Authority

(Excerpts from When Daddy Says Jump, by Walt Sterling)

  • Who rules?
  • Who claims to rule?
  • And upon what are those claims for ruling based?

Authority may exist by creative right.

For example, if someone created the world, then they have a unique and inherent authority over it as its creator. Similarly, all creators have a certain inherent authority over their creations.

My wife and I once created a mixing game to help everyone get acquainted at a party. As I walked around looking at each person’s puzzle, I commented to several people that they answered the puzzle incorrectly.

“What makes you so sure?” one person retorted defensively.

“Because I made up the game,” I replied, as he sheepishly turned his attention back to his game card.

A creator of any literary or artistic work has a creative authority to add, delete, or otherwise edit his or her work. A sculptor may decide to lop off the arm of a statue at will; however, spectators in the park do not have that right. A writer may revise his book; the general public cannot. A filmmaker may edit her film and market it under a different title; yet any other person attempting the same thing would warrant charges of theft, fraud and copyright violation.


Authority may also exist by natural right.

The sun has a natural authority to burn; the leaves of a tree have a natural authority to shade; gravity has a natural authority to hold things down.

These things do not create their own authority or gain it in any way; their authority exists due to their very nature.

Suppose a natural disaster decides to demolish your property? In the midst of a demolition spree, the disaster seems to shop around, “I’ll take three of these houses, this nice truck. No! Leave that place alone. A few of these, skip this street, smash that neighborhood to smithereens.”

What can we say or do? Can we shout to the hurricane that it has no right to do this? Can we curse the firestorm into submission? Shall we petition the deep freeze to thaw? No, not usually, because they affect us so by natural right.


Authority may be earned.

A small boy once delivered food to his older brothers on a battlefield. Arriving on the scene, he saw thousands of his nation’s warriors dismayed and terrified by one enemy giant who sauntered out every morning to defy them.

Yet, the young boy, incensed that his nation’s armies were fearful of this single man, decided to take care of the nine-foot giant himself. Handy with a sling, having protected his family’s flocks of sheep from lions and bears, the cloth-robed boy David of biblical fame took on the armored giant Goliath and killed him.

At that moment, David earned authority. He later became the ancient nation of Israel’s second king and reigned for forty years.


Authority may be given.

Such given authority often comes through an election, inauguration, ordination, or hiring.

I vividly remember moments of being given authority when I received my first house key, car keys, store keys and professional certifications.

Authority may be taken away.

“Turn in your badge,” “You’re fired!” or “Hand over your keys” often concludes one’s authority.

Election night humbles losing incumbents precisely because they will soon lose their current authority.

Divorce can traumatize people all the more because the divorce decree takes away their rights to engage in sexual relations with their former spouse; a divorcee cannot just show up and demand or even expect sex from their former partner. Divorce also ends the shared authority in other areas of marriage – like bank accounts, ownership of property, sometimes even authority over children.


Authority may be superseded.

What one court rules may be superseded by a higher court, i.e. a higher authority.

What society says is okay may be considered a sin by God.

Direct orders from a commanding officer may be nullified by conflicting, direct orders from a superlative officer.

However, rank alone does not necessarily imply a higher authority.

Consider the captain of a ship who, one foggy night, saw what looked like the lights of another ship heading toward him.

He had his radio operator contact the other ship with this message: “Change your course ten degrees to the south.”

Then came a reply, “Change your course ten degrees to the north.”

The captain answered, “I am a Captain – change your course ten degrees to the south.”

Another reply, “I am a Seaman First Class – change your course ten degrees to the north.”

This last reply infuriated the captain. He angrily fired a message back, “I am a battleship – change your course ten degrees to the south.”

Came the reply, “I am a lighthouse – change your course ten degrees to the north.”


Authority may exist and be recognized.

For example, Christians have historically accepted the writings contained in the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. Although there has been much ballyhoo castigating these holy texts, when the time came to fix the New Testament canon, the Church did not confer authority on the included books, but acknowledged by consensus the authority they already possessed because of their content, authors, and accepted standing among the people of their era.


Authority may exist and not be recognized.

When the man historically known as Jesus Christ went on trial before the judicial ruler of his day and time – Pontius Pilate – Pilate did not recognize him as having any authority.

