“Authority”—What Does It Mean?
The term “authority” has various meanings depending on the context where the word is used. Since our concern is with understanding and appreciating our need to have authority from God, we will focus on the definition as it is used in the biblical sense. Webster’s defines “authority” as “the power to give orders or make decisions; power to direct or control someone or something; power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior; freedom granted by one in authority: right” (m-w.com). These definitions show that we, in our modern times, use the word “authority” in the same way and with the same meaning as we find in New Testament usage.
“Authority”—“Right, Permission, Freedom”
The Greek word most often translated “authority” (exousia) in the New Testament basically means: “right, permission, freedom.” Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol.2, p.560) states that the word translated “authority” means: “the right over something… permission, freedom.” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (p.225) gives four meanings of the word translated “authority”: “1. Power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases; leave or permission. 2. Physical and mental power; the ability or strength with which one is endued, which he either possesses or exercises. 3. The power of authority (influence) and of right. 4. The power of rule or government (the power of him whose will and commands must be submitted to by others and obeyed).”
“Authority”—the Right to Rule or Govern
In some contexts “authority” essentially means the right, permission or freedom to rule or to govern. In Matthew 8:9, the centurion said: “…I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” The centurion affirmed that there were superior officials over him with the right to rule or govern him; also the centurion had the authority over, meaning the right to rule or govern, soldiers under his command. By this statement he was affirming his faith in Jesus’ authority, His right to rule or govern and command, the necessary resources to heal the paralyzed servant.
The Bible teaches that God, as the Creator of all, has the independent, absolute authority to rule and govern His Creation, including all mankind. “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power (Greek word exousia, meaning authority) over the clay…?” (Romans 9:20-21). David acknowledged God’s right to rule His creation when he blessed the Lord stating: “that all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours; Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and You are exalted as head over all…and You reign over all…” (1Chronicles 29:11-12). After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, God “seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion…and He put all things under His feet and gave Him to be head over all things to the church…” (Ephesians 1:20-22). This is why we contend the teachings and practices of the church must be prescribed by the head (meaning Lord or Master) of the church, the One who has the right to rule and govern, Jesus Christ. By the very definition (see Thayer’s definition # 4 above) of “authority,” Jesus’ power to rule and govern His church means His “will and commands must be submitted to by others and obeyed.”
“Authority”—the Right to Act
The word “authority” is also used in the New Testament to mean “the right, permission or freedom to act…the right to do something” (Kittel’s Vol.2, p 560). “The chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?’” (Matthew 21:23). These religious leaders, even though they were mistaken about a host of religious questions, understood the meaning and import of authority. They challenged Jesus to cite a proper source of authority for what He was doing: “who gave You this authority?” Only someone with the “right to rule or govern” would be recognized as an accepted authority. They also challenged Jesus to state what authority gave Him the right, permission or freedom to act…the right to do what He was doing: “by what authority are You doing these things?” It is further made clear (vs.24-27) that these religious leaders understood that authority from “heaven” (i.e. from God) would settle the matter of Jesus’ authority to do what He was doing. This is why we contend that if some teaching or practice is not authorized from God’s word, then we have no right to act, no freedom or permission from “heaven” to do what we propose to do.
God’s “Right to Rule” Determines Our “Right to Act”
Paul said to the faithful brethren in Christ in the church at Colossae: “…whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus…” (Colossians 3:17). Our “right to act” in word (i.e. teaching) or deed (i.e. practice) must be given to us “in the name of (by the authority of) the Lord.” The title “Lord” identifies Jesus as the One who is supreme in authority and has the ultimate right to rule, the right to command what we do in word or deed. Jesus said to His apostles: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:19). By claiming to have “all authority,” Jesus was affirming His exclusive right to rule or govern; He alone (not man) has the right to command, and expect our submission and obedience. “Christ is the head of the church…the church is subject to Christ…in everything” (Ephesians 5:23-24). The practical meaning of “authority” is the church has no right to act apart from Jesus Christ’s right to rule or govern. Our “right to act” in regard to the work, organization, worship, and teaching of the church must come from “the Lord Jesus,” the exalted head of the church.