Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Spiritual Authority: Is there a line?

     Since working and studying in the ministry it never seems long until the topic of spiritual authority comes up. Either by a leader having to enforce his spiritual authority or by having someone rejecting the authority. On a number of occasions, as a pastor, I’ve been asked “how far does your authority go?” and honestly this question is one I had to ask myself a few years ago, when dealing with different institutions and their leaders. I remember asking “Just how far does this authority go? Where’s the line?” Well, fortunately, a lot of this answered itself when I studied it biblically.

     If there’s only one thing people take away from this blog I want it to be the importance of a Christian basing their life on the Spiritual Authority of the Bible. The Bible is the guide for the Christian. Meaning when it says to “love your neighbor” we are to do just that. Despite their race, religion, sexuality, political position, creed etc. The Bible has to be our basis for all our behavior and there must be a biblical reasoning behind all things we do. Often times when someone appears to make an outrageous claim within a Christian setting I will say something like “Okay, that’s a big claim…chapter and verse?” this normally allows a biblical discussion to take place rather than an opinionated one. So, with this being said, what does the Bible say about spiritual authority? Just how much power is given to the pastors? The deacons? Christian institutions? Even husbands?

     These seem to be very important questions. I’ve witnessed Christian institutions demand men, women, and families compromise their own consciences because they were “the spiritual authority” I’ve experienced people treating their pastor like his word itself was doctrine “Well pastor says ____ so that’s what we do!” I have seen many people hurt because the term “Spiritual Authority” was kicked around more than a soccer ball at an elementary soccer championship. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a church where the senior pastor seemed to have a very healthy understanding of spiritual authority. He never really infringed upon myself, or overstepped his bounds with anyone. You could imagine my surprise when I went to Bible colleges and suddenly these institutions were micromanaging their student populaces constantly (in more ways than I can list off here) This very behavior of Christian Institutions is what caused me to start asking “Is there a line to spiritual authority? How far does it go?” Before I always had a healthy view of pastoral authority from the pastor at my church, now it seemed the opposite. Was this just me not wanting to adjust to something different? Was this my conscience screaming it was wrong? Or just a tinge of rebellion?

Authority in the Bible

     The Bible actually says a lot about the importance of authority and our subjugation to it. There are tons of verses on the topic however, here are just a few.

Hebrew 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Church authority)

Romans 13:1 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. (Governmental authority)

Titus 3:1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work. (Human authority)

     Obviously, the Bible has made it very clear on just how important it is to obey the authorities that be. This includes government authority and church authority. God is not the author of confusion, He’s a Lord of Order. He has structure. Authority figures bring just that: order. Without the Government, the United States would fall apart. In fact, God created a governmental system for Israel with the Mosaic and Levitical Law. Everything needs order. Everything needs structure and authority has to exist. The Christian is bound to be humble and submissive before authority.

The Righteous Line

      We are called to be in subjection to authority and to be obedient to give Christ a good testimony in our lives. (2 Pet. 2:13-15) The question though has to be asked: Is there a line? When does, authority go too far? Can it go too far? After all, doesn’t the Bible just say to simply ‘obey the authority?’

      Many Christians don’t seem to think there is a line as long as it’s associated with a Church and they recognize a Mission Board or a Bible College as a Spiritual Authority that can’t be ignored and must be obeyed. This has allowed Bible Colleges to demand what people wear, who they date (therefore marry), where to work, when they can leave home, and for Missions Boards to demand how a man chooses to run his own home! Dictate what his own wife can wear (even in the bedroom…I wish I was kidding) how he disciplines his children, and what kind of hobbies they engage in, and churches to control the personal lives of each family in attendance. (the list would be nearly endless to continue)

     Oddly enough, there’s a large group of Christians that would defend this right for Christian organizations to have, but when something like “gay marriage” comes up many Christians throw up their flags and say “We can’t obey that! That’s against the Bible!” While they continue to follow an organization whose very rules also contradict scripture. Many of these people will talk about an overreaching government but few of them mention an overreaching spiritual authority. This, my friends, is an error.

     The Bible tells us of the importance of obeying authority, but also teaches us the importance of following righteousness and God’s Word. Standing up for truth and not compromising for that which is wrong/evil. There is such thing as overreaching Spiritual Authority and Governmental Authority. This occurs when the authority is asking us to go against scripture.

Romans 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval. (Rulers are meant to protect that which is good)

All throughout the Bible we see people having to resist authority that is unrighteous or overstepping their bounds.

A Few Examples:

Jonathan: David’s friend, and son of Saul had to secretly defy his father/king to protect David

Pharisees: Jesus had to correct them because they were overreaching with their spiritual authority by putting requirements on spirituality that God never did.

Paul (and apostles): All had to resist the authorities around them to continue preaching the Gospel.

Moses: Had to defy the authority of Pharaoh in order to obey the authority of God.

