Summary: The concept of authority in human relationships was redefined by Christ. It only comes from Him, is shared among equals, and never takes more control. Seeing it any other way renders a believing community incapable of living out their priesthood.
The quote below was found in an article titled Who’s In Charge? Questioning Our Common Assumptions About Spiritual Authority. What I love about it is the simplicity with which it communicates the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God.
Rather than viewing community through the lens of authority, we should view authority through the lens of community.
-Matthew and Christa McKirland
Christians struggle so much with the concept of Christ’s authority in healthy church life because the world’s concept is infused in every other system of life. Since this is the case, it’s no wonder it’s difficult to learn how the Kingdom of God was designed to operate. It’s no wonder biblical texts relating to Christ’s authority in church life get misinterpreted, misunderstood and misapplied.
Every other system we’re a part of views community through the lens of authority. So when it comes to understanding and living in Christ-centered community, our whole concept of authority has to be redefined by Christ.
Until we get Christ-centered community right, we won’t come to understand Kingdom authority and how we can make sure it only comes from the King.
Authority gets redefined by Christ
When it comes to this, Christ taught two main things…
- Authority in the Kingdom wasn’t like authority in the Gentile world
- Authority in the Kingdom wasn’t like authority in the Jewish world
Well…that pretty much takes care of the whole world then! You can see how the disciples would be a bit confused.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these…
Authority in the Gentile world
Authority in the worlds’ systems is gained primarily through competition. When Jesus talks about this issue with his disciples (Matt. 20:20-28, Luke 22:25-26), He uses Greek words that focus on a person’s status when compared to others (like archontes). These words mean “first, pre-eminent, number one, chief, most important, in the spotlight.“
In the book 58:0: How Christ Leads Through The One Anothers, Jon Zens includes an article called “You Are All Brothers & Sisters: Growing In Our Understanding Of Authority” that points out something critically important about what Jesus taught…
Both of these words do not necessarily imply any abuse of power, but only the exercise of a certain kind of power.
What Jesus is talking about doesn’t just have to do with how the relative status is used. It has to do with the fact that the difference in status even exists in the relationship. He’s saying that it doesn’t matter if the person that takes on higher status in relationships is the nicest person in the world.
It’s the fact that different levels of status exist in the first place that is not of His Kingdom.
As soon as you label yourself a leader (or any other honorific title) in relation to other people, you just simultaneously labeled someone else a non-leader and created levels of status in your relationship. That leaves people with 2 relational choices – compete or freeload.
That’s not how authority expresses itself in His Kingdom.
Authority in the Jewish world
Authority in the Jewish religious system was gained by exaltation. That’s still the case in religious systems today. Because of some combination of knowledge, specific gifting, talent and/or personality, some people get elevated in relation to others. They enjoy special labels and status and are viewed by some with increased levels of awe. Leader types find this hard to resist.
Jesus addressed this as well when He said to His disciples in Matthew 23:8-12…
But do not be called Rabbi (Teacher); for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
This is pretty straightforward wisdom, yet it’s one area where most churches have their heads in the sand.
The article goes on to say…
Once I ate with a family that constantly referred to their pastor as “Pastor,” as in “Pastor was sick yesterday.” The exalted role of these men was so great that their title even swallowed up their names! Jesus makes it clear: “the greatest among you will be your servant.” Rather than modeling our church relationships after the unbelieving world around us, we should follow the teaching and example of our Lord.
In both of these ways, Jesus warned his disciples against adopting a status-seeking attitude.
When this is the relational setup, community is being viewed through the lens of authority.
Authority only comes from Christ
Whenever you encounter what seems like a title or position of authority in the New Testament (elder, overseer, pastor, etc.), remember that’s not what you’re reading. Those terms are all functional terms talking about the various tasks people perform according to their gifts and maturity.
Those that possessed those gifts had no more authority over people’s lives or the church than any other brother or sister. They performed certain functions as a servant and slave just like everyone else who had gifts that were just as special, essential and authoritative; because they were of Christ. It was up to each person together with the church as a whole to discern where the authority of Christ was coming from in each situation. That’s true spiritual unity.
Will it come from some people more frequently than others? Sure, some people are more advanced in the wisdom, stature, and character of Christ than others.
But a sign that they are is they’ll do whatever they can to refuse any practices or language that even has a hint of creating either competition or exaltation – both of which wreck Christ-centered Kingdom community.
Instead, authority should be viewed through the lens of community.
Authority doesn’t include control
Through that lens, one sees that Kingdom authority is never command authority. Command authority takes more control over the direction and decisions of people’s lives and the church under the false pretense of being a servant. Kingdom authority is always received from others in humility and refuses to take more control.
In fact, those who earn authority from others to speak into their lives will do so. But they will do so while simultaneously, blatantly and aggressively avoiding taking more control. They do this because they understand that isn’t love and doesn’t develop true community. It’s counterfeit unity.
Allowing others to give them more control isn’t helping those they’re doing life with to live out their identity in Christ. It’s stifling it.
Instead, they will empower the community to develop unity together.
This one-from-many is Scripture’s focus from beginning to end.
The McKirland’s article gives a good direct description…
Considering the whole of Scripture, we define Christ-centered community as a group of diverse, but equal individuals, interdependent of one another and united in love by the pursuit of a shared, transcendent purpose.
You are all brothers and sisters
Throughout Scripture, this is shown by identifying believers as siblings. Even Jesus Christ pointed out that believers literally became His siblings (Hebrews 2:11). They go on to say…
It is fitting, therefore, that the sibling model becomes the chief and defining relationship between members of the body of Christ. The intimacy of the sibling relationship is to govern the New Covenant believer’s interpersonal relationships in Christ-centered community.
This strong sense of equality founds itself on the humble love modeled by Jesus (Phil. 2:5-11). On the basis of mutual service within community we find a proper lens for viewing authority.
An emphasis on the command authority of one or even a few over a Christ-centered community sets a dangerous precedent. It strips dignity from the community comprised of believer-priests who are conduits for the authority of the Spirit of God in union with the word of God.
Living by His authority
The only authority in your life and in a church should be Jesus Christ because all authority has been given to Him (Matt. 28:18-20). Practically speaking, this comes from the moment you become a believer as you take responsibility to discern by the Spirit where the authority of Christ is coming from at any given time and in any given situation.
As you get to know Christ in community, you start to be able to discern how the Lord works in and through each member of His Body, including yourself. Then, you can freely give authority to Jesus Christ in yourself and through others in different situations; however and through whomever He may express it at any particular point in time. It never resides strictly and statically in one or a few people.
When community comes to expression through authority structures and badges given out to people in the name of preserving order or making decisions, it renders the community incapable of living out their priesthood.
But when authority comes to expression through sibling relationships in mutual servant-attitude submissiveness to one another, the community can be Christ-centered and live by His authority.
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.