I want you to imagine a situation where all authority has been overthrown – no one rules in society, we're all free to do exactly as we see fit.
What do you imagine when I say that? A utopia of peaceful relations? The removal of all that holds back our inner beauty so that we can all shine?
History suggests that's not very likely - whenever authority is completely removed the result is more like 'the Lord of the Flies' – disorder quickly descends into anarchy, violence and oppression.
Or what about a situation where one group in society is considered 'above the law' – they can do what ever they like and the law can't touch them?
That's even more of a recipe for disaster.
Why are we thinking about authority? Well Paul has been teaching some remarkable things in his letter to the Colossians – he's said that all Christians have died to law and earthly rules – Colossians 2.20 'Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to it's rules?' And even more remarkably – Christians have also risen with Christ and we now rule with Christ at God's right hand – Colossians 3.3 for you died, and your life now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.'
Paul's saying we're sitting on the throne with Jesus, he shares his rule with us.
Just take a moment to think about what that might mean for your lives. Let me put it to you this way: If you were a member of the royal family, how many things would change in your life right now?
When it comes to authority, how would you respond to other people trying to boss you around? Come on – you're a royal, are you going to just sit there and take it when the boss chews you out on Monday morning? Are you going to meekly keep the road rules – you're above all that now!
Couldn't you could start to think of yourself as above the law: 'We died to law and we've been raised with Christ, we're leaving all this behind – we're not going to put up with anyone telling us what do to!'
Well if we were starting to think like that, tonight's passage pulls us up with a jolt.
We have been raised with Christ and we do have a new relationship to authority – but not like that, we're not above the law.
In fact, Paul works out a practical theology of authority focused on our personal relationships – in all our lives we need to respect the authority structures that God has made. He does it through three matched pairs of relationships that are designed to cover pretty much all of life.
And from those three relationships I want to draw out three points.
First: All Earthly Authority Comes From God
Second: All Earthly Authority is Limited under God's Rule and will be Judged
Third: Because we're all under authority we'll use authority to serve and build others up
Let's unpack those three points just a little.
First: All Earthly Authority Comes From God
Where did I get that from? Have a look with me at Colossians 3.23 and following.
23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favouritism. 1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
There are three really significant things that Paul says here that frame all our thinking about authority.
First, Paul tells the slaves to work 'as for the Lord, because it is the Lord Christ you are serving'. A slave might reasonably have questioned the legitimacy of their master's authority. But Paul doesn't say 'subvert the dominant paradigm', he doesn't say undermine your master's authority – he says the masters authority is derived from the Lord Jesus – so in serving the master well we are really serving Christ.
The underlying theology is the same as Romans 13 where Paul says that all authority that exists has been established by God. All authority ultimately points back to God – so in submitting to any earthly authority we're submitting to the God who established it.
So as Christians we recognise positions of authority – they've been established by God. And that means that we can serve whatever authority God puts us under, because in serving them, we're serving God.
Second, Paul says there is reward for all our serving. The word translated reward here is literally 'recompense' – it's a word that would usually have been used for punishment. Slaves world would probably have associated it with beatings when their service was considered inadequate – kind of like an ancient version the threat 'you're going to get what's coming to you'.
But Paul uses it here to promise a reward. What's coming to faithful servants of Christ is a heavenly reward. In fact it's an inheritance – something that 1st Century slaves could only dream of, because they had no property rights, possessions, no inheritance.
Paul's deliberately turning their experience upside down. Since the ultimate authority is God's they can expect a fair and just reward in the end, even if on earth they were rewarded with punishments and humiliation.
Third, All people – slaves, masters, even royalty – are under the Lordship of Christ – and will all be judged for our service.
Do you see how revolutionary this thinking is? In an ancient world where slaves had no rights and were treated as property this is radically subversive – before God slaves and masters are treated the same, and even slaves will share in Christ's inheritance. Over all earthly authority there is a just judge who will give reward for our service – whatever we deserve, good or bad. Masters will be judged for the way they treated their slaves, just as slaves will be judged for the service they gave. And both can share in the eternal inheritance, there won't be any distinction between them then. But do you also see how different this is to the lawless attitude that we might have expected to follow from dying and rising with Christ? Sitting with Christ in the presence of the heavenly majesty we should have a new attitude to authority all right – not one of rejecting authority, but one of reverent submission. That's right – submission.
Having died with Christ and been raised with him we recognise that God is worthy of praise and honour and Power. He has every right to demand submission. When we recognise the greatness of God's authority we recognise it reflected in all earthly authority – however poorly it's exercised.
