The scriptures are rife with examples of people leading and following other people. But they also indicate that each person should follow none but God. Is this not the essence of the first commandment?
To illustrate, chapters 8 and 12 of 1 Samuel reveal that the Israelites’ desire for a human king signified a rejection of and rebellion against God, who is the source and only legitimate possessor of authority. The idolatry of the human monarchy was the root of subsequent trouble and suffering.
And in Matthew 20:25–28, Jesus affirms that authority should not shape people’s interactions. He doesn’t bother with an explanation, but it seems plain to me that all people must share equal status because God created us in his image. There are two basic problems with injecting authority into human relations. First, it creates unequal power dynamics that are arbitrary and contrary to God’s perfect will. Second, it implies idolatry because a human must take a place that rightfully belongs to God.
His rejection of authority is jarring on its own, but Jesus doesn’t stop or even pause there. Instead, he points straight at a radically different and unnatural ideal to guide interpersonal relations: voluntary servanthood.
But I should step back and clarify what I mean by his rejection of authority because some would understandably dispute that authority is rejected here and elsewhere in scripture. First, passages such as Romans 13:1–6, Titus 3:1–2 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 definitely affirm authority in the sense that they instruct us not to rebel against civil government and other forms of institutional authority merely for the sake of making a point. We should seek to live peaceably as far as reasonably possible.
But there are circumstances in which opposing institutional authority is not only acceptable but also necessary, as illustrated in scriptures such as 2 Kings 9, Daniel 3, and Acts 4 among others. Determining when to defy requires the exercise of wisdom and discernment in each case individually rather than the application of any rule or formula to all cases uniformly. That said, I think that it is appropriate to distinguish between two broad types of authority and that the distinction makes the question of when to reject authority less daunting.
On one hand we have constituted authority, which is an obtained status that entails a right to decide matters in a certain scope and to command and expect obedience. I think of this as authority in the pejorative sense, which I will abbreviate as A1. I believe that the Bible acknowledges God alone as the rightful bearer of A1 with regard to humans.
God delegated freely to people a measure of A1 over the natural environment of the earth, but there is no legitimate basis for any human to assert A1 over any other human. A1 among humans is necessarily institutional, hierarchical, and legalistic in nature. Ecclesiastes 5:7–8:
If in a province you see the poor oppressed, right and justice violated, do not be surprised. You will be told that officials are under the supervision of superiors, who are supervised in turn; you will hear talk of “the common good” and the “service of the king.”
On the other hand is immanent authority, which is a capacity to elucidate and to motivate people. I will abbreviate this type of authority as A2.
I believe the Bible signals that God rejects human-to-human A1 and endows certain people with A2. A1 is based on status, A2 on competence. A1 benefits primarily the bearer, A2 the others. I associate A1 with authoritarian leadership, A2 with authoritative leadership.
The 300-year period of the judges in the history of Israel is an example of a nation characterized by an absence of A1 and the presence of A2. As an aside, this is essentially what I mean when I refer to anarchy (αναρχος — anarchos). The word means literally no ruler, but I think of it more specifically as no fixed seats of power that are handed from human to human.
The period of the judges was one in which each person did what was right in his own eyes and followed others not under compulsion, but only voluntarily when a person demonstrated A2. The spirit of God would assign a certain function to a particular individual for a certain time and empower that person to execute the assignment. The label judge, which might be roughly equivalent to apostle in New Testament nomenclature — was applied to people who demonstrated A2 and earned the esteem of cohorts.
The spirit-enabled person had to choose whether to rise to the task, and failure was always possible due to temptation, distraction, opposition, and failure of others in the community to recognize the person’s God-given authority (A2). And this means that the other members of the community had to choose individually whether to follow a particular person to achieve an objective. They had to discern whether a person was a fraud or was really chosen by and filled with the spirit of God for a particular purpose.
Jesus affirmed that one who recognizes and welcomes a prophet, qua prophet, receives a prophet’s reward. This means essentially that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and relationship with God. There seem to be many people who feel that such an arrangement isolates individuals and leaves them vulnerable. This risk exists, but the arrangement also has the potential to liberate people to relate to each other while maintaining a constant orientation toward God. It allows God to direct and coordinate social interactions. The alternative is for this role to be usurped by humans and their institutions, which are really designed by and for the benefit of spiritual powers, authorities, principalities and dominions.