The Christian & Government: Part 2–Distinction Between Authority and Power

In our introduction to this series, I tried to impress upon our readers that the Scripture teaches that all authority is from God, Who alone, arranges the extent and order of such. The Scriptures not only declare that it is the Sovereign God who limits this authority in the world, but these limits are to be observed by individuals, families, His Ecclesia, and most assuredly the civil governments. Indeed, the Bible makes clear that God has limited this authority in all of creation. Satan, that old serpent, is limited in the bounds of his actions as are all the heavenly hosts. There is only one God who is sovereign over all.

This freedom to act by the four agents mentioned earlier are confined to their realm of authority. That authority to act freely in the will of God is not to be trespassed by other authorities..

Let us now look at another bit of instruction needful for the Christian and for that matter all who would live in the greatest freedom possible. In verses three and four of Romans 13 it is declared: 

For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior [lit. good work], but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13:3,4 (NASB)

These verses determine the freedoms and restrictions placed upon governments with the people and this certain responsibility of the people to the government. it is clear that God’s standard for exercising this freedom to act is always in the realm of what He determines as good as revealed in His Word. Governing bodies have the authority to promote good. They are to reward the good and punish the evil. That is God’s arrangement for authority among men. The people are to do good works. They are to act righteously. Such is a world without evil. It is the standard for all who have authority. But you and I know that such is not a fact in this present world order. This has made me often think of government as being a necessary evil, but that is not the case. God has ordained governments for the good of society. The biblical role of government is not followed by sinful men, but it is clear that when governors act wickedly, they have no authority to do so from God. They do not serve His purpose as to the well-being of the people. God does allow evil governments to exercise His wrath, but that is a matter of which we are not now concerned.

There needs to be a clear distinction between authority and power. They are often used interchangeably but there is a distinction. Authority is the freedom to act; power is that which enforces that freedom. In His will both are His to give or take away. The problem is that governments use the power without the freedom to act as God’s servants. Every day judges act with assumed authority that is neither granted by the Constitution nor by the highest law of all, God’s. They do so because they assume the power and no one challenges it – hence the abuse of power.

An interesting case took place in the earlier history of America. The President observed the ruling of John Marshal, chief justice of the Supreme Court. He disagreed with Marshal and since the Executive branch of government executes or enforces the law and since all officials swear to defend and uphold the Constitution, the President said, “John Marshal made the decision, let him enforce it.” The point is that authority and power are not the same. A people may be abused by the power of armies, but not with the authority of God!

What must concern the Christian in his responsibility when governments act outside of their given authority and use the power of arms to enforce their will upon the people? We are living in a day when the people exist for the government rather than governments existing for the people. People are now resources for Big Brother. The tail now wags the dog, so to speak. The assumption of ownership by government is out of hand. Children no longer belong to the parents as gifts of God. Parents no longer have the right to raise and educate their children under God. The state has assumed ownership of all children. government schools (that is the public school system which is controlled by the government) now has almost unlimited power, but not authority, to act in behalf of children against the authority of God given only to the family under God. Such action fails to take into account the will  of God and the limits of authority which He alone gives to civil government. If governments are to take their rightful place in God’s world, then they must act under His authority and be guided by His rules.

Again, what is the Christian’s responsibility? We must, having the Gospel of God, for the salvation of men, preach it in all of its purity, not according to men, but according to the Word of God. We have the Word as the standard of righteousness, with which to remind those who represent God, who are to be His servants for good, that God will hold them accountable on that great day when He will reward the righteous and the unrighteous. We are to pray to our God to this end and we are to live righteous and holy lives before all men. Failure to recognize thee truths by all parties will bring down His judgment, and time is running out.