The obligations of authorities

When I was working through Ephesians for By His Wounds You are Healed, I noted an interesting thing Paul does in his discussion of authority in Ephesians 5 and 6. John Stott’s exposition of Ephesians 5:21-33 in The Message of Ephesians explains it well. While Paul presupposes an authority in the relationship between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and servants, he never uses the word for authority in that passage. He doesn’t instruct that authorities step up their authority and engage in more authoritarian methods. In fact, his instructions are quite the opposite.

“On the contrary, explicitly or implicitly, (Paul) warns them against the improper use of their authority, forbids them to exploit their position, and urges them instead to remember their responsibilities and the other party’s rights. Thus, husbands are to love their wives and care for them, parents are not to provoke their children but bring them up sensitively, and masters are not to threaten their slaves, but treat them with justice.” (Stott, p. 219)

Here’s the thing about authority. Those under your authority have rights too!  And here’s another thing. Every person in a role of authority is called to mimic something about God. Husbands? They are to reflect Christ’s self-sacrificing love. Parents? They are called to disciple their children with grace as God the Father has done for us. Masters? They are to reflect the justice of the One and Only Master of the Universe.

Some people want to discount authority structures, but if you discount authority structures, especially those set up in Scripture, you are going to lose a lot more than you gain.* Others want authority structures to step up their authoritarian methods.  Instead of either discounting or demanding authority structures, I believe we are better off examining exactly what God instructs authorities to be and do. The problem isn’t with authority. The problem is with authority that doesn’t act like God. Or maybe it’s better to say the problem with Christian authority is when they DO try to act like God, but not the humble, pursuing, sacrificial loving God of the Bible. Our God has every right to be authoritarian, but He came to us in human form, emptied Himself of His rights, and laid His life on the line for us. Authoritarian authorities have an authoritarian view of God. It boils down to problematic theology (as so much does in life).

The place that this hits closest to home for me is with my kids. Oh, I am definitely an authority in their lives. But if I’m not actively seeking God’s face and example, I vacillate between permissive and authoritarian tactics. Permissive parents don’t engage. Authoritarian parents engage with a demand for their right to be obeyed. Neither of those reflect the character of our God who emptied Himself of His rights for us.

Phil. 2:3-8 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

GOD did this. GOD did not grasp onto His rights as Creator of the Universe. Instead, He humbled Himself, emptied Himself of rights and reputation, and took the form of a servant so that He could give His life for us. This is the model of authority!

In relationships between authorities and those they are called to lead, the authority bears the greater burden to humble themselves and lay down their rights. This doesn’t mean those under authority don’t have obligations—everyone in the Body of Christ is called to humble self-sacrifice and obedience to the Word. But in the parent/child relationship, who has the greater burden to pursue? Me, the parent. Who has the greater burden to endure? Me, the parent. Who is called to restrain their authority to not provoke their children? Me, the parent.

As a Christian parent, I often feel pressure in Christian circles to step up my tactics with my kids. Even today on twitter, a ministry sent out an exhortation for parents to discipline their kids. Yet, similar to those in the Ephesians church, my temptation is to demand of my children, to provoke my children. For me, the exhortation to discipline without explanation can resonate with the very places in my heart that Paul warns against.

Philippians 2 is a great meditation for me today as a mom. Humble myself. Empty myself of my rights. Lay down my life in sacrifice. Love those boys as God has loved me. Serve and help those boys as God, Creator of the Universe, serves and helps me. GOD does this for us, and He turns the entire notion of authority (for who has greater authority than Him!) right on its head.  This is the heart of discipline that truly trains our children in righteousness.

Matthew 20: 25-28 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

* Please don’t read this in any way as a defense of slavery or other oppressive master/servant relationships. 

4 Responses to The obligations of authorities

  1. Luma Simms January 22, 2013 at 9:14 pm #


  2. Anonymous January 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    “The problem is with authority that doesn't act like God.”

    per the saying,‘power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely’ with humans. But with all power and authority, Jesus rules as a shepherd (Matt 2:6). I love David’s last song recorded in 2 Sam 23: 3-4: “The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spoke to me, ‘He who rules over men righteously, who rules in the fear of God, is as the light of the morning when the sun rises, a morning without clouds, when the tender grass springs out of the earth, through sunshine after rain.’

  3. GC January 24, 2013 at 12:03 am #

    Very good post. I would continue to resist any pressure to “step up the tactics” with your kids. Go with what you and your husband believe is right and in line with your understanding of God. Our kids are now 24 and 19, and if we had tried to raise them with the rigid or harsh discipline recommended by some Christians, I think we would all be in a world of hurt right now. As it is, they are fine, respectful young men who are trying to follow Christ.

  4. anne January 24, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

    well thought, well said 🙂