Authority & Autonomy

Authority is often considered a dirty word in our culture. People who have been nurtured on American values have a tough time swallowing the concept of any authority, particularly an absolute one. We like freedom and choice, which are indeed amazing gifts that were purchased for us by the lives of countless brave men, women and children who fought for such rights. Yet, freedom and choice must be balanced by authority. 

At the beginning, in the world as it was meant to be, authority had no such negative connotation. God’s loving, protective authority over the lush land He created and the dynamic duo that crowned His creation was the understood context that ordered the perfect shalom that existed. Authority was experienced as relational care, provision and protection in the atmosphere of adoration in the garden.

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Yet, we all know how quickly humanity traded such loving authority for an audacious autonomy. In The Drama of Scriptures, writers Bartholomew and Goheen recognize that the temptation faced by the first humans in the garden was one to autonomy. 

“The temptation they face through the serpent is to assert their autonomy: to become a law unto themselves. Autonomy means choosing oneself as the source for determining what is right and wrong, rather than relying on God’s Word for direction.”

Since then, we have continued in the way of our parents, claiming our own autonomy even when it annihilates any chance of a peace, protection and provision that could flow from a loving yet authoritative God. We have seen authority abused time and time again, and as such, we overcorrect by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It seems we have three stances toward authority: ambition to gain authority, abhorrence of authority or an ambivalence towards authority.

However, there is a glorious encounter in Scripture that depicts Jesus as having lived His life under the absolute authority of the Father in such a way as to redeem authority.

The Centurion was a military man, well acquainted with rank and command.  Just as our current military personnel know what it means to live under authority, the Roman military men knew a thing or two about power and priority.  As someone in the power structure, it is probably safe to assume that he was attempting to gain authority. Yet, this powerful and most likely successful military leader hit a wall that his authority could not climb in the serious sickness of one of his servants.

When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”…And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment (Matthew 8: 5-13). 

The Centurion, not of the Jewish lineage, recognizes in Jesus Christ what most of God’s own chosen people have completely missed: this Jesus of Nazareth is a man of great authority under the command of a greater authority than the world has ever known.

The Centurion also sees something in the nature and character of this Jesus that tells him that He is the type who would wield His authority for the service and welfare of others, even the poorest servants who are accustomed to being stepped on by powers and authorities.

Like notices like, but the Centurion is also quick to notice that He is the presence of another kind of authority altogether. As such, he sees his own lack of worthiness, yet trusts that Jesus will graciously grant his request, not on the basis of the centurion’s track record or lineage, but because of the goodness and character of this ultimate authority.

Our demands for autonomy will be quieted and calmed in the presence of the loving authority of Jesus. For He who laid down His ultimate autonomy to be sentenced by broken human authorities to death on a Cross will most assuredly change our view on living under the authority of God.

To live under the authority of such an altruistic, sacrificial God is to be put into the path of life. To come under His provision and protection and to order our lives in light of His priorities are the initial steps back toward the garden from which we were banished after claiming our autonomy.

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