It is a given that we must submit to God’s authority, and that all authority has been given to Jesus. (Mt.28:18) However, I’ve been reading Watchman Nee, and he raises the issue of delegated authority. He states, “Just as the delegated authority follows God, so those who are subject to authority should follow God’s delegated authority” (30). I agree with the idea, but I have many questions regarding the practice. Here are some of the questions: 

  1. What or who determines delegated authority?
  2. Can we choose which authority we’re under?
  3. Since there is only one God, why do different Christian groups submit to different Christian authorities?
  4. Can Old Testament examples of authority be applied to New Testament Christians?
  5. Is there a difference between submission to worldly authority, family authority, and “church” authority?
  6. How do we identify God’s delegated authorities?
  7. Can a person be voted into, hired for, or appointed to a position of authority?

Initially, one may be tempted to give over simplistic responses to the above questions, like:

  1. God
  2. No
  3. ‘Cause we’re all called to different places
  4. Yes or Maybe sometimes
  5. Yes and No or Maybe sometimes
  6. They are the people who hold the title or position of authority.
  7. Yes, it happens all the time.

But, if we push it to the next level, or to the logical extreme, we may realize it’s not so simple. For example, we know that God determines whom to place in authority, but how does he accomplish it? Is it through succession, where one authority places his authority on another? Is it by popular opinion, where God allows a person to be voted into an authority position? Is it by force, where God allows a person to seize authority? Regarding government, all of the above could be true. Some governments are ruled by people who have succeeded a former ruler, others are voted in, while still others take control by force. The New Testament seems to teach that God, somehow in his sovereignty, has established all government authority which should be obeyed (Rom.13:1-7), unless it involves disobedience to a higher authority (Acts 4:19).  Yet, regarding the church, Jesus tells us we should be different: “Yet it shall not be so among you …” (Mt.20:26 NKJV)

So how should we view delegated authority within the church? The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions have it easy. They believe and teach that authority is passed down from Jesus to the apostles, and then passed on by the apostles to others, then by those others to still others all throughout history. These are the only two groups that have a legitimate historical claim of apostolic succession. Their answers to the first three questions would likely be:

  1. God establishes authority through succession.
  2. No, you’re under whomever we say you’re under.
  3. There is only one authority & it is set up as a visible hierarchical structure.

The rest of us (protestant, evangelical, non-denominational) have no such claim. In fact, if we believe in any type of “appointed position of authority by a higher authority” at all, we’re forced to admit that the “original appointment” of authority either began as an act of rebellion against an already established authority, or that it was just started out of nowhere. If we look at delegated authority from a hierarchical perspective, the idea of established authority within the church can only go back so far.

How about voting for a delegated authority? If this is how God’s delegation is determined, through an election of sorts, then it’s possible for one to “run” for delegation. It may work for many organizations, but establishing church authority through a popularity contest is hard to find in the New Testament scriptures.

Does God establish “positions” of delegated authority within the church which can be occupied by anyone deemed qualified? Should we place ads in the help wanted sections of religious periodicals and web sites in order to hire someone to fill a position of authority to rule over us? Is that what God intended? Again, seeking professional authority figures may be the way worldly institutions operate, but it lacks biblical precedence for the church. It also seems awkward to be able to “hire” someone to fill the position of God’s representative. I know it’s not the same, but hiring a person to fill a created position for the purpose of submitting to that person reminds me of pagans who create an idol out of wood and stone for the purpose of bowing down to it.

So where do we turn for answers? What about the Old Testament; should those examples of authority being applied to the New Testament church? And what about the family? There seems to be a clearly defined authority structure within it, and Paul compares it to the church. (Eph.5: 22-32) Shouldn’t the church follow the same pattern of authority as the family?

The problem with seeking answers from the Old Testament does not lie with principles of authority and submission, but with misapplication of those principles. Principles of submission to delegated authority figures, such as Moses or David, have been applied to modern elder/pastoral positions. The problem is that Old Testament authority figures are not meant to be types of modern day elders and pastors, but types of Christ. The same misapplications occur with parallel comparisons between the family and the church. The husband/father authority of the family is often compared to the elder/pastor authority of the church. However, scripture clearly parallels the husband’s authority in the family with Christ’s authority in the church: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church.” (Eph.5:23 NKJV) The authority of elders and pastors within a church is more like the authority of older siblings within a family.

While I still have questions regarding God’s delegated authority, I have arrived at one main conclusion: Jesus is God’s delegated authority for the church, and all of its members have equal access to him. There is no hierarchy of revelation. There is no hierarchy of leadership. There is no hierarchy of authority. We are all called to submit to him, and to one another. (Eph.5:21)  There are different functions and gifts within the body of Christ, but only one head. Submission to one another is real submission to God’s delegated authority. It may look different at different times, because the practical application of submitting to one another depends upon which specific gift is being used to fulfill a specific purpose. However, it all depends upon every member submitting to the head, who is Christ.

So, if Christ’s intent was to establish an institution with positions of delegated authority, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are the only ones who have it right. But if he intended to establish a growing, reproducing, organic body of disciples, we need to begin functioning like one. With that in mind, I’ll allow Neil Cole, founder of Church Multiplication Associates, to ask the final question: “Who’s in charge here? It is either Jesus, or it is not. It cannot be Jesus and our designated leaders” (94).    

Sources Cited:

Cole, Neil. ORGANIC LEADERSHIP: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.

Nee, Watchman. SPIRITUAL AUTHORITY. New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1972.