Much has been written on authority and how it relates to leadership. In the last few decades we’ve witnessed time and again a general lack of respect for authority and the crumbling of structures in which these authorities have operated. We’ve also generally been taught that those who reject authority are under condemnation. But is it also possible that those who claim authority are actually not “in authority” at all? And if that is the case should one seek out another spiritual authority?
Just last week I came across Watchman Nee’s Ten Commandments of Spiritual Authority. As a student of leadership I found his insights fascinating. I’ll make comments after each one.
1. One who learns spiritual authority as the power base for ministry must recognize the essential Source of all authority: God.
While many rely on their position granted to them by another human being, true spiritual authority can only stem from God. Positional leadership will always be limited in its power; people ultimately respect and follow the influence of one who is anointed with authority from above.
2. God’s delegated authority does not belong to the person exercising it – that person is just a channel.
Perhaps Andy Stanley says it best when expounding on a passage repeated four times in the book of Daniel (4:17, 4:25, 4:32, 5:21): “Leadership is a stewardship, it is temporary, and you’re accountable.” Nebuchadnezzar learned it the hard way but at least he “got it”! A later king—Belshazzar—treated his predecessor’s most important life lesson with contempt and lost everything including his life.
3. The channel of delegated authority is responsible to God for how that authority is exercised.
As often seen in the Biblical narrative, authority wrongly exercised by one, leads to another raised in his stead. Moses failed by not speaking to the rock and Joshua replaced him. As Saul became power hungry and consumed with self-preservation a young worshiper named David began his ascension to the throne.
4. A leader is one who recognizes God’s authority manifested in real-life situations.
A person who has spiritual influence is one who not only knows God but has also experienced God. His or her wisdom is derived from seeing God’s finger in the “normal stuff” of life and responding rightly to the means and methods of Sovereignty.
5. Subjection to authority means that a person is subjected to God Himself and not to the channel through which the authority comes.
Perhaps you’ve seen leaders who start out well with a desire to please only God, yet end up serving a system that God has seemingly withdrawn from. “Ichabod” (see 1 Samuel 4:21) is clearly written over the institution as it has become self-serving and no longer reveals the glory of God to its constituents. Instead of serving “an audience of One”, the leader now serves the structure or hierarchy that granted him his perceived position of authority.
6. Rebellion against authority means that a person is not subjecting himself to God, though it may appear that the person is rejecting some impure manifestation of God’s authority through a human channel.
Just this morning I was reading in Numbers 16 about the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On. They believed that Moses and Aaron had set themselves above everyone else apart from God’s authority. While Moses and Aaron were certainly human and thus prone to sin and failure, these rebels failed to understand that it was God’s authority they were questioning. They were struck down because they “treated the Lord with contempt” (16:30). Incidentally, not long after this event both Moses and Aaron also failed to subject themselves to God’s authority (20:12) and forfeited their privilege of entering the Promised Land.
7. People who are under God’s authority look for and recognize spiritual authority and willingly place themselves under it.
A centurion with great authority and power in the Roman world recognized Jesus’ Sovereign authority and humbly noted that he was undeserving of having audience with Him (see Luke 7:1-10). Jesus commended this man for his tremendous faith—something He could not say about His own people who should have recognized Him for Who He truly was.
8. Spiritual authority is never exercised for one’s own benefit, but for those under it.
The greatest model ever of this is Jesus of Nazareth. Entering our world as a vulnerable little baby and choosing poverty for circumstances rather than a palace, Jesus demonstrated that He wouldn’t take advantage of His heavenly position (Philippians 2:6). He instructs His disciples on authority in Matthew 20:25-28: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
9. A person in spiritual authority does not have to insist on obedience – that is the moral responsibility of the follower.
When a leader has to remind followers to obey his or her authority it may be a sign that the leader is no longer in authority. True followers who submit themselves to God’s authority will remove themselves from the influence of those who are simply blowing their own trumpet and seek out another leader where’s God’s authority is clearly evident. The men who followed David did that. And David removed himself from Saul’s authority as well—though perhaps more so for the preservation of his life than anything else.
10. God is responsible to defend spiritual authority.
When one who has spiritual authority is rejected it is not his or her responsibility to defend that authority. This principle is clearly seen in the Numbers 16 story alluded to earlier. In God’s words: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19).