Who holds the authority for our lives? The way we answer this question, whether explicit or de facto, will profoundly shape us, our churches, and our culture.
This is the background question driving many modern theological and cultural debates. The underlying issue is often obscured because our attention is focused on controversial topics—sexuality, race relations, economics—in which we seek to determine what is right. But the deeper issue at hand is who, or what, determines rightness?
For example, when the tenets of Christianity conflict with the tenets of capitalism or progressivism or nationalism, which viewpoint do we choose?
It’s still possible for two people who adhere to the same authority to arrive at different conclusions on a particular topic. Christians have debated the Scriptures for two thousand years and won’t stop until the Resurrection. However, it’s an entirely different conversation when those same people hold differing authority sources. In both scenarios, people might quote Bible verses and use religious language, but the question of authority radically alters the debate.
A historic Christian perspective of authority is based on the following:
- God is the final authority over every aspect of creation and human existence
- God’s authority on earth is expressed through the person of Jesus
- The Bible reveals Jesus and is fully authoritative for the Church
- The Holy Spirit has actively led the Church over two thousand years in understanding how to interpret the Bible
If you claim the above sequence, then it should shape the way you see everything. However, for most people, their conception of authority is more complicated. Americans are generally religious, but that doesn’t mean their faith functions as their highest authority. You can be “spiritual” while also allowing either your emotions or the surrounding culture the final verdict in determining your life choices. This is the norm, even for Christians.
Pick a controversial topic (whatever one comes to mind). How do you determine the “rightness” of your viewpoint? Is it social science? Anecdotal stories? The latest research? These are valid considerations and should certainly inform our understanding of a topic, but if you allow them to decide an issue, then something other than Scripture is your real authority.
The most common modern substitute is the combination of secular culture and personal feelings. I occasionally hear people describe this as “general morality” or “universal morals,” as though a default ethical system exists for all mankind. The Christian faith is then compared to this standard, and often found wanting.
However, the idea of a neutral or universal ethic is a complete fallacy. There is no “view from nowhere,” no person is unaffected by their cultural perspective. We all hold to an authority, which is based on our beliefs, which are shaped by our surrounding culture. Read Peter Berger’s landmark “The Social Construction of Reality” if you don’t believe me.
Every belief system requires an underlying assumption—the most devout atheists, the most open universalists, and the most rigid Christian fundamentalists all base their understanding of the world on something. That something then informs their view of everything else.
The biblical term for this is faith. Christians believe in Jesus as revealed in Scripture. This contrasts to the other perspectives which instead, by faith, believe in things like science’s ability to serve as a final authority, or in the inherent power of humanity, or in the struggle for power which serves as the plot for all history.
When I read or hear Christians argue a social issue, I try to listen for the authority upon which the perspective is based. I’m deeply concerned by how easily we’re swept away by brilliant, emotive arguments based entirely on humanism. I worry how readily we cede moral authority to our surrounding society and, when it inevitably conflicts with the Scripture, develop a new hermeneutic or simply call it a mystery and continue to dutifully follow the tide of culture.
To be clear, my greatest worry is myself. It’s naïve to think I’m not affected by modern western culture. This battle in my soul will continue as long as I remain a pilgrim on this earth. I suspect the same is true for each one of us.
This is precisely why we must resolve the issue of authority. Our feelings will be pulled simply due to the reality that we live within a culture and its corresponding moral system and view of reality. If we do not actively uphold God as revealed in Scripture as our highest authority, and if we do not actively walk with other believers who seek to do the same, then we will inevitably conform to the surrounding culture. As Andy Crouch noted, “we’re far more likely to be changed by the world than we are to change the world.”
There is a lot more to be said on this topic, such as identifying common competing perspectives (consider reading The Universe Next Door or The Essentials of Christian Thought), understanding the importance of historical theology (dead theologians are less susceptible to cultural pressure), and recognizing the absolute importance of a Christian community—to name a few. But first, we must pause and ask the main question: Who holds the final authority for your life? How you answer this will shape everything else.
Holy Spirit, guide us into all truth and gently reveal every place we’ve allowed our culture—whether Christian or secular—to serve as authority instead of You. We joyful submit to Your leadership.