Question Authority

I saw it again the other day, a bumper sticker that said, “Question Authority.” That’s the prevailing mood of our day, perpetual skepticism towards human authority and the notion that we should question and challenge it at every opportunity. This is hardly surprising given the rebellious nature of humanity, but it’s puzzling to see many Christians join the chorus.

In our adamic depravity we all have a natural distaste for authority. Resistance can run the gamut from mild to intense, but this basic sentiment lurks in the shadows of every human heart, “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to do!” Rugged individualism can digress into sinful anti-authoritarianism almost imperceptibly.

Personal independence is lauded in movies, television, and popular songs. Frank Sinatra sang, “I did it my way.” Society makes heroes of those who defy authority, whether parental, ecclesiastical, political, or economic.

How many Sanctuary Cities proudly proclaim their disdain for Federal and State laws as they harbor illegal aliens, many of whom have committed crimes for which Americans would be prosecuted. Because they are “undocumented immigrants,” they are sheltered and protected from the reach of the law. In other words, because they broke the law by entering this country illegally, they are now exempt from other laws! How does one explain such seeming insanity unless it is driven by deeply rooted rejection of governmental authority?

If someone does not approve of our nation’s immigration laws, why not work through the legislative process to have them changed? Please don’t defy them simply because you don’t like them! What do these agitators want? A society in which everybody disobeys the laws with which they disagree? Do they want a complete break-down of law and order? That seems to be the only explanation which accounts for such folly.

From whence comes the recent distrust of policemen? Do officers of the law perform perfectly at all times? Of course not, but to assume that every conflict is the result of misbehaving policemen, not people breaking laws, not only strains credulity, but undermines the ability of law officers to do their job. Do these people really want a society in which there are no policemen?

I’ve often wondered what would happen if every law officer in America walked off the job? But as I ponder that possibility, I shudder at the consequences. I don’t want to live in a society without law enforcement, and I suspect you don’t either. And yet, if the real criminals are the cops, why not fire every policeman, thereby eliminating crime and conflict from American society, not to mention saving tons of money. Does anyone really think that would work?

The Need for Authority

Humanity needs authority because of sin. If nobody sinned, we wouldn’t need others to remind us what is right, and correct us when we’re wrong. In a perfect society, everyone would love one another, and nobody would harm another person. That’s utopia, and it can happen only when all sin is removed from every human heart. Until then, sinners need restraint, and human authority is essential to keep society from self-destructing.

The Problem with Authority

There is a problem, however, namely that every person in authority is also a sinner. Sinners need authority to restrain sin, but the ones appointed to restrain sin are sinners, too. That explains why sometimes policemen lose their tempers and violate civil rights. It explains why husbands abuse their wives and children. Politicians may misuse their office for personal gain because they, like others, are sinners, too. This is a real dilemma. Society needs authority because of sin, but people in authority perform imperfectly, also because of sin. What’s the answer? There is no permanent solution until Jesus returns, but I can tell you what the answer is not. Attacking the principle of authority, and undermining governing institutions is not the solution. That only multiplies the problem. Human society needs human authority.

God Ordains Human Authority

Society needs authority, which is why God ordained authority structures for the good of mankind. God designed a plan for the family. Husbands are instructed to lead their wives, and parents together are commanded to exercise authority over their children (Ephesians 5:22,23; 6:1-4). God designed authority for the civic arena, which we call government. God commands people to obey kings and the officials who serve them (1 Peter 2:13-15). God has an authority plan for human labor, and commands workers to submit to their supervisors as if serving Christ Himself, because properly understood, that’s exactly what they are doing (Colossians 3:22-24).

God designated authority for the church and appointed spiritual leaders to be honored and followed by Christians (Hebrews 13:7,17). Does anyone imagine that all of these leaders will exercise authority perfectly? Not in this fallen world! But God, who knows the sinfulness of every human heart, ordained human authority for the good of human society. Fallen sinners need societal structure and restraint.

Those who submit to God-ordained authority will be rewarded by God, and those who resist will answer to God for their disobedience. Likewise, human authorities who rule well will be rewarded by God, and those who misuse their position will face the consequences of Divine justice. God is the ultimate authority to whom all must give account.

