Godly Authority: A Flight to Topsyturvydom

Another in my weekly series of articles for Quivering Daughters.

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.

Flying Upside Down

AuthorEric Pazdziora

Composer, Author, Pianist

28 replies to Godly Authority: A Flight to Topsyturvydom

  1. Author’s Note: A few people have asked me how this applies to parenting children (minors), especially in light of the verse “Children, obey your parents.” I didn’t address this in the article mostly because I’m not a parent, but I asked my dad and he offered this response:

    “Jesus wants us to obey Him and that obedience springs from our love for Him and His love for us. So it is with parents. Parents are to Love and obey Jesus themselves and respond to their children in the way Jesus does.

    Parents are to use their authority in the way Jesus does. In His position He serves– that is topsy turvey! Jesus is not turning people into slaves but helping them mature as sons and daughters–children of His kingdom.

    Jesus teaches, corrects, disciplines, and always shows patience, mercy, forbearance not anger or condemnation. If he is that way with me why would I be a different way with my children?”

    (So now you see where I get it from.)

    • I agree- and I would take a note from your article above and point out that though there are many verses in the New Testament asking children to submit to their parents in the Lord, we see no verses commanding parents to exercise authority over them. Jesus himself was gentle and loving with children. His childhood included no formal (or informal) education that we can see. A lot of modern societal weight has been placed on parenting and educating in God’s name today.

      • Thanks, Aadel. This is definitely something I’ve thought about a lot whenever I ponder possibly becoming a parent someday. (Though I do have to say that in general I’m quite in favor of education!) Parenting the way Jesus would would look a lot different from much of the so-called “godly parenting” advice that’s out there, I’m sure. I appreciate the comment.

        • Education is good, but it can become just as dangerous as godly authority. In our current society, education is equated with someone telling you what to learn, how to learn it, and when. It is an authoritarian system that doesn’t often take into account the Holy Spirit’s work in someone’s life or individual callings or talents.

          If we look to our ultimate teacher, Christ, we see that he first and foremost met people where they were. He gave them freedom to think and follow him. He didn’t coerce or demand. As Christian educators, we need to look to that example. Gentle education sprinkled with grace and freedom in Christ is what our family practices through relaxed homeschooling.

          • “Relaxed homeschooling” sounds very interesting. I’ve certainly seen the pros and cons of lots of different philosophies of education. Of course, since I’m neither a parent nor a teacher at the moment, my thoughts on that are probably not too valuable! 🙂

          • Thanks for the link! In fact I was homeschooled myself for a few years, though “unschooling” is a new one to me. I’ll give it a look.

            I appreciate your kind words and encouragement on my posts!

  2. I found your blog through Quivering Daughters, and I’m a little blown away by your perspective. For a recovering fundamentalist, this breathes life into the Bible that I never anticipated. I don’t think Jesus would have gotten along with many of the people I grew up around, but this is another tweak of perspective that reminds me how radically wonderful his version of life can be. Thanks so much for sharing, and I will definitely be reading more.

    • Welcome, Bethany! If you like this one, I can’t wait to see your reaction to my other stuff.

      • I think it will take me a few years to digest it all, but I look forward to trying. 🙂

  3. I apologize if this post is too old to comment on.

    I’m curious about your opinion on government, as you mentioned the question but did not really address it sufficiently, I believe, or the possible implications.

    Although the government is supposed to provide us with justice an peace, two things about that verse: First, Paul was not writing under a democracy (so no social contract of mutual service even existed in theory), but an empire. Secondly, there is no indication this was some form of social contract as your statement seemed to imply. Paul is actually putting the corrupt (and at times evil!) roman imperial government as an authority over Christians no matter their opinion of the authority, because even though it is pagan it has been appointed by God for specific ends (that are not being fully met. I wonder if you are not reading too much post-enlightenment ideas of self-government into the text?

    Also, the implications would be contradictory or highly problematic. For instance: speeding. There is nothing inherently unethical about going any speed in any machine on any road. But, some nations have laws restricting vehicles to particular speeds. So what, theologically, is going on here? Does the government actually have authority to set these standards? Or are you saying the most they can do is ask us to comply? If the former, it would see you have to argue that God has delegated some authority to human beings, but if the latter then it seems you would have to support the dissolution of the police forces (as the government would have no right of authority to enforce compliance).

    • Excellent question, J. Wesley. Well thought-out, and I admit it challenges me a bit, as I tend to avoid politics in general. (And no, there’s no cut-off date for commenting here.)

      Government is, as you observe, a bit outside the scope of this post. If I was concerned with being totally consistent with myself (though why should I start now? *grin*), I think your remarks would maneuver me into an Anabaptist (“separatist”) position on the state. Specifically, the government’s authority is something that God ordained as part of the fallen world to keep order because of sin, but it’s a sub-Christian ideal, not part of the Kingdom of God.

      In the same way, a pacifist (which Anabaptists also are) can admire the bravery of a soldier and be thankful for the social order that comes from having a good military while still believing that it’s not right for Christians to fight. It’s a good thing that a government is preserving order and law in society, since sinners in general have issues with justice, but as Jesus’ followers we’re called to serve, not to lead.

      Notice that Paul says, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1)– as though he’s taking for granted that his readers won’t be setting themselves up as the governing authorities. Christ our King’s model is service from love, so that alone must be the structure of “godly authority” when we’re talking about living as citizens of God’s Kingdom.

