“Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God.”
– Romans 13:1
The above words of the Apostle Paul are directed primarily to governmental authorities, those who have the right to ‘bear the sword’ and ‘avenge’ injustice (Romans 13:4) for the purpose of keeping order. And as Paul wrote, their authority is relative, meaning it is subject to a supreme authority – the absolute authority of God. But the principle of relative authority extends beyond the governments. It applies in all organizational arrangements whether they be in government, in the workplace, in the home, even in religious associations. As such, we all find ourselves subject to two types of authorities simultaneously. We can be loyal and obedient to relative authorities, but unconditional absolute loyalty and obedience is due only to God.
Unfortunately, the principle of relative authority and relative subjection has been distorted in the religious context. Some religious authorities have encroached upon the absolute authority of God, claiming themselves worthy of absolute subjection and unquestioned obedience from its members. They assert this authority under the misunderstood guise of Theocracy.
The Pretext of Theocracy
Those who assert their authority by way of theocracy define theocracy as ‘God rule’ by way of semantics – ‘theo’ meaning God and ‘cracy’ meaning government. They believe that their authority is divinely appointed whereby they are authorized to receive absolute and unconditional subjection from its members. This is gross error on so many levels. Let us consider a few of those levels.
First, theocracy is a qualifying and delimiting term. This means that it does not refer to all authority; it only refers to a segment of authority that can be isolated from other types of authority. The use of the term inherently recognizes other types of authorities, i.e., democracies, aristocracies, meritocracies, that are different and distinct from theocracy. Whereas the authority of God is absolute and all encompassing. It is without limitation, without qualification or definition, and it itself overshadows all other types of authority. A theocracy does not. No theocracy claims worldwide authority over everyone and everything on the face of the earth and in the heavens; whereas God rule does.
“On account of this I bend my knees to the Father, to whom every family in heaven and on earth owes its name.”
– Ephesians 3:14-15
We might look at God’s authority as a pie, and theocracy, democracy, etc., as slices of the pie. Accordingly, theocracy is also a relative authority, not absolute or the equivalent of ‘God rule.’
Second, theocracy is carried out by imperfect and fallible men, thus their rulership is imperfect and fallible. This point alone demonstrates that a theocracy is not divine rulership. A theocracy can, and does, err. We need only to look at the history of so-called theocracies and see how many times they changed their doctrines and theologies that they once heralded as the word of God, how many times they changed their opinions of certain people whom they once either extolled or condemned, and how many times they came to accept the very thing they opposed and judged as evil in prior years.
Truly, absolute subjection to an inferior authority will only lead its subjects to a dead end:
“Do not put your trust in nobles, Nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs. His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; In that day his thoughts do perish.”
– Psalms 146:3-4
On the other hand, God-rule is perfect, complete and error-free. It is headed by an eternal and perfect being and it’s decrees are everlasting and unchanging.
“In this manner God, when he purposed to demonstrate more abundantly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of his counsel, stepped in with an oath, in order that, through two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to the refuge may have strong encouragement to lay hold on the hope set before us.”
– Hebrews 6:17-18
Nevertheless, man’s understanding of the everlasting and unchanging doctrines is progressive, hence the danger of giving absolute obedience and loyalty to a theocracy!
Third, theocracy is more accurately defined as ‘priest-rule’ in that those who operate a theocracy are of a priestly or priest-like class. No theocracy is run by common laymen, otherwise it would be called a democracy. It is important to note that a theocracy in itself is not an invalid or disapproved authority. A religious association requires some type of oversight or administration. It is a valid relative authority.
“Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account; that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to you.”
– Hebrews 13:17
However, a so-called theocracy also has the most potential for insidious and reprehensible behavior. One need only look at what has been perpetrated in the name of religion. Some of the most heinous crimes in history have been, and are being, committed at the direction of some type of theocracy. The first century Jewish religious leaders were one type of insidious theocracy:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent forth to her,—how often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks together under her wings! But you people did not want it. Look! Your house is abandoned to you.”
