Whose Authority Are We Under?

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But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us’.

In the parable of the Ten Pounds, The Lord Jesus Christ tackles the age-old problem of establishing the “ultimate authority” in life. He uses the relationship between the citizens of the world and a certain nobleman or landowner. The imagery used is very clear. The nobleman is the Lord Jesus Himself, who is the One we must look to.  The citizens are all who choose to reject His “ultimate authority”.

The crescendo of the parable is Luke 19:14, where the stubborn minds of the citizens are vocalized brashly. They absolutely reject any notion that they are under his authority. With added pathos the tone used includes a large element of contempt, we simply will not have “this man” to rule over us, they say.

The issue of what is rightful and legitimate authority has been an underlying theme throughout 2020. As Governments across the globe have battled with Covid 19, respective nations have been subjected to an oscillation of policies. No lockdown in Sweden was championed initially at least, full lockdowns in several countries and regional lockdowns elsewhere have been trialled. This has generated growing tensions, as another characteristic of human nature has been prominent, our innate tendency to compare ourselves.

Through the pandemic, Governments have chosen to resort to a cadre of “Scientific Experts and Advisors” trying to re-assert control and augment their apparently waning authority. The Experts have been given prominent platforms, to shift the focus from the politicians. The problem with this approach is that the Experts don’t often agree.

Protests in Europe and the US have been frequent from those who do not accept Governmental authority. Ironically, these protests have probably spread the virus more rapidly. But essentially, they raise the same questions: Who is in charge of my life? What right have they (the respective Governments) to tell me what to do?  It’s all a question of authority.

Collision of Two World-views

The fundamental difference between Biblical Christianity and the world-view of the “citizens of this world”, is that Christians have reached a position in heart and mind of willingly surrendering to the righteous, just, kind and internally consistent authority of our Maker. The Christian is now “under new management” so to speak. In the above parable one of the servants did nothing with the pound that was given to him. His reason for doing nothing was that the “Nobleman is an austere person”. The Greek word translated as austere, means dry, hard and stiff. Or we might say severe and oppressive. The reality of course with The Lord Jesus Christ is the exact opposite. The Nobleman had given to the servants and money. He had trusted the servants. But he had expected them to use what he had given to them by investing and trading with his money. The parable is teaching us that as human beings we are beholden to a higher authority in life. We are to live  for and under the rule of another, but until our hearts and minds are opened, we will not want to submit to the Lord. The old saying goes “only two things are certain in life, death and taxes” (originally accredited to Daniel Defoe, in his ‘The Political History of the Devil’, 1726). We are beholden to the Giver of life, which the Bible demonstrates is God, who is able to give and remove life. We are also beholden to delegated authorities, such as the Government of the nation that we are living in, to whom we are to pay our taxes.

Clearly there must be multiple right and legitimate authorities in order for life and society to function more smoothly, in a fallen world. There is the Boss, line manager or CEO at work, the Headteacher at school, our parents or an older sibling, the Police. We may not always like the rules made, or agree with them, but society would simply disintegrate without any of these authorities and institutions.

To take it to the extreme, in order to prove the point, without these authorities no taxes would be collected, there would be few hospitals, children would be orphans, schools would be chaotic and not educate, roads would be even more lethal.

But in many ways the disintegration and disrespect for authority we are seeing is exactly the path that we are pursuing in the Western world. One by one the God-given and commissioned institutions of government, family, marriage are being rejected, ignored, or undermined. Self-rule is now the only rule, it seems to many. Having largely rejected God and His just rule as a nation, it is inevitable that we will eventually reject all delegated authorities.

It was Erasmus who said: “in the street of the blind, the one-eyed man is called the Guiding Light“. When all the institutions have lost their powers, eventually we will wake up and see that the old ways were indeed the right ways after all. Proverbs 14:34 says “Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people.”

Mother Church?

For centuries in Europe a battle was waged for supremacy, between Church and State. Who is the ultimate authority, Church or State? The Catholic Church argued it was Mother Church, with the Pope being its supreme leader. The Church of England argued Church and State are to be closely connected. Still today the Archbishop of Canterbury is ultimately appointed by the Queen in the UK.

Over the years, wars were fought over such issues and 1,000s of Christian Martyrs were put to death.

