"Delegated Authority"

Gaylon Embrey

n and earlier episode (The Examiner, November, 1990)1 touched briefly on the concept of "delegated authority" as understood and taught in many church circles today. Correspondence has since come in asking questions that indicate I did not make myself completely clear the first time out. This, plus the fact that the theory deserves a more thorough examination than it has received, is what lies behind these additional comments on the subject.

Jesus has all authority. He said so, and no one who believes Him denies it. But if this be the case, how can anyone else have any authority? The question creates a problem, especially for those who are committed to the notion that there are men today (elders) who sit in positions of religious authority, whose word must be obeyed or else. In order to find a way for Jesus to have "ALL authority" and yet for certain men here on earth to have a lot of authority also, someone back down the way came up with the idea of "delegated authority." That is to say, Jesus has all authority all right; but he has "delegated" a portion of it to others. One brother even argued in print that if Jesus has all authority, then he must have the authority to delegate a part of his authority to others. No one can argue with this. However, it is not a question of whether Jesus COULD delegate authority to someone else. The question is, DID he?

First off, perhaps something needs to be said about what is involved in the delegation of authority as presently being discussed. The verb "delegate" means "to entrust to another." What is entrusted in this case is "authority," the right to command others, hence the right to be obeyed. If the authority entrusted to a person is religious, this must mean that person has been given the right to "authorize" what should or should not be done in the realm of religion. If he does not receive the power to authorize or prohibit the religious activities of others, then no REAL authority has been given to him.

Look again at the apostles in this regard. It is said that authority was "delegated" to them. WAS IT? Yes, there is a verse or two that sounds that way. In Matthew 16:19, after the great confession made by Simon Peter, Jesus said, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." In a similar passage Jesus said to all the apostles, "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (Jn. 20:23). How do we understand these passages? Do we understand Jesus to be "delegating" to the apostles the authority to decide who will be forgiven and on what basis? Do we interpret Matthew 16:19 to mean that Jesus was giving to Peter (and perhaps the rest) the right to bind/loose certain duties upon mankind and that God in heaven would merely rubberstamp whatever THEY decided? Was Christ giving the apostles a spiritual Power of Attorney, so they could in his absence decide on the disposition of heavenly blessings? I doubt seriously that any of us think this is what Jesus was saying. I suspect most of us understand that such decisions were really made by God, and the apostles were sent out to make known on earth what had been bound or loosed in heaven. Therefore what was bound was bound in both places, what was loosed was loosed in both places. But the apostles were not the decision-makers in this matter -- WERE THEY? Yes, the apostles spoke with divine authority. But why? As I see it, they spoke with authority because they "received the Spirit" and spoke as the Spirit gave them utterance. Consequently they were speaking the true message of God without error. Now if someone wishes to call this "delegated authority" it may be OK, as long as they make clear what they mean by this. If they mean the apostles were the chosen representatives of Christ, and as such delivered HIS word to the world, then fine. If they mean that the apostles were given actual authority to exercise on their own, as they saw fit, with the understanding that God would stand behind the authoritative decisions they made, then we have a problem. It is the same problem the Catholics have.

Let me try to explain it this way. There are two ways in which a person can speak with authority from a delegated position. Suppose for a moment that you are the Big Boss, the sole owner of a manufacturing plant. I work for you, say as your Plant Manager. But you are still the "One Boss" (Eph. 4:5) totally in control of the whole operation. From time to time you may give me specific instructions to deliver to all workers in the plant. You say, "Give them this message for me. Tell them that I said for them to do this, that and the other." Now when I deliver your message, I have spoken "with authority." The workers will have to start doing "this, that and the other" or risk the consequences of being fired. In this situation, those workers who disobey me, disobey you. Why? Because all I have done is give them YOUR orders. As far as I can see, this is all the apostles did. But suppose you "delegate" authority to me in another, different way. Suppose you authorize me to run the plant (within certain guidelines) anyway I choose. You turn it all over to me. Then you inform all the workers that you have put me "in charge of operations." Therefore anything I say goes. In this case, REAL authority has been granted to me. For now I am the one making the daily decisions. I dictate the orders, I issue the directives, I make up the rules on my own without consulting you. And the workers have to obey me. If they disobey me, they disobey you. Why? Because you have "delegated" to me the authority to run things. In this arrangement you, the Boss, simply honor my decisions. Is this what Jesus did with the apostles? Is this the kind of authority he "delegated" to them? I think now. Paul, an apostle, said two things about his teachings. Actually he said one thing two ways. He said, "I have received of the Lord that which I also delivered unto you." He also said, "I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received" (1 Cor. 11:23,1 Cor. 15:3). He did not deliver to the Corinthians that he CONCEIVED, but what he RECEIVED from the Lord.This is why we read Paul so industriously. His were indeed "the commandments of the Lord"(1 Cor. 14:37). They were the commandments of the Lord, not because the Lord had given Paul the high privilege of making up those commandments; they were commands that originated with the Lord, then were taught with inspired accuracy and authority by the apostle.