The Limits of Human Obedience

How far should we go in submission to human authority? Some say that we should obey the requirements with which we agree and resist the rest. But that results in chaos and anarchy in this fallen world. Fortunately, God does not leave us without guidance. His Word instructs us to obey every human regulation unless these authorities require us to disobey God’s commandments. At that point, we must obey God rather than man, but until that point is reached, God expects us to submit to human authority (Acts 4:19; 5:28, 29).

Jesus Christ furnishes a striking illustration of this principle. He pointed to the Scribes and Pharisees, Jewish religious leaders who were sitting in the seat of Moses, that is, exercising Moses’ authority. They were defiant towards Christ, their rightful king. They were anything but models of godly behavior. Nevertheless, Jesus commanded His followers to submit to their authority. “Do what they say, not what they do,” was Christ’s instruction (Matthew 23:1-3). Imagine that! Christ said to submit to those whose actions violated God’s Word, but whose teaching authority was to be obeyed unless they directly commanded people to violate God’s revealed will. Clearly Jesus Christ had a higher view of human authority than most people today.

The Bottom Line

Sin, by its very nature, is defiance against the authority of God, and a heart in rebellion against God will also resist God-ordained human authority. God expects people to have a prevailing attitude of submission towards authority, not one of second guessing and rebellion. We would expect the world to encourage defiance, for that reflects the sinful nature of human hearts in rebellion against God and His laws. God requires submission because submission reflects the renewed condition of hearts changed by His Spirit, and surrendered to the Lordship of Christ. “Question authority?” Not unless it commands you to disobey God. “Respect authority” is the proper attitude of God’s blood-bought children who live in this world of sin and darkness.

Greg Barkman bio

G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored for over 40 years. In addition, Pastor Barkman broadcasts over several radio stations in NC, VA, TN, and the island of Granada and conducts annual pastors’ training seminars in Zimbabwe, Africa. He and his wife, Marti have been blessed with four daughters and six grandchildren.

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JBL's picture

Historical pattern shows that men actually crave authority.  But they crave authority that is made in their own image - hence Israel choosing a king instead of the Lord and worshipping Moloch instead of Jehovah.  The historical pattern is that authority is accepted only in that it provides a vehicle to personal satisfaction and security.  If it doesn't, it is useless and is questioned.

This article served as a reminder to me of how often I coronate my own heroes not on purely biblical merit, but on how they advanced culture and society in my own image.  Since authority is God-ordained, and men in general and especially Christians should submit to and reverence and honor those human authorities that God has placed over them, then many of my heroes of the past have not acted biblically in their response to authority.

I will grudgingly admit that the American Revolutionary patriots and the brave men of the Confederacy clearly had issues with authority.  They disdained the idea that the governance that God had placed over them would subject them to rules and regulations that clashed with their own ideas of social justice and equality.  This is at the heart of questioning authority and civil and martial disobedience throughout the ages.

John B. Lee

Ron Bean's picture

One of the pastors I knew who was adamant on submission to authority, particularly his, had no self-control at athletic events. Whether he was coaching or spectating, I saw him charge on the field or basketball court to challenge an official's call. When someone dared to confront him about his actions he would claim that challenging authority when they were wrong was permissible. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Jim's picture

in some jurisdictions, police have effectively "walked off the job" because citizens have refused to cooperate with them: Baltimore (as referenced in the book Homicide) and sections of Chicago

One giant peeve I have here in Minneapolis, is that the Black Lives Matter movement has been able to riot and block Interstates in the case of two black shootings by police.

We recently had a white housewife shot by a black (Somali) cop and while there were peaceful assemblies to legally protest - no property damages, no street closures (by white protesters)

TylerR's picture


It's a bad time to be a patrol officer for any police department. Low budgets, insane scrutiny, too many tasks, relentless armchair quarterbacking from fools - who on earth would want to do it? You'd be better off just going active-duty and serving in law enforcement that capacity.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture


JBL wrote:

I will grudgingly admit that the American Revolutionary patriots and the brave men of the Confederacy clearly had issues with authority.  They disdained the idea that the governance that God had placed over them would subject them to rules and regulations that clashed with their own ideas of social justice and equality.  This is at the heart of questioning authority and civil and martial disobedience throughout the ages.

