40 days of transformation: Day 2 – get a right attitude to authority

Today I’ve been teaching on the subject of authority and the bible.  It has challenged me in my attitude toward godly authority.  I am much more western secular in my self determination than I like to admit.  The Lent course materials have also been quite subversive, as we considered the lack of genuine authority inherent in secular government.  For more on why this is, read on:

Authority – why the bible matters

Our Lent course this year will focus on the battles of the heart, our attitude and struggles within. We are starting tonight with the issue of authority because of all the attitudes we have in British culture, perhaps this is the one we struggle with most.

We’re going to think tonight about why we don’t like being told what to do by anyone. Why do we all want to determine our own choices and the use of our time. Why do we rebel against authority and then find that we are surprised when our kids have no respect for their parents, teachers, the police or other adults.

I hope to take us to the bible tonight to show you that authority is God’s idea and that it is a good thing when properly understood, properly exercised and so properly respected. It is God’s design for a healthy world for us all to get a right attitude towards authority, but we’ll come to that in a minute.

First I want us to work out why we dislike the idea of authority in the West. We’ll do that by thinking of negative images of authority we see on our TV screens.

Which nations do you think of where there is an abuse of power and an over authoritarian regime?
The Soviet powers of the 1920s right up to the 1990s,
or the North Koreans today,
or the Taliban in Afghanistan
or the Saudi government and increasingly the Egyptians.

I have a friend here tonight to tell us about government in Guinea Bissau.
Murder of politicians
Fear of the people to speak out against the rulers.

These cruel, oppressive, controlling authorities shock us as observers from the liberal West.

Jesus identifies the abuse of power in government when speaking to his disciples.

Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 20:25 “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.”

He was talking mostly about the cruel Roman rulers, and so we should stop and pray for Guinea Bissau and any countries where the government Lords it over the people.


At one end of a pendulum there is extreme government control, oppression of freedom of conscience and tight legislation to cover a plethora of laws in minutiae.

At the other end of the pendulum is individualism where everyone hates all forms of authority, except their own. “I will do what I want to do and no one can tell me otherwise.”

This is what happened at the end of the 7th book of the bible, Judges. A man and his girlfriend are living together, she’s unfaithful and runs back to her dad. After 4 months the man goes to get her back. The dad is really hospitable, but after a couple of weeks the man and girl leave. On their way home they stop at an Israeli village, where the men want to gang rape the man who has arrived in their village. His host offers his virgin daughters in place of the man, but before a deal is struck the man shoves his girlfriend out of the door, she’s gang raped all night and dies in the morning. The man cuts up her body and sends one piece to each of the 12 tribes of Isreal who gang up and slaughter all the women in the village.

Everyone in this story has become his/her own moral authority, and the book closes with the punchline.

Judges 21:25 – In those days there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Break into groups, on this pendulum. Where would you say Great Britain is and why? What direction is the pendulum swinging?

authority pendulum

Conclusion – as individuals assert the right to self determination and autonomy, increasing disrespectful of authority, so government becomes increasing authoritarian, with increasing levels and detailed legislation against bad behaviour and the appearance of increased surveillance.

So, how do we get a proper understanding of authority? How do we avoid the extreme of authoritarian rule in our families, communities and nation? How do we avoid the complete lack of respect which characterises western culture today? The answer, the key to getting it right, of course, is to look to Jesus. We need to understand his authority and his attitude.

But, before we can think about authority, we need to consider the subject of knowledge. What is knowledge and how do we know things? If we are going to claim that Jesus is the one we need to look to, we need to know about knowledge.

We’re going to do a little exercise to help us reflect on knowledge.

Philosophers talk about three kinds of knowledge and these three kinds of knowledge are easy for us to grasp.


The first kind of knowledge is what philosophers call existential knowledge, we can call it personal knowledge. Personal knowledge is everything we know as individuals.

I want you to stop for a minute and do two things.

