oet and playwright W. S. Gilbert (you might know him from his operettas composed with Arthur Sullivan) wrote some comic poems about the far-away land of Topsyturvydom:
Where vice is virtue—virtue, vice:
Where nice is nasty—nasty, nice:
Where right is wrong and wrong is right—
Where white is black and black is white.
Everything in Topsyturvydom is precisely the opposite of what you expect in our world. Soldiers are cowards, criminals are judges, and babies are born knowing differential calculus and become more ignorant as they grow. It’s silly, of course,but that’s the fun of it. As Ken Medema sang, “The world looks different to you when you’re flying upside down.”
So I’ve noticed a recurring phrase in certain schools of doctrine: “Godly authority.” Husbands should have godly authority over wives. Fathers should have godly authority over children. Pastors should have godly authority over their congregations. Don’t rebel against godly authority.
It sounds good and devout, probably because “godly” is a good faith word and “authority” is something we take for granted. Somebody has to have authority, and certainly “godly authority” seems preferable to the other kind. In fact, it’s exactly what we would expect to hear.
That makes me suspicious. Most of these doctrinaires would agree with me that “godly” should only mean “following what Jesus taught.” But Jesus never taught exactly what we expect to hear. Jesus taught about flying upside down.
Jesus managed to subvert almost everyone’s expectations. They expected a Messiah who would enforce the Law of God; they got one who religious people called a wine-bibber and a friend of prostitutes. They expected a Messiah who would be a conquering hero; they got one who died on a cross with thieves. It’s not for nothing that His critics accused His followers of “turning the world upside down.” Sometimes I’m left wondering whether Jesus was a secret citizen of Topsyturvydom.
When we look at what Jesus taught about authority, what we find seems equally wrong-way-up. Look closely at some of what Jesus said and you’ll start to think you’re standing on your head:
But Jesus called [the disciples] to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28, NKJV. Cf. Luke 22:24–27, Mark 10:42–45.)
When Jesus taught about authority, He said one thing clearly: It’s not about exercising authority. The great one is a servant. The greatest one is a slave.
Jesus didn’t let up with the topsy-turviness, either. He said you shouldn’t even take a title of authority:
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8–12, NIV).
The formula for greatness, according to Jesus, is to thrust greatness away from you. It’s not to be looked up to but to be humble. The greatest is the least, the most exalted is the humblest, and the highest is the lowest. If you want to become great, try to be humble; if you want to be humbled, try to be great.
Is this just more nonsense and silliness, something W. S. Gilbert might have dreamed up? Contrast this to the entire doctrinal systems that fixate on authority, and who has it over whom, and whether it’s shaped like a chain or an umbrella, and you do get the distinct impression that somebody is standing on their head. Somebody’s got something very, very wrong.
Here’s another clue in another flight to Topsyturvydom. Jesus based these paradoxical statements directly on Himself and His own work: “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” The apostle Paul (possibly quoting an early Christian hymn) elaborates on this in a lyrical passage:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5–11, NASB)
Jesus was God, and Jesus became a servant. Jesus humbled Himself, so the Father exalted Him. It’s upside-down, but it’s true.
It gets even loopier. When God exalted Jesus to the highest place, He made another statement about authority. It casually succeeds in blowing all our discussions about “godly authority” to smithereens:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18, NIV).
All authority belongs to Jesus.
“All authority in heaven and on earth,” just so we’re clear it’s all-inclusive. Not “all spiritual authority” or “all authority in the church” or “all authority over My disciples.” Those would be radical enough—but “all” means “all.”
This isn’t anti-authoritarianism. There’s plenty of authority for us to obey—but only Jesus has it. It does not belong to anybody else. It is not given to anybody else. It is not shared with anybody else. If anyone says they have any authority in any context and their name is not Jesus Christ, they are wrong. (And if somebody says his name is Jesus Christ, don’t believe him, unless maybe he starts walking on water.)
After this statement, any discussion about who has “godly authority” is pretty much pointless. Nobody does, except Jesus.
Far from being a passing observation, this fact is tied directly to our salvation:
“For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.” (John 17:2, NIV)
Since Jesus has all authority over us, Jesus has authority to save us. Since Jesus has all authority over our lives, Jesus has authority to give us eternal life.
