Limits to Authority

Image may contain: 1 person, suitImagine, if you will . . . echoing Rod Sterling and the Twilight Zone
Imagine, if you will, a government that knows the limits of its authority.
As I have written before, there are differing approaches among Christians to the lockdowns in Ontario. Some will argue that we must obey the government in this, and others say we must disobey. Paul Carter of the Gospel Coalition did an excellent job of exegeting Hebrews 10:24-25 on this, and although I am not convinced, he made a cogent argument.
I think much of the discussion has, however, missed the point, and Carter is answering a question that I, for one, am not asking. For many of us, it is not a matter of civil disobedience (although that will be the perception) as it is the limits of governmental authority in the first place. We may see several spheres of authority in Scripture: family, church, and civil government. Family was ordained in the garden. Church, broadly worship, was immediately after as seen in how God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. As Bruce Waltke said, “Cain failed in the field because he failed at the altar.”
Civil government immediately follows as the population increases.
There is overlap and cooperation between these spheres, but all three are under the Lordship of Christ. In general, the family is responsible for education, health and well-being, and economics. The church is responsible for the ministry of the Word and the sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The state, or civil government is responsible for the protection of the nation from outside forces, and to administer law and justice (and that justice is to be defined by the law of God, not created by fiat).
It isn’t hard to see how the modern state has taken over most roles of the family and church, so that each of these functions are now under the state’s authority. The state has grown to a point that family and church can be deemed, “nonessential” in Covid-19 pandemic terms.
The reason this has happened is that as a people we have rejected the idea that the spheres are placed as they are by God and are inviolable by the others spheres of authority. The family is a sovereign unto itself within the Kingdom of God as is the church.
The church does not have authority over the family nor does the family over the church.
Neither the family nor the church have authority over the state, and the state does not have authority over the church and family. The Christian is to submit to the state (Romans 13:1-2) and at the same time “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The behaviour of Christians in the New Testament and in the early church indicate that they did not believe the submission to the state was absolute. It was the state’s task to administer justice, not to set the theology of the church. When Caesar demanded that all people, not just Christians, burn incense as worship to him and declare, “Caesar is Lord,” the Christians chose death instead.
All of this, of course, can only work where there is an acknowledgement of Christ’s Lordship over all of life, and that there is no neutral ground that operates freely apart from this Lordship.
To continue, I’d like to make this perfectly clear:
1. Jesus is not a future king, but king now. He is king of Canada, king of the United States, and king of the entire planet, solar system, galaxy and universe. There is no person, place or thing that is outside of His authority right now, and His law prevails. His will shall be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
2. For many years, Christians have claimed that the King is coming, but the Gospel says He is here and reigns now. This places our civil governments as rebels against the King, insofar as the decrees, laws, mandates, and bylaws violate His law.
3. If Christ is not acknowledged, the state has no natural cause or reason to limit itself—it can only grow in authority. The Western state has, in its claim to secularity, become a law unto itself—autonomous and answerable only to itself.
4. As the state has grown and self-asserting illegitimate authority, it will destroy both family and church, as it seizes the God-given authority of both.
5. But because the state is thoroughly human, it can only become a tyranny, whether that tyranny is shown in a man, a committee, or a mob of democracy. Assuming itself autonomous, there is no higher authority to which it must answer.
When it comes to the decisions of the Ontario government to demand the closures of churches, we must learn to ask, “by what authority?” It cannot be the authority of the state if our worldview is a Christian one. If we concede the state has the authority because it asserts that it does, then it is only a matter of time that churches are closed forever as “nonessential” and all functions of the family are replaced by the state.
It is a stark choice: either the state has the authority it is claiming today or it does not. I believe it does not, but the belief that it does runs deep and is firmly entrenched in our society, even in churches.
The encroachment of the state into church and family was slow at first, until the tipping point was reached. It was reached quite awhile ago, but it is unmistakable now.,
The question is not whether we should obey the state and stay home. It is whether the state has the authority to demand it.
Imagine, if you will . . .

Authority vs. Love?

Are authority and love mutually exclusive?  Is “doing the loving thing” always accepting another persons choices and behaviour? Is there an authority that is greater than love? These questions are necessary to even understand what love is.

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The Power of the Cross

I recently read a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18. I found it to be an especially poignant statement that we would do well to heed today. Below is a quote:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.


The death of Jesus is one of the foundational symbols that determined Paul’s vision of the Christian community (Pickett 1997: 29). But Greco-Roman symbols and mythology (see Zanker 1990) competed with the cross to provide a framework for interpreting life. The Corinthians’ quarreling reveals that they have absorbed, uncritically, the ideals and values of the pagan world around them, and Paul wants to replace pagan paradigms with the ideals and values exhibited in the cross. When he proclaimed the crucified Christ, however, every hearer from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Rom. 15:19) knew that this so-called Christ had suffered “a particularly cruel and shameful death, which as a rule was reserved for hardened criminals, incorrigible slaves, and rebels against the Roman state” (Hengel 1977: 83). The story behind Jesus’ death discloses that he was rejected by the very people he came to save, was deserted by his own disciples, was strung up by the proper authorities, and apparently was powerless to save his own skin. Paul did not sweep the crucifixion under the carpet as an unfortunate episode remedied by the glories of the resurrection. He does not say that he preached the resurrected Christ, but the crucified Christ.

