Authority: Representative or Covenantal Authority

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


All parts of the doctrine of representative authority come from the initial statement of Jesus in Matthew 28:18 where he says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” That one statement, as a part of the Great Commission, summarizes everything that needs to be known about representative authority. The word that Jesus used was ‘exousia’. The Greek word literally means “delegated influence, jurisdiction, or authority”. The key concept here is ‘delegated’.

All representative authority is delegated from the holder of all authority in heaven and on earth. Jesus, the Son, had the authority of His Father delegated to Him because of what He accomplished in His redemptive work. Jesus Himself delegates authority to His chosen representatives (hence the term ‘representative’ authority). There is no greater authority than Jesus and all authority which exists, exists because of Him. He has been given all authority and He decides to delegate some of that authority to His representatives on earth.

The nature of authority is dramatically illustrated in Matthew 8: 8-10 where Jesus commends the Centurion:

But the centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not qualified for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come! and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this! and he does it.”
Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel…”

Jesus commends the Centurion for his faith, but his faith was predicated upon his conception of authority. He knew that authority was representative because he knew that whoever he ordered to perform a task would perform that task as his representative. There was no question that it would be done. Conversely, he was under authority himself. His commanding officers knew that he would accurately represent their orders to those under him.

Not only is the representative nature of this authority illustrated by the Centurion; he also illustrates the very important point that representative authority is necessarily coercive. It was inconceivable that he would not obey the orders of his superiors. It was inconceivable that his subordinates would not obey his orders. What made these two events inconceivable? The fact that coercion was legitimately involved. As a man under authority he was expected to put aside his own opinions, his own voluntary wishes, and obey the orders he was given. Likewise, he expected those under his authority to do the same. The whole system of representative authority “works” because of the reality of coercion.

To better grasp the coercive nature of representative authority it is perhaps best to approach it from another angle. Submission is something that is regularly enjoined upon different groups of people in the Bible. Submission is a coercive term. To not submit to legitimate representative authority is to sin against God. To enforce submission to lawful authority, different groups of people are granted various powers of coercion that they may use to enforce submission. Unlike the service/contractual authority we examined earlier, there is no voluntary nature to representative authority. To make this point clear it is necessary to do an extensive examination of the biblical passages that demand submission.

The Relationship of Submission to Representative Authority

There are twelve passages in the New Testament where one class of people is directly ordered to submit to another class of people. These twelve passages are easily broken down into three different categories based upon shared characteristics. First of all however, we need to understand the Greek word for ‘submission’.

‘Hupotasso’ is the Greek word most commonly translated as ‘submission’. It is a compound word made up two parts: ‘Hupo’ and ‘Tasso’. ‘Hupo’ is a preposition that can be translated in various fashions but always contains the idea of “being under”. ‘Tasso’ can mean to “put someone over or in charge of something or someone” or “to order, fix, determine, or appoint”. ‘Hupotasso’ then, in the context of human relationships and interactions, literally means “to be under the appointed authority of another person”. The biblical command to submit is a command to put oneself under the delegated authority of another person who in some way represents Jesus to a particular group of people. The first group, or class, or people are described in the verses that follow.

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