Authority: Service or Contractual Authority

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


Service authority is most commonly witnessed in the business community. The Bible does not have a great deal to say about economic philosophy. As a result, this class of authority is not frequently found in the Bible. However, the concept is not ignored. Jesus speaks about service authority in Matthew 20: 25-27. Here we find:

But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…

In this passage Jesus is speaking about the sinful tendency of those in positions of authority to become tyrants. In this case legitimate authority is transformed into illegitimate power. The people legitimately under authority are illegitimately manipulated and coerced by the exercise of the illegitimate power mongers.

In direct contrast to what the disciples often observed in the world, they were to obtain authority by serving others. To rise to positions of great authority it is necessary to “enslave” yourself to others in service. The concept of service authority is a difficult one for most people to grasp. Due to the fact that authority is almost exclusively understood as the application of power over another person, it is hard to conceive of authority being grounded in service to others. As mentioned earlier, the business world serves as the best example of service authority.

Service Authority in Business

Why is Bill Gates the richest person in the world? Popular economic theories argue that Mr. Gates has obtained his wealth by exploiting everyone else in the world. In this view there is a static amount of wealth that exists and all people are in competition for their fair share of it. Whoever is the most powerful, or the most devious, or the most clever, is able to rise to the top and obtain the greatest share of the wealth.

This position is further cemented in the minds of people by politicians who pander to the envy found in the hearts of men. In exchange for your vote, the politician says, I will use the coercive power of the state to extract wealth from the powerful and redistribute it to you, the less powerful. Unfortunately, this view is based upon an utterly fallacious understanding of the way the world operates economically.

The world, in the absence of coercive forces (government being the most common one in the United States, the Russian Mafia being the most common in the former Soviet Union, etc.) operates under the principle of “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant”. Income and wealth flow to the person who serves the needs and wants of the most people. This makes no statement about the moral, or immoral, nature of those wants and needs. The simple fact is that a person becomes wealthy, powerful, and influential by serving others.

Bill Gates is the wealthiest person in the world for one simple reason: he made millions of people very happy by means of the software that he produced. More so than any other human being in the last several decades, Bill Gates produced what people wanted. As a result of his service to others, he is fabulously wealthy. There was no static “pie” of wealth that he managed to garner the greatest percentage of. Quite the opposite, Mr. Gates has greatly enlarged the size of the pie of wealth, or capital, that exists in the world. For this service to mankind in general, and his customers in particular, he has been generously rewarded.

It is an inexorable economic law that service to others results in wealth, and the authority that accompanies it, accumulating to the person doing the serving. Because of his service Mr. Gates is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on software development, software marketing, personal computers, and information networking. Because of his service to others, Mr. Gates is in the position of employing thousands of people. It is here that the nature of service authority as “contract” authority is best seen.

The Nature of Contract Authority

The key concept involved in an understanding of “contract” is the voluntary nature of it. Again, assuming no outside coercive force, a contract is only entered into by the parties involved on a voluntary basis. Nobody is forced to contract with anybody else. Contracts are written with the understanding that, under certain terms, they may be nullified or made void. Each party to the contract is making an exchange; something is being given up in exchange for something more desirable. In an employment contract the laborer is providing labor services (skilled or unskilled) to the employer who generally provides monetary income.

Bill Gates has provided the opportunity for thousands of employment contracts to be written. In the absence of his entrepreneurial skill, thousands of people would be doing something else for a living, probably at a much lower wage. In the presence of his enterprising activities, thousands of people are unified in recognizing the fact that without Bill Gates their lives would not be as materially prosperous as they are. This creates power and authority and grants that power and authority to the person who brought it all about.

Notice, however, that the authority that Bill Gates has is in no way coercive. He can’t make anybody do anything that they do not want to do. If people do not do what he wants them to do (buy his next software version, for instance), there is absolutely nothing that he can do about it. The moment Mr. Gates ceases to give the consuming public what they want he will be cast aside as irrelevant. One of the most amazing things about wealth in the United States is the transitory nature of it. Examine the Forbes Magazine annual list of the wealthiest people in the US. Notice how much the list changes year by year. Decade by decade changes are even more dramatic. People are constantly being added to and subtracted from the list. What is the reason for this mobility? The practice or non-practice of service/contract authority.

This is the nature of service/contract authority. Serve others, get authority. Stop serving others, stop getting authority. Nothing else matters. Coercion is never involved. You rise to the top or sink to the bottom of the authority chain based entirely upon your service rendered to others and nothing else. All Christians should be practicing the words of Jesus and become the servants of others. It is by this means that God provides for income to be generated by the family. It is this understanding of authority that undergirds the classic doctrine of employment or vocation.

The focus of this essay is not upon service/contract authority. It was important to discuss only to distinguish it from representative/covenantal authority. Representative authority is what needs to be considered next.

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