Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 1

Sorry for the break in blogging. I have been working hard, and then there were technical problems with my site last night. Here we go again…

The issue of New Testament teaching on authority and rights has come up in a number of places recently. In my post Complementarianism is fundamentally flawed and anti-Christian I pointed out how central a non-Christian concept of authority is to complementarian thinking. A couple of weeks ago John Richardson compared two different kinds of authority, and how they relate to Anglican ministry. And Dave Faulkner, while discussing the question Is Internet Access A Human Right?, suggested that there was something fundamentally non-Christian in the concept of human rights, a position with which I disagreed in a comment.

The biblical material on this subject centres on two word groups, exousia and authentein. In discussions over the latter, which occurs only once in the Bible (1 Timothy 2:12), huge amounts of virtual ink have been spilled on various blogs. I have little to add here except to say that I don’t think anyone has bettered the KJV rendering “usurp authority”. But exousia and related words are much more common, and commonly misunderstood, and so deserve a closer study. I restrict my study to usage in the New Testament largely because that is what I can do easily with the tools I have at hand.

The noun exousia, generally translated “authority” or “power”, occurs just over 100 times in the New Testament. At least in its form it is derived from the impersonal verb exestin, often rendered “it is permitted” or “it is lawful”, which is found 32 times in the New Testament, either in this present tense form or as the neuter participle exon. Also found are the derived verbs exousiazo, four times, and katexousiazo, twice.

It makes sense to start with the basic form, exestin. This is found most commonly in the gospels, in discussions between Jesus and his opponents over what is permitted under Jewish law (Matthew 12:2,4,10,12, 14:4, 19:3, 22:17, 27:6; Mark 2:24,26, 3:4, 6:18, 10:2, 12:14; Luke 6:2,4,9, 14:3, 20:22; John 5:10). Occasionally it is used for what is permitted by the Roman authorities, either by their general law (John 18:31; Acts 16:21, 22:25) or in a particular case (Acts 21:37). This same concept is conveyed by the noun exousia when it is used in these same discussions (Matthew 21:23,23,24,27, 28:18; Mark 11:28,28,29,33; Luke 20:2,2,8): Jesus’ enemies wanted to know what permission he had to do what he was doing.

However, the rendering of exestin as “it is lawful” is misleading, as this was not a legal term, but a general one concerning permission. This becomes clear in a few other cases (Matthew 20:15; Acts 2:9; 2 Corinthians 12:4) where it is refers to what is allowed or right in a more general sense.

This leaves only the occurrences of exestin in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23, twice in each verse. These need to be understood in the light of what exousia and exousiazo mean in the same letter, where they occur nine times (7:37, 8:9, 9:4,5,6,12,12,18, 11:10) and three times (6:12, 7:4,4) respectively. All of this is in the course of an extended discussion about the freedom that Christians have but also how they should use these freedoms in a responsible way. Within this context exousia seems to mean something like “right”, and indeed the whole passage is reminiscent of contemporary discussions about human rights. It seems to have a similar meaning in a few other places (Acts 5:4; 2 Thessalonians 3:9; Hebrews 13:10; Revelation 22:14).

In 1 Corinthians the derived verb exousiazo must mean something like “have rights over”.

One possible exception is exousia in 1 Corinthians 11:10. This has sometimes been understood as “a sign of authority”, on no good exegetical basis, but in the context of the letter and the usage of exousia in it the meaning must be something like that the woman has the right to choose her own hairstyle.

Exousia does have a quite different use in the context of secular authority, where it refers not to permission obtained but to the right to give permission to others or withhold it. The word is used in this sense nine times (Matthew 8:9; Luke 7:8, 20:20, 23:7; John 19:10,10,11; Revelation 17:12,13) as a general abstract noun, and six times (Luke 12:11; Romans 13:1,1,2,3, Titus 3:1) personified, and mostly plural, referring to people having this kind of authority. Three times (Acts 9:14, 26:10,12) exousia is used of the authority given to Saul of Tarsus by the Jewish religious authorities.

The personified use of exousia, mostly in the plural, is also found referring to spiritual beings possessing authority, eight times (1 Corinthians 15:24; Ephesians 1:21, 3:10, 6:12, Colossians 1:16, 2:10,15; 1 Peter 3:22).

