Authority: A Definition

By Paul Bright

In 1857, in Historie Contemporaine, no. 79, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin is quoted as saying, “There go my people. Ah well! I am their leader, I really ought to follow them.”  

If there is one common trait in the American ethos, it is the universal belief in the fundamental right for rebellion. American history is filled with the philosophical and moral underpinnings to support the idea of independence, and to provide codified statements on the right of revolution. The inception of our nation is itself a providential outworking of throwing off authority in the name of a higher authority.

The teachings of Maximilien Robespierre, who headed the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror, are seen in the actions and reactions across the landscape of U.S. culture: “Terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible. It is then an emanation of virtue.” “Pity is treason.”

Defining Authority: A Governance of Relationships and Resources

Permit, then, this article to define authority, as a bulwark against the trend towards anarchy and the consequence of the chaos from mob rule. Authority, in its essence, is a governance of relationships and resources. It is not an abstract substance on its own but is a determination from a personal agent or agents with respect to each other. 

The expression of authority requires at least two personal agents with potential determinations and resources in relation to each other. Functionally, authority is the right or power to rule, influence or reign over a sphere, gather and commit resources, command with an expectation of obedience, create, assign value, legislate, interpret, judge, and reward. 

1) Authority is the Right and Power to Rule

First, authority is the right or power to rule. “To have authority” is equivalent to “to have the right or power to…” The right or power to rule is understood in the root of the Greek word for authority, exousia, which understands the right arising from the being or substance of the entity in question. With God, authority is natural, axiomatic, absolute, integral, and unconditional to God’s being. With man, authority is derived, granted, limited in scope, manner, and duration, and conditional to man’s being and role.

2) Authority is the Influence or Reign Over a Sphere

Second, authority is the influence or reign over a sphere. This aspect of authority looks at authority over a domain, whether geographical, political, or economical. In one sense, the right to rule includes a realm over which that right is expressed. The basic understanding of kingdom or domain is in this outworking of authority. 

Look at Luke 23:7, “When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.” When determining the place from which Jesus came (Galilee), he sent Jesus to the authority over that region. Authority has boundaries within a determined sphere or area or custom. Frequently, conflicts and covenants between the personal agents are due to these boundaries.

3) Authority Includes the Decisions to Gather and Commit Resources

Third, authority includes the decisions to gather and commit resources, which includes decisions to construct, conquer, tax, extract, gather labor, whether temporarily or in perpetuity. The Hebrew word mispath, which is normally the word translated as judgment, also means decision, a series of decisions, and thus a custom or manner. 

Look at First Samuel 8:10-18. If one removes the calamitous warning in the passage and the fatal flaw in humanity for the love of self and the abuse of authority, one sees this attribute of authority here. What is being described is the manner that the king will have in relation to the ability to commit resources: build an army, with infantry (v.11b) and commanders (v. 12); gather food and have weapons made (v. 12); gather resources to his house for his own pleasure (v. 13); take resources and reappoint them to secure his own position (v.14); he will institute a tax on the economy to uphold the pay of his army and his household (v. 15); he will take additional possessions via a tax to enlarge his own work and his own possessions (vv. 16-17), including the very people who asked for him (v. 17b).

4) Authority Includes Commands or Laws with an Expectation of Obedience

Fourth, authority includes commands or laws with an expectation of obedience. Arguably, this is the most internally displeasing attribute of authority to human nature, but it is a real and substantive element between personal agents. Consider Numbers 27:20, at the appointment of Joshua in the place of Moses as the leader of the congregation of Israel, “You shall put some of your authority on him, in order that all the congregation of the sons of Israel may obey him.” 

The appointment of Joshua in the place of Moses as the leader of the congregation of Israel into a position of authority was to expect Israel’s obedience.

“You shall put some of your authority on him, so that all the congregation of the sons of Israel may obey him.” (Numbers 27:20) 

Notice, commissioning into a position of authority had the purpose (uses the preposition lima’an, meaning for the intent or to the end that) to expect Israel’s obedience. Also, look again at the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20. “Therefore” links the commands of this verse to the preceding (“all authority”), and the central command is ‘make disciples,’ who will be taught ‘to observe all that I commanded you.’ The Great Commission shows that authority includes the right to command and expect obedience. 

Finally, Luke 17:7-10 is a parable on the obligation of the servant to perform his duty for his master. The principle that the master expects obedience is particularly driven home by the command of Jesus in what a disciple would think in v. 10 (use of opheilo—to be indebted, to have an obligation based on circumstance).

In short, the requirement of obedience to commands is the bedrock of authority.

5) Authority Includes the Creation and Assignment of Position, Role, and Goal

Fifth, authority includes the creation and assignment of position, role, and goal for the object or personal agent. The argument of Romans 9:21 rests upon the presupposition that the authority of a creator includes determining the design or use for whatever is created. “Does not the potter have the right to make…” The lexical words and structure of the question assumes a ‘yes’ response.

Again, human nature rejects the idea that the moral agent of mankind has a particular design or use by a greater authority, which is the cor conflictus (heart of the problem). Philosophically, post-modernism posits a subjective, egalitarian solution: each person is one’s own creator and designer, and no creator has any rights greater than another.