      This is rather tentative even so, and of course my Anabaptist friends could probably explain it much better than I’ve done. There’s a fairly good article on some differing views at this link.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  4. Eric, I have enjoyed your comments once again. I know that this is an older article of yours but would you willing to share your thoughts on Hebrews 13.17 (you know, the whole leadership/submission text)?

    • Good question, Peter. I expect someday I’ll have to write a follow-up piece directed toward those in “leadership” to address these kinds of issues.

      This verse in Hebrews matches what I discuss above: the Bible does say that we should submit to our leaders, but does not indicate that our leaders have inherent absolute authority over us. Rather, the argument is “They are responsible for you, so help them out by working with them rather than against them. That way their job will be a joy, not a burden.” It’s very significant that the verse doesn’t say, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority, because… duh! They’re you’re leaders and rebellion is a sin.” Rather, the picture is of a mutually beneficial relationship: “It would be of no advantage to you” to work against the people who are responsible for you. (At least in most cases; the Bible has quite a bit of civil disobedience in it, e.g. Acts 5:29. But that’s going pretty far afield.)

      Hope that helps clarify! Thanks for your comment.

      • Thanks for your reply. That’s pretty much over time how I have come to understand that text. I really appreciate your thoughts. They make good solid sense. If the emphasis was on “obedience” for obedience sake, the author would not have have concluded their thoughts the way they did.

        On the flip-side, perhaps, sometimes it is good to be a “burden” to church leaders, especially, when there’s spiritual abuse involved. In that case, it really would not be advantageous for us to submit.

        Thanks again

        • Also, Eric, you have been at this business a lot longer than I have. I know it may be a hard question to answer – but do you have any idea on how widespread in the Christian community is the whole authoritarian/hierarchical structured church/family thing is?

          Thanks again.

        • You’re welcome. It’s very interesting to go through the Bible and note all the places that civil disobedience is held up as exemplary– the Hebrew midwives to Pharaoh, Daniel and his friends to Nebuchadnezzar, Peter and the apostles to the Sanhedrin, etc. etc. Even Jesus was executed as a “rebel.” So yes, “obey and submit” does not entail “let them get away with abuse.”

          Accurate figures about the spread of this brand of doctrine are pretty hard to come by; I haven’t seen any that I can think of offhand. (Probably largely because the movements that popularize it are very disparate and decentralized by nature, and not very well-studied yet by many of the right sort of scholars.) My best attempt would be: not nearly as many as you think when you come from inside one of those movements, but more than you think when you come from outside.

  5. There are several instances in the New Testament where Jesus gave authority to His followers. And to those who are faithful with little, more will be added.

    • @Nemur: Which instances are you thinking of? I do see a few that say “He gave them authority over evil spirits” (Mark 6:7) and “He gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1). A fair point, if you like, but that’s not the same as giving them authority over other people. If Jesus had said that, He would have contradicted many of His statements (see above) that we should not lord it over each other. I appreciate the pushback, though.

  6. 1 Thessalonians 4:2; 1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 10:8

    • @Nemur: Thanks for those! Those can be a challenge to interpret (and probably easy to misinterpret), but here’s a shot:

      1 Thessalonians 4:2– A fair try, but in fact the word “authority” isn’t in the biblical Greek there. Literally, “For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus” (ESV); they’re passing on what Jesus said, not taking Jesus’ place.

      2 Timothy 2:12 — That’s a powder-keg of a verse, so I’ll limit myself to saying that, if taken strictly, it argues against some people having authority, but not necessarily in favor of other people having it.

      2 Corinthians 10:8– “For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed.” That one does make me think I should have been a tad more nuanced with my wording above. However, it’s significant that it’s not “the authority the Lord gave me for controlling what you do”– the kind of authority is strictly limited to “building you up,” encouraging and edifying in Christ. In the context of the epistles, it’s every believer’s responsibility to build each other up (1 Corinthians 14:12, Romans 14:19). So perhaps it’s also significant that Paul says “our authority” not “my authority”: All believers can have spiritual “authority” for edification.

      Perhaps when I get a chance I should write a follow-up to this article directed for people who do have legitimate positions of leadership and responsibility for others (pastors, parents, government…). You certainly made me think on those lines! Thanks for commenting.

  7. Rather 2 Corinthians 10:8

  8. 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.

    I read that as greatness (like so many other things) comes as a byproduct or side effect of something else, not when you aim directly for it.

  9. I came across this post via recovery grace website. All I can say is, WOW! Since leaving the IFB a few years ago I have been struggling to understand the Biblical view on pastoral authority. I have come to conclude that I have one authority and that is Christ. So where does a local church fit in? I keep hearing I have to attend a church simply because I have to been under spiritual authority. Not doing so would be rebellion. I don’t find this thought in the Bible though.
    So, I must attend church simply to be under the authority of a man? I’m all for church attendance IF one can find a truly godly church. Honestly, I am not trying to find ways to avoid church or fellowship with other believers. I long for fellowship but after suffering under the heavy hand of pastors for most my life and being constantly judged and regularly condemned for my failure to conform, I’m not too excited about getting back into church and all it’s demands.
    I literally had anxiety attacks when we’d go to church for years.
    Anyway, I will be pondering this post for bit. Thanks for you website. It has helped me work out a few things since I have been testing the faith of all I was told to believe.

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