for this viewpoint? How do we fight for a society that is governed in a way that God would desire, while we live among an increasingly secular culture? Should Christians try to force all of society to submit to God’s rule? Some Christians have indeed made this attempt in the past. However, nowhere in Scripture are believers called to advance God’s Kingdom through force. Efforts to do so either lead Christians to force their views onto the conscience of individuals (violating their free will) or erroneously merge the Church and state into one entity (a forced theocracy).
So, what can we do? Our first and primary order of business is always to share the gospel and allow the Spirit of God to turn people’s hearts toward Christ and his Word. A society where revival takes place will naturally develop a more biblical approach to culture and governance because enough of its own people voluntarily value it. If many people in a given region come to faith, it will have a major trickle-down effect on the beliefs, values, entertainment, education, and leadership of that region. It will become more in-tune with God’s Kingdom by default.
A second, and just as vital (if not more so) action is to pray. We should pray for revival. Psalm 85:6 says “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” We should pray for strong families. Malachi 4:6 says “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers”. We should pray for our churches. Ephesians 6:18 says we should make “supplication for all the saints”. We should pray for God to turn the hearts of government leaders. Proverbs 21:1 says “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” Lastly, we should obey Jesus in Matthew 6:10 by praying “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
There certainly are other actions we can take. I will detail those in a future post. But I believe we should not lose focus on our first priority which is the power of the Word and prayer. Through the unleashing of these we can demonstrate to the world the wisdom and ways of God which will ultimately lead to human flourishing.
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