6) Authority Creates and Regulates Value

Sixth, value is created and regulated by an authority. The system of economics is derived from assigned standards. For example, the ‘gold standard’ was the assigned value for the dollar, by the U.S. government. However, value is not limited merely to financial expressions, but the idea of economics philosophically extends into metaphysics, such as life, liberty, happiness, and how such goals are achieved or protected.

To be able to assign value is the role of the personal agent(s) in authority. To recognize and submit to the determination of value or worth is the role of personal agent(s) under authority.

Consider Proverbs 16:11: “A just balance and scales belong to the LORD; all the weights of the bag are His work.” This is due to the command by the LORD in Leviticus 19:35-36, “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin; I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

The ending formula reminds the Israelites of the authoritative covenant that YHWH has over them and the result of that covenant for the one in authority (YHWH) to set the values. Economic value is set by the higher authority.

In contrast, the value of persons is set higher. The word for glory (Hebrew kavod ) overlaps with the concept weight, and glory at its heart is explicit to the nature of God as a value that God assigns to Himself. Personal agents seek value or that which is more valuable. The parable of the pearl of great price is an example of value, determined by the person, and comparing the value of two things in relation to each other, and seeking the higher value.

However, when there is subjective egalitarianism from post-modernism, value is meaningless, purposeless, and powerless.

To be able to assign value is the role of the personal agent(s) in authority.

To recognize and submit to the determination of value or worth is the role of personal agent(s) under authority.

7) Authority Includes the Right to Make Laws

Seventh, the right to make laws is also part of authority. Examine Exodus 19:8, with an oath that ratified the bilateral covenant in relation to the law of the Suzerain, which is codified in Exodus 20, and legal case examples beginning in chapter 21. Also, compare Acts 15 and the judgment of the Jerusalem church to legislate the Gentiles’ behavior (vv.19-21), which resulted in an official letter (v. 23) from the whole of the rulers (v.22) with commissioned men (vv, 22, 30). 

Legislation is designed to define, declare, and regulate the means by which personal agents under the laws might know how to make decisions as moral agents for the greater value and merit of both the unity of the relationship of the whole and for the greater benefit of the self.

8) Authority Includes the Right to Divide and Discern Between Moral Good and Bad

Eighth, authority includes the right to divide and discern between good and bad, as moral categories. Righteousness and wickedness presuppose an authority that has defined the substance, the expression, the motives, and the conduct associated with categories of good and evil, noble and ignoble, and true and false. With man, this authority remains even when those in the position of authority are frequent betrayers in their own conduct of the interpretations they make.

Consider Matt 23:2-3, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore, all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds.” Marxism as a political system rejects the belief of objective righteousness through divine image and revelation, subjectively experienced by the conscience of the individual and necessarily expressed in the governance of those persons through the government itself under the objective definition. Instead, Marxism posits that the state itself is the highest authority that defines righteousness and bypasses the individual for the collective.

9) Authority Includes the Power to Enact Judgment

Ninth, authority includes the power to enact judgment. To judge includes the right to hear evidence, give judicial sentence, and mete out punishment according to penal standards designed by the same authority. Compare the attribute of judgment in authority with John 18:31: “Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not legally granted to us to put anyone to death.’”   

Justice is the desired result of all stages of judgment. It is the state in which the persons under authority seek to find themselves in relation to authority and authority in relation to them. Logically then, the belief that one is a justice warrior in a mob executing justice is contradictory and accomplishes no justice at all.

Violent reactions of angry mobs do not, cannot, and will not accomplish justice nor the resultant contented public and private peace that comes from a state of justice. Mob justice specializes in three things: first, violence and the threat of violence as a motivation for fear; two, in manipulation of evidence; and three, a capitalization of victimization and grievance by appeal to a larger mob against the supposive tyranny of authority when the authority responds with punishment.

The requirement of obedience to commands is the bedrock of authority.

10) Authority has the Right to Recognize Merit on Its Own Determination

Finally, authority has the right to recognize merit or reward, based on its own determination. Consider Matt. 20:15, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?” in the context of giving ‘reward’ and ‘earnings’ to the day laborers. The authority to give rewards to whatever degree is in relation to the one in authority.

Fairness and equity are words that exist in the linguistics of merit and rewards in relation to labor offered.

Grace, forgiveness, indebtedness, and pardon are words that also exist in the realm of reward but are often granted based on the freedom of the authority to release the other person from the merit required. 

Rewards can be as tangible as property, inheritance, and money or as intangible as legal status or familial position.

Defining Authority

In the end, authority is multi-faceted in its functionality within and between persons. With a clear definition of authority and the functional rights clearly understood, the question is whether the personal agents who utilize authority in all its expressions can value together a greatest good.

Paul Bright profile headshot

Paul Bright currently works in the field of Biotechnology. He is a native of Evansville, IN, and an alumnus of Purdue University and The Master’s Seminary. Paul was a Systematic Theology and Ancient Hebrew professor in Samara, Russia. He and his wife, Jennifer, homeschooled their daughter all the way through high school and currently reside in Covington, Louisiana.

You can read Paul’s other contributions here.