So authority is set on a whole new footing: It's not simply 'might is right' – the strongest or the richest or the smartest forces everyone else to do what they want. It's not a meritocracy – as if some are so worthy that the rest of us have to do what pleases them. And it's not a social contract – so that authority comes and goes according to the whim's of society. No. now that we've followed Christ into the very throne room of God we've caught a glimpse of the true nature of authority. Authority belongs to God as the creator. And the creator vests his authority to his creatures so we don't have chaos and disorder.
So when it comes to our personal day to day, our relationships are ordered with built in authority. Parents have authority over their children – children are to obey their parents. And masters have authority over slaves. That relationship can be extended to employees and supervisors having authority over workers.
And perhaps most controversially, husbands have authority to lead within marriage. We'll come back to the others, but I want to just pause on this point for a moment.
In Verse 18 we see wives are to submit to their husbands, because 'it is fitting in the Lord'.
Why is it fitting in the Lord? Because God has ordered the marriage relationship with the husband at the head and the wife in submission.
Is this because men are superior? No, but it points to God's authority as the head over creation, and to Christ's authority as the head of the church – as Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter five.
Does this open up the possibility that men could abuse this authority? Sadly, in a fallen world authority is always open to abuse. But that doesn't mean that we should reject it wholesale. Nonetheless this isn't commanding women to allow themselves to be abused by their husbands.
Does it mean that wives are equated to slaves and husbands to masters? No – there is a clear distinction between wives and husbands and the other two set's of relationships. Children and Slaves are told to obey – but wives are told to submit – there is a greater degree of mutuality in this relationship. Wives submit voluntarily and willingly, allowing their husbands to lead.
In marriage, and in all our relationships God has instituted authority for the good ordering of society. Various roles and stations have been vested authority from God. So all earthly authority flows from God's authority.
We can perhaps make a comparison here to this ten pound note. It's just a piece of paper, it's nice paper, shiny writing on it etc. but in and of itself it has a very limited value. But it has a value far above its inherent worth simply because it bears the signature of the governor of the Bank of England, and the promise that of returning £10 in exchange for it. It has a power out of all keeping with it's intrinsic worth, a power that is vested in it by a greater power. All earthly authority is a bit like that, it comes from outside, not because of inherent worth, but because God vests it with power.
All of us are constantly coming under authority of different kinds. We drive on the roads under the authority of the highway code; we go to the doctor and submit to their authority as experts; we show our ticket at the door of the cinema; an usher shows us to our seat at the theatre.
Some times authority can be snooty and officious and we're tempted to put people in their place. Sometimes it can be overbearing and tedious. Some of us just like the rebel image and we don't need any encouragement to reject authority. But those responses aren't appropriate when we know the king. All authority comes from him and we submit to him when we submit to it.
If we're Christians we're seated with Christ in heaven, but we're not free from earthly authority, because the heavenly King establishes authority, so we have a submissive attitude to authority, recognising that that means we're submitting to Him.
So does that mean that those in authority can bully the rest of us around? No, because earthly authority is derived authority it is also limited authority.
2) All Earthly Authority is Limited under God's Rule and will be Judged
We see this at every point in these reciprocal relationships, but it's most clear in the case of masters and slaves, so have another look with me at the very end of our passage, from verse 25:
25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favouritism. 4:1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
By it's very nature, derived authority is limited. It is granted from outside, and so the one who gave it determines it's scope. God gives authority, so God limits it's extent. And those who are in positions of authority will be judged for how they exercise it.
Those in authority aren't free to do as they please, to act like dictators, stripping resources to make themselves rich while others stave. Not free to treat those under them as of lesser worth or value.
So do you see what this does for slaves in ancient world, and for children under oppressive parents, for wives in heavily patriarchal society, for the untouchables in Hindu caste system for the oppressed under repressive regimes, for all who are downtrodden, humiliated and discouraged?
They're no longer defined by their situation or station in life. You're not a lesser person even if you're in lower station. You're not intrinsically valuable in accordance with station, but we're all of infinite worth, regardless of earthly station. That's because the bible makes clear that we're all created in God's image, and all equally valuable before him. This enables us to see ourselves as we really are – we're valuable and whole people – and our station in life doesn't define us.
Gender and family relations are real and significant, real differences between male and female, and they're not reducible to plumbing. But it's not a matter of one being of greater worth or value than the other, both sexes are equally created in God's image, together we make up the image of God – 'male and female he created them'.
So no one is of greater worth that others. No one is to be used as a means to an end. All people are created in God's image and authority is limited by God's sovereign rule over all.
I'm sure you'll know the story Jesus told of the steward left in charge of an estate while his master goes away. The master stays away longer than expected and the steward begins to get ideas above his station – he says to himself 'the master is never coming back', and so he beats the servants and abuses them, while he himself indulges in his masters food and drink. But Jesus says the master will return at a time when the Steward's not expecting and he will beat that steward and relieve him of his duties.