Rather, Pilate saw an inferior Jew who refused to answer his questions.

In frustration, Pilate responded to his prisoner’s silence, “Don’t you know I have the power to crucify you and the power to release you?”

To which Jesus replied, “You would have no power at all against me, except that it has been given to you from above.”


Authority may be recognized, but still defied.

Children recognize parental authority, but defy parents anyway at times.

Criminals recognize civil authorities, but commit crimes anyway.

Three young men were once commanded to bow before a towering, ninety-foot tall gold image of the ancient Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. According to the king’s own decree, failure to obey meant death by burning in a fiery furnace.

Of course, the young men recognized Nebuchadnezzar’s authority, since they worked for him as governors over Babylon.

Yet, because of their Hebrew beliefs, they defied him anyway.

“Our God, whom we serve, is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if he doesn’t, we will not serve your gods, nor worship the golden image you have set up.”

King Nebuchadnezzar did not handle rejection of his authority very well. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than normal, and had his own governors bound and thrown in.

Amazingly, the men rose unbound, with not even a hair on their heads singed or their coats burned. Four men were seen walking around in the midst of the furnace, with the fourth described as looking ‘like a son of the gods.’ Obviously moved, the King brought his men out, decreed that no one should speak against their God again since He was obviously so great, and then gave the three men promotions in his administration.

In this unique case, at least, defiance of a recognized authority led to a happy ending.


Authority may not exist and be recognized anyway.

Following a concert in town, I observed numerous vehicles attempting to exit the parking lot. A bystander, dressed in jeans, a slouchy shirt, and carrying a backpack, evidently decided that it would be fun to direct traffic.

So, he stepped directly into the line of vehicles attempting to merge. As he held up his hands, one line of vehicles obediently stopped, while he waved another group on through, and vice versa.

This went on for about twenty minutes. Then, I suppose he had enough. He meandered on his way, leaving the rest of the drivers to exit on their own initiatives.

The young man had no legal authority, yet most drivers followed his leadership.


We may ridicule authority, or deny it.

A young woman believed she could fly and leapt off a bridge to prove it. However, gravity had more authority than her opinion.

An arrogant and angry man thought he could kill and get away with it.

‘They can’t do nothing to me,’ he bragged during his arrest.

However, society had more authority than his state of denial and he was eventually executed for his crimes.


Authority is relative, too.

For example, my going down the street to the corner store at a young age without permission was not necessarily wrong, except that an authority higher than myself (my mother) made it wrong.

There may be nothing wrong with driving fast or slow, except that authorities make it wrong in certain areas above and below certain speed limits.

Arguably, nothing is wrong with anything unless some authority somewhere defines certain things as inappropriate, wrong or downright sinful.

Battles over authority motivate war. Who controls the land? The people? Who rules? Where does the buck stop, and with whom does it stop?

War is ever present at all levels of society.

Try putting young kids to bed or getting them to leave the playground; there will be a fight over who rules.

Try teaching, where the main challenge in today’s society is not imparting knowledge, but in seeking to exercise some sort of authority over students.

Go to any meeting, travel with a group, go to a ballgame. What are the fights about? Who rules.

The player thinks he was safe; the umpire says he was out. So, they fight about it.

The owners want salary caps; the players don’t like the authority symbolized by salary caps. So, they fight about it.

Some people want to go to a steak place; others want to go to a fish place. So, they fight about it.

Certain committee members think money should be spent for so and so; others don’t. So, they fight about it.

And so on with almost every social issue.

Abortion. Who controls the mother’s body – the government, the mother, the father, or the baby? Who has authority over the unborn baby’s life?

Then there’s homosexuality, pornography, alcohol, drug and tobacco use.

Who has authority over what a person does with or to their own body, particularly in the privacy of one’s own home – the elected civil government, the appointed judicial government, the individuals involved, the next door neighbors, society as a whole, the church, or God?

If God, then who speaks for God? Or if the church, or if the government, who speaks for them?

Therefore, when it comes to understanding underlying assumptions in many circumstances, these are pertinent questions:

  1. Who claims authority?
  2. Upon what are the claims of authority based?
  3. Who actualizes authority?