Thoughts on authority

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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13)

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Ephesians 6)

On the face of these texts, it seems like there are no conditions to the submission involved; that is, it seems like these authorities must be obeyed in every context, which functionally means they are to be treated as infallible authorities from the perspective of the person submitting.

But: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4)

Here it seems that there is in fact a condition to the obedience required to authorities: you should obey authorities so long as the authorities do not require you to do something God prohibits. This means that these authorities cannot be treated as functional equivalents of God, infallible in everything, from the point of view of the one submitting.

An analogous point could be made about children, especially adult children, in relation to their parents.

In general, this means that submitting to these two authorities does not mean one is not ultimately responsible to decide for oneself if obeying God is consistent with obeying these authorities.

This point has a broader significance: it is relevant both to Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical discussions, and to the egalitarian-complimentarian debate.

Some relevant analagous passages:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Hebrews 13)

Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Epehesians 5)

Again, on the face of them, these commands seem to be just as categorical as the commands at the beginning of this post; yet, this is clearly not sufficient to imply that these authorities should be regarded as an infallible authority.

What does this mean? Well, on a basic level, I think it implies that there can be real authorities who are nonetheless not infallible, and thus ultimately individuals must decide based on what God says whether they should obey any particular command. This point would undercut both Catholic/Orthodox appeals to the infallibility of the church, and an abusive, patriarchal reading of the household codes in the New Testament, but at the same time would not necessarily imply that the most radical of Protestants (an example would be Quakers, I think, who have no elders or equivalent in their church model) or egalitarians must be correct. There can be a place for limited, fallible authority in the church, family, society and state.

What would recognition of a fallible authority look like psychologically? It would have to include a recognition that sometimes the authority could be rightly submitted to just because it is an authority (that’s what an authority is, after all, a reason for acting in the absence of other reasons for acting), and yet sometimes it would be right to disobey the authority because of what God has said. Only God is an infallible authority. An example of this might be the following scenario: a youngish child has parents hostile to Christianity, but is told by an evangelist to believe in Christ. In this case, I think all Christians would say it is right for the child to “obey God rather than men”, even though this does not mean they are free to disobey any and every command of their parents. What then is the dividing line between what requires obedience because it comes from a fallible authority, and what can be defied? All I can say is: if God has in some manner (via their conscience recognizing God) commanded someone to do something, no human authority can tell them to do otherwise. If, according to their conscience, God has commanded nothing one way or another, then it is perhaps appropriate to obey a lesser authority. As Paul says in Romans, “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” and in context this “faith” is functionally equivalent to “whatever your conscience tells you to do”; this obviously means that one should not act against one’s conscience. (Also: one could look at Paul’s commands for those who are aware that meat is fine to eat on how they are to treat those who are not, for another example of how one could obey a fallible “authority”, in this case, one’s brother or sister in Christ who deserves our respect.)

This also makes clear that at least one of the concerns of Protestants and egalitarians has real merit: if only God is really infallible (as my view above explains), then making another authority besides him (like elders or husbands) functionally infallible is making them out to be God, an act of idolatry.

(A relevant counter-argument for my position might be: where is God’s authority found, if not in these people? As a magisterial protestant, I would say in Scripture only (well, and creation, but I think God has told us that there is nothing that is revealed in creation that is also not in scripture, and that scripture tells us more than creation, so functionally scripture alone is sufficient). Of course then the response could be: you’re idolizing the Bible. My only defense against such a claim is that I think God has said the Scriptures are his own word, and thus share his infallibility; when we encounter the authority of the Scriptures we are encountering God’s authority, and should act accordingly. This would open up the possibility that the other authorities mentioned in this post have been given similar authority, but that would have to be argued for, and I don’t think it can be; nowhere are any of these authorities said to be infallible, and they are in fact said to be otherwise in some places, whereas Scripture is said to be infallible. For example, the state is said to be God’s minister, husbands are said to be in some not-completely-defined-manner similar to Christ, but they are never said to be God’s own communication, as Scripture is (1 Timothy 3, 1 Peter 2). There are examples of people defying all the other authorities mentioned above in Scripture and being commended for it, but no one is ever commended for defying the Scriptures or God’s prophets.)