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Spiritual Authority … To Appeal or Command?

On either side of the equation, spiritual authority is not an easy thing. Submitting to authority requires humility alien to our prideful hearts. And using authority well requires a selflessness equally alien. For parents and and husbands and elders, for people given spiritual authority over others, what do we do with that authority?

…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you…
Philemon 8-9

Rehoboam may be the best example of the worst use of authority in Scripture (see 1 Kings 12). Ascending to the throne after his father Solomon, he had to ponder (like all leaders) what type of leader he was going to be. Authoritarian? Gentle and winsome? He had two sets of counselors pulling him in two directions. The first set – those who had served Solomon’s great building projects with their blood, sweat and tears – urged him toward gentleness and kindness. The second set – Rehoboam’s hotheaded peers – urged him toward greater control, reigning through authority and fear. He chose the second and the nation of Israel was immediately split in two. There are times for kings and leaders to command; but there are also times to not command.

Next to Jesus, Paul may be the Bible’s best example of how to handle spiritual authority with wisdom and care. No one could accuse Paul of being weak, timid or unwilling to say hard things. But rather than writing letters filled with orders and commands (which his apostolic authority gave him the right to do), he wrote letters filled with sound arguments, passionate care, and a Jesus-centered winsomeness. The verse quoted above is a perfect example. In writing to his friend Philemon, Paul had the apostolic authority to order the release of Onesimus from slavery. But for “love’s sake,” he chose the path of appeal.

The cost of appealing rather than commanding is real. When leaders choose appeal over command, we are allowing for various outcomes and acknowledging we might not get our way. There’s an uncertainty in appeal, which is one way godly leaders show their trust in God. Another cost of appealing is holding our ideas with a loose grip, being willing to actually engage in conversation with some willingness to be moved from our position. Finally, appealing is simply much harder than commanding. A command takes one or two sentences. An appeal takes several paragraphs.

There is a time and place for commands rather than appeals. But there are many more times when appealing is the best way to use authority. When children are young, parents are wise to use their authority to command often, especially to guard children against danger and foolishness. But as those children grow, there ought to be a conscientious switch to winning their hearts toward wisdom rather than commanding blind obedience. Likewise in a congregation. In the RPCNA, our constitution makes it clear that elders have authority over all parts of a church’s life and ministry. So elders could simply say, “This is the way it’s going to be,” without allowing any questions or conversation. But wise elders will save their “command authority” for when it’s absolutely necessary and choose instead to lead by example, by kindness, by genuine pastoral care, and by winsomeness. This will take a lot more effort, humility and faith. But it will be worth it.

This article about spiritual authority originally appeared here.