– Matthew 23:37-38
The Apostle Paul wrote about another such theocracy in his letter to the brothers in Thessalonica:
“Let no one seduce you in any manner, because it will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness gets revealed, the son of destruction. He is set in opposition and lifts himself up over everyone who is called “god” or an object of reverence, so that he sits down in the temple of The God, publicly showing himself to be a god. Do you not remember that, while I was yet with you, I used to tell you these things?”
– 2 Thessalonians 2:3-5
So while an organization of religious leaders can justifiably claim that their rulership is a theocracy, we must understand what a theocracy is. It is priest rule, not God rule and therefore, we must be ever on guard against its potential for error. Those who seek perfect divine guidance must go to the source and follow its leadings above and beyond any claims of inspired direction by men or theocracies.
The Absolute Authority Given to Jesus
The Father alone is the absolute one with unquestioned authority and due unquestioned loyalty and obedience. He was not given this authority, nor did He have to earn it. He always had it by virtue of the fact that He exists. He is the source of all authority and He alone decides to whom and how much of it He gives.
“By the decree of watchers the thing is, and [by] the saying of holy ones the request is, to the intent that people living may know that the Most High is Ruler in the kingdom of mankind and that to the one whom he wants to, he gives it and he sets up over it even the lowliest one of mankind.”
– Daniel 4:17
As noted above, the Father gave relative authority over various areas of human life to men. But to His son, Christ Jesus, He gave absolute authority over everything in this universe.
“I kept on beholding in the visions of the night, and, see there! with the clouds of the heavens someone like a son of man happened to be coming; and to the Ancient of Days he gained access, and they brought him up close even before that One. And to him there were given rulership and dignity and kingdom, that the peoples, national groups and languages should all serve even him. His rulership is an indefinitely lasting rulership that will not pass away, and his kingdom one that will not be brought to ruin.”
– Daniel 7:13-14
“And Jesus approached and spoke to them, saying: “All authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth.”
– Matthew 28:18
“It is according to the operation of the mightiness of his strength, with which he has operated in the case of the Christ when he raised him up from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above every government and authority and power and lordship and every name named, not only in this system of things, but also in that to come. He also subjected all things under his feet, and made him head over all things to the congregation, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills up all things in all.”
– Ephesians 1:19-23
Of course, this is with the exception of the Father Himself. In other words, Jesus was not given authority over the Father.
“For [God] “subjected all things under his feet.” But when he says that ‘all things have been subjected,’ it is evident that it is with the exception of the one who subjected all things to him.”
– 1 Corinthians 15:27
But over every democracy, every theocracy, every form of government or authority, Jesus has absolute authority. He has not given up that authority to men. He remains in that capacity down to this day in spite of whatever theocrats may claim. At best, man has been given a ministry, a commission to spread Jesus’ absolute authority to the ends of the earth. This commission carries with it relative authority to administer and oversee procedural matters. But it does not allow men to establish new rules or teachings that contradict, circumvent or override those of Jesus. And whenever such a conflict does arise, relative subjection requires the subjects to ignore the relative authority on that issue. For example, Jesus taught:
“But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One.”
– Matthew 23:8-9
“However, as many as did receive him, to them he gave authority to become God’s children, because they were exercising faith in his name; and they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from God.”
– John 1:12-13
However, when men teach that only 144,000 are brothers and the rest are friends, or that God is the Father only of 144,000 and friend to the rest, they are overstepping and invalidating Jesus’ authority. Such conflicting teachings by men or theocracies should be ignored.
Jesus also taught:
“Accordingly Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to you, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life, and I shall resurrect him at the last day.”
– John 6:53-54
But when men teach that only 144,000 can eat and drink Jesus’ symbolic flesh and blood, they are overstepping and invalidating Jesus’ authority. Such conflicting teachings of men or theocracies should again be ignored.
“When the Son of man arrives in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit down on his glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will put the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. “Then he will say, in turn, to those on his left, ‘Be on your way from me, you who have been cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.”
– Matthew 25:31-34, 42
But when men teach that most of those approved by God do not inherit the kingdom, but can live on the earth as a third option, they are overstepping and invalidating Jesus’ authority. Such conflicting teachings of men or theocracies should likewise be ignored.
