The Authoritative Source Has to be Good

The Authority of the Bible, Part IV: Before we submit to a Thing’s authority, it must be deserving of our submission

There’s a word I used often in my parenting for the first decade or so of being a dad. It was a word I inherited from a combination of my own upbringing and the culture I came from. It was a word I assumed was standard parenting jargon 101. It was a word I used freely, thinking it was innocuous and just simply a way to communicate “what is.”

Then, years ago, my wife (brilliant mother she is) tenderly shared with me one afternoon that she had stopped using that word with our kids a long time ago, and she’d love for me to consider also dropping it from my lexicon.

What is the word in question?

It was, OBEY.

The Dark Side of Obey

At first I thought Kate was being overly “woo-woo” with her gentle/mindful approach to parenting.

“Seriously? You don’t think we should tell our kids to obey us?”

She went on to explain that the word obey carries with it this air of “I have all the power in this dynamic and your only option here is to submit.”

Instead, she suggested I try on the word respect. The idea being, we want our kids to respect us and therefore freely choose to either cease doing that thing or commence with doing this thing.

With a word like obey there is little to no choice in the matter, robbing the child of their liberty. Whereas framing it as respect can empower them and shows them, well, you respect them as well.

For me it was one of those holy-crap-that-makes-a-lot-of-sense moments.

I don’t want a relationship with my kids where they just obey me because that’s the expectation: I’m the parent, they’re the child, they must obey! Sure, their room might get picked up or the bickering might stop, but in the end if they’re only doing it because they have to (obey) and not because they choose to (respect) then I’m not sure in the long run we are building the kind of relationship either of us would want.

I’m so, so grateful my wife made this change so many years ago (and then invited me to join her) because not only has it made me a better parent, but it’s help shift some of how I think about what it means to be in relationship with God. And as I continue this series on The Authority of the Bible, in this post I’ll reflect on where the authority of the Bible comes from (God) and how that’s got me thinking about relational postures within the authoritative-source/recipient dynamic.

Specifically, if I’m going to submit to a given authority, it needs to be a good (worthy of respect) authority.

Recapping Four Kinds of Authority

Last week I suggested there are four ways that authority can be expressed and experienced.

  • Impotent Authority: The Authoritative Source is legitimate but the subjects in question don’t acknowledge it as such.

  • Rejected Authority: The Authoritative Source is legitimate but the subjects in question resist or reject it.

  • Controlling Authority: The Authoritative Source is legitimate and the subjects submit to it—albeit from a place of obligation or control.

  • Agreeable Authority: The Authoritative Source is legitimate and the subjects submit to it from a place of consensual acquiescence.

A word like “obey” conjures up a type of controlling authority: I have all the power here, I’m the authority, and your role is to obey, to follow orders.

Whereas a word like “respect” conjures up a type of relationship wherein those under a particular authoritative source willingly accept said authority from a place of freedom. They freely choose to honor the authority figure/source, in part (if not wholly because) the authority figure has earned their respect.

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Is the Authority “Good?”

One of the differences I see between controlling authority (obey) and agreeable authority (respect) is that the goodness of the authoritative source in a controlling environment is a nonstarter. It doesn’t really matter if they’re “good” or not, they are the boss. Period. They call the shots. You just obey. Sure, perhaps the Authority figure is good or neutral (aka: a basketball coach telling their players what to do, how to run the play, how to win the game, etc), or maybe they are cruel (aka: a dictator ordering troops to commit genocide). Point is, obedience in these contexts is not dependent on the goodness of the source.

Whereas if we’re talking about respect, and about an agreeable kind of authority, then as I see it everything hinges on the goodness of the authoritative source. If that source is not good, then it is not deserving or worthy of respect and vice versa.

What does this have to do with the Bible?

Well I think it’s this: In order for the Bible to posses a place of Authority in our lives it must do so with an agreeable kind authority (not controlling or manipulative), which therefore means that the source of the Bible’s authority must be good and worthy of our respect.

(To the religious person who thinks the Bible is a controlling type of authority I can only say, you’re just dead wrong. As I’ve already written about, the Bible is not a book of rules, or a law book, or something designed with the intent to control and dictate people’s lives in that way.)

And to the person who accepts (as I do) that the Bible might very well occupy a place of agreeable authority in our lives, and yet they refuse to (or haven’t yet) acknowledge that some parts of the Bible are not deserving of our respect, not worthy of our submission (because it isn’t good!), then I say, wake up.

Let those who have eyes to see, see, and ears to hear, hear.

When the Source in Question is Not Good

When we talk about the authority of the Bible, what we are really talking about is that we believe all authority resides with God, and that God has divested said authority into the pages of the Bible. In other words, many Christians would stop calling the Bible “authoritative” if they stopped believing that God is its Divine Author. It’s not so much that the Bible has authority as it is that God has authority, and many Christians then believe we receive that authority via the Bible.

