The Source of Spiritual Authority

By Ken Blue

From the very beginnings of the Church, as we will soon see, the question of authority has been an issue. The amazing thing is that even though this was answered almost 2000 years ago, many people still don't get it. People continue believe that because people have offices or positions, they automatically have authority and that we have to believe and/or obey them. It is shocking how many people in the church are unaware that an office or position or title does not in itself convey authority, but that authority comes from somewhere else. 

We have this notion that if somebody has a position such as a pastor, or if they are talented in some way Ė whether they are a good speaker or are charismatic or are a good leader or whatever Ė they ought to be taken seriously. Look at Matthew 23:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them `Rabbi.'

But you are not to be called `Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth `father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called `teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matthew 23:1-12

The problem with abusive authority in Jesus' time, much like it is in our time, was that the scribes and the Pharisees took for themselves the seat of Moses, which was an office of respect by the Jewish people. From this lofty position they then spoke "from God" to the people. They were, because of their perceived position, able to mislead and abuse the Jewish people.

However, there was at least one Roman in Jesusí day who understood the nature of authority. You will recall that a Roman Centurion came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant. When Jesus offered to go home with him, the Centurion spoke a truth that the Jews has missed: "You only need to command it Ö for I, too, am a man under authority." Note that he did not say that he understood power and authority because the Centurion himself wielded it. He understood Jesusí authority because the Centurion was a man who knew where his own authority originated.

The Roman had grasped the truth that Jesusí power and authority came only as Jesus was in submission to His Father. Jesus himself had expressed this truth on various occasions, but apparently no one else had yet grasped it. The reason that I need to write this today is that many people today still havenít grasped it. In order to understand the authority that any leader has, whether secular or in the Church, we need to know where that authority comes from.

There is, of course, an inherent authority in many earthly positions. The President of the United States is a good example. As a man, he has relatively little power. But because of the authority placed in the position of the Presidency by the authority of the Constitution, he has the authority to do many things, including to declare war. The Church of Jesus Christ, however, is different from any other society in that there is no office in the Church Ė no position of any kind Ė that in itself carries any real authority. The only real authority that Christians are obliged to bow to and cooperate with is The Truth. I am of course speaking of The Truth, Jesus Christ, and the truth, His Gospel. A man has authority only as he participates in the truth, preaches the truth and serves the truth. Christian authority is derived from the fact that someone is operating in the Truth and serving The Truth.

The Importance of Knowing the True Gospel

Let's look at Galatians 1:6-9 to hear Paul say this in the most extreme terms:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel, which is no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we [Paul and his apostolic band] and an angel [an angel from the throne of God] from heaven should preach any other gospel than the one we've already preached to you, let them be eternally condemned. As we have already said, so now say again, if anybody, anybody at all, preach to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you and the one you already accepted, let him be eternally condemned.

Paul emphatically states that the gospel that he had previously preached is the truth, and that we are to discern it and obey it. And, he states that anyone Ė anyone at all, including Paul himself Ė who comes preaching a different gospel, a gospel that varies from "Jesus + nothing = salvation," is to be condemned. Even if somebody with power and authority, such as a verifiable angel from Heaven; even if an apostle, an anointed apostle like Paul himself, came and spoke another gospel, you, the people, are to curse them. You the people are to judge them, discern them, and according to Paul, eternally condemn them. In our modern vernacular, we are to tell them to simply to go to Hell, and to take their demonic gospel back where it came from.

We are to understand the essence of the Gospel (now thereís a thought Ė where have we ever heard that it was our responsibility to understand the Gospel for ourselves?) and we are to judge everyone and everything in light of it. You have no doubt heard that we shouldnít judge people, that we shouldnít be too harsh on people. Well, letís read this in light of Galatians 1. When it comes to the Gospel, we are not to mess around. When it comes to the Gospel, we don't give an inch. It's Jesus-plus-nothing or you're out. That's Paul's attitude as he writes to the Galatians.

What this means for us is that you and I are to get a very clear picture in our mind of what the true Gospel is so that we can reject everything else. You've no doubt all heard the story about how anti-counterfeiters have been trained to spot counterfeit money. They don't give them counterfeit bills and say, "Now, when you see this beware." They give them fresh, crisp, authentic bills, and they say, "Handle this, look at it closely, smell it, feel it, fold it, deal with it, become intimate with it so that you can spot anything that diverts from this." You don't have to weigh the gospel against something else Ė just understand the New Testament Gospel. Become intimate with every aspect of it, and then you will be able to discern and to reject anything that diverges from it.