I don't want to completely sidetrack this thread, but at least for the men behind the War of Independence, they themselves did not see this as a light action.  This is a short section from near the beginning of the Declaration:

Thomas Jefferson wrote:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

They go on to spend much of the rest of the DoI giving a set of facts laid out before the world, one of which stated: "He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us."  This is not a group of men who didn't want authority -- they wanted "just" authority, similar to what God demanded of his various rulers over the nation of Israel.  They wanted a government that didn't ignore and disobey its own laws.  They understood they couldn't be in rebellion to a government that no longer claimed them, by an act of the English king.  They were willing to lay this out for others to see and judge, and to submit arguments for all to read.  They didn't want anarchy, they wanted "new Guards."  They well knew that society needed authority.  This is not at all the same as those who "question" ANY authority, and don't believe in the concept generally.

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture


Timothy Leery is credited with starting the "question authority" thing. The quote I've seen wasn't about rebellion so much as critical thinking. Making up your own mind. There's a fine line. Humans are so social that even when we're "doing our own thinking" we do it in bunches and it becomes a fad. So Leery's think-for-yourself quickly became think-in-the-newest-cool-enlightened-way.... like everyone else who gets it: anti-establishment.

So weird that now "conservatism" in the US is anti-establishment. It has fallen prey to mindless rebellion. It stopped being about principles and ideas and became about nothing more than liberal-bashing... Which continues daily with great zeal even while the guy they elected president betrays nearly everything conservatism has meant for the last couple of centuries.

So rebellion and reactionism feed eachother and are addictive. A powerful stupidity drug.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Conservatism has become little more than liberal bashing, and fundamentalism has become mostly evangelicalism bashing.  Are there any lessons here?

G. N. Barkman

JBL's picture

I'm sympathetic to the virtues that Jefferson desired in his government.  We are blessed because of it.  

But the virtues of the revolution are mainly secular humanist, derived from Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau.  

The question I would like to think through is not whether Jefferson took his actions lightly, but whether there was a clear biblical mandate to oppose the Crown of England at the time of the revolution.  From what I can apply from scripture, it's not clear that there is.  

Romans 13:1-7 was written while Nero was in office in Rome, and the admonition to submit to authority was given to those Christians under his rule.  If, even under those circumstances, Christians are told to submit, what are the extenuating merits which would justify the American Revolutionaries rebelling from England?  That is hard to answer, is it not?

The primary point in my initial post is that 

  1. Man does not disdain ALL authority.  He hates the authority that goes against his desires.  Agreed?

To add to that, I also state that

  1. Christians need to submit to authority, even those that are biblically unjust.  The passage in Romans 13 makes no sense otherwise.  All leaders are sinful, and compared to God, unjust.  We can find something unjust in every leader, and then claim to have biblical mandate to oppose him/her.
  2. The sympathy that certain revolutionaries can lie much more with our secular political leanings than with actual biblical merit.

It is certainly a humanist virtue to actively disobey and oppose leadership that we view as unjust.  Once again, the question needs to be asked - is it a Christian one?  

John B. Lee

Ron Bean's picture

Conservatism has become little more than liberal bashing, and fundamentalism has become mostly evangelicalism bashing.  Are there any lessons here?

My father used to tell me that the only way some short people can try to walk tall is by trying to cut off other people's legs.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture


Don't forget 1 Peter 2:13-17, either!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

Then there's I Peter 2:18.

One summer I worked in a paper mill in my hometown and my boss was a tyrant. He mocked my faith, forbid me to read my Bible on break, gave me extra work to do, etc. At the end of the summer he asked me why I put up with his ______. I told him I was a Christian and politely referred him to this verse in my KJV pocket Bible. He asked me what  "froward" meant and I told.him and gave him a Gospel tract as I left. He wadded up the tract and threw it in the trash. Some years later I was preaching in my hometown and saw a familiar face. It was him! He took that old tract out of his pocket and shared with me how Jesus had convicted him of sin and saved him!