(Side note: when you actually read the Bible you discover that if/when God does something like “granting authority” it is always done on behalf of humans. In other words, human beings become the vessel for God’s authority, not ink on a page. But maybe we’ll save that for another day/post).

If a person’s belief is that every word in the Bible is literally as-though-written by the actual Creator of the Universe, then, well, I’m not sure we have much to talk about. Because I can’t, for the life of me, see how that position makes any moral or logical sense. The sheer number of times in the OT, for example, where “God” commands people to murder should alone be enough to stop the hyper-literal Bible reader in their tracks. For reals, though, either you believe that God is cool with killing innocent people (even to the point of ordering Israel to do the same), or, you acknowledge that something else is going on. Wherever you read “God” committing and commanding what can rightly and obviously be called evil and wicked acts, I’m telling you, that’s not God. Maybe it’s just me, but I reject the idea that God is a murdering Deity who permits himself (and sometimes humans) to act in evil and unjust ways. If you want to believe in a god like that, I suppose that’s your right, but for God’s sake (literally) stop thinking you’re talking about the same God that Jesus worshiped, and that the NT said Jesus was an “exact representation” of.

So if we set aside those (hopefully few?) among us who take a view of Scripture that says every word, literally read, is exactly true and as God would’ve written it had God had hands, then we’ve come to a much more reasonable (and moral) landing place. Which is, that understanding and applying Scripture can be a complex endeavor. And since we cannot reasonably (or, again, morally) take everything at face-value, nor can we interpret and apply everything on a literal level, we have to accept that there are other factors contributing to how we read and understand the Bible. This is obvious by now, right?

And I suggest that we know this in our bones to be true. We know, for example, when we read something like Deuteronomy 20 (which my Bible titles, “Rules for Warfare”) that what we’re reading cannot be described as good or loving or just or compassionate or merciful. In other words, can you picture Jesus doing the things you’re reading? If not, then we’re probably now in the territory of “these words either mean something different than what they appear at face value,” or, “maybe this part isn’t perfectly expressing God.”

For in Deuteronomy 20 the Israelites are given instructions on how to go to battle against the Canaanites, and they’re told that if cities surrender then they are only to kill all the men of the city (so wait, IF they surrender, THEN you kill them? What a nice god!). But the women, children and property? You get to keep those as slaves and spoils. But what if the city doesn’t surrender?  Or what if the city is located in the boundary of the “promised land?” Well then they were instructed--again, by the “God” character in the story--to kill everybody, “you must not spare any living thing” (Deut 20:16). What’s the justification “God” gave? So that these foreigners wouldn’t taint Israel with their pagan ways (v18).

Anyway, I don’t need to belabor the point, for there are more examples I could cite. Examples where the words on the page very, very clearly do not match up with what is good. I don’t care how you slice it, slaughtering people is not love. And if your idea of god is that it is love, then, well, as I said above, we probably don’t have much to talk about.

My point here (if I have one... I feel like I’m losing the thread... lol) is that there are enough instances throughout the Bible of stories and commands that, on the face of it, are not good, and should not be followed. Should not be respected as authoritative. Rather, they should be questioned, or re-considered, or evaluated against other parts of the Bible for possible further illumination, or just downright ignored as outdated/irrelevant/not-for-us, if not entirely rejected because it is not good.

Yup. That’s it. That paragraph right there. That’s what I’m taking 2000 words to say.

If we choose to submit to the authority of the Bible (which as I said last week, may not be appropriate for everyone for good reasons) then we need to do it in such a way where we retain the freedom to choose to submit, and, we should really only be submitting to those parts that are worthy of our respect.

Don’t mishear me, this isn’t about picking and choosing the parts we like or don’t like. “Liking” has nothing to do with it. Rather, I’m saying that if portions of the Bible are not good, we are under no obligation to listen to it or respect it. And while I’m sure you want me to define what I mean by “good,” that is far beyond the scope of this article.

My only hope here is to point out that there is such a thing as parts of the Bible that claim to be “from God” but that are clearly and obviously NOT good. The reality that these examples exist are sufficient for us to then say to the rest of the Bible, “okay, if you want to be authoritative in my life, you’re gonna have to show me that you’re good, and that you’re worthy of my respect.”

Whew. What do you think? How does this all land with you?

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”The Authority of the Bible” Series

Part 1: What is the “Authority of the Bible?”

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Part 2: What it Means to Be Under the “Authority” of Something

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Part 3: Four Ways We Engage with and Experience Authority

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Part 4: The Authoritative Source Must be Good

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Part 5: Does the Bible Interpret Itself?

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