One of the problems we have as Christians is that we are encouraged to cut people so much slack under the guise of being nice little Christians that we empower heresy. Paul obviously didnít fall into this trap, and neither did Jesus. Why, then, should we? If we know and understand and serve The True Gospel, then we carry that authority. It doesnít matter if who is claiming authority, whether it is your pastor, an angel or the Apostle Paul. It's the gospel or it's nothing.

The Situation Today

Despite the clear teaching of the word of God, Christians continue to uncritically believe and follow prophets, teachers and leaders simply because they seem or claim to have authority. They may hold an office, there may be a lot of people following them, or they may be spiritually gifted, or they may have academic degrees, or they may be charismatic, or they may be able to do signs and wonders, or they may glow in the dark. We look at them, and we say, "Aren't they great?" And then we follow them and believe them unquestioningly.

But again, that is not what the Bible tells us to do. Jesus says, "No, you don't. The truth is the truth. You follow the truth. If he's the servant of the truth, follow him." Paul says, "Follow me only as I follow Christ." Not even the great, exalted Paul said, "Follow me and do what I say." He said, "Follow me as I follow Christ," implying, "and when I don't follow Christ, don't follow me." If a man or a woman serves that truth, go ahead and follow them. Like them, bless them, support them, do whatever you want. But when they divert from the truth, thatís when their authority ends.

Jesus is the one who set the example for us on this issue. When Peter steps out from the authority of the Truth and chastised Jesus for talking about His coming death and resurrection, Jesus immediately rebukes Peter and sets him straight (Matthew 16:21-23). Thereís no room for politeness here. This, after all, is the crux of the Gospel.

Donít Touch the Lordís Anointed!

Now letís take a moment to look at a common scenario that many of you will identify with: Someone gets into a position of authority, either because he has the right personality or whatever, or perhaps God legitimately blesses his ministry in the beginning. Somewhere along the way, however, something becomes not quite right. So you say, "Well now wait a minute, are you sure that this is the Gospel? Are we sure that this is the truth?"

If the individual is a true minister of the Gospel, he will likely deal with his issues and give a sincere ear to what you have to say. However, what youíre often likely to hear is, "Better be careful about criticizing and questioning leadership because the Bible says ĎDo not touch the Lordís anointed.í" I canít tell you how many times I have heard this story told by people who have questioned church leadership. It sounds authoritative, if not downright threatening. What do we do with that? We certainly donít want to be struck by lightening, or anything.

Let me get right to the point: this is utter nonsense. The phrase "Do not touch the Lordís anointed" has nothing to do with today or any leader in todayís church. Any attempt to apply this to a leader today would be comical, except that it is believed. What you should to do when people say that is laugh at them until they stop it! However, this keeps coming up in the church, and many of us are still laboring under the fact that maybe we have criticized the Lordís anointed, and maybe we feel a little bit guilty about it. If this is you, you are not alone; some otherwise very intelligent people have fallen for this foolishness.

Let me give you the background to this claim. King David uttered the phase during his war with King Saul (I Samuel 26). While "touch not the Lordís anointed" is often spoken to us to keep up from questioning "authority," the Old Testament background is not talking about questioning authority. Rather, it is referring to Davidís physical conflict with King Saul. When King Saul was pursuing David, David had several opportunities to kill Saul. He refused to do it because he knew that Saul had been literally anointed with the prophetís oil, and singularly anointed with the Holy Spirit of God. David knew that he could not take it upon himself to kill such a one.

So David and Abisha went to the army by night, and there was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying around him.

Abishai said to David, "Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands. Now let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of my spear; I wonít strike him twice."

But David said to Abishai, "Donít destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the Lordís anointed and be guiltless? As surely as the Lord lives, " he said, "the Lord himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lordís anointed. Now get the spear and water jug that are near his head, and letís go." I Samuel 26:7-11

Realize that Saul, the anointed King, was in fact really anointed with holy oil from the prophetís blessing, which came from God. He was also singularly anointed with the Holy Spirit. He was the only person in the whole nation that had the Holy Spirit in this way. He was in a class by himself. God chose him by the word of a prophet, he was anointed with oil, and he was anointed by the Holy Spirit. That person, whom God sovereignly put up, man must not put down.