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

josh p's picture

I certainly agree that we are to submit to our leadership but more often I see Christians making an idol out of the state than rebelling against it.

Ron Bean's picture

Wally asked: "Has SharperIron become Fundamentalism bashing?"


I would say no. Honestly critiquing fundamentalism, yes.

As one of the older guys around here, I'll be 70 this weekend, I remember the days when fundamentalism would not tolerate questions, disagreement, and/or criticism. If someone asked a hard question or challenged a practice or edict, they could be ignored, shunned, or shipped as a rebel. Disagreement was not allowed. The advent of the internet and forums like SI have given brothers in Christ who disagree with us an opportunity to express contrary opinions. 



"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

KD Merrill's picture

The fundamentalism I grew up with was ultimately concerned with glorifying God.

The "fundamentalism" found here on SI appears to be far more concerned with the approval of men.

TylerR's picture


You were fortunate enough to grow up in a healthy fundamentalist environment. Many others did not. If you come from a healthy environment, then the criticisms of fundamentalism on the site don't apply to you. Take care.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture


Greg asked about the seeming parallel of conservatism being reduced to liberal bashing and fundamentalism being reduced to evangelicalism bashing. It had certainly gotten that way in the 80's, but I'm not sure there is much of that brand left. Maybe I'm just blessedly insulated from it now. But there was always another brand that I was happily willing to be part of and still am. But there's no virtue in pretending all the "flavors" of fundamental out there are worthy of support.

Another similarity is a small sort of loyalty. The Trumpkin wing of conservatism is loyal to a particular idea of Trump as a kind of monomania, and so sees all criticism of his conduct and policies as bashing. Similarly, when folks are loyal to an "ism" rather than to biblical principles they see any criticism of the "ism" as bashing.

In my view, "isms," in the sense of movements, are always a means to an end. Eventually they lose sight of that and become about themselves. Then they slowly (or maybe quickly) die and are replaced by something else that is concerned with original purpose(s).

Rob Fall's picture

On this thread, I again see what I believe to be a misperception of the lines of authority as seen by the founding generation. I think many here view the period leading up to the Declaration of Independence through lenses with a 2017 prescription.

We need to remember the colonial viewpoint in 1776 was shaped by the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The founders were the sons and grandsons of the latter and the great grandsons of the first. This can give you some idea of the overlapping of the timelines.

The ECW and the Glorious Rev formed their idea of the role of the legislature in the governing of the body politic. The UK had its Parliament in London. And the various colonies had their legislatures. The founders held the Crown need to raise taxes through the colonial legislators, not by fiat by the Parliament in London. I'll break off the matter here.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Dan Miller's picture

A couple years ago, I encountered a distinction that has been very helpful to me in this area. Authority of various types can be thought of as de jure and de facto. "Of right" and "of fact." 

"Of right," de jure, refers to the right and responsibility of authority. Or of leadership. So a person chosen and hired as a guide by a group of hikers is their de jure leader. He has the right to lead, including making decisions that effect the group. And he has the responsibility to make good decisions for the group. 

"Of fact," de facto, refers to good leadership that actually in fact happens. Any person on that hike might suggest a very good plan for the group, whether there is also a hired guide or not.

So a leader might be de jure the leader, but "in fact" (de facto) not a good leader at all. He might be neglectful and he might make terrible decisions.


In the church, we have sheep and shepherds.

In our country we have various authorities. 

When you go to a doctor, you're entering a relationship where he/she has the right and responsibility to take care of some part of your health. 

By virtue of their having been given a title or a job, they have de jure authority. But they might be terrible at their job in fact. Your pastor might in fact be a terrible preacher, giving his own thoughts instead of saying what Scripture says. And the police/justice system might be corrupt. And your doctor might in fact misdiagnose or mistreat you. 

Steve Newman's picture


If you take the poll, for example, you will see that SI is now more populated by evangelicals than fundamentalists (or it is at least even). My own unscientific perusal of the site would be that there are a lot more negative articles on fundamentalism than positive. While it is good for something that can be as ingrown and inbred as fundamentalism can use the scrutiny, it seems really easy for some to cross the line. 

