Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 3

This post continues (after rather too long a delay) and concludes the series in part 1 and part 2, in which I looked at the New Testament use of exousia and related words concerning authority and rights. I included “power” in the series title, but in fact this would seem to be a good rendering only in a few cases in Revelation (6:8, 9:3,10,19), and perhaps also in references to Roman authority (e.g. John 19:10,11), as only here does the word have any real connotations of physical ability or coercive power.

I will continue by looking at the “authority” given to believers in Jesus.

First we note that the most basic exousia given to believers is to become the children of God (John 1:12).

Then we see that Jesus, while he was still alive on earth, gave exousia to his disciples, not just the Twelve, and that this authority was to cast out evil spirits (Matthew 10:1; Mark 3:15, 6:7; Luke 9:1, 10:19). In two of these places, in fact referring only to the Twelve, this is linked with the exousia to heal (Matthew 10:1; Luke 9:1). In parables this was likened to the exousia of servants to do the work assigned to them (Mark 13:34; Luke 19:17).

In the post-Resurrection parts of the New Testament it is rare for exousia to be attributed to believers, apart from the sense “right” found mainly in 1 Corinthians (also Acts 5:4; 2 Thessalonians 3:9; Hebrews 13:10; Revelation 22:14). Simon the magician desires the exousia which he sees in Peter and John, referring to how they could confer the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:19). Faithful believers at Thyatira are promised exousia over the nations (Revelation 2:26). The two witnesses have exousia to shut the sky and over the waters (Revelation 11:6). And besides these three we have only the two cases where Paul claims exousia concerning the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10), which are the only cases in the New Testament of one believer having any kind of exousia relating to specific other believers.

So what is this exousia which Paul had? It was not authority over the Corinthians, but it was authority “for building you up, not for tearing you down” (13:10, TNIV). In fact in Greek the phrase is almost the same in 10:8 and 13:10, literally “for building and not for destroying”, with “of you” added only in 10:8, so perhaps Paul’s exousia here is to be understood as more general, to build up the church as a whole.. Paul does not claim any absolute authority over the Corinthians, to choose for himself whether to build them up or tear them down, but only the specific authority or commission which God gave him to build them up. Even so he is reluctant to invoke this authority, choosing to encourage or beg (parakaleo) his listeners to do what is right and refraining from ordering them to do anything.

Thus Paul’s attitude to authority in the church is entirely consistent with that of Jesus, who told his disciples not to be like the rulers of the Gentiles who exercise authority (exousiazo) but to lead by serving (Luke 22:25-26).

To summarise, in the New Testament we see a hierarchy of authority only among secular leaders. Gentile rulers like Pilate have exousia over their subjects, given to them by the emperor (and ultimately by God); military officers are under their ruler’s exousia and have others under them. But there is no trace of this kind of hierarchy of authority in the New Testament picture of how Christian believers should relate to one another.

Certain Christians, complementarians, try to teach some kind of hierarchy for the church: God the Father > God the Son > the Church > church leaders > husbands > wives > children. But there is hardly a trace of this picture in the Bible. The only places where words in the exousia group are used in this connection are when Jesus explains how he is turning this picture upside down:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority (katexousiazo) over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark 10:42-45 (TNIV)

0 thoughts on “Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 3

  1. I have enjoyed your thoughts in this series about authority. The revolutionary principle which Jesus presents in Mark 10 is truly challenging to our concept of authority. One thing about hierarchy that is clear is that God is God above and human is human below, yet Jesus being God even challenges our thoughts on how Jesus/God came not to lord over but to serve. How much of what we perceive as normal authoritarian structures are actually real and necessary. So much of the complementarian argument relies on this idea of a God ordained hierarchy as you describe it above. However, even in regards to children and parents, the authority is not absolute nor static. Even Jesus is willing to put sons and daughters against fathers and mothers in a certain context.

  2. Pingback: Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 2 - Gentle Wisdom

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