That's a picture of earthly authority miss-used. All earthly authority is limited by God. And it's a picture of God's judgement coming on those who miss-use their authority.
In our lives we come across so many people in authority who use that authority to belittle and boss others. Perhaps a police officer who expects special treatment – running red lights, speeding, expecting discounts, breaking the law he was supposed to uphold. Perhaps petty officials who see their jobs as their own little private dominion and make sure you know it; Or the husband who expects his dinner on the table when he gets home and bellows for a fresh beer while he occupies the sofa like some sort of throne, executing orders through the TV remote; Or the mother whose children are treated like an inconvenience; The upper class snob who expects deference; The overbearing boss who makes demands that go far beyond reasonable working conditions – the list goes on and on. But they need to recognise that their authority doesn't extend unreasonably, it's limited by God.
And that leads us to point three:
3) Because we're all under authority we'll use authority to serve and build others up
Look at the three commands to those in authority – husbands, fathers and masters:
Look at the passage again with me from verse 19:
19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
4:1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
The underlying principle is the same for the three sets of roles – what ever the role, those in authority must use their authority for the good of those they lead.
We will all occupy positions of authority at some point or another, perhaps in several different contexts at once – whether husbands, parents, employers, or bank managers, nurses, supervisors, ranking officers, in law enforcement, ticket inspectors, ushers, teachers, principals the list goes on and on.
And when we take authority we need to remember our authority is limited by God's ultimate authority. We'll be judged for how we use it. So our authority is to be used for the good of those you are leading. So judge others by the standards you want to be judged by – not harsh and overbearing, not cruel and unyielding, but loving, gentle, fair and just.
Imagine you were given charge of the heir of the throne, imagine an infant prince Charles and you're his private governor or governess. The little dear needs direction, guidance, discipline, just like the rest of us. But you'd be wise not to overstep the mark in that sort of relationship, because the prince has the ear of the Queen. If the Queen finds out that you've been abusing her heir don't expect to last long in her employment.
And that's what all our authority is like. All who have authority in this earth need to remember that every person we lead is a child of the King. God cares about the fate of even the least significant person as the Queen cares for her heir.
In Jesus' kingdom leaders serve for the good of those they are charged to lead – remember Jesus said leaders were like shepherds – Bedouin shepherds take the lead to get the sheep to pasture, to remove them from danger and to keep them from harm – they take them far from home and live on the hill sides depriving themselves of every comfort to provide for the sheep. No room in that model for selfish indulgence, all focused on the other...
So Husbands, look after your wives and love them as you love yourself. No room in marriage for self indulgence. Marriage is a relationship of care and attention. A husband is given the role of head of the marriage. And that gives certain authority, but it's not an authority to use your wife, but to lovingly lead her and your family.
And Parents, look after your children with diligent care. Don't be overbearing, don't be quick to punish every disobedience; don't demand standards of perfection that can't be reached. Children are just as limited and sinful as you are – and yes they need discipline, but it must be a caring discipline, a gentle discipline. Paul's concern in verse 21 is that we put our children off by setting such high standards that they simply can't be reached. The obvious conclusion is that we're at risk of driving children away from the faith – too much correction doesn't lead to a believing heart, but to a resentful one. So be gentle with your children.
And Employers and Supervisors remember that you have your off days and you find work hard sometimes – so don't expect more from your employees than they can give. Bear in mind that you'll be judged for the way you treat the people under you – so don't condemn yourself by what you condemn in others. Don't be harsh and overbearing, but fair and generous. And remember that the people who work under you have other responsibilities, so don't make demands that make it impossible for them to keep their other obligations – to husbands and wives or children.
And notice that these principles are applicable whenever we find ourselves in authority – whether we're checking tickets at the cinema or leading troops into battle, in all of life in and out of authority relationships. Over some, under others, and sometimes the same people can be over and under – like the doctor and the police man – when the police officer comes to the doctor and the doc says you need surgery the police officer has to submit, but if the doctor's pulled over on the highway the next day he can't say 'hey I'm your doctor, I know best!'
In all our lives we're constantly interacting with authority – constantly under authority and often exercising authority. Without an outside reference point authority can easily become abuse. But those who know the Lord Jesus, those who've died with him and risen with him, know the true nature and extent of authority. We know that we're under God's authority, and we recognise God's authority in every earthly authority. And we know that all authority is limited by God and will come under his judgement.
So we submit to those above us, and we lovingly care for those under us. And we pray that God's kingdom come, his will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.