All authority belongs to the Lord.
Any authority we operate in is therefore delegated authority. Because it comes from God, it is inherently good, and those exercising it should do so for good. All God’s gifts are in accordance with His nature, and to be used as such. The Lord never uses His authority to control or manipulate.
Mankind’s dominion is implicit in the creation story from the beginning. As He created it, everything was “good” in God’s assessment. Add mankind, and it all became “very good”. Adam was given charge of the garden, to work and to keep it. His tutelage included the privilege of naming all the animals. All of these suggest dominion. But once Eve was installed as Adam’s helpmeet, the mandate for dominion was made explicit. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:27–28).
So it was that Adam and Eve were given the gift of self-government. Personal authority, responsibility and accountability. They enjoyed a great deal of freedom indeed, although not boundary-less freedom. But what they did have was unfettered volition. Total freedom of choice. Which they opted to use badly, unfortunately. Nevertheless, the first round of delegation saw Adam with a will to submit to (God), a woman to love (Eve) and a work to do (a garden to tend). Together, they had a will to submit to (God), a spouse to love (each other), and a work to do (the stewardship of the planet). In broader perspective, these mandates were reflections in the temporal of greater, eternal realities.
Incidentally, the reason why Genesis is so important for us is because it answers these questions, and a host of other first-order issues as well.
The second sphere of delegated authority is the family. Adam and Eve’s initial partnership tended towards the co-equal. Their dominion mandate demanded it. Yes, Adam had been created first, and yes, Eve was Adam’s helpmeet. But “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” requires joint effort, each partner playing to their respective strengths.
Interesting to note is that the dominion mandate was never revoked. It was reiterated to Adam and Eve after the fall. It was re-entrusted to Noah and his family after the flood. And it remains in place today. The stewardship of the planet is still ours. We still have God’s will to submit to. The institution of marriage should still shape our social structures. And each of us has a vocational contribution to make. All are thus still a vital part of the equation.
What clouds understanding somewhat is that the establishment of family structures straddled the fall. Before Adam and Eve’s rebellion, their partnership enjoyed an egalitarian-orientated foundation. The lines of authority discernible were reminiscent of those within the Trinity. After the fall, things were quite different. Their mandate had not changed, but their circumstances had. Mercifully, they had been restored to fellowship with God. They were clothed in the skins of the substitutionary sacrifice. They now faced a hostile creation. And the dynamics between them had shifted. Shifted away from equal partnership towards the complementarian and hierarchical. The Bible chapter documenting the fall is steeped in devastation. Perhaps none more so than God’s words to Eve. “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
Dire abuse followed through the millennia. This redefining of the marriage relationship opened the door to aberrations like polygamy, and worse. The horrors to which women have been subjected through the ages stretches beyond reason. Thanks be to God that Jesus, last Adam, undid the cause of this devastation. Men and women are no longer naked and ashamed. They once again have full and equal access to the Tree of Life, who is Christ. Both, in Christ, have been once again established on equal footing before God. And before one another for that matter. Jesus’ counter-cultural treatment of women substantiates this magnificently. Just recall how honouring Her was of His mother, and how He engaged even Gentile ladies as peers.
Our challenge in the church is to migrate our paradigms on marriage and family pre-fall in Christ. The Trinity is the template for our understanding of community, and not the impositions of sin and death post the fall. Faith in Christ has uprooted us from the temporal and established us in the eternal. Our thinking and our patterns of life must follow. As the Scriptures teach us, our transformation lies in the renewal of our minds.
The third sphere of governance came in the wake of the flood. By that time self-government had all but collapsed. So had the institution of the family. Fallen mankind’s depravity had come to dominate. The future could simply not be allowed to be a repeat of the past.
