Among conservative evangelicals, authority is usually a matter of command and obedience. It is hierarchical. God is on top. He has authority to command everyone. Underneath God, other authorities can also give commands: office holders, law enforcement, parents, pastors, elders, teachers, etc.
The most direct way you obey God, then, is to obey the authorities he set over you. Various factions of evangelicals express this hierarchy differently.
Some factions express it as a literal flow chart from God to the state all the way down to you. Other factions are uncomfortable with this model. They treat God’s authority as a way to understand why we need salvation: we disobeyed God’s commands and need his forgiveness — as if God’s law and grace are in opposition. Still other factions say that God grants his authority to those who have faith. We too can command spirits, nature, and circumstances with God’s authority.
Evangelicals are in an institutional crisis, and our view of authority is part of the problem. I am dissatisfied with our authoritarian ethic. In governance, elders are reduced to giving orders to congregations. In counseling, every emotional or relational problem is reduced to a sin. The way out of depression, or family dysfunction, or addiction is to obey God’s commands.
This reductionistic view of authority is destroying souls. It pretends that the Bible has no room for individuality, questions, or even emotions. The sick wonder why God is punishing them. The unemployed wonder what lesson God is teaching them. The bereaved are denied a season of grieving their loss, as if “joy” is the only state a godly person should ever know. Most importantly, this ethic destroys souls because it is theologically bankrupt. The authoritarian God is a reduced God.
God does have the right to command. Paul says, for example, that we “must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” for legal accountability (2 Corinthians 5.10). But God’s authority is greater.
God is a designer. Every action of his creative and redeeming power has a purpose. He set up the cosmos and the Church according to patterns of behavior that lead to life. This is different from legal authority. It is artistic authority. God is a composer, who notates what sounds he wants, for how long, at what volume, in which combinations. When we play his music the way he composed it — honoring his authority — the music makes sense. More than that, when we perform God’s composition, the music thrills.
This artistic authority is revealed in the Bible through what we in the exegesis business call purpose clauses — “so that,” “in order that,” “in order to.” God sent his only-begotten Son in order that whoever believes in him might have eternal life. The Designer made a move, and he moved with a purpose. We move toward him in response to his design.
What makes artistic authority different from legal command is the depth of commitment it calls from us. Any halfway competent choir can sing in tune, with correct rhythm, and clear diction and still be a total bore. The composer’s notations call for the singers to commit to the anthem. Then, and only then, does a technically correct performance leap to an exhilarating experience.
Authoritarian spiritual leadership is killing souls because it punishes out-of-tune notes and sloppy rhythm as infractions against a code. It can achieve conformity but never ensemble. It can enforce accuracy but never inspire commitment. The music it produces is utterly, relentlessly, and offensively flat. Authoritarians pay little attention to the purpose clauses.
I have heard many pastors quote 2 Corinthians 5.10 as a threat. Judgment is coming! And indeed it is. I have heard very few preach 2 Corinthians 1.3–4, the opening of the same letter, with the same intensity, much less giving attention to the purpose clauses. Here is the Word of God in those two verses:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
That sentence from God’s Word is an authoritative design. Not only have I rarely heard those verses expounded with intensity, and not only have I rarely heard a disciplined exposition of the purpose clause — the design behind God’s comfort — I rarely hear even a passing reference to the fact — the exegetical fact — that Paul regards God’s comfort as the source of his authority over the rebellious church in Corinth.
There’s music in those verses. We can find it by studying the score as if it carries the composer’s authority. And if we sing our parts, this music could transform the fearful mumbling of our institutions into a thrilling anthem.