Second, Davidís words have nothing to do with criticizing, disagreeing with, disobeying or, finally, deserting Saul. David actually did all of those things, quite boldly. In fact, David was very critical of Saul to his face. So this has nothing to do with what we are usually intimidated with: "Donít touch the Lordís anointed Ė donít criticize Ė donít go against him Ė donít leave or youíre going to miss out on Godís blessing." That thinking has absolutely no foundation in scripture. "Do not touch the Lordís anointed" only refers to not killing the Lordís anointed, and thatís the only context where it is legitimate. So, if a preacher is so paranoid that he thinks he might be killed, he might want to preach a sermon on "Donít kill the Lordís anointed."

The third point we should make is that not only are our pastors and leaders anointed, but so is everybody in the congregation. The whole point of the New Covenant is that we are all anointed now. So you canít point to the anointed as if he were a specific person in a different class than any other believer Ė there is no class distinction in the Church. We have different functions, but we are all of the same class. There isnít the anointed and the unanointed. Weíre all anointed with the Holy Spirit.

Now itís our obligation to read the Bible, tooÖ

Like David, you can criticize, you can disobey, you can confront and you can leave a leader if he gets off track, even if he is the Lordís anointed. People are either naÔve, lazy, uninformed or just havenít gotten around to reading the Bible if they put up with this for even a minute. That really disturbs me. I do feel bad for people who get beat up and get hurt; but I have to say that Iím a little bit angry too, because they had the Bible all along! They should have read it and believed it. In all fairness to those of you who feel like youíre victims of spiritual abuse, let me say that the Word of God is there to protect you from such things. The Word of God is the truth. You need to get to the point in your lives where you can judge everything Ė even what I am saying Ė in light of that Word.

Paul himself modeled for us how we confront authority on the basis of the truth. Letís look at Galatians 2: 11-14:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even affected Barnabas and led him astray.

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

So notice that Paul doesnít say "Look, Iím a bigger apostle than you are. I have greater authority than you." He says, "Youíre not in line with the truth." And in this case, Peter is clearly the senior apostle. If there ever were an anointed leader in the church it would have to be Peter. It was to Peter that Jesus says, "You are the Rock, and upon this Rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it." Jesus himself gave Peter the commission to feed his sheep. And yet Paul felt free in light of the Truth Ė although maybe he felt a bit nervous about it Ė to oppose this anointed apostle and then report it to the Galatians! On the basis of the truth he put Peter down. He said, "No, youíre not in line with the truth. The truth is the truth. Thatís the authority around here, not you, not James not anybody. The truth is the authority."

A quick word about criticism

Let me speak to you a minute about how to deal with criticism. First of all, in light of Matthew 18, if somebody sins, you go to him privately. It is not appropriate for you to be yipping and yapping among yourselves. You go to them privately. They should be the first one to hear if they are going wrong so that it can be nipped in the bud then and there. If they wonít hear you, if they wonít respond, then you get two or three others to make the case. And if they wonít respond even then, then take it to the church and let them rule. For more on this subject, see my book with John White, Healing the Wounded.

The People have the Power

One of my goals, one of my purposes as a Bible teacher and a leader is to equip you with the radical freedom offered in Jesus so that no one, not even me, will be able to manipulate you again. Once you get it Ė that is, the truth that youíre okay because Jesus makes you okay Ė nobody can make you perform or can make you deny the truth for the sake of acceptance ever again. Once you are free Ė once you no longer need the approval of men and women Ė youíre able to think straight. And once youíre able to think straight, youíre able to read the Bible and understand what it says. Youíre able to judge truth in light of it.

Notice that Paul does not write this letter to the leadership of the Galatian church and tell them to straighten the church up. Isnít that interesting? Donít you find it interesting that when Paul talks about worship, he never writes to the worship leader? When he talks about pastoral problems, he never writes to the pastor? When he talks about leadership problems, he never writes to the deacons or the elders? He writes instead to the people. He writes to the people because they are the ones who make the decisions. He writes this letter to the people of the church, and tells them to take care of business. He presumes that it is the people who judge the authorities and their performance, it is not the authorities who judge the people.

If you want to know what the kingdom of God is like, just take your life and turn it upside down. If you want to know what the kingdom of God is like, take every structure in the world and just reverse it. Whatís the world about? Authorities judging people. You want to know what the kingdom of God is about? Itís about the people judging the authorities. Itís exactly backwards. And I can tell you from bitter experience that you can wait for a long time for leadership to defend the gospel, and youíll just go on waiting. Itís up to you to defend the gospel. Itís up to you to speak out.

Without exception in the New Testament, leadership in the New Testament is plural. There is no top dog, pastor, boss, leader who rules the roost. The apostles always appointed elders. Decision-making and power was a plural reality. Elders were always plural. Furthermore, these elders were not in themselves bosses. Rather, they were servants. If they werenít doing something to serve the church, they werenít elders. When you read about elders ruling in the church in the New Testament, the word used there is "persuading". They led by persuasion, not by the weight of their position.

