North Americans famously esteem freedom but are ambivalent about authority. Authority strikes many of us as too constricting and insufficiently supportive of our desires and aspirations. Yet I believe that authority is key to understanding our humanity and the meaning of our creation in God’s image. This has profound implications for our status as citizens within a democratic political framework.
Consider the case of a hypothetical undergraduate at a typical North American university. It is Monday morning. Michael, a third-year student, has washed up, dressed himself, and headed out the door. He walks to the cafeteria a quarter of a mile away for breakfast. He joins two friends from his nine o’clock class at the table, and afterwards they walk together to the building next door where the class will begin shortly. They arrive five minutes early but are unable to find seats because some of the chairs were removed the previous evening by the drama club.
Their professor, Dr. Stepanic, asks the three students to bring in more chairs from outside. After class he will phone maintenance to see that the university’s policy concerning the removal of furniture is reiterated and enforced. Class begins. Dr. Stepanic reads a short passage from Shakespeare’s King Lear and begins lecturing on the literary theories of a well-known British scholar. A young woman in the second row raises her hand and asks a question on the assigned reading. Dr. Stepanic asks whether anyone else in the class might be able to address the question. An animated discussion ensues. Near the end of the hour, he tells the students that the class will not be meeting on Wednesday because he will be away at a conference. In the meantime, they are to keep up with the readings, on which he will give a short quiz when they next meet on Friday.
When does Michael first encounter authority? I pose this question to my students, and they generally respond that he does so when entering Dr. Stepanic’s class, because he is now obviously under the instructor’s authority. When I push them further and take them through each sentence of this account in turn, they begin to notice things they had missed. “It is Monday morning.” Who says? Well, the short answer is “everyone.” From the very outset, Michael’s life is organized around the days of the week, whose names and number were set—authoritatively—long before he came onto the scene. The fact that he is a third-year student means that he has accepted the authority of the university’s academic calendar which sets the terms for progressing from one year to the next.
The fact that Michael washes, dresses, and heads out to breakfast indicates that he implicitly accepts the authoritative character of a particular routine that governs even the most mundane elements of life. Typically, when my students begin to pull apart the strands of Michael’s day, pinpointing manifestations of authority, the hour comes to an end before we make it much past that first sentence. It turns out that authority appears at every juncture. It is unavoidable.
The lesson, of course, is not that Michael is a mere slave lacking the ability to order his own life and is subject to the whims of others. He is nothing of the sort. He is fully responsible for his actions, even as he habitually defers to authority at every turn. Moreover, Michael himself is an authoritative agent, possessing all of the authority that God has granted his human image-bearers. This is set forth in the first chapter of Genesis:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Gen. 1:28-30).
Often referred to as the Cultural Mandate, this text indicates God’s grace in granting an authoritative office to his human creatures, one which is under his ultimate sovereignty but also entails considerable leeway with respect to how human beings live their lives as individuals and in community. To be human is to be an office-holder in God’s creation. This has two implications for understanding how we live politically.
First, as Richard Middleton has pointed out, the biblical understanding of the image of God stands in marked contrast to the beliefs of ancient Israel’s Near Eastern neighbors, who believed that only the ruler was the image of the gods. This reinforced a hierarchical political order in which subjects were permanently subordinate to the ruler in every respect and in every walk of life. By contrast, we might say that the Old Testament radically democratized the image of God to include all human beings and not only their royal overlords. The image of God is a grant of responsibility to all persons—male and female, rich and poor, prince and peasant—as stewards of the earth. This biblical understanding may not explicitly support democracy, but historically it has facilitated a worldview in which human beings assume co-responsibility for the direction of their political communities rather than leaving this to their superiors.
Second, this authority is further dispersed into a variety of authoritative offices related to the diversity of activities in which we are engaged and to the many communities of which we are part. In the body politic, we might tend to assume that presidents, prime ministers, members of congress, court judges, and civil servants are the ones who bear authoritative offices. Yet this is a partial truth at best. The citizen is a political office-holder and bears genuine authority within that context. Of course, it is not the same authority as that of the president, yet it is authority in the full sense of that word. Citizenship does not exhaust who we are as images of God, but it is a significant office all the same, especially in a democratic political system.
Let us return to Michael once more. Michael possesses more than one authoritative office. He is son to his parents and brother to his siblings. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is a representative of his class in student government. He is a member of a church congregation. And, of course, he is a citizen of the United States. Although he is only one person in more than 300 million, as he comes of age, he increasingly recognizes that he needs to discharge the duties that come with citizenship. He is now able to vote. To be able to vote intelligently, he needs, among other things, to understand the nuts and bolts of government, to read the Constitution and to comprehend its role in the system as a whole, to keep informed on the public issues of the day and, last but not least, to nurture an appreciation for the importance of public justice and to work against injustice along with his fellow citizens when he becomes aware of it.
So, no, it is not only kings and princes who bear political office. As those created in God’s image, we too bear political authority. If this is so, then far from being ambivalent about authority, we should thank God for it and hold it in high regard, as we live lives of service to God and to our neighbors.
David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. A slightly different version of this was published at Capital Commentary.