In the New Testament we see again the idea of God’s sovereignty over earthly human authority. Romans 13:1 says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.” This chapter continues on from Romans 12, in which Paul gives practical advice for Christian living. “Higher powers” refers specifically to earthly governing authorities. The word “ordained” is the Greek word “tasso,” which refers to placing in order or assigning a place to something. It does not mean that earthly authority figures are granted “divine right” to rule or that we must slavishly obey earthly powers, right or wrong (see Acts 3:19). Paul was repeating the Old Testament idea that God was the ultimate Source of all authority—but being a scholar of the Old Testament, he probably also kept in mind Hosea 8:4, where God denounces those who “have set up kings, but not by Me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.” Paul is not saying that God has exercised His sovereignty so controllingly that every earthly ruler, good or evil, is there by God's divine plan. Paul is saying that God has assigned places to earthly authorities for the benefit of all: “for he is the minister of God to thee for good” (Rom. 13:4).
However, the New Testament is not so much concerned with earthly kingdoms as it is with the kingdom of God. Matthew 4:17 and Luke 4:43 make it clear that preaching about the coming of God’s kingdom was the focal point of Jesus’ entire message. How did Jesus envision authority working within the kingdom of God? Is the New Creation that came and is coming through His death and resurrection, different from the old creation in terms of authority structures?
Possibly the most definitive statement Jesus made about authority in the kingdom occurs in the context of James and John’s mother’s request that her sons sit one on His right hand and the other on His left, in the kingdom. Matthew 20:20-27. Salome was envisioning a kingdom just like the kingdoms of earth, with hierarchies of power and authority— and she wanted her sons at the top. Jesus’ answer was that it was not His to give places on His right hand or left, but “to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.” Just before this incident, in verses 1-16, Jesus had told the parable of the workers in the vineyard— how those who had worked just one hour received the same wages as the ones who worked all day. “For the last shall be first, and the first last,” Jesus said, indicating how God levels the playing field among His children. Now, in response to the disciples’ anger over James and John’s mother’s question, He calls all the disciples to gather, and tells them this: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister [“servant” in the original Greek], and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant [“slave” in the original].” Those who sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, according to Jesus, will not be at the top of a hierarchy, taking authority over others. They will be at the bottom, lifting up others.
Jesus expresses the same idea in different terms slightly earlier in Matthew— also in response to a question about hierarchy in the kingdom of God: “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1-3.) This was the mentality the disciples knew: the world of authority structures and hierarchical positioning. “Who is greatest?” here is in the same vein as “Who shall sit on Your right and left hand?” a little later on. But here is how Jesus responded in Matthew 18:2-3: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
This was upside-down to the way the disciples had always thought. If there was one kind of person who had no status, no place in the social structure, it was a little child. Even a slave could have authority over other slaves, but a little child had authority over no one. Unless you became like that, Jesus said, you could not even enter the kingdom! We tend to interpret this passage as if it were about some about special spirituality that the innocence of children gives them, to help them enter the kingdom. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. The context of this passage is the disciples’ question: “Who is greatest in the kingdom?” which meant “Who has most authority? Who is at the top of the hierarchy?” And Jesus’ answer meant, “There is no hierarchy. The kingdom of God isn’t like that at all.”
From Matthew 18 all the way through Matthew 23, the theme of human authority in the kingdom builds upon itself. In Matthew 23, the theme culminates when Jesus focuses on the errors of the scribes and Pharisees, beginning with their use of Old Covenant religious authority. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do, but do ye not after their works, for they say and do not.” (Matt. 23:2-3.) What Jesus meant by “in Moses’ seat” has been variously interpreted, but Moses’ main job was conveying the words of the Law to the people, and insofar as the Pharisees were doing the same, they would have been “sitting in Moses’ seat.” Jesus is not telling the people to follow every teaching of the Pharisees, however, just because of their authoritative position— for that would contradict His warning in Matthew 16:12, where He tells the disciples to beware of the Pharisees’ teaching—and also Matthew 15:6, where He faults the Pharisees for making “the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” Jesus wanted people to follow God, not the Pharisees.
Jesus goes on in Matthew 23 to say that the Pharisees “love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplace, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” (v. 7.) He criticizes the Pharisees for seeking power and authority, for desiring high positions and titles. His followers are not to be like that. “But be ye not called Rabbi, for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth, for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters, for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:8-11.)
