The following article discusses the relationship between power and authority, primarily focusing on the nature of power and its abuse in political and ecclesiastical circles. This abuse is true in general for the world, but far to often (the vast majority of the time) for Christians as well.
Simply put, authority is “right” while power is “might.” Both are legitimate, but both only in their proper spheres. Might, especially, must always be in full submission to right. Sadly, when it comes to power structures in society, these are usually reversed. Power is usually used as a replacement for authority, and motivation comes from above in the form of threat, intimidation, and fear. This paves the way for infinite abuses on both small and large scale, with usually the weaker parties in society made true victims.
This arrangement, as we will see below, is exactly the opposite of the biblical worldview. It is also the opposite of the core of our historical, common law, constitutional society. The power from above is always supposed to be held in check by a multitude of authorities and higher law. Authority must rule power. Instead, power usually acts as its own authority, and then demands to be called by that name as well.
The article following below is taken from R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, volume 2, pages 1146–1198. This is hardly comprehensive or even a good summary of the whole. The purpose here is that of select reading for these particular points. More could be made along the same lines. Also, Rushdoony covers the relationship between authority and power in other places as well, such as his Institutes, all of which are also not included here. What is included here, however, is crucial reading for Christians today.
More than once, Rushdoony emphasizes how purported godly leaders use power tactics in place of godly authority, and thus engage in all manner of corruption. Yet they do so in the name of godly authority and positions of authority, demanding submission from others. It is not uncommon to hear such strains as this: “The leaders are mercenary and they put their advancement above God’s justice; at the same time, they invoke God’s name and the covenant as their security from evil.”
I include these lessons because far too often, people may believe they are following devout, battle-hardened, no-compromise leaders when in reality they have fallen under the sneer of a petty tyrant, a tinhorn dictator, but yet a person whose abuses cause real harm, suppression, and oppression. The narcissism and blindness of such leaders is often so great they truly believe they are doing God a favor as they trample and suffocate his sheep to advance themselves; they often cannot even see how they use and abuse other people for their own glory, nor can they be brought to feel even in the slightest the hurt they have caused or the guilt they bear. Articles on this topic are necessary for the victims of such oppressions to gain the beginnings of discernment about their condition. Upon these, hopefully, they can gain a foothold to stand on their own in the freedom of Christ and throw off the shackles of the evil one. Articles such as this are also necessary so that honest Christians may gain the knowledge necessary to see the problem, maybe for the first time, and help do something about it.
A persistent goal of humanistic man is power, and the coercive power state has always been to men the great means of attaining this goal. The state and especially in its modern power is based as in pagan antiquity on an act of faith, a trust in power. Men believe in and fear power and hence are subservient to it. Paul, however tells us that all humanistic considerations which were once so important to him are now dung. His life now is grounded in the power of Christ’s resurrection. The modern state arose as men’s faith in Christ waned. Paul tells us that all believers have, here and now, the power of Christ’s resurrection in their lives, in and through the indwelling Holy Spirit. In the power of the Spirit, they move in the earth-shattering power of Christ’s resurrection. . . . (1146)
Authority and Power. . . .
The relationship between authority and power is an essential one when we look at God’s authority. A tyrant may have a great deal of power while lacking any legitimate authority; a usurper, or a conquering force, may exert power while having no authority at all. A gunman breaking into a house and holding a family hostage has power but no authority. Authority means a legitimate jurisdiction, a Tightness morally, and the liberty which comes from this legitimacy. There can thus be no separation whatsoever of authority and power in the triune God. This is why Kenotic Christologies are so evil and destructive.
Having said this, we must go a step further. Can we legitimately separate godly authority and power? . . . . (1157)
Authority and Ministry. . . .
Our Lord thus differentiates between two kinds of authorities. First, Gentile or ungodly authority aims at putting down people. We can recognize this evil all around us. Authority is equated with power, a boot stamping on a human face forever, as Orwell analyzed it. Our Lord is clear that all ungodly authority or dominion means putting down people, not ministering to them. It is a lording over other men.