Heaven introduced sweeping changes. Fauna joined flora as food for mankind. Humanity’s relationship with life and death was being redefined. Another covenant was introduced. The Noahic. A further unilateral covenant of grace. But with increased social structure and responsibility. Civil government was constituted. The dominion mandate was also re-conferred on Noah and family. But with it, new authority for the new responsibility. The governance of our fellow man was now our portfolio. God had personally dealt with murderer Cain, but no more so post-flood. Now the one who took a life would answer to a human tribunal.
“And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:1–7).
Mankind’s relationship with life and death had been redefined. Greater responsibility, and with it greater authority. Notice how each addition to delegated authority post-fall strengthened humanity in community. A compensation for floundering self-government. Cain had not been Abel’s keeper in any formal sense, but now every Cain became every Abel’s keeper. Men and women were mutually accountable one to another. A double-edged sword though. The greater the delegated authority, the greater the potential for corruption and abuse. Not too long and slavery was born. People objectifying others to the point of literal ownership.
It turns out that the stewardship of our human community is just as poor as our stewardship of our planet. The reason for this is that we’ve lost the capacity to steward ourselves.
Law is for the Lawless
Moses coming down the mountain stone tablets in hand was a progression in an unfolding story. The unfolding story of unredeemed mankind.
The Ten were not the first commandments Heaven had issued. They would also not be the last. But what they were was the core of a new, replacement covenant (which we know as the Old Covenant). A covenant of works. As such, they began formalising the institutions of family and state to a far greater degree. By the time they had been expanded into the full six hundred and thirteen statutes of the Old Covenant, all of life had been addressed.
Make no mistake, the Law was from God, and it was good. But it was also Heaven’s prescription for lawlessness. As such, its goal was preservation. Boundary-less people destroy themselves, and destroy others in the process. Law serves well in that context. It works to keep depravity in check. It limits sin’s destructive consequences by limiting sin’s wicked deeds. Which is why thinking Christians favour the rule of law in their nations. Some legal systems better than others, and we Christians advocate that Judeo-Christian law as the best of the best. Even so, it cannot save.
Law certainly preserves, protecting us from ourselves as it were. But when it comes to salvation, all it can do is expose inadequacy as it addresses concomitant transgressions. Our best efforts, we soon discover, are woeful in the light of the Perfections of God. Six hundred and thirteen rules. Six hundred opportunities to fall short of the glory of God. Thanks to the Law, Israel would be preserved. Nations would disintegrate around them, but theirs would remain intact. They were being preserved until the fullness of time came, when the Christ would be revealed. A preservation that would cost many a life. The three thousand who died right there at Sinai set the tone for things to come. For even as law preserves, so it kills, for its ministry is condemnation and death.
Legalism mummifies. The more comprehensive the rule book, the more effective the preservation of externals. And the more comprehensive the rule book, the less demand for self-government. Remember that life comes from within, starting as a seed. All that Law can do is conform, enforcing conformity to its mold. Which is why Law can never be a panacea. The Trinity is in harmonious community, and without Law. Heaven the same. Law’s governance cannot produce this harmony, as it comes with significant negatives. The Bible calls its dynamics the law of sin and death. Accusation is inescapable in this dynamic, but without a helping hand. Nothing is done to aid ineptness. Law does not transform. It enforces compliance through consequence, stick and carrot, reward or fear, pleasure or pain. And even when constraining bad behaviour, it exacerbates the rebellion within. It stirs up the sin lying dormant in the flesh. Invoke a command, and buried evils are unearthed. An example we can all identify with: none are as hungry as those on a diet!
Law is for the lawless. Simple as that. And let’s also not make the mistake of confining our thinking to civil society alone. Some families need an injection of law to preserve them. So do some churches. Urgent interventions. Emergency measures. Abusive husbands should not be permitted to misuse their wives, nor vice versa. Parents should never be permitted to abuse their children, nor vice versa. Clear thinking on this matter recognises the appropriateness of Law when there is a two year old in residence. Insufficiently self-governing, these little angels are carnal enough to throw a home into disarray. The answer is contextually appropriate law. No matter the situation, be it teen, employee or neighbor, this truth remains true. Law is for the lawless. It is the only way of creating appropriate boundaries when lawlessness is prevalent. But that law, however appropriate in it’s prescription, will never save. Only grace does that. And grace does so through faith, from the heart, inside out.
