Authority: Only Three Covenantal Authorities

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.


The twelve verses quoted above are all of the examples of the command to be in submission found in the New Testament.  “Hupotasso” is not a word that is used frequently.  When it is used, it is always in the context of these three institutions of the Family, Church, and State.  Some people object to the use of the word ‘institution’ when describing the Family, Church, and State.  There should be no objection.  Peter used the word when describing who to submit to in the State apparatus in the passage quoted above.  It is a word that is commonly used to recognize the existence of a hierarchy of authority and the presence of a community that is ordered along the lines of that authority structure.  Therefore, I will speak of the three institutions that Christians are ordered to submit to.

“Hupotasso” is always found in the context of three representational authoritative institutions.  Christians are never instructed to submit to anything or anyone else.  In fact, Christians are ordered to not submit to the attempts of other individuals to bind their conscience to believe certain things or behave in a particular fashion.  Christians are told to love one another; they are told to be kind to one another; they are told to be merciful to one another; but they are never told to submit to one another outside the context of a representative institution.  It is not an accident that all cases of the injunction to submit are found in relationship with three authoritative institutions.  These are the three institutions that God has ordained for human society.  These three institutions have been delegated the authority of Jesus to carry out their particular purposes on earth.  It would be worth some effort to compare and contrast these three institutions.

The Covenantal Nature of These Three Institutions

Earlier, in our examination of service authority, we saw that the voluntary contract best expressed the nature of that authority.  In representative/covenantal authority we come to a very different type of authority.  In all three institutions we have Jesus as the Head of the institution.  He personally delegates His authority to His representatives.  Along with His authority comes His clear directions about the form and function of each institution.  The Bible contains the instructions that God has delivered to the institutional heads and to the members of the institution to frame proper behavior within the particular institution.  God never gives His authority without also giving His instructions on how to administer it.  This gets at the heart of the covenantal nature of the three institutions.

Under the terms of a voluntary contract, the parties to the contract could write it any way they desired.  If Joe wanted to produce widgets and Frank wanted to buy corn and George wanted to trade in both widgets and corn, they would design their contract to allow them to do what they wanted.  Under a covenantal structure however, the terms of the contract are already written.  Since Jesus has delegated His authority to the heads of the institutions, He has also prescribed the terms of the contract, or, more properly, the covenant.  This should come as no surprise to anyone who believes that the Bible contains the will of God for His people.

The fact that these three institutions are entered into voluntarily does not make them voluntary institutions.  It is certainly true that nobody is forced to marry another person.  However, once the voluntary decision is made to get married, the terms of the marriage covenant are already written by God in His Word.  He clearly spells out the chain of authority for the family and gives the head of the family instructions about how to manage the institution.  Likewise, He gives instructions to the subordinate wife and children on how to behave.

The same is true in the Church.  Nobody is forced to join the Church.  Conversions at the point of a bayonet are not according to the will of God.  However, once a person has made the voluntary decision to join a particular church, the terms of his relationship to the church are already written by God in His Word.  He clearly spells out the chain of authority in the church and gives the elders in the church specific instructions about how to manage the institution.  The members of the church are also given specific directions for their behavior.

What has been said about the family and the church is also true for the State.  However, at this point most evangelicals lose touch with logical consistency and say that God has no opinion about what goes on inside the State institution.  We have already seen in the passage quoted above that the State is founded by God and represents His authority to its citizens.  In the absence of any clear biblical teaching to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that what is true of the family and the church is not also true of the State.

Nobody should be forced to join the State (I will come back to this concept later in this essay).  The fact that it should be a voluntary decision to join the State does not make the State a voluntary institution.   The terms of the citizen’s relationship with the particular state are already spelled out in Scripture.  The chain of authority in the state is also described in the Bible.  In addition, God gives the leaders of the state specific instructions on how to manage the institution and the citizens of the state are also told what is expected of them.

It is the last sentence above that most Evangelicals object to so strenuously.  I will come back to that objection in a moment.  For the present time it is important to understand that the State is also a covenantal institution.  In fact, we can see that all three institutions are covenantal in nature.  God has granted His authority to the heads, He has declared the terms of membership, He has specified what is expected of the members, in all ways we can see that this is nothing like the voluntary contract of service authority.  Although each representative authority institution is entered voluntarily, they are all, nevertheless, covenantal in nature.  A few verses might help:

Malachi 2:1 says, “…Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”

Not too long ago people commonly spoke of the “marriage covenant” when they spoke about how a particular family was started.  That was a biblical way of speaking that recognized the covenantal nature of the institution of marriage.  A husband and wife are not free to make up new rules for the family.  They may not decide that the wife will be the head of the family because she might be more intelligent.  They are not free to allow their children to run wild if they “don’t believe in spanking”.   They are not free to define a family as anything other than the lifelong union of a man and a woman.  God has established the form and function of the family and the marriage partners are expected to conform to His will.  What is true for the family is also true for the Church.

In speaking about the abrogation of the ceremonial aspects of the Law of God, the author to the Hebrews says this, “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.”  Paul describes this “better covenant” as the covenant that God made with Abraham, prior to the giving of the Law.  Romans 4:  9-16 describes how the better covenant is linked to the covenant of circumcision made with Abraham in Genesis 9:

Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that the righteousness might be reckoned to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham while he had while uncircumcised.
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.

It is not my intention to prove the doctrine of justification by faith.  My point in this extensive quotation is to show the covenantal nature of the Church.  Those who are described as “children of Abraham” are covenantally linked to the Church in general as well as the local church to which they are members.  When a person joins the church he is not free to create another sacrament.  Neither is he free to ignore the sacraments that already exist.  He is not free to worship God in any fashion he desires nor is he free to teach anything but what is found in the Bible.   An elder in the church has specific responsibilities, described in the Bible, that he must carry out or be negligent in his duties.  No Christian is free to rewrite the terms of the covenant that is entered into via church membership.  Although joining the church is a voluntary decision, the church itself is a covenantal institution because God has already written all of the rules that need to be understood for the institution to function properly.

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