So what then? Don’t get the wrong idea. If your association with “authority” gives you a picture of Jesus sitting at the top of the heap and bossing everyone around, then it’s back to Topsyturvydom we go. Jesus followed His own teaching about authority: authority, He said, is something that should make you act like a servant and wash people’s feet.
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12–17, NASB)
This ties everything so far together. Jesus is in authority over us, and (logically enough) we can’t set ourselves up as superior to our authority. Since Jesus humbled himself and acted like a servant, if we follow Him, we should humble ourselves and serve as well. No one sits higher than the King, and the King is washing people’s feet.
So there we are. If godliness means following Jesus, then “godly authority” is an oxymoron. Godliness is not about authority; godliness is about humility. It’s not about leading; it’s about following (namely, following Jesus). It’s not even about “servant leadership”; it’s about servantship.
But—I hear some people still perplexed with the shock of being turned heels over head—but how on earth does that fit with the way we do things in real life? Doesn’t someone have to have authority in, say, the government? In a marriage? In a church? In a workplace? In a family? Doesn’t the Bible tell us directly to submit to those authorities?
All right then, one last flight to Topsyturvydom. The Bible does tell us to submit, which is appropriate enough considering everything we just saw that Jesus said. But what’s glaringly missing are any corresponding verses that say leaders have authority.
This puts an interesting spin on verses and topics that sometimes become needlessly controversial. Consider husbands and wives (I’m thinking of course of Ephesians 5:21–33). Yes, the Bible says fairly clearly, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” But it follows this statement not with the corollary we’d expect—“Husbands, exercise godly authority over your wives”—but with “Husbands, love your wives like Jesus did for the church,” that is, by sacrificing everything so she can benefit. This makes sense when we consider that Jesus’ kind of love involves washing feet like a servant. What do servants do? They submit.
For that matter, and it is simply amazing how rarely this point gets made, the statements about husbands and wives in context both come immediately after this verse:
Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:21).
Godly submission, yes. Godly authority, not so much.
Well, OK, there is one verse that talks about husbands having authority, but I doubt it will ever become especially popular in the Patriarchy movement. It puts it this way:
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:4, ESV).
Again, the idea is not patriarchal authority but mutual submission. (You know what, can we just go ahead and say that this verse all by itself proves once and for all that Patriarchy is an unbiblical teaching? I mean, seriously, “the husband does not have authority.” And that’s not just in the physical relationship; it’s the same Greek word for “authority” that Jesus says in Luke 22:25 we shouldn’t have at all.)
It’s the same with other positions that are considered authoritative. The Bible says that we should serve the government, but also that the government should serve us by providing peace and justice (see Romans 13:4). There’s a reason we call them “public servants.”
Again, the Bible says that we should submit to our pastors, elders, spiritual leaders (however you like to translate presbuteros), but also that they should not lord it over anybody, just serve as good examples (see 1 Peter 5:2–3). Paul explains his position as an apostle precisely this way: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm” (2 Corinthians 1:24, NASB).
It might be tempting to misconstrue this and go running around telling our bosses that they’re not the bosses of us. It’s true, technically, they’re not, but to do that you’d have to ignore all the verses before about humility and servantship. I think we’ve gone so topsy-turvy that we’re making figure eights, so it’s probably time to catch our breaths and see the big picture from the air.
The big picture is simple, clear, and beautiful. It’s love.
We’re free. Anybody who tries to forcefully control us or require us to obey is trying to usurp a position that only belongs to Jesus. Conversely, if I want to lord it over anybody, I’m trying to set myself up as the Lord. Men and women alike, husbands and wives alike, pastors and congregation alike, we’re all brothers and sisters, free and equal.
But since we don’t have to submit and serve out of obligation, that means we’re free to submit and serve just because we want to. Just because we love. Since we’re not obliged to make payments, we can give gifts. We can freely sacrifice for others with no other motive but love. We can serve others not because they have authority over us, but because Jesus has authority over us, and Jesus serves from love.
If you want to see what “godly authority” looks like, don’t look to any person but One. Jesus is washing His followers’ feet. Jesus is giving and serving and loving. Jesus is flying upside down, making loops in the air over Topsyturvydom.