Over the last year, there has been a great deal of attention given to the question, “Where does authority come from? What is its basis in biblical Christianity?” In particular, the question of authority has centered around the marriage relationship — whether husbands have authority on the basis of their being men (ontology), or whether or not authority flows from faithful service to a spouse and children (ethics). This question holds a great deal of practical interest to abolitionists, as we wrestle with how to help women in abusive relationships, abandoned mothers and children, etc.
A while back I mentioned to some friends that I was thinking of writing an article to contribute to the discussion, but other related concerns quickly became a priority. The other day however, an excellent article series from John Reasnor floated across my Facebook feed, so I jumped at the opportunity to read through a systematic defense of the ethical service perspective, and provide some preliminary thoughts.
In his series, Reasnor makes a case for ethical service (doing/commanding what is right) as the overarching paradigm by which God assigns authority in any realm (whether family government, civil government, church government etc.), and by which man can judge what is/is not required in terms of obedience. I highly recommend that anyone interested in the subject read Reasnor’s articles, because he lays a lot of groundwork, such as working definitions of terms that foster better communication between the different sides.
I am personally highly sympathetic to the ethical service position; a couple years before I became an abolitionist, I decided that my “life verse” (an intended biblical theme of one’s life) would be Mat 20:25-28, because too often the Church today respects and follows the popular or powerful man, rather than the humble.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
I believe that many in the ethical service camp have legitimate concerns about how Christian governments are to be structured, and that a lot of their ideas need to be intentionally integrated into patriarchal thinking. Nevertheless, I do believe that ethical service as defined in Reasnor’s articles also misses the biblical mark, by framing the discussion as being a mutually exclusive contest between ethical vs ontological authority.
The devil is in the “vs”.
In his series, Reasnor rightly looks to the example of Christ’s authority as the foundation of his answer to where authority comes from. All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Jesus (Mat 28:18); how did He receive that authority from the Father?
Was Jesus’ authority based on His ontology (particular attributes of who/what He is) or His service (the laying down of His life to redeem His people)?
This question can be illuminating when phrased with greater specificity. Was Jesus’ authority based on the fact that He is the son of David, or is it based on the fact that He died on the cross to save His people?
The biblical answer is, both:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who…humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Phl 2:5-10)
“When your [David’s] days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2Sa 7:12-13)
Jesus had to be both the son of David, and a faithful servant, in order to inherit the eternal kingdom promised to David’s offspring — His authority was based on both ontology and service. That Jesus’ authority is at least partially based on ontology is demonstrated by the myriad prophecies specifying details about His life. He would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5), as God incarnate (Isa 9:6-7), holding the office of a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Psa 110), etc.
If Jesus was the perfect servant, laying down His life to die on the cross in our stead, yet was not a son of David, then He would not have received the authority promised to David’s descendant. On the other hand, if He was David’s descendant, but failed to serve in obedience to God, he would not have inherited the kingdom; this is what we see in the curse of Jeconiah’s line (Jer 22:21, 24-25)
Jesus had to meet both ontological and ethical qualifications in order to serve (and continue to serve) as the king of kings.
When trying to investigate a particular nuance of scripture, I have formed the habit of first looking to the example of Christ by asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” — perhaps the most theologically profound slogan that has ever swept modern Christian society (1Co 11:1). Then with Christ in view, I’ll move forward in trying to understand the issue.
Others don’t always have this same process, so I’ll often receive the unfortunate objection, “Well that’s just Jesus. He’s special; the whole Bible’s about Him. He’s God — you don’t think you’re God, do you?” I don’t think many in this discussion on authority would be naive enough to complain about looking at Christ’s example, but for the sake of other readers, I’ll provide one more instance of civil authority being viewed by God as both ontological and ethical.
When Judah was carried away into the kingdom of Babylon, God worked in the heart of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon to humble him. His descendant, Belshazzar, inherited the kingdom, and his authority was removed because he too lifted himself up in pride.
“And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored…
“That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.” (Dan 5)
Belshazzar lost his authority because of his unethical abuse of it, and it was given to Darius the Mede instead. King Cyrus of Persia was actually the military commander who breached the city, and both he and Darius exercised authority over Babylon and the exiles of Judah.
Cyrus, in contrast to Belshazzar, exercised his authority in subjection and obedience to God. Whether or not he received his authority in response to his ethical service is biblically questionable, but we do know that after receiving authority, He honored the true and the living God.
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
“‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel — he is the God who is in Jerusalem.'” (Ezr 1:1-3)
We also know that he received his authority over Babylon at least on the basis of his ontology, his being prophesied before birth as the one who would dry up the Euphrates river and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and her temple.
“[The Lord] who says to the deep, ‘Be dry; I will dry up your rivers’; who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’
“Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed…” (Isa 44:28-45:1)
Just as God prevented David from building the original Jerusalem temple, the temple could not have been rebuilt by Darius the Mede or any other king than Cyrus, on the basis of his ontology; otherwise the word of the Lord would have been broken. Had he lifted himself up against the Lord in pride, his authority would be removed like that of Belshazzar. Authority is based both on ontology, and ethics.
We see this union of ontological and ethical authority in church government as well. It is often pointed out that elders in a church must meet many ethical qualifications, and some ontological.
An overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1Ti 3:2-7)
The green characteristics are ethical considerations, and the blue are ontological (though requiring an experienced Christian is added for ethical reasons, to prevent future sin). Being well thought of also may or may not be ethical, but the point remains that the ability to teach has little to do with an elder’s character, but rather his skillset and ability. A candidate must meet all of these qualifications, if he is to be an elder.
At this juncture, I’ll refrain from writing about family government, as I do believe there is a biblical, ontological foundation for a husband’s authority in the relationship, and to do the topic justice in an environment that questions that will take some time and reflection, and further definition of terms.
For the present however, it should be sufficient to note that there is good biblical reason to see ontological aspects of authority, and those who emphasize this component should not be seen as embracing the “bastard child” of “power religion” but rather as holding a piece of the puzzle that can help to fill in the gaps where ethical service thinking misses the mark.
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