In the triune God, authority and power are inseparable but, in fallen man they are not so. Authority in the Biblical sense is hierarchical, i.e., it is sacred rule in terms of God’s law. Ungodly authority is elitist: it is grounded on humanistic considerations. Men can hold what is a godly authority in an ungodly way and on alien premises. Thus, this past week some of us, including Otto Scott, had dinner with a visitor, an “authority” in the Benedictine order. This man believed that Lenin was more Christian than Tsar Nicholas II and expects Lenin to be in heaven; he also said, among many other like absurdities, that St. Paul did not know what he was talking about when he said, “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7; cf. James 4:4). This man was not embarrassed by the fact that he had never read the Bible. He was used to exercising power and lording over others, but he was without any authority in the Biblical sense. He had an institutional, not a theological authority.
This kind of “Gentile” lording over others is common to every area of life and thought, the academic, ecclesiastical, political, scientific, and other fields. Such people hold positions and power, but they lack godly authority. Their pre-eminence is possible because the culture sees authority in the same terms; men may resent being on the receiving end of such behavior, but they long to exercise it. Otto Scott’s Irish grandmother cited a proverb, “Put a beggar on horseback, and he’ll ride you down.” A great many beggars are on horseback. . . .
This Gentile doctrine of power, of lording over peoples, is common to history. The more any state gains in power, the closer it approximates oppression as a goal and the less government it provides. The lust for power is present-oriented, and it is not interested in ministering to a people but in using them to increase a present power.
Second, our Lord says that Christian greatness is in ministering to others; in Paul’s words, it means being “members one of another” (Eph. 4:25). Such a doctrine of authority is neither self-centered nor present-oriented. It considers first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). South Korea’s dominant religion is Christianity, and its effects are discernible. J. J. Davis comments,
When Kim Kyang Won, secretary general to South Korea’s president, was asked about the reasons for his country’s progress, he replied, “It’s the culture of discipline and postponing immediate satisfaction for the future—even for posterity.” Such character traits have encouraged a national investment rate of 25 to 35 percent of the Gross National Product, twice the U.S. rate.
The ungodly seek power; the Christian uses authority to minister to others, to love and to serve in Christ. It is in this context that the many references to love in Scripture must be set. Love is not a substitute plan of salvation for us, but an expression of our life in Christ. In the place of a desire to lord it over others, the Christian seeks to minister as a friend in Christ. Greatness is in terms of service. “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” The quest for “Gentile” power, for the ability to lord it over others, is an ungodly urge and a mark of reprobation. Men may build their power structures in the names of Christ, freedom, or the people, but such efforts essentially seek self-glorification. Our Lord says, “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20); to deny the validity of this simple fact is to question Jesus Christ. It is neither humility nor suspended judgment but a challenge to Christ’s wisdom.
Third, our Lord declares Himself to be our example of authority and power. He came, not to be served or ministered unto, but to serve, “and to give his life a ransom for many.” The point is not that we make our lives an atonement but rather that, even as our Lord ministered to a fallen humanity and created a new one, the Christian race, we are to minister to one another. As members of the new creation, we separate ourselves from the Gentile doctrines of authority and power, which aim at exalting one man and at debasing others. The disciples were concerned with false authority; this is still true too often of the church. Such a goal leads to the confusion of God’s Kingdom and man’s. The issues between good and evil are clear-cut. God and Satan cannot be confused. Neither can “Gentile” power ploys and Christian authority. . . . (ST. II.1165–1167.)
Authority, Justice, and Men. . . .