It is the same with the illustration of the ‘wheat and the weeds.’ (Matthew 13:24-30) If the wheat are the anointed Christians and the weeds are false Christians, who are the ones with the ‘earthly hope?’ Where do they make a showing? Jesus repeatedly illustrated only two destinies – life in heaven or everlasting death. He never presented a third option!
Further, Jesus taught:
“I am the door; whoever enters through me will be saved, and he will go in and out and find pasturage.”
– John 10:9
“I am the fine shepherd, and I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”
– John 10:14
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
– John 14:6
But when men claim to be ‘the way’ to salvation or ‘the ark of salvation’ such that the only way to get saved is to be in association with them, they are overstepping and invalidating Jesus’ authority and their worship is in vain. (Matthew 15:9)
The Protection of Relative Subjection
When Jesus left earth and returned to heaven, he did not leave us alone to the authority of men. He sent a divine helper to be with us and to guide us to all truth:
“I have many things yet to say to you, but you are not able to bear them at present. However, when that one arrives, the spirit of the truth, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak of his own impulse, but what things he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things coming. That one will glorify me, because he will receive from what is mine and will declare it to you.”
– John 16:12-14
We wrote about this extensively in articles such as Lastly He Sent His Son and The Reality of the Spirit of Truth. We notice that this divine helper does not try to usurp Jesus’ teachings or his authority. He speaks only what Jesus gave him to speak – his plain and open teachings. Therefore, if a divine guide will not add on ideas originating from ‘his own impulse,’ how much more so should human guides likewise refrain. There is practical, as well as everlasting, value in appreciating the relative authority of men, especially in the area of religion.
When we properly understand the difference between relative and absolute subjection, we are protected from abuse and lasting harm because abuse arises mostly in the context of mistaken and misplaced authority.
In the home, spousal abuse arises only when one spouse has assumed more authority than he or she has rightly been given, and when the other spouse subjects him or herself to the improperly assumed authority as though it were absolute. True, in the family arrangement, God has given the greater accountability to the husband. But that is a duty and an obligation, not a privilege or a reward. He is obligated to treat his wife with special consideration with the same love and support as Christ treats the congregation.
“Husbands, continue loving your wives, just as the Christ also loved the congregation and delivered up himself for it, that he might sanctify it, cleansing it with the bath of water by means of the word, that he might present the congregation to himself in its splendor, not having a spot or a wrinkle or any of such things, but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
– Ephesians 5:25-27
Also, in general, children are subject to adults, but that subjection is also relative.
“Children, be obedient to your parents in union with [the] Lord, for this is righteous: ‘Honor your father and [your] mother’; which is the first command with a promise: ‘That it may go well with you and you may endure a long time on the earth.’ And you, fathers, do not be irritating your children, but go on bringing them up in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.”
– Ephesians 6:1-4
Abuse of children arises when adults assume more authority than they are rightly given, and when children are not taught the meaning and application of relative subjection. Children are the weakest members of civilized society. For that reason, they must be taught that they do not owe every adult absolute obedience. They owe them respect, but they can be taught to respectfully decline an adult’s improper authority. How much sexual abuse of children could be avoided if our children are taught relative subjection!
And in the congregation, relative subjection can prevent all types of religious abuse. When members do not allow themselves to be mesmerized by a claim of divine authority by a theocracy, they can act in their own best interests, while at the same time giving proper respect to those taking the lead. (Hebrews 13:7) While a congregation overseer has authority to make sure the meetings take place decently and by arrangement (1 Corinthians 14:40), they are not the masters over the member’s faith.
“Now I call upon God as a witness against my own soul that it is to spare you that I have not yet come to Corinth. Not that we are the masters over your faith, but we are fellow workers for your joy, for it is by [your] faith that you are standing.”
– 2 Corinthians 1:23-24
Those taking the lead are not authorized to demand absolute or unquestioned obedience. Those men who do expect unquestioned obedience are snatching away your spiritual freedom and revealing a weakness in their own spirit. They are openly establishing that they do not understand relative subjection and that they have not subjected themselves absolutely to the Christ!
When men demand unquestioned loyalty and obedience, those subject to that authority must ask themselves, Is it worth it? The Father has promised everlasting life to those who exclusively obey Christ Jesus.
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.”
– John 3:16
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone that beholds the Son and exercises faith in him should have everlasting life, and I will resurrect him at the last day.”
