November 19, 2013

Should We Question Authority?

By In C.Jay Engel

Many libertarians (and liberals and sometimes conservatives) will encourage us to always “question authority.”  It is tempting to adopt this blanket mentality.  After all, don’t we pretty much oppose nearly everything the State does?  But what exactly, is being meant here?  I don’t really mind endorsing this battle cry, as long as it is defined right.  But I suspect that most people would not present its justification as I do.  By “question authority” we should mean that we ought to test all things according to the standards of Scripture like Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5: “but test everything; hold fast what is good.”

But by defining “question authority” in this way, we can really just say that we ought to “question” everything, not just authority.  So there is probably something else being inferred here by adding in the word “authority.”  Is there any sense in which our questioning of authority should be different than our command to “test all things?”  Well, perhaps we could say that we should be especially attentive to authority because “power corrupts.”

But I don’t think we should mean that “authority” is bad.  Authority is good if it fits the structure of God’s moral command.  Parents have authority over their children.  Yes, the children ought to test the commands and teachings of their parents against the Scripture (children should not obey if their parents order them to sin, for example), but having a submissive attitude is important so long as the parents act within their God-given jurisdiction.

Moreover, the concept of Church discipline presupposes a certain authority that is given by God, to the Church, over the Christian.  Of course, the elders, those in leadership, are under the same authority as every other Christian.  There is no hierarchy here.  Christ is equally Lord over all.  And the misbehaving elder ought to be removed from office.  But this Church authority does not extend, for example, into those areas which require coercion, like civil law.  The Church should not pursue justice for the murderer.  The Church has authority, but it would act beyond its own God-given jurisdiction if it acted coercively.  Thus, the authority of the Church should be respected, but also tested