This development [replacing God’s law with decisions of the Sanhedrin] not only invoked the wrath of Jesus Christ but constituted the heart of Phariseeism. It also pinpoints the fallibility of human authorities. We have repeatedly had like developments in history, as witness many decisions of the U. S. Supreme Court. Thus, God, in Deuteronomy 17:8–13, does not give us an infallible means of preventing injustice. What we do get is a dilution of human authority in order to protect the judicial process. We have thus a first conclusion that must be faced, namely, that not even a God-provided law can prevent injustice. On the human level, there is no infallible justice. Man, being a sinner, perverts the best possible law structure to suit his purposes. The Sanhedrin took the provision of God’s law and turned it upside down, so that man’s word was given priority over God’s word. The rationale was that men were on the scene, knew more, and were more flexible. The yardstick of law was made into rubber, and a rubber yardstick is no valid measure at all. . . .
Third, the fact of the law meant, as we have seen, a form of checks and balances. Priests, Levites, and civil judges had to be a part of the appellate court, so that the perspective of God’s law could be maximized. There was, however, much more. Over the centuries, the prophets served as a major check. By proclaiming God’s law and inditing [sic] transgressors thereof both in and out of power and authority, the prophets required the people to remember the priority of justice under God’s law. The defense of the covenant and the law of the covenant was the prophetic task. Wherever the prophetic calling is operative, there too the people will resist every violation of God’s justice. However, where priests and prophets go astray, there too will the people. Isaiah 28:7–8 gives us an indictment of false priests and prophets alike:
7. But they also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision they stumble in judgment. 8. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so that there is no place clean.
The very people who should lead the nation in righteousness or justice are filthy pigs. The tables which should be places to eat to keep strong in God’s service are tables of filth. Jeremiah makes a like indictment: both prophet and priest are profane; instead of justice, they manifest sin in God’s very house (Jer. 23:11).
Instead of leading the people in terms of God’s law word, these false leaders are giving the people what they want. Micah gives us a telling description of this:
If a man walking in the spirit and falsehood do lie, saying, I will prophesy unto thee of wine and of strong drink; he shall even be the prophet of this people. (Micah 2:11)
The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money; yet will they lean upon the LORD, and say, Is not the LORD among us? none evil can come upon us. (Micah 3:11)
The leaders are mercenary and they put their advancement above God’s justice; at the same time, they invoke God’s name and the covenant as their security from evil. However, such evil authorities flourish because the people want them. God told Isaiah,
9. That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD:
10. Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits. (Isa.30:9-10)
In brief, God says that a people will get the kind of leaders they want. They will demand and only approve of men who speak smooth things and prophesy and promise lies. In fact, says Micah 2:11, if an evil-spirited man declares that salvation lies in drunkenness, “He shall even be the prophet of this people.” The authority and leadership people demand is in conformity to their character. The authority exercised by our presidents reflects the weaknesses of American character, and the same is true of every country in the world. A people will be ruled by an authority which conforms to their faith and character. Attempts at legislative and judicial reform without a like reform of the faith of the people are futile. God’s appellate court system is not designed to eliminate sin; rather, it offers justice to a people who want justice.
The whole world today is plagued with injustice because people do not want justice, except where it will serve their interests. People may agree that justice is good, but they are more comfortable without it. People are ready enough to condemn debt, and to admit the personal and social evils of long-term debt, but they will still justify their long-term borrowing. At every point, men in effect say, let the world be good so that I might be more free and secure in my sin and selfishness. If people today truly wanted justice, we would have it. If they wanted a godly president, we would have one. All over the world, however, we see only the evil leaders as strong ones. Apparently, what men least desire is a just social order because it requires that they first of all be just. God’s law provides true justice and authority for those peoples who want it. . . . (1190–1192)
Authority and Life. . . .
Thus, the central question with respect to authority is not in the realm of secondary or human powers. The issue is between God and man. This, in Genesis 3:1–5, was the issue as the tempter saw it, and also in the temptation of Christ (Matt. 4:1–11). The matter is unchanged still. Men have pursued the tempter’s concept of authority, of every man as his own god, to disaster and death. In Psalm 1, the alternative God provides is plainly set forth. Only under God’s total authority is there life for man. (1198)