First think about all the things you know which no one else knows.
Some of those things you know will be about happy times in your life,
perhaps a private moment on a beach or in a forest, or a chance encounter.
Some things might be deep secrets, with the power to cause shame if they surface,
like a cup of acid, if jogged and spilt burns your skin.
Think about what you know that no one else, except God knows.

Now, if you want to, share something happy that you alone know, tell it to the person next to you. Keep the shameful stuff between you and God, in private confession.

That is personal knowledge. Sharing it builds friendships. Keep doing it.

Next we have what philosophers call situational knowledge. That is knowledge we all share about a situation.

The easiest kind of situational we have is say of watching the same football match. All of us see the same game, and so have knowledge of the same situation.

Situational knowledge is something which humans try to make sense of together. We share situational knowledge, we talk about it because life is interesting.

So, for example, on match of the day the presenters, Lineker, Hanson and Shearer share their personal knowledge of the situation, sometimes reaching agreement sometimes disagreeing about what they’ve seen.

Like Lineker, Shearer and Hanson, we comment on situations all the time in life. Football matches are short, neat and tidy. But life is complex. Think about a situation in life which you have talked through with someone.

What about the recent snow storms and what happened in them.
Or the riots in West Bromwich two years ago,
or the way West Bromwich has changed over the years,
or the way the nation is governed today?

Every time we think of a bigger and bigger situation,
the conversation gets more and more complex.
We all have our own personal knowledge of the situation
but our knowledge is limited
and so we find it hard to agree on what we see.

Now, when we share personal knowledge about situations,
all we really share is our opinion.
Opinions have very little or no authority.

Let’s go back to the example of the riots in West Bromwich.
There are as many opinions about what happened over those few days
as there are people who witnessed them,
took part in them
or tried to control them.
And those opinions do not change anything.
Personal knowledge and situational knowledge lead to opinions.
Opinions have no authority.

For the opinions to have authority,
Someone must have the right to say what is right and to insist that it is so.

For example, taking the recent vote in government on same sex marriage,
– there is lots of personal knowledge in this country about same sex attraction
– we all know people who are attracted to the same sex or we may have same sex attraction ourselves
– We all have different situational knowledge, because our views are limited by time and space (situational knowledge in Brighton or Blackpool is very different to situational knowledge in West Bromwich or Wigan.)
– And so everyone has different opinions about same sex marriage, and those opinions carry no authority.
– But now the government has decided to try to make a law so that a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman. Suddenly, a collection of opinions has some authority. And the debate is focusing now on whether those opinions in government have any authority in the church or mosque or gurdwara.

Does that help us to see the way authority has developed out of opinions? Our opinions have no authority until they become law.

But we also have opinions on all sorts of other situational knowledge.
 Why are we here?
 What is life for?
 Is there life after death? If so what is it like?
 Should we be concerned about the environment? If so, why?
 Why are Christians often so unlike Jesus?
 Is sex outside marriage acceptable?

People debate these sorts of questions constantly. In the heat of debate, what people fail to notice is this: on what authority do we argue about these things? If someone says “we should look after the earth” the reply should be “says who? On what authority do you think I should look after the earth?” On what authority is it right for two men to marry?

When it boils down to it, human beings can say very little with any authority until we club together, but even then we must ask, on what authority to you say that it is so?

At this point, people appeal to sources of authority to back up their argument.

Authority is the right to require obedience. Most people in the West work on the assumption that if it feels right to me I’ll do it and enough people think it feels right, then we’ll make a law out of it.

This is not how Christians view authority. Authority comes to us from outside collective human opinions. We know that God is our creator and so it is our duty to discover the will of our creator God and then do it.

Triune God is the ultimate source of authority. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have authority over all things.

1. We can’t know God’s will unless he tells us.
2. God has come to tell us his will, by his prophets and by his Son (Hebrews 1:1ff)
3. Our knowledge of God comes through the records of the words of the prophets and the Son, the bible.

How do we know that the bible is God’s will revealed to us? Why not the Quaran or some other source?

