Of the many important sections (most of them) of R. J. Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law, one stands out as a lesson for today’s political season (in truth, every political season). This is a section on the difference between political power and legitimate authority.
A godly society requires both godly power and godly authority. You can have either, or neither, or either one in an ungodly fashion. For example, whoever wins the upcoming presidential contest in the U.S., you can be assured of a humanistic legitimacy, but not a godly authority. Thus, you can also be assured that the political power that follows will also be ungodly.
The truth is that since the vast majority of governments—federal, state, and local—today hold anti-biblical laws on their books, they indeed have power but not godly authority to enforce many of their laws.
Rushdoony began this section (Institutes, pp. 773–777) with the command to judge our own disputes based in 1 Corinthians 6:
St. Paul, in reminding the Corinthian Christians of their destiny, said, “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?” (1 Cor. 6:2). . . . In trying to establish the necessary church government towards this end, Paul’s constant appeal was, not to the form of church government or to the members, but to the law of God and the growth of the saints in terms of it (1 Cor. 6:15-9:27). Judging, governing, or managing of the world is in terms of God’s law. . . .
Why is this crucial? Rushdoony spends a few paragraphs reminding us of the reality in ancient Greece and Rome: Parents had total power over their children, and could sell or kill them at will up to a certain age. Likewise, masters had total control over their slaves, and could kill them at will.
Rushdoony highlights Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus and Telemachus exercise just such powers. Twelve of their female slaves were raped. Instead of avenging the rapists, these two Greek icons hung to death the poor victims. They had no care for the crime committed, but for the dishonor done to themselves! Much like some segments of radical Islam, the rapists went free and the victims were put to death! Except, this wasn’t radical Islam, it was humanistic, enlightened ancient Greece! Rushdoony condemns this humanistic law: “Law for them had no higher reach than themselves” (774).
He then continues to explain how this power government was lawless and did not have a share in godly authority. His discussion affects us today as well:
The question of authority is inseparable from law in any biblical sense. A primary meaning of authority is, “The right to command and to enforce obedience; the right to act officially.” The origin of authority is a Latin word, augeo, increase. Authority has a natural increase to it. True authority prospers and abounds. Power and authority are not identical words. Power is strength or force; power can and often does exist without authority. The power of Odysseus and Telemachus, and the powers of the Roman Empire, were real powers, but, in terms of God’s law, they lacked authority, although they had a formal authority merely as legitimate governments in their societies. . . .
The church must, by its faithfulness to the law-word of God, establish, strengthen, and increase its authority. Its power will increase, St. Paul indicated to the Corinthians, as Christians obey the law of God and as the church applies it to its internal affairs, and as it calls upon its member-citizens to apply it to the world around them.
The ground of this increased power is Jesus Christ, who declared, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). As the absolute possessor of all power, He is the predestinating source of all immediate power. He is also the perfect coincidence of power and authority. In the school of history, the church is held back, rebuked, and humbled whenever its power ceases to be grounded in the authority of Christ’s law-word, or wherever its authority seeks support in other lords than Christ. The church is required to teach all men and nations “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). His presence and His power undergird those who teach the observance of all that Christ commands.
Power, when divorced from godly authority, becomes progressively demonic. Authority can be legitimate in a human sense, resting on succession or election, and yet be immoral and hostile to God’s order. Thus, the authority of Nero was somewhat legitimate, and Christians were required to obey him, but his authority was ungodly and implicitly and explicitly satanic in its development. True order requires that both power and authority be godly in their nature and application. . . .
Where power and true authority are together, there man does not play God; he serves God in terms of His law, and he prays to God. Power and authority are used to further godly order, not human hopes of order.
In a biblical law-order, no one has unchecked, absolute power: not families, fathers, businesses, churches, nor the state or any of its agents. Without sanction according to God’s law, earthly powers lack godly authority. They may have legitimate power in the seats of rule, but they lack godly authority. They are subject to censure from pulpit and street alike according to God’s Word.
This point is absolutely crucial for many reasons. It gives us a basis for considering all levels of modern governments. It applies, we need to acknowledge, from the family level to the civil government level, from the county court house to the White House. Where a “power” abuses or exceeds its authority, a lesser power or even individual may ignore or even resist that power upon godly authority.
Consider this distinction in regard to the current episode of American Idol known as the presidential campaign. Must we vote for a lesser of two evils? Must we support a Trillary or a Hump? Must we submit to one or the other?
The question is akin to asking whether we must support Caligula or Nero Caesar? Shall we support the guy who appointed his horse to the Senate and ordered arbitrary executions, or the guy who lit impaled Christians on fire to light his gardens? Yes, we must to a certain degree acknowledge their power, but their legitimacy is tremendously undermined to the extent they reject God’s law. This sole factor undermines their genuine authority, for it reveals the extent to which they have rejected their delegated authority given them by God.
The moment you realize that the true issue behind any election is ethical rather than pure political power, the same moment you’ll see that the very problems you hope to correct at the national level are far more rampant at the local level. You’ll see that the very same cronyism, debt funding, fearmongering, and violence are endemic in your own local county commissions, city councils, school districts, police departments, sheriff’s offices, property taxes, and much, much, more.
At that point, you may realize how the argument over national politics is not only futile, but counterproductive. You’ll realize that we must build legitimacy and authority from the ground up. You’ll acknowledge that the only way to make American great again lies in Restoring America not in a presidential election, but one county at a time.
If power can only succeed based upon genuine authority, then we must rebuild genuine authority first. This can only be done from the grass roots, local level. Without this, political change is based on power—that is, might makes right. The higher level at which this succeeds, the great potential for tyranny will have been unleashed on America. Without genuine authority there will be no genuine change in power. We need to pray and work for legitimate power and authority in these areas today.