While we have all had positive and negative experience with both movements personally or anecdotally, we should have some respect for authority as well. If we believe in the sovereignty of the local church, we need to show some grace where flawed leaders seek to serve the Lord. There is a limit ("we ought to obey the Lord, and not men" at times), it would do us well to make sure we delineate when and where those come into play. 

Authority ought to generally be respected. One of the hallmarks of Jesus' preaching was His use of authority. And it was one of the good things. Authority seems to be more tolerated than respected, as long as it doesn't "step on our toes". That's a big loss for many believers today, no matter what church they are in. 

Joel Shaffer's picture

if you take the poll, for example, you will see that SI is now more populated by evangelicals than fundamentalists (or it is at least even)

I think it all depends how you define a fundamentalist.  I am guessing that many who you consider "evangelical" believe themselves to be historical fundamentalist and prefer not to be attached to certain aspects of cultural fundamentalism that have developed over time.   

Bert Perry's picture

One might infer that Hebrews 13:7's command to see the outcome of the elders' conduct might be interpreted as a command to honor that authority in context of how it's working out for them.  If, as one noted, the outcome is un-Biblical--say it involves a private door to the secretary's office or trips to Chicago forest preserves--that authority is null and void.  See also John's rebuke of Diotrephes in 3 Jn, as well as Paul's rebuke of Peter for refusing to eat with Gentiles.  No?

In that way, we might say that a Biblical view of authority parallels how some of the more thoughtful "Founding Fathers" saw the role of George III; he was subordinate to the Magna Carta and the 1688 Bill of Rights, among other documents, and many would have viewed him as having abdicated his authority by failing to protect the colonies.  This certainly wasn't the only view out there, but it's one I can go with.  In the same way, the Confederate cause simply saw the Federal government as a creation of the states--the states were in their minds the higher authority.

Put in other words, we need to be careful that we do not confuse the ideas of authority with that of "personality."  That confusion has wrought endless havoc in church history, especially among fundamentalists.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bert Perry's picture

One might say that, or one might say that one does not sharpen iron without some friction.  We need to look at ourselves honestly, warts and all.  I consider myself a fundamentalist in the "five fundamentals" sort of way, but would concede that I view a lot of "cultural fundamentalism" as more or less flaws in the blade that need to be polished away. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

josh p's picture

I have to say that I agree that there is an overdose of healthy criticism around here these days. It's not really an authority issue to me as much as what are we here for. I would be interested in seeing a poll in how many SI members agree to the definition of fundamentalism on this site. There is still a lot of good stuff here but from my perspective there is a whole bunch of criticism of a type of fundamentalism that probably less than 10% of SI members are a part of. 

TylerR's picture


As I have stated in other threads, the now-infamous Carnell articles will be followed by some blistering critiques of evangelicals from a well-known and articulate mid-century fundamentalist. The evangelicals will get their turn. You must be patient . . . 

I direct any concerned readers to the recent series of six articles about different perspectives on the text of the NT. Poor Bro. Brandenburg graciously allowed me to post two excerpts from his book, advocating a TR position - even though he knew he'd be eviscerated by critics. I followed that by a MT and then CT perspective. I was fair. I'll be fair here, too.

We can only present one perspective at a time. I encourage everybody to wait one more week, and then you'll have your chance to read criticisms about evangelicals.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

For my part I am not really looking for criticisms of any group. I appreciate articles like this one and what brother Henenbury has been doing. Good stuff from a fundamental perspective.   

Aaron Blumer's picture


It *is* unfortunate that sloppy generalizations are so easy to make and so universally appealing to those who make them. Much of the criticism that gets leveled at "fundamentalism" is not stuff that is (a) characteristic of all of biblical fundamentalism, (b) any inherent part of what historical biblical fundamentalism is, or (c) unique to it either.

It's like bashing dogs "because they stink."

The problem is not dogs. The problem is stink... wherever it may be found.

"Stink" should be bashed; "dogs" should not. Why? Criticizing groups rather than behavior doesn't help solve problems.
That's really what bashing is... broad, sloppy criticism of groups with little or no effort toward solutions.

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