Ridley and Latimer martyred in 1555

The Ultimate Authority

The position of the Bible is clear. Christians are under the rule of God. He is our chosen ultimate authority. He sets the length of life and one day we will appear before Him to give account for how we have lived our lives. “For it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgement.” Hebrews 9:27

He sets the rules for life, for society and for His Church, not us. But He also delegates and institutes certain other powers. In His kindness and mercy He has organised the world to establish systems and controls. These limit the disorder and chaos that would otherwise result. “He changes the times and the seasons: He removes kings, and sets up kings: He gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding:” Daniel 2:21

Who is ultimately in charge of my life? As a Christian the answer is Christ. He governs us by His Word the Bible, a revelation of unchanging and ever relevant truth. Revealing to us timeless principles which are to be taught and applied to every situation in life.

Authority Clash

What happens when there is a conflict between authorities? What if we do not agree with or like the authority we are under? The answer is inevitably tension and problems, which we have seen this year.

The Bible helps us to resolve these problems. God wants His people to obey the laws of the land and the appointed leaders of His churches, if they teach from His Word. He requires us to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”.

In the Covid pandemic, governments have chosen to enforce lockdowns on various sectors and organisations in society. This has resulted at different times on places of worship being closed. Only time will tell if this was right and wise. This begs the question, does the right to practice one’s faith transcend the God-given authority government has?  The answer must be yes. In the US it is enshrined in the 1stAmendment.

There must on very rare occasions be exceptions. What if in the opinion of government, the practice of gathering together for public worship of any kind risks loss of life, such as in war or as in a pandemic? Or, if the law says we must have a fire safety certificate for a building before it can be opened to the public, to demonstrate it is safe, would it be right to meet anyway and endanger lives by disobeying the law of Government?

Some feel in the UK Covid lockdown, and with credible reasons, that there is a risk that the Government could either over-step its God-given authority in curbing public worship or set a precedent that could be abused in the future by singling out true churches for restrictions.

As several have highlighted, the Puritan Richard Baxter helpfully dealt with just this issue 350 years ago, in another time of plague. The following is an excerpt from The Practical Works of, Volume V, in his Christian Ecclesiastics, where he answers nearly 200 questions dealing with Christians and matters of conscience. He said: “If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.”

He goes on helpfully to establish a vital principle. “There are times when public safety must take precedence over religious observances, and since the civil magistrate is charged by God with upholding public safety, he can in principle make this call.”

Baxter points out that there is a fundamental asymmetry between divine commands and divine prohibitions. “When God forbids adultery, no conceivable situation or subsequent human command could justify disobeying this prohibition. This command is binding always. But when God commands us, say, to give to the needy, we are not commanded to be giving at every moment; indeed, that would be impossible. Sometimes we ought not to give, if we need to preserve limited resources for other God-given responsibilities. So, if we are commanded by the magistrate to do that which God forbids, we must obey God rather than man. But if we are forbidden by the magistrate, for a time, to do that which God generally commands, we may obey man without disobeying God.

Not worshipping physically together for a time is unnatural to sincere Christians. We may not agree with such restrictions or consider them to be disproportionate to the risks to health involved.

However, as Christians we are to be under government rule. Governments have certain God-given rights e.g. protecting life (as set out in 1 Peter 2:13-17). Where governments rightly seek to protect life (in accordance with the 6th commandment) this is surely permitted and reasonable. In effect there is a hierarchy established. Worship, which is a command for all, may for a limited time come behind the protection of life.

This rule though must not be abused to curb real religion, which is where some rightfully have concerns at the present time.

The blow of not being able to worship publicly is though cushioned to some extent by modern technology. So the need to starve and be isolated from worship is reduced. We can still meet in Spirit and in Truth. It is harder yes, and it is different, for sure. It is inferior as well and requires additional concentration and must not be used beyond valid reasons to be absent from worship.

In all this, we must remember true worship is not about a building or a place. It does not require a threshold number of people, two or three are sufficient. It requires us to come into the presence of Almighty God. To open His Word and be under His authority. To take to heart and mind His unchanging truth. Adoring and worshipping Him. Thankful for what He is and for what He has done to deliver us from the tyranny of self-rule and Satan. He has done this by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Saviour of all who willingly choose to come under His gracious authority and rule.