The Authority of the State

The late philosopher-theologian Francis Schaeffer taught me to always begin a discussion with a definition. The reason, he said, is that different people define the same word in different ways. Dictionary.com defines authority as “the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.”

The word determine has its own definition: “to settle or decide (a dispute, question, etc.) by an authoritative or conclusive decision.” Interesting how the word determine appears in the definition of authority and authority appears in the definition of determine.

In modern politics, one has authority if he (or she) wins an election. It is conferred upon the elect by our Constitution. But this authority lasts only as long as the person continues in office. When the term is over, the authority expires. Scripture commands us to be “submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1–2). At once this is a witness to others and an acknowledgement that all authority is from God, which He establishes to suit His purposes. No higher an authority than Jesus said so when He stood before Pilate and said, “You would have no authority over me at all if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).

In perhaps the most profound statement on the Christian’s relationship to government, Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1–2).

There are limits to submission, such as when civil authorities order one not to preach the gospel, or when a Christian is ordered to do something ungodly (Schaeffer used the example of a Christian nurse who is ordered by the hospital for which she works to participate in an abortion. He said she must refuse even if it costs her the job). For centuries Christians have debated whether they should submit to illegitimate authority, such as a dictatorship. Paul wrote under a Roman dictatorship, so does the question answer itself? Does that mean Christians were acting rightly when they hid Jews from the Nazis? Were they rebelling against God when they lied to the Gestapo? Greater minds than mine will have to answer that one. I would have hid them, lied to the Nazis, and let God sort it out at a later time.

These things are sometimes easier to process in theory than in practice.

In our efforts to shape culture according to an Authority in which the world does not believe, too many Christians have it backwards. We ask others to submit to God while rebelling ourselves. 

Divorce is one example. Statistics indicate as many Christian marriages are breaking up as those in the unsaved world. This is because too many of us choose to ignore Paul’s admonition to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 4:21). By submitting to one another, we put the interest of the other person before our own and acknowledge the claim of the Higher Authority — Jesus Christ — to whom we all must submit either in this life, or certainly in the life to come.

Submission is more powerful than “lording it over” someone else. Some years ago while visiting with an editor at a Florida newspaper I was trying to persuade to take my syndicated column, I met a young Christian on the staff who told me he was thinking of resigning because no one paid attention to him on the editorial board. He said he was thinking of going into “full-time Christian service.” The phrase has always made me gag because all Christians ought to see themselves in full-time service for Christ, regardless of their profession.

I asked him if he ever considered submitting to his colleagues by serving them. Did he know the name of his boss’s wife? Did he know how a colleague takes her coffee in the morning and would he get her a cup? Could he go out to lunch with his associates and feel he had presented a good witness if the subject of God never came up, but he took the time to find out about them and not push his own agenda, even a religious one?

I heard from him a year later. He tried all of these things and was subsequently promoted to a New York Times newspaper where he had even more opportunities to appropriate God’s power by submitting to the needs and interests of others. I have had difficult bosses in my professional life, and with few exceptions (and there was one!) I was able to soften them up by submitting to their authority far more easily than if I had been rebellious and defiant.

Why do authorities exist? It is because we live in a sinful and fallen world, and without authority everyone would do “what is right in his own eyes,” resulting in chaos. Those who will not be constrained from within by the living presence of Jesus Christ,