Essentially, it comes down to Jesus.
If Jesus was the Son of God and if he rose from the dead,
then all he said was true,
and he quotes the Old Testament as God’s word.

How do we know about Jesus?
From the bible.

We cannot separate Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, the living word, from the bible, the written word of God, which testifies to us about Jesus.

And we can’t separate the word of God written, from Jesus, the incarnate word, because the written word is all about Jesus.

And then, the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who inspired and guided the written word, who descended on Jesus like a dove and was with him throughout his time on earth, is the same Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to see Jesus in the scriptures and enables us to put our faith in him.

This is all very strange sounding to most people. Trinity, Holy Spirit, word of God, Jesus, it all sounds a bit circular.

But then every argument for authority ends up circular.

Here’s some examples of circular arguments.
Human reason is the ultimate source our authority, because human reason has worked it out.
Human experience is the ultimate source of authority, because human experience tells us that we can trust our experiences.
The Koran is the ultimate source of authority, because the Koran tells us that God spoke through angels to Mohammed.
The ability to measure and test things is the ultimate source of authority because when I measure things the results are true.

And so, is there any basis for deciding which one wins?

This brings us back full circle. What is authority, how should it be exercised, when do we respect it?

We know two things from the beginning of the talk.
When authority is exercised with force the people suffer, like in Stalin’s day or North Korea or Egypt or Guinea Bissau.
When authority is ignored and everyone becomes their own authority, it leads to the breakdown of society and community, even the end of law and order.

Which model of authority makes us all say “ah yes, of course, that’s how authority should be exercised.”

Matthew 20:20-28

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.

21 “What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

What’s going on here?
Jesus is redefining the way we understand authority.
The mother of James and John wants them to have positions of authority in Jesus’ Kingdom. She wants power for her sons. There’s no lack of irony here that the mum wants her sons to be bosses in Christ’s kingdom.
Jesus tells her that she does not know what she is asking for.
She thinks that her sons will be powerful, with authority over people.
Jesus asks the boys if they will be willing to drink the cup that he is going to drink.
They think they can, but they are in for a shock.
Jesus has already told his disciples in verse 17 that the cup he is going to drink is betrayal, abuse, mocking, flogging and crucifixion.
They can’t drink that cup, the cup of God’s wrath against sin and evil.

Jesus calls his disciples together and teaches them something about authority which changes the way we view authority.

Jesus exercises authority by serving the needs of others.

How are we to understand the sort of service Jesus gives us?

Christ prophet priest king

He is King – the law giver, the one who sets the rules, this is not an opinion, this is not personal knowledge or situational knowledge, this is a new sort of knowledge which philosophers call the normative which is the ideal standard. It comes from outside human experience. It comes from God.

The law of God is given to us, it is from outside of human experience, outside human reason, it is from God. We are not in a position to negotiate.

The law of God, like all laws, comes with sanctions and punishments for disobedience.

But here’s the wonderful news. Jesus came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus doesn’t have secret police, armies and prisons for rebels, he loves us and gave his life for us.

He frees us from the penalty and punishment of failing to keep his law.
He calls us to keep his law, but forgives us if we fail.

His authority is one which we trust and respect because we know that he wants what is best for us.

True authority seeks the good of others, and involves loving self sacrifice in the process.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the 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 your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And so, when we all agree that God has spoken with authority.
And we all agree to submit to his authority.
And that God’s authority is to seek what is good for each other,
Through serving one another,
Then the world works.

Jesus is no hypocrite.
As we think of him as king of all the universe, we also remember that he washed his disciples’ feet before the last supper, and then he went on to serve many by giving his life in self sacrifice.


What implications are there from Jesus’ authority for people working in:
1. Hospitals (think of Mid Staffs)
2. Finance, banking and industry
3. Education
4. Government, law and order
5. Church

Describe your attitude towards authority. Why do you think it is like this?

Why do you think the bible matters when it comes to the matter of authority? How would you explain this to a non-Christian friend?

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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