Let me close with an experience from Paulís life that illustrates how powerful the people are, and how politically and ecclesiastically and officially powerless the authorities are. What Paul will demonstrate is that all church leadership, even apostolic leadership, is subject to its people. 2nd Corinthians is all about Paul defending his apostolic authority among the Corinthian people. Much like Galatia, there were some false preachers and teachers who came in to Corinth and brought a gospel that was contrary to the gospel that was originally preached. They brought in legalism and Gnosticism and whole bunch of other things, and they tried to spoil and undermine Paulís foundation of grace.

Paul says in 2nd Corinthians that he has authority among them and that they should respond to his teaching Ė they should respond to him personally - not to these false apostles. But he never pulls rank. He never says, "I am a bigger apostle than them; obey me." "I have a higher office than them; obey me," or "I have a higher office than you; obey me." Rather, he says:

I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are already doing that. I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpentís cunning, your minds may somehow be lead astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, of if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. But I do not think I am I the least inferior to those "super apostles". I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way. 2 Corinthians 11:1-6

What heís saying here is "Iím not as impressive as these Ďsuper apostlesí but I preached to you the true gospel. Now youíre easily responding to this non-gospel because it comes to you through impressive, authoritative vessels."

He continues in verses 13-15:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself, masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

He says that they appear to be righteous. They appear to be servants of righteousness. They appear to be more religious, more holy than anybody else. They are, however, servants of the Devil. Hereís the heart of Paulís concern: these so-called "super apostles" are very impressive by human standards. So people are tricked into following them and not discerning the fact that they are in fact preaching another gospel. Heís saying, "Listen, the issue is the gospel. The super-apostlesí appearance, their impressiveness has lead people astray to another gospel."

Now how does Paul get them back? By cracking an ecclesiastical whip? No. Paul is the most apostolic-minded of all the apostles. Heís always talking about his apostolic rank and authority. But never does he use it to bring people into line. He never uses his position or his office as a way to manipulate or maneuver them back in line with him or his dogma. But instead he says:

We put no stumbling block in anyoneís path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way; in great endurance; in troubles, hardships Ö We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are no withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange Ė I speak as to my children Ė open wide your hearts also to us. 2 Corinthians 6:3-13

How does Paul get them back? By, number one, reminding them that he came to them as a servant, and then, at a personal level, saying "I had affection for you. I opened wide my affection to you. Now respond to me that way." What heís doing is making himself very vulnerable to them.

Servant Authority

Do you know what happens when people say, "I love you; wonít you love me back?" They open themselves up to the greatest possible risk of being hurt. When you make yourself that vulnerable, youíre opening yourself up to rejection, which, of course, is our biggest fear. This is what Paul is doing. Heís making himself weak and vulnerable before them. Heís doing what people do when they say, "I love you". The person who hears "I love you" now has all the power. It happens at a spiritual level and at a human level. Heís saying, "I love you. I did not withhold my affection for you. I make myself totally vulnerable to you." What does that do? It gives them all of the power. Now they are in a position of total authority, and they can say yes or no. They can respond or not.

So, true authority is on the basis of the truth of the gospel, on the basis of servant authority, and on the basis of the leader making himself vulnerable to the people saying, "I love you. Wonít you love me back?" Even in the face of these super-apostles, Paul says, "God will deal with them. I ask you to return to me as your father in the faith. I ask you to return to the gospel that I first preached to you, and submit again to my leadership."

Itís not only Paul who gave people that authority; so did the Lord Jesus Christ. You do understand, donít you, that Jesus has taken out of his own hands any possibility to manipulate you? He has loved you and accepted you, and said, "Youíre free. I make you free. And now I have destroyed the law. I can never use the law to beat you up again. Youíre free. Youíre totally free to love me back or not. Youíre saved, and youíre secure in Godís love because Iíve given that to you as a free gift. I have made myself totally vulnerable. I have not withheld my affection from you. Wonít you open up your affection now to me?" He calls us to voluntarily follow him, and we have the power to do it or not. To do it is life and to not do it is death, but there is no big hammer hanging over us to punish us if we donít perform well. Jesus says, "Choose voluntarily to live today by following me. Choose voluntarily to live today by submitting to my rulership."

The true source of apostolic authority is the humble submission to the truth, and we have all been given that authority.

Copyright © 2001 Ken Blue, All Rights Reserved.  Reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, is expressly forbidden without prior written permission.