The non-governmental authority structures of that day were centered around those three things: teachers, fathers and masters. Jesus said that His followers were not to desire titles or seek authority, because they were all “brethren” (the Greek word is gender inclusive) with God as their Father and Christ as their Teacher and Master. Authority in first-century Ancient Near East families was concentrated in the hands of the father, with the firstborn son having the place of prominence among the children. All the non-firstborn children were equal in status.* Romans 8:29 calls Christ the “firstborn among many brethren.” Jesus and Paul both pictured the kingdom of God in terms of a spiritual family, in which the authority patterns and hierarchies of the world did not apply. We are not to take for ourselves, or give one another, hierarchical positions or titles of power, like the Pharisees loved to do. Instead we are to see one another as brothers and sisters under God alone.
So how did Jesus handle His status as Firstborn, Master and Teacher? John 13:3-4 says, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girdeth himself. After that he poureth water in a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.” This was the action of a slave. People did not wash one another’s feet in polite society; when they came in from the dusty outdoors, they waited for slaves to perform this menial task. Peter was so shocked by Jesus’ actions that he refused at first to let Him perform the slave’s traditional service towards him, but Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. . . I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” (v. 14-15.) Jesus was showing them a practical illustration of how “not so among you, for whoever is greatest shall be your servant” was to be lived out in God’s kingdom. It was not in exercising authority, but in laying it down. If the Firstborn does this, how much more should the equal-status younger brothers and sisters do the same?
Someone might bring up Hebrews 13:17 at this point: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account.” The words “watch for your souls” means that the Hebrews author is referring to spiritual leaders. Was the author of Hebrews commanding obedience to hierarchical church authorities?
There are some interesting translation issues in this passage. First of all, the word translated “obey” is not the word that generally means “obey” in the original Greek. The word that means “obey” is “hypakouo.” This word in Hebrews 13:17 is “peitho,” which actually means to trust, listen to or be persuaded by. “Have the rule over you” is also a problematic translation. It is the noun form of a verb which is usually translated “to consider.” As a noun, it conveys not so much a sense of rule or authority, as leadership by example. Hebrews 13:7 confirms this: using the same word, “hegaomei,” this verse counsels the readers to follow the faith of their leaders; it does not say to follow the leaders themselves. In Philippians 3:17 we see the same idea, as Paul encourages his readers to follow his example— and in 1 Cor. 3:4 he discourages them from following himself or Apollos, telling them that Paul and Apollos are nothing and that they should follow God.
In fact, the early church was characterized by a plurality of leaders rather than a hierarchy of authority. 1 Peter 5:1-3 says, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder [note that Peter does not give himself any title here higher than those he is addressing] . . . feed the flock of God which is among you. . . neither being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.”
Daughters of the Church by Tucker and Liefeld offers this analysis of the nature of leadership during the ministry of the original Apostles:
“Even where there was a ranking of importance of gifts (as Paul seems to do in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 – according to their value in edifying the church), it has to be said that ‘in reality there hardly existed any hierarchical differentiation between the various functions or, in other words, no function at the time of Paul’s letter writing was legally subordinated to any other.’ . . . . The New Testament speaks of a plurality of leadership, rather than of individual authority. Some elders lead well and some are good at teaching (1 Tim. 5:17), but there is no indication that elders in the New Testament exercised authority as individuals over others.”
Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), p. 469, quoting in part Holmberg, Paul and Power, Fortress (1978), p. 119. Emphasis in original.
A possible rebuttal might arise from Titus 2:15, “These things speak and exhort, and rebuke with all authority.” But Daughters of the Church notes as follows:
“What authority there is resides in the Scripture that is being taught, not in the teacher. . . . The word [in Titus 2:15 translated “authority”] was not the familiar exousia [the usual word for authority] but epitage. This word was often used in ancient times to refer to a command from God (or in paganism, from a god) that is to be passed on. . . Timothy and Titus were apostolic delegates. The terminology, therefore, seems not to indicate that Titus was vested with ongoing ecclesiastical authority as an individual, but that he was to convey God’s commands in their full force.”
Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-19, “All power has been given to me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore. . . .” Jesus sends His followers out in His power and authority, rather than vesting them with hierarchical authority as individuals.
So again the question must be asked: If structures of authority are so necessary in God’s mind—if God has “ordained” that someone must be in charge in each area or sphere of life—why does Jesus teach that God’s kingdom, God’s spiritual family, is characterized by laying down authority and becoming equal-status siblings? Why does Jesus Himself, as Master and Lord and Firstborn in the kingdom, set us an example by doing a slave’s job? And why do Jesus, Peter and Paul emphasize groups of leaders leading by example, none of whom is in authority over the others, rather than structured systems of authorities wielding individual, hierarchical power? Is this whole idea that there “has to be someone in charge” in every area of human life, actually from God?
Part 3 will address the question of Jesus’ submission to the Father, and will also look into where the idea actually came from that there is a divine chain of command, with hierarchical authorities in each sphere of life.
*See Michael Kruse’s “Household of God” series for more information.