The New Covenant
Christians are not under Law.
It’s not that they’re lawless. They’re just not under the governance of Law. They are under the governance of the Spirit, who governs in grace. Christians well understand that all things are lawful for them. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.
Under grace the dynamics are Spirit and life, not sin and death. A thorough study of the book of Romans reveals this in the way a flawless diamond reflects the light. Myriads of interrelated facets reveal its glittering beauty. A glimpse will suffice. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
Christians walking in the Spirit are the most submissive people imaginable. Their submission is to God, and is empowered by Him, by the indwelling Spirit. Their submissive attitudes manifest in submission to legitimate authority at every turn. They submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. And because their hearts embrace Godly order, the lives reflect it. Their families embrace it, as do their churches. And their dealings reveal it in social, economic and political settings. But this is not so because of their obedience to Law per se, but because of their life in the Spirit.
And for precisely that reason, they can be the most disobedient people imaginable. That’s because their boundaries are set from within. Their hearts and minds are abuse-proof. Nothing can force them once they come to settled peace on a matter. The execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer illustrates the point magnificently. He is the author of the first book of common prayer, by the way. History tells us that Cranmer had succumbed to pressure and recanted his Protestant position. In deep contrition, and after renouncing his recantation, he presented himself at the stake on 21 March 1556. There he burnt off the hand that had signed the recantation before stepping bodily into the flames. Apparently his death was reminiscent of Stephen’s of old, for great grace was upon him throughout his ordeal.
Because Christians are not under Law, the only power over them is the power of the request. Should that request be legitimate, the response will often be the extra mile. Should it be illegitimate, the response will often be the turned cheek. Yet, secure in the New Covenant, they can prove immovable. In this the Gospel moves to being a true revolution, for it breeds true revolutionaries. They are those who are persuaded in their life and cause well beyond what most would consider reasonable.
Order in the Church
What then of the fourth and final sphere of delegated authority, the church.
The authority delegated by Heaven to church leaders should never be misconstrued as a continuation of the earlier progression. Leadership and governance in the church is exclusively in the context of the New Covenant.
And it is the Gospel that is the antidote to humanity’s fallenness. Law has it’s place, but it is the transformation of grace and faith that restores the self-governance of the Garden. In abiding and enabling union with God, personal volition is liberated to realign with true worship. Holy Spirit is within the people of God. They are in Christ, and Christ is in them. Together with Christ, they are hidden in God, enveloped, enfolded and engulfed in Him. For them there is no Law, but a new birth, a new nature, and a new life. Old things, including the Law and their sin, have passed away. The new has come.
Leadership and governance in the church is an administration of this New Covenant. Men and women are given the freedom to choose. Grace enables them to choose wisely. Faith causes them to then do so. Church leaders lead new creations. They lead people under grace. People with new, sincere and submissive hearts. They lead them to follow the Spirit, to revel in grace, and to stand in faith. Theirs is the fullness and freedom of the New Covenant. On their own cognisance. Surrounded by their brother and sisters. And undergirded by their leaders, who urge them on. Further, deeper, and higher. Hands and hearts ever open. For they are His, and He is theirs.
Only on the rarest of occasions is Law invoked in these environments. It is exclusively the preserve of the lawless. It is only invoked when lawlessness threatens to damage and destroy, and appropriate boundaries must be instituted. Even so, this can be done graciously, providing every opportunity for redemption. It is, after all, God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.
Two passages of Scripture, by leaders, addressing leaders, spring to mind. Both are useful for reflection and prayer, underscoring New Covenant perspectives.
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 5:1–11).
“Now from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”’ ” (Acts 20:17–35).