We’ve come upon an incredible passage of Scripture in our study of 1 Thessalonians. In fact, verses 12 through 22 of the book’s fifth chapter are so rich with meaning and power that we need to look at them over the next several weeks bit by bit. This past Sunday we looked at the first two verses, which talk about authority in the lives of Christians: “We ask you, brothers, 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.”
Indeed, all of us in the church are under authority in one way or another. That’s how God designed it. But sometimes the idea of being under authority — not just in the church, but in our lives in general — doesn’t sit well with us. Some folks develop a mantra that they don’t respect authority. Of course, when earthly authorities fail in their duties and end up hurting people, it can be very natural to lose respect for them. But the Lord has another way of looking at these issues, and his word will help us know where to draw the lines.
First, let’s look at civil authorities. Paul wrote about them in chapter 13 of his letter to the Roman church:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
Paul wrote these words when the Roman Empire was ruling over the known world and began persecuting the church. Not a good thing at all. Yet Paul says God instituted earthly authorities to carry out his will. How are we to make sense of that? How do we reconcile that? In short, it’s something we as believers must hold in tension. For example, while the Roman Empire was brutal in countless cases, it also benefitted the early spread of Christianity through its establishment of trade, roads, and shipping.
Now, in our present situation — in the era of the coronavirus — what do we do when our government says we cannot meet as a church? How do we as Christians respect and subject ourselves to such authority? Again, it’s something we must hold in tension. In our country, we have a Democratic form of government that’s ultimately in hands of the people. But still we must support those in leadership, even when we disagree with what they decide. So, for instance, last Sunday night I exercised my First Amendment rights and spoke out with other pastors in calling for reform in our government. But still we must obey the law. It’s a constant tension we must examine and grapple with — and of course ask the Lord’s help when we do so.
Now let’s take a look at spiritual authority.
Christians are different from others because we say, “I am going to place myself under the authority of God’s word.” We do what Scripture instructs. We go to God’s word first when we have questions and then do our best to apply the Bible’s principles to our lives. And we do so even when what we’re commanded to do goes against culture. That’s incredibly challenging, particularly given the times we’re living in, when social and cultural pressure is so pronounced and constant. And then there are those who decide they’re not going to adhere to what God’s word says — and they end up elevating their own wisdom over God’s. That’s called humanism. But we all know that human wisdom in the face of God’s wisdom is flimsy at best.
In addition, spiritual authority doesn’t belong to a person — rather we’re all vehicles through which the Holy Spirit’s authority is able to be carried out. Pastors, for example, are only a Godly authority as they rely on God and his word. If they don’t, their authority doesn’t mean much. Also, submission to earthly authority means we accept the wisdom, power, and peace that comes from God through others. No, it doesn’t mean obedience — but it does mean having the wisdom to listen and be open to hearing from others, particularly those who’ve lived on this planet longer than us.
In fact, that’s one of the benefits having older Godly people among us. They’ve been through experiences we haven’t, and they can offer solutions to problems we may never otherwise have considered. Let me challenge you again to seek out such people — to be open to their counsel and experience. Let them help you grow and develop as a person and as a Christian. We all need others in our lives with more wisdom and experience who will look out for our best interests. Don’t miss that! Because when the world creeps in, and we start to think we can do whatever we want, and we can do it all on our own, God will use others — those with spiritual authority — to speak into our lives and pull us away from the thin ice we’re skating on.
Finally, there’s the issue of authority in family life. Parents and children are often at odds in this realm. But parents can begin to shape their children by modeling being under the authority of the Lord themselves. Watch what happens when you to God, “My answer is yes,” and your children are watching. Now that’s countercultural! And for young people, God will do some amazing things in your lives when you choose to submit to the authority of your parents, just as you submit to the authority of the Lord.
Being under authority isn’t always easy, but God designed those relationships — through our government, through our church, and through our families — to protect us, to help us grow, and ultimately to become closer to him.