Why must we consider authority in religion? What does that even mean? How do you think about authority? In order to set the stage for understanding the importance of recognizing God’s authority as we serve Him, let’s start with this important passage: 

“How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa. 52:7). 

This verse, quoted in Romans 10:15, contains one of the key messages of the gospel: God reigns! He is King. He is sovereign, and it is only through His exercise of sovereignty that we are saved. We, as His children of all people, should respect that Kingship. This is why authority matters: The Lord is king, and if we wish to take part in His salvation, we need to listen to Him. Authority, then, is grounded on at least these four pillars of truth: 

First, God is the Creator (Gen. 1:1). As Creator, He has the right to tell us what to do and how to live. 

Second, Jesus Christ is King (Acts 2:29-36). He sits on His throne and rules His kingdom. He is preeminent as the head over His body (Col. 1:18). 

Third, the Holy Spirit is the Revealer of the mind of God (1 Cor. 2:10-13). The only way to know what God thinks is for Him to reveal His mind to us, and the Spirit has done this (2 Pet. 1:20-21). 

Fourth, mankind is God’s creation, but is not in a position to be the authority (Jer. 10:23). People are flawed sinners who cannot be the final standard of truth. We need God. 

Authority as Fundamental

Consider the warning for those who have left the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3): “Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 11). 

What do these three situations share in common? At the heart of all three is an attitude that allows people to think that their way is better than God’s, that their thoughts are higher than His, that their needs outweigh what God knows and plans for. These all paid the price for a spirit of rebellion against God’s authority. 

The way of Cain is a path to envy and hatred due to a failure to follow God’s instructions by faith (Gen. 4). 

The error of Balaam seeks to place worldly value and personal gain above God’s will (Num. 22; cf. Num. 31:16; Deut. 23:4-5). 

The rebellion of Korah was an effort to question the plan and order set in place by God for leading His people (Num. 16). 

All sin is a rebellion against the nature and authority of God (1 John 3:4; Rom. 3:23). For example, Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden was a result of distrusting God’s authority in favor of their own (Gen. 3:5). They were listening to the wrong authority. Why would they, or anyone else, do this? 

Do we need authority in our worship to God? Do we need God’s permission to act on His behalf? Must we know that God approves of what we are doing? The answers may seem so obvious, but rebellion against the concept of authority is an old problem. History is filled with revolutions and rebellions against what is perceived as “bad authority.” As Ramm wrote, “Protestation against authority is really against authority which is not authority in its own right, or authority which has become officious or excessive” (16). People rebel because they think there is a better path to follow. 

The question of authority has touched the entire religious world; it is not just a problem among a small group of believers. J.I. Packer, in his Fundamentalism and the Word of God, noted, “The problem of authority is the most fundamental problem that the Christian Church ever faces. This is because Christianity is built on truth: that is to say, on the content of a divine revelation” (42). He argues the importance of having “the right criterion of truth, by which we may tell the word of God from human error…. We must expect to find error constantly assailing the truth; Christendom will always be a theological battlefield” (43). He writes that the “deepest cleavages in Christendom are doctrinal; and the deepest doctrinal cleavages are those which result from disagreement about authority. Radical divergences are only to be expected when there is no agreement as to the proper grounds for believing anything” (44). Problems over authority are not unique to only one body of people. All struggle with fundamental questions about the nature of authority. 

First, authority is fundamental, as it lies at the heart of the most basic questions of doctrine and practice. Second, it is at the core of recognizing truth from error, as it concerns the source of truth itself. Third, it is a point of continual contention, as many divisions occur due to issues over authority. We must, therefore, reaffirm our faith and trust in God and His authority, seeking to teach future generations who will, in turn, face further issues relating to authority. The question of authority will never go away. What do you think happens when one generation ignores divine authority?  

There is no getting around the fact that everyone follows someone’s authority. In the absence of God’s authority, we will make our own or follow another’s. If we care about God’s will, we will seek to minimize our own will, for we have no authority that can come from ourselves. “Not my will, but Yours be done” is the only justified attitude in the light of God’s sovereignty (cf. Luke 22:42). 

We know that we cannot be righteous in ourselves (Rom. 3:10). If this is so, then does it not also follow that we cannot be authoritative in ourselves about righteous matters? Seeking to establish our own authority is no different in principle from seeking to establish our own righteousness. We are wholly dependent upon God for both salvation and authority. 

What do we mean by “authority”? 

“Authority” is a loaded word with several meanings, so we need to define it. Generally, authority is the power to make and enforce laws, to command, determine, judge, or exact obedience. In these lessons, we are focusing on two basic aspects of authority: 

First is the one who has authority based upon a held position. For example, a police officer has authority to enforce the law in a special way because of the position. A Judge has the right to pronounce judgments consistent with law. A king has the right to rule. Can you think of other positions that come with a level of authority? This is the power people have because of special roles. The ultimate authority that God possesses is based upon His position as the Creator. He has inherent authority, and the Bible establishes this from the first verse (Gen. 1:1). Remember, “Your God reigns!”

Second is delegated authority or permission given to another by one who has the power to grant it. We might think of having a license to act because we have been granted that power by a greater authority. This is the warrant we have to act. We might have a license to drive or permission to enter a guarded facility. Our permission, our license, is our authority. 

When we say that we have God’s authority, we are claiming that we have the permission from God to act. How that permission is discerned is an important study, but we start with the understanding that God is the ultimate source of authority. He determines the boundaries of permission. When we can safely know that God has permitted or authorized an action, then we can confidently say that we have the authority to do it. 

Because of who God is (our Creator), any understanding of authority must flow from Him and His nature. He is our foundation. Included in this is Jesus Christ as Head and King, as well as His word, the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17), as the standard of our faith and practice (John 12:48; 16:12-13). 

Only God has the absolute right to rule, govern, command, and expect obedience. There is no deeper foundation, no one else on whom God must rely. He could rest upon none greater. He is the first and the last; there is no other God besides Him (Isa. 42:8). The position He occupies needs no further foundation.

God delegates all other authority. This includes the authority He gives to government (Rom. 13), to the home (Eph. 5), and to His church (Col. 1:18). No human individual or group of people has inherent authority in any ultimate sense. They only have it in the sense that they have been given permission by God to act in whatever capacity they work. This is our beginning point.


We need to respect God’s authority. Since “God reigns,” His kingship should be a fundamental part of our understanding about who He is and why His authority is so important. Then we need to understand what lies at the heart of all sin. Sin is essentially displacing God’s authority for our own or another’s. Let’s learn to think through the different aspects of authority and seek to understand why the differences are significant. 

Discussion Questions

1. How does Isaiah 52:7 help us understand that God’s authority is tied to the message of the gospel? 

2. What attitudes did these men display, and why did their attitudes create so much trouble? 

A. Cain (Gen. 4): 

B. Korah (Num. 16): 

C. Balaam (Num. 22; Num. 31:16; Deut. 23:4-5): 

3. Why do people generally rebel against authority? Is such rebellion ever justified? 

4. Why is authority so fundamental to the Christian? 

5. Why will the question of authority still exist even though we try to deny God’s authority? 

6. Why is the difference between inherent and delegated authority important to discern? 

7. When we say that we have authority to act, what kind of authority are we claiming, and why? 

8. Why does God need no further foundation for authority other than Himself?