The point? Simply that the apostles themselves were never given the kind of authority being advocated today on behalf of elders. For that matter, Jesus himself did not claim this kind of authority. He said, "I have not spoken of myself; but the Father that sent me gave me a commandment, what I should say and what I should speak" (Jn. 12:49). How on earth then can men today, uninspired at that, claim that they HAVE been given the authority to speak "of themselves," and that what they speak MUST be obeyed. Such a notion is incredible.

Let us now look a little further at this "line of (delegated) authority" as it is usually laid out. At the top is God of course. He is the ultimate authority or power. But God "delegated" all authority to His Son Jesus (Matt. 28:18-19). Jesus in turn "delegated" some authority to the apostles. Through their teachings the apostles "delegated" a degree of authority to elders. This is how the "chain of command" is spelled out. Those committed to this reasoning will then make the argument that anyone who rebels against Gods duly constituted authority rebels against God Himself. The bottom line always comes down to this: anyone who does not obey the elders is in rebellion against God. This conclusion might be well and good IF what is authoritatively ''passed down the delegated line of authority from top to bottom is the pure word of GOD. There is only one hitch. Look at the list again: GOD-JESUS-APOSTLES-ELDERS. Do you notice anything strange about it? Are all those in this line-up in the same category with reference to the infallible Word? God certainly knows the Word if anyone does. It is HIS Word! Jesus also knows it. He IS the Word! The apostles also knew it because they were INSPIRED men guided by the Spirit into all truth. Elders? Well now, they seem to be men in a completely different category. They are good men, but UNinspired. How then could their word be as "binding" as that of God, Jesus, or the inspired apostles? Be honest now.

Despite these facts, more than once I have read the following comparison. Korah and his cohorts rebelled against Moses in Numbers 16, and the mouth of the earth opened up and swallowed them. Obviously God was angry. The conclusion? Anyone who doubts or disputes the authority of elders is in exactly the same position as Korah and company. When I first saw this argument in black and white I nearly dropped my true teeth. I could not believe it. Do brethren seriously think that there are men today who occupy a role with regard to Christians equivalent to that of Moses with Israel? I have news for them. Elders today, no matter how qualified, have not seen a burning bush which did not burn up. They have not heard the voice of God. They have not been up on a mountain for a visit with the Almighty. The "decisions" coming out of an eldership meeting are not written in stone by the hand of God. Surely, surely, surely, thinking people can see the difference between Moses, Jesus, the INSPIRED apostles, and an uninspired eldership! Are we really going to argue with a straight face that the "word" rendered by uninspired men today is in the same category (as far as required compliance is concerned) as that of INSPIRED men? Surely we know better.

Brethren do know better. They realize the absurdity of trying to put elders on an authoritative par with Jesus. So they double-talk. They say, "Elders cannot make laws for the kingdom of heaven." Why not? Because Jesus has all legislative authority. Then they turn around and say, 'BUT, elders CAN make decisions." And what is the difference please? Bear in mind that to rebel against one of their "decisions" is said to be exactly the same as rebelling, like Korah, against the authority of God Himself. So what is the difference? A "law" by any other name smells the same. It does not help to play word games. If the word of elders is equal to the "authorized" word of God, then let us quit quibbling and say so. Either members HAVE to obey this word or be lost; or, they can choose not to obey and still please God just fine. But it can"t be half-way. Either elders have authority, or they do not, if they have the "divine right" to rule over Gods people by issuing orders, then Gods people have the divine obligation to obey them with no questions asked. On the other hand, if by chance Jesus still has ALL authority in the kingdom of God, then perhaps we all (including good men known as ''elders) need to take another look at this whole business in light of that fact.

All I am trying to do here is get us to re-examine the theory of "delegated authority." Is it a valid Biblical concept, in the sense that it is taught today? Please understand that none of this has anything to do with "submitting" to the wisdom of age and experience in Christ. The need to recognize and respond to those who know more than we do about Gods will is one thing. The doctrine that we have the divine obligation of unquestioned obedience to the word (whether it be called a law, a decision, a judgement, or whatever) of uninspired men is something quite different. The question remains: Has the God of heaven "delegated" to anyone on earth today the right to make up religious rules and regulations that His people must obey? Or is the One Lord still in charge, having given the "elders of the people" the responsibility of teaching and exemplifying HIS message in the community of Christians? The latter view seems eminently more reasonable and scriptural to me.