In 2009, TV actor Tony Danza, star of “Who’s the Boss?” and “Taxi,” spent one year teaching 10th grade English at Northeast High in Philadelphia. Danza readily admits to being a “discipline problem” himself in high school. Subsequently, he wrote a best-selling book about his experience at Northeast: I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had.
Education, government, business, communication, transportation, sports, the military, families, churches—virtually any cooperative effort—requires authority and respect for authority.
Don Henley, leader of a popular 60s rock group, says that no successful band can be a democracy. He explains, “You cannot take four or five creative people who have egos and creative desires and expect them all to see things the same way all the time. There’s going to be resentment and jealousy and fighting about credits and money.” There has to be leadership, Henley says. “Everybody can’t be on equal footing.”1
English professor Anthony Esolen looks at the behavior of a football team: “You have there the simultaneous and coordinated movements of eleven men, each of them with a task to perform that contributes its essential part to the success of the whole, and each of them submitting himself to orders from above; from the quarterback or the middle linebacker, who in turn has received instructions from the offensive or defensive coordinator, and ultimately from the head coach. A player who bucks the instructions will be disciplined, not in the first instance by the head coach, but by his brothers in the huddle.”2
In Scripture, the Fifth Commandment requires children to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12). The word “honor” (Hebrew, kabad) carries with it the notion of weight. As Lewis Smedes points out, parents carry a great deal of weight in their children’s lives. Influence, importance, dignity, respect. “Kabad,” he says, “smacks a little more of the military academy than dinner at home on Mother’s Day.”3
Legitimate authority, the power to decide or direct, is bestowed.
To be in authority is to be authorized by someone or something above oneself.4 All authority, of course, ultimately derives from the Creator (cf. Rom 13:1). Parents are God’s representatives, appointed by God, entrusted by God with His children.
So is the case with pastors and overseers in the community of faith. The author of Hebrews instructs church members: “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls” (13:17). Similarly, the apostle Paul urges the Thessalonians, “We beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). God’s authorized ambassador exhorts the disciples at Rome, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1; cf. Titus 3:1).
To repeat, those in authority are under authority; they answer to a higher charge.
Shepherds of God’s flock are under-shepherds of the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). With the position or office comes responsibility: They keep watch over our souls, “as men who will have to give account” (Heb. 13:17). James Thompson characterizes this trust as both “caring authority” and “authoritative care.”5
Following my father’s death, my mother appointed me executor of her will and successor trustee of the estate. I had the authority and responsibility to see that her wishes were carried out according to the provisions of the trust. I would have failed my mother and my siblings not to have honored what was written. I was put in charge for the good of the whole family. My role was to make sure everything was done according to the will of the testator.
In his marvelous book Up With Authority, Victor Lee Austin offers the example of a symphony orchestra. Orchestral music can’t be played without authority. Why not? Because there is no one right answer to “What will we play at the concert?” or “What will we practice today?” Each individual player may have very reasonable, very different answers.
Austin continues: Once the program has been selected, decisions have to be made about phrasing, tempo, volume, blend, etc. If the orchestra is going to play at all, somebody has to decide—usually the conductor. The musicians must accept the conductor’s decisions and follow them. In this way, individual musicians can achieve something they could never do by themselves. Each player, by accepting the conductor’s authority, is set free to perform in concert with other gifted artists. For the orchestra, authority is not against freedom, but allows even more freedom and variety of expression.6
Authority in the Christian home is assigned to parents, with the husband and father serving as head (Eph. 5:21-33; cf. 1 Pet. 3:1-7; Col. 3:18-21). The husband’s position of loving authority is not based on a business model of “boss” but mirrors our relationship with Christ, in voluntary deference to Him. Again, the Christian father is subject to the heavenly Father, responsible for the nurture and discipline of his children (Eph. 6:1-4; Heb. 13:7; cf. 1 Tim. 3:4; Titus 1:6), leading those he loves through enemy-occupied territory to the Promised Land.
Peter Leithart, reviewing Austin’s insightful book, acknowledges the abuse of authority we’ve all experienced and see. Yet there is another side: “If abusive authority disables bodies, authority rightly used restores and heals. Well-used authority empowers us to bring our bodies to their full potential.” “Teaching,” he says, “is the most fundamental and pervasive act of authority. Good teachers make it easy for students to hear, and give them eyes to see what they have not seen before.”
Leithart turns to Scripture: “Midway through his prophecy, Isaiah envisions ‘a king [who] will reign righteously, and princes [who] will rule justly’ [32:1]. Their reign miraculously transforms Israel. Bodies are healed: The blind see, the deaf hear, stammerers speak clearly, and the confused discern truth.” Isaiah’s prophecy finds even greater fulfillment through King Jesus and His “princely” apostles who teach and bring to health.
“All well-exercised authority heals bodies and restores senses,” Leithart continues. “In the safety of a Western democracy, refugees slowly begin to tell the truth about conditions back home. Under a skillful political ‘conductor,’ people who had no previous opportunity to develop skills or ideas find new uses for their minds and hands.”
Leithart concludes, “Wherever authority is used rightly, bodies are healed and empowered: The blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, ‘dead’ bodies are raised to new life.”7
1“Don Henley believes that bands are not democracies,” http://www.kshe95.com/news/real-rock-news, June 19, 2014
2Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017), p. 106.
3Lewis B. Smedes, Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Eerdmans, 1983), p. 68.
4Victor Lee Austin, Up With Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (T. & T. Clark, 2010), p. 19.
5James Thompson, Equipped for Change (ACU Press, 1996), p. 49.
6Austin, Authority, pp. 16-18.
7Peter J. Leithart, “Miracles of Authority,” www.firstthings.com, Feb. 10, 2012.
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