Four times in Revelation (6:8, 9:3,10,19) exousia refers to the power of messengers of evil to cause harm. Twice in the same book (14:18, 18:1) it refers to the authority of an angel.

The verbs katexousiazo (Matthew 20:25; Mark 10:42) and exousiazo (Luke 22:25) are used of wrong human exercise of authority.

Many of the remaining occurrences of exousia refer to the authority of Jesus: in his teaching (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32); to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6,8; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24); to drive out evil spirits (Mark 1:27; Luke 4:36); and more generally (Matthew 28:18; John 5:27, 10:18,18, 17:2; Revelation 12:10). Some occurrences refer to the authority of God the Father (Luke 12:5; Acts 1:7; Rom 9:21 (in a parable); Jude 25; Revelation 16:9).

There are a few cases of exousia attributed to or claimed by forces of evil (Luke 4:6, 22:53; Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 1:13; Revelation 13:2,4,5,7,12, 20:6).

Then the word is sometimes used for the authority of believers in a general sense (Matthew 10:1; Mark 3:15, 6:7, 13:34 (in a parable); Luke 9:1, 10:19, 19:17 (in a parable); John 1:12; Acts 8:19; Revelation 2:26, 11:6,6).

And then we are left with just two places where exousia is used to refer to the authority which one Christian, in this case an apostle, has over other Christians (2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10). Nowhere at all are any of these words used to refer to any kind of authority of a husband over his wife – except in the perfectly symmetrical 1 Corinthians 7:4. But if you listen to some Christians talking about the authority of Christian leaders and Christian husbands, you would think that this was a major theme of the Bible. Hasn’t something got a bit out of proportion here?

So we need to look more closely at what these words actually mean in the Christian context – but I will leave that for a further post.

Continued in part 2 and concluded in part 3.

10 thoughts on “Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 1

  1. Pingback: Sermon on Praying in the Spirit | The Virtual Preacher

  2. I have just looked up the two verses you cite of apostolic authority, 2 Cor 10:8 and 2 Cor 13:10. These are of course very similar verses and they convey the idea of empowering the Corinthians rather than exercising authority over them. Thus even these verses do not suggest the authority of Christian leaders OVER their congregations.

    One favourite argument of “complementarians” for their views is found in their version of the Trinity. Leaving aside whether they have that quite right, the issue of authority does crop up here. In Jn 5:27, it seems that final authority rests in the Father but it is an authority that the Father gives to His Son. This is quite different from the authority of “complementarians” which seems to be an authority that is denied to those “below”. This highlights a difference between what I think is the “complementarians” view of authority in the church and the biblical view. I dub these the centrifugal view of authority and the centripetal view. In the former, authority is pushed out from the centre to those further away from the centre, from the Father to the Son and then onto the church/mankind and so on. In the latter authority is sucked back to the centre. “Complementarians” are in serious risk of adopting the latter, of centralising power in the church, specifically to the preacher. This seems utterly at odds with the biblical position

  3. You might like to consider Heb 13:17 in the ‘mix’ and also the hupakouw (‘obey’) hupotage (‘obey’) and hupotassw (‘submit’) word groups in order to fill out the picture.

  4. If Peter is to confine himself to words for authority, Heb 13:17 is omitted as there is no word corresponding to it. But as John R says, there is reference to obeying and submitting. But I can fully understand Peter’s reluctance to tackle the other words; I would not have the stamina to tackle even the exousia family of words.
    The typical hierarchical view of obedience and submission (I take O’Brien in his Ephesians commentary to be a good example of this) would find apparent confirmation in passages like Heb 13:17. However, if one approaches such passages via the apparently egalitarian passages such as Matt 23 and for an interpretation of Heb 13:17 the more closely linked Heb 8:11, it is possible to see such obedience and submission in very non hierarchical ways. I currently have a Presbyterian boss who lauds the Presbyterian approach against both the hierarchialism of episcopacy and the egalitarianism of congegationalism. He sees the representative but elected leadership in Presbyterian polity as combining the best of both worlds. One elects a leadership and submits to that leadership but the congregation, as a congregation and not as individuals, retain the power to replace the leadership.

  5. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Should errant Christian leaders be restored?

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 3

  7. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 2

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