     It seems that we are to obey authority when it is doing that which is righteous, but when they are infringing upon the commands of God…then we ought to choose the truth of God not the desires of man. Because the Bible also warns about being man-pleasers (Gal. 1:10)

     If the Bible says that a man is the authority of his own household, then no church organization has the right to start meddling in his everyday life. As long as the husband/father is striving to live righteously. If the Bible tells us that we have individual soul liberty and are free to live in the grace of God, then no institution gets to override that. Doesn’t matter if you have the word “Christian” on it or not. The whole reason for spiritual authority is to structure the church and keep people spiritually accountable to the Lord. Not to meddle in everyday Christian living. As long as the people aren’t living sinfully then the spiritual authority should keep out.

     There were many times where even Christians had to go to war to fight a tyrannical government oppressing the people (Revolutionary War, WWII etc.) there are times when the righteous path will demand you to say no to the authority if man in order to say yes to the authority of God. Because there is no other authority more important than the authority of God Himself.

Act 5:29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.

James 4:17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

Isaiah 1:17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.

       God put authority in this Earth to bring order. We are to obey that authority both in government and in church until that authority goes off the deep end. Because at the end of the day we must follow God’s commands over man’s.

      This was a constant issue for me while at different Bible schools. They always pulled the “authority card” and I could not wrap my head around it. Because, to put it frankly, some of the demands felt too wrong and infringing. They felt invasive. There were even times they demanded I, and others, compromise our own consciences, all under the guise of “We’re the authority” and that never rubbed me the right way. There was even a time when I had an RA that was clearly overstepping his bounds. He was threatening to try to get a few dormmates kicked out, calling one friend a failure because his family had drug dealers in it, put his fist in a guy’s face once and say “Do you want me to put an imprint of my ring on your face?” and then moments later he says “Well, I’m the RA. I’m the authority” me and a few friends reported the instance and we got lectured that although his behavior was wrong, he was still the authority and should listen to him…however, I couldn’t. He had proven himself to overstep his bounds and behave foolishly. I tried defending the case and then this conversation occurred:

Dean: Well, I’ll talk to him but you still need to listen to him. He is the authority.

Me: He literally threatened people and was about to get violent over people talking in the dorm at 11pm in their own rooms…I can’t follow that kind of leader…

Dean: Well, you’re going to have to. He’s the authority this school put in place in your dorm…

Friend: How can this school still put him in authority after this behavior? This isn’t the first time he’s acted this way…he makes dorm life miserable and difficult to deal with…everyone else gets along just fine until he shows up…

Dean: Well you signed the school’s handbook, so therefore you submitted yourself to the authority of the school and the judgment of the leaders…

Me: But this is a Bible school…

Dean: Yes, it is, Mister Hess and the Bible says we are to obey authority. You signed the handbook.

Me: Since when does a bible college handbook and signature trump the Bible? This guy is going to be a pastor and he has consistently violated I Timothy 3 which are the basic qualifications to pastor a church. He can’t even lead a dorm full of Bible students…

Dean: Mister Hess, don’t argue with me. This is what’s required of you. I’ll talk with him but he’s still your authority and should be respected as such. We are your spiritual authority and that’s final.

Me: Spiritual authority? This is my institution of education. The pastor here doesn’t even know my name. How can this be my spiritual authority?

Dean: You signed the handbook…

Me: I guess my definition of spiritual authority is just vastly different than yours.

     Now, I get what the dean was trying to say. Which is to act respectfully to him, honor him, etc. To that I fully agree. We should always resolve conflict in a respectful manner following that of Matthew 18. However, the point is here the skewed perspective of what many of places, like this school for instance, has on authority and its place in Christian’s lives. This man was unfit to be an RA but because he was deemed as such we were told to obey him. Even if this man was infringing upon our rights as students or, worse yet, biblical callings. This is but one example of my own experiences (which did happen a few times). I hear dozens of stories like this regularly. Bible Colleges, Missions Boards, and even Churches use their handbooks/rules to infringe upon the rights of the individuals and really put the followers in an awkward spot. To follow their rules or to follow God’s. But Because it’s a Christian Institution people fall into the trap of following their every command as oppose to checking their commands with scripture.

     The short version is that we ought to respect, honor, and obey the authorities that be. However, if that authority is overstepping what our holy and all-powerful God commanded of us…then we must choose the ways of God. Don’t compromise your conscience to please people. Always follow the scriptures first. Because the Bible is the first true authority of God’s Word. Not your pastor, not your church, not your Missions Board, etc. I was very blessed to have a pastor growing up who had a good understanding of his role as spiritual authority and therefore I have respect for him to this day. However, there are a great many Christians that seem to really struggle with the idea of the “Righteous Line.” Never compromise the righteousness and liberty of Christ for the foolishness and pride of man.

Proverbs 28:1 The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.


  1. Where is that line of "authority" between a pastor and a married woman in the church when the Bible says she is to "be obedient unto her own husband?"

    Better yet, besides the authority to preach Scripture and keep order in a church, what does a pastor actually have "authority" over someone to do?

    1. The Pastor has little to no authority in someone’s home. So the married woman ought to listen to her husband as they dictate their home together. Unless of course her husband it defying God.

      The Pastor is the church’s ‘oversear’ which involves many things (couple pointed out by yourself) but one is to be sure that the members of the church are living clearly for God and righteously. Otherwise the pastor has to follow various passages on how to deal with sin within the church. But that’s his only authority.