– John 6:40
“This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.”
– John 17:3
“Most truly I say to you, He that hears my word and believes him that sent me has everlasting life, and he does not come into judgment but has passed over from death to life.”
– John 5:24
But what does a man or a body of men offer for unquestioned obedience to them? Of course, those who are willing to give unquestioned obedience will be in good standing in the eyes of those men and they may be given certain privileges and honors. But what if their direction and guidance is wrong? Will they be able to compensate you for your loss? What promises or guarantees does a theocracy offer that could be equal to what the Father offers? What powers do they have to fulfill their promises? Can they appeal to God on your behalf and explain away your misstep? Jesus said:
“If, then, a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
– Matthew 15:14
Blind leaders will be in no better position that those who followed them into the pit. They will not be able to offer everlasting life to themselves let alone others, nor will they be in a position to plead on your behalf. How foolish to trust your everlasting salvation to a self-proclaimed theocracy that has no authority or power to save even themselves!
How much wiser to respond as did Peter and the apostles when confronted with the commands of a relative religious authority:
“So they brought them and stood them in the Sanhedrin hall. And the high priest questioned them and said: “We positively ordered you not to keep teaching upon the basis of this name, and yet, look! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you are determined to bring the blood of this man upon us.” In answer Peter and the [other] apostles said: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men. The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you slew, hanging him upon a stake. God exalted this one as Chief Agent and Savior to his right hand, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these matters, and so is the holy spirit, which God has given to those obeying him as ruler.”
– Acts 5:27-32
Better to stay loyal to the Father’s absolute authority and respectfully reject any presumptuous demands for allegiance from a theocracy!
Honoring One’s Relative Authority
All those in positions of oversight must take stock of their own faith and realize that they are appointed to serve, not to command. They should be cautious about interfering in the faith of another, or demanding unquestioned allegiance and obedience. Otherwise, they may find themselves opposers actually against God.
“And so, under the present circumstances, I say to you, Do not meddle with these men, but let them alone; (because, if this scheme or this work is from men, it will be overthrown; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them;) otherwise, you may perhaps be found fighters actually against God.”
– Acts 5:38-39
The directions given or teachings rendered by religious authorities should be administered by those who understand fully the responsibility of oversight and their relative authority. As long as they remain fallible, imperfect and subject to change, they must bear in mind the cost of stumbling one of the little ones or the ‘least of those’ (Matthew 25:40, 45) over whom they have authority.
“Therefore, whoever will humble himself like this young child is the one that is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens; and whoever receives one such young child on the basis of my name receives me [also]. But whoever stumbles one of these little ones who put faith in me, it is more beneficial for him to have hung around his neck a millstone such as is turned by an ass and to be sunk in the wide, open sea.”
– Matthew 18:4-6
Those taking the lead must have deep respect for those who willingly give attention to their relative authority and must always be mindful not to infringe upon personal choice and the allowance of spiritual freedom that the Father has so freely given all. They must remember that the Spirit of Truth was poured ‘upon every sort of flesh’ (Acts 2:17), not just the ones taking the lead, according to the capacity of each one to understand. What a blessing and honor to have at our side the Father’s perfect channel, His flawless helper, and His infallible comforter.
A proper view of their relative authority will give birth to a mutual and sincere search for absolute truth. That approach in and of itself breeds humility for both the authoritative figure and the willing and attentive student as each person understands that he will render an accounting for his actions in connection with the Kingdom. As a result, a spiritual brotherhood arises where the fruitage of the spirit and the law of the Christ reigns supreme in the hearts of all who submit to his God-given absolute authority.
The Father has granted absolute authority over the affairs of man to his son, Christ Jesus. Jesus has not delegated that authority to any man or body of men. Jesus continues active and involved in the lives of those who honor him. (Matthew 18:20; 28:18-20) The highest regard that the Father’s children can give to the Father is to recognize the difference between relative and absolute authority, knowing that absolute always trumps relative whether in government, in the work place, in the home, or in the congregation. And they must demand and give only relative loyalty and obedience to men and organizations if they are to honor the Father's perfect will and purpose.
To all who honor the Father in this way, we welcome your comments.