Agents of Authority
Not only does the Lord come to us by way of his holy Word; He also enters our lives through different agents. God comes to us by way of different people whom He puts in authority over us. We need to understand that. By the same token, the one who is in a position of authority needs to understand that as well. And he had better not abuse his authority. From the Word of God we can even say: Woe unto that person who abuses his or her authority and who thereby hurts the one under their authority. But let the warning ring out now already that it will not go well for those who abuse their authority and hurt a little one. If he does not repent, it would better for that person to have a millstone hung around his neck and for him to be cast into the deepest part of the ocean.
But we have gotten well ahead of ourselves. This issue’s topic is “agents of authority.”
Basically, there are three spheres of authority that God calls us to place ourselves under. They are: our parents, the church, and the state.
The first persons in authority you came across in your life were your parents. Your mom and your dad. They were given the task, the responsibility to raise you, to teach you, to discipline you. Children are to submit to the good instruction and discipline of their parents. The LORD God even had something to say about this in the Ten Commandments. The Fifth Commandment says: “Honour your father and your mother.” There are many places in the Bible that teach children to obey their parents.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul mentioned this as well. In Ephesians 6 he said: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother...’” In this context, he had a special word for the fathers. He added: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
We can also think of the beautiful summary of what the Bible teaches about this in Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What does God require in the fifth commandment?
A. That I show all honour, love, and faithfulness to my father and mother and to all those in authority over me, submit myself with due obedience to their good instruction and discipline, and also have patience with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.
But God does not only approach us via our parents. He also draws near to us through the church. The Lord Jesus Christ has vested authority in the church. This authority is, first of all, to preach the gospel. The church is Christ’s preaching agency. Before He ascended to heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ sent his disciples out to preach the good news about salvation in his name and to teach people how to live in obedience to his will. He said to them: “...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
The apostles took this command seriously. They themselves went out into the world preaching, discipling, baptizing, and teaching. Before they died, they trained others to preach. They told those they trained to train, in turn, others. In the last letter, before he died, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, minister of the church in Ephesus:
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.2 Timothy 2:2
Timothy, taught by Paul, had to teach others who would, in turn, be able to teach others.
And so to this day the apostolic message has been handed down through the church. The faithful church of Jesus Christ has continued to preach the good news about salvation in the Name of Jesus Christ.
Not only does the church have the authority to preach the Word of God (to those who are already members of the church and in the context of mission work to those who do not yet know Christ). Christ, the Head of the church, also gave the church authority to exercise discipline over the members of the church – over those under its care.
In Matthew 16, the Lord told Peter and the other disciples that He was giving them the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. The Lord hereby gave the church authority to announce guilt or innocence. If a member of the church is living in disobedience to the commandments of God, then the church has the authority to tell that person he stands guilty before God. And when a person repents, again, the church has the authority to declare that person innocent – innocent before God on the basis of the blood of Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus worked that out more – what in fact He was giving to the church – He worked that out a bit more in Matthew 18. There He said that if a member of the church refuses to repent of a specific sin, if he hardens his heart and holds on to that sin, if he loves that sin more than Jesus Christ and obedience to his word, then the church has the power, authority, and responsibility to excommunicate that person. To bar him from the rights and privileges of membership in the church, and to declare that he, because of his hard-hearted sin against God, because of his unwillingness to seek forgiveness at the foot of the cross of Christ, no longer has a place in the kingdom of heaven.
We have an example of this process at work in the New Testament. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, chapter 5, Paul said that it had been reported to him that there was a case of sexual immorality in the church that shocked even the pagan unbelievers of Corinth. The case was that a member of the church was living with his stepmother. This was a case of incest. As depraved as Grecian society was, apparently incest was almost unheard of. Here in the church at Corinth, there was a case of incest. A man was publicly living together with his father’s wife – his stepmother. And the church did nothing about it. In fact, the church was kind of proud about how enlightened it was that it could tolerate such a thing.
Paul said to the church: Put this man out of your fellowship! He continued: “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”
The church was to put this man outside, to excommunicate him, to hand him over to Satan. By expelling the man from the church, he would be thrust into the devil’s territory, severed from any connection with God’s people. The purpose was not only the preservation of God’s good Name, but also that by being officially ostracized from the church, the man would experience such anguish that he would repent and forsake his wicked way.
So you see, do you not, that the authority to discipline that Christ gave his church is remedial? It is meant to reconcile the sinner to Christ and the church. All discipline is meant to be therapeutic. You can make the analogy with discipline in the family. It is supposed to be healing. Administered in a firm but loving way, it brings correction. Sadly, discipline is sometimes administered in a cruel, abusive and destructive way. That is no longer discipline. That’s something else. It’s abuse.
The point is that discipline in the family and in the church is meant to bring healing and correction – to reconcile the sinner to God.
There is a third agent of authority. And that is the state.
In Romans 13, Paul taught that the government authorities have been appointed by God. Paul even calls the government “God’s servant.” God has ordained kings and civil officers whom He calls to govern by laws and policies so that the sinfulness of man be restrained and things be conducted in our country in good order. God even gives them the sword to punish the evil doer. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession provides a wonderful summary of the Biblical teaching on this.
Typically, governments do not acknowledge that they have their authority from God. In our country, called a democracy, the governments, of course, think they have their mandate from the people who elected them. That is only partially true. The full truth is that God mandates them. God uses the election to bring them into power, but He gives them the authority they have. Governments ought to realize that. The authority and power they have, they have from God.
Now that we have considered the source of authority and the agents of authority, we need to think about the style of authority. How ought those whom God gives authority in this world – parents, the church, the civil government – to exercise that authority? What ought to characterize their authority? In a word: Service. All authority ought to be qualified by service. Servant-leadership.