The problem with authority

Jesus is sooo much better than Boris Johnson

Authority gets a bad rap, often for good reason.

Most people I know found the covid lockdowns difficult. Some sacrificed a great deal and, though the lockdowns are over, scars remain. However, in the country of my birth, a scandal was brewing.

While Brits were following the covid lockdown rules, some politicians in the ruling political party were flagrantly flouting those same rules. Known as ‘Partygate’, politicians and their colleagues held Christmas parties and social gatherings directly in violation of the social distancing rules they themselves mandated. Consonant with such foolishness, they also took photos.

These photos were published by the media.

London’s Metropolitan Police investigated twelve different parties or gatherings, some of which were at the Prime Minister’s residence, no. 10 Downing Street. At least three of these parties were attended by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Eventually, numerous people had to resign from their jobs, the most famous being the Prime Minister himself.

Rebellion against unjust authority is a celebrated cultural value.

Partygate encapsulates many peoples’ attitude toward authority: they don’t trust it.

Our modern Western culture was birthed in the Enlightenment in a reaction against unjust authorities of the day. Rebellion against unjust authority is a celebrated cultural value.

This has been amplified in recent times by social developments like the Me-Too and Black Lives Matter movements, and in academia through postcolonialism and the ascendancy of critical theory.

As a result, many people in the West, Christian and non-Christian, struggle with the idea of a sovereign God who has authority over all, including over them. When this message is heard through our cultural filter, it can only be bad news.

'Caesar's Denarius' by Andrey Mironov

‘Caesar’s Denarius’ by Andrey Mironov (oil on canvas, 2018, image cropped) A.N. Mironov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons1 License

Jesus speaks to this issue of authority in Mark chapter 12.

There, the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus over this very issue of authority. What authority does Caesar have over people who believe his rule to be illegitimate? Should we give taxes to Caesar, or shouldn’t we?

The question was a clever trap, as I explained in my previous article. There is much contained in Jesus’ reply “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17) That is, give to each authority that which is owed to them.

Our focus will be on God’s authority. But first, we need to back up a few verses.

‘Pure Jesus brilliance’

“Jesus asked … ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.” (Mark 12:15-16)

That the coin bore the image of Caesar meant, in ancient ways of thinking, that Caesar had proprietary rights over such coins. By using the word ‘image’, his Jewish hearers would have immediately thought of that famous verse in Genesis 1:26: God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”.

As the coin bears Caesar’s image and so belongs to him, so people bear God’s image and belong to God. It was pure Jesus brilliance. But Jesus goes further.

Jesus is saying to them and to us, ‘you owe God your very selves’.

Jesus’ questioners used the verb give – should we give to Caesar? Theoretically, is giving tax to Caesar right or wrong? In Jesus’ reply he used a compound which meant to “give back or pay back a debt that is owed”. They asked about theoretical giving, or giving as voluntary. Jesus responds by discussing the obligation to give.

Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and Herodians: ‘You are asking me about Caesar’s authority, but let me tell you about a far more important Authority’. Jesus is saying to them and to us, ‘you owe God your very selves’. The problem is that our cultural bias gets in the way of many of us “giving to God that which is God’s”.

Deeply imbedded in our culture is a deep suspicion and mistrust of authority.

Where to from here?

Question: How do you react when you hear that God has rightful authority over your life?

While some have no problem with that, many in our Western culture find this almost impossible to accept. Our fear is that God’s authority will crush us or constrict us.

History has taught us painful lessons that often those in authority cannot be trusted. Authority is often misused and abused. History is littered with examples. So, too, are news channels and social media platforms.

Deeply imbedded in our culture is a deep suspicion and mistrust of authority and those in authority. We often do not know that we have pre-judged authority, because it is normal in the cultural waters we swim in.

Imagine a scale of plus 10 to minus 10. When it comes to God, we could say a biblical understanding of God’s authority is +10, a neutral understanding is 0, and total rebellion is -10. My hunch is different Western countries exist approximately between -7 to -9.

Humanly speaking, suspicion of authority is understandable. The problem is when this mistrust of authority is projected onto God Himself.

How does God use his authority?

The good news is God isn’t like politicians who let us down. God doesn’t indulge in Partygate. Thankfully, the Bible shows a God who uses his authority differently.

Better authority

Who, in the Old Testament, are the people who wield the greatest authority on God’s behalf?

The prophets. How do they wield that authority?

By insisting that the poor are protected; that dishonesty and injustice are eliminated from society; that widows and orphans – the last, the least and the lost – are looked after. That is God’s authority at work. And when divine judgement occurs, it is to limit the wickedness and injustice that the vulnerable are suffering from. God uses his authority to restrain evil and promote justice.

Another way to understand God’s authority is through considering God’s commands. What is the first command, the most frequent command, and the most famous command that God gives?

The commandments themselves are life-giving.

The first command God gives the first representative human couple is: reproduce. Be fruitful and multiply. Have lots of babies. You’ll figure it out. It’ll be fun. God’s authority is life-giving.

The most frequent command God gives in all the Bible is this: “Do not be afraid”. Or otherwise translated: “fear not”. That sounds like a loving parent looking after their children.

The most famous commands in the Bible are the ten commandments, found in Exodus 20. The commandments themselves are life-giving. What society wouldn’t be improved if it lived by them?

The deliverance that God brought about tells us little about Israel and much about God.

Who is this God?

But, for our purposes, let us consider how that passage begins. Exodus 20 does not begin with a list of rules. It begins this way: “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.”

In other words, God is a God who rescues. His authority is used to protect the vulnerable and deliver them from cruelty and injustice.

Moreover, these are words of grace. This rescuing is undeserved. Israel has done nothing for God. The deliverance that God brought about tells us little about Israel and much about God. The commands that follow outline how Israel is to reflect God’s character in how they live. And the prophets, mentioned earlier, call people back to image the character of this gracious God.

The first, most frequent, and most famous biblical commands reveal a God who wields his authority in ways that propagate life, protect life and promote life. This is seen most clearly when God stepped down out of heaven and became one of us in Jesus.

God’s authority is liberating and life-giving.

Two chapters before Jesus said “give back to God what is God’s”, Jesus called his disciples together, and said: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42-25)

Jesus explains that he came to serve. In Jesus, God didn’t set aside his divine nature (a heresy) to take up a servant nature. Jesus expressed God’s nature by serving us. Theologian Karl Barth states “God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble.” The God who rescued Israel from slavery, and who repeatedly commanded his people not to be afraid – this God comes to serve us in order to save us.

God uses his authority to build up and not crush, to serve and not smash. God’s authority is liberating and life-giving.

Giving to God what is God’s means bowing the knee and the heart to God’s authority. In doing so, we become agents of his kingdom, spreading and extending God’s life-giving authority around about us, for the good of all.

Rev Dr Adam Dodds is a Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Brisbane Campus of Alphacrucis University College, and Teaching Pastor at Nexus Church, Brisbane. He is also the author of Resilient: Spiritual Formation for Mind and Heart. Find out more about him here.

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