Crucifixion and resurrection belong together as part of the gospel story (15:3–5), but the cross was repugnant to ancient sensibilities and assailed the world’s self-centeredness and self-destructive ways. It was not yet the “old rugged cross” sentimentalized in hymns, embalmed in stained-glass windows, perched on marble altars, or fashioned into gold charms.

Cicero (Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo 5.16) decries the crucifixion of a Roman citizen, exclaiming, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.” To proclaim a crucified Jew from some backwater of the empire as “a divine being sent on earth, God’s son, Lord of all and the coming judge of the world, must have been thought by any educated man to be utter ‘madness’ and presumptiousness” (Hengel 1977: 83). Christianity was cradled in what looks like disastrous defeat, and the unspeakable stigma of the cross exposed the preacher of this message to woeful contempt. Paul, however, did not refer to Jesus’ death with embarrassment or skip over the awkward facts. Quite the opposite, it was central to his preaching, because the resurrection disclosed Christ’s suffering and death to be God’s modus operandi in the world. Since he also argues that the followers of Jesus must share the sufferings of the crucified (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 3:10), the message of the cross is an antidote to human self-glorification. It is “hardly a message for the ambitious” (Stansbury 1990: 476). The gospel transforms the cross as a symbol of Roman terror and political domination into a symbol of God’s love and power. It shows that the power of God’s love is greater than human love of power.

How could Paul expect anyone to respond to such a message? Litfin (1994: 261) outlines the five steps of persuasion in Greco-Roman rhetoric: (1) attention, (2) comprehension, (3) yielding, (4) retention, and (5) action. Greco-Roman rhetoric stressed step three, getting the audience to yield. Paul, Litfin argues, stressed step two, comprehension. Litfin contends that, in contrast to “sophisticated speech” (1:17), this “word of the cross” was “straightforward and open” and aimed at getting listeners to comprehend the content rather than nod assent after the speaker has proven the case (see also Winter 1997d: 186–94). Paul left the third step, yielding, to the persuasion of the Spirit. Rhetorical strategies designed to manipulate an audience to withdraw its objections empty the cross of its power by putting in its place the orator’s artistry and cleverness. I (Garland 1999: 472) write elsewhere, “Paul did not get people to believe by arguing that Christ crucified accords with the common principles of logic or that belief is in the long-term best interests of the hearers. As a herald, he simply announced what God has done in Christ. From his perspective, his job as proclaimer is to make sure that each hears and understands.” Paul trusts the power of the cross to convict the audience rather than the power of his eloquence. The Spirit reveals the message’s truth to the believer (2:4, 13). The audience is dethroned as the ultimate arbiter of what is true or persuasive (see Litfin 1994: 86), and the message becomes sovereign with the power to save or condemn, depending on the listener’s response. Brown (1995: 75–77) makes the case that the word of the cross is a performative word that has the power to change one way of knowing for another: “Through the logos, the cross continues to break powerfully into the old world’s ‘dominant system of convictions’ wherever it is proclaimed.”

The Corinthians had absorbed, “uncritically the ideals and values of the pagan world around them, and Paul wants to replace pagan paradigms with the ideals and values exhibited in the cross.” Garland goes on to describe the repugnance of the cross, and how Christianity was “cradled” in what looked like “disastrous defeat.” I cannot imagine how the church has moved so far from the cross! While nodding respect to the cross, it is now gold-plated, and almost everyone in the West thinks not of an instrument of torturous death, but a decoration for churches, altars, and necklines.

That we have abandoned the message of the cross is now so evident in our rush to entertainment as outreach, and the setting aside of preaching. Corresponding to our entertainment thirst is the ancient practise of rhetoric. Garland quotes Litfin (St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation: 1 Corinthians 1–4 and Greco-Roman Rhetoric. Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series 83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.) who describes contemporary rhetoric in Corinth. Note that Paul places himself as a hearld, not as a rhetorician!

“Paul did not get people to believe by arguing that Christ crucified accords with the common principles of logic or that belief is in the long-term best interests of the hearers. As a herald, he simply announced what God has done in Christ. From his perspective, his job as proclaimer is to make sure that each hears and understands.”

In Paul’s preaching, The audience is dethroned as the ultimate arbiter of what is true . . .” Could we even begin to imagine speaking this way in our era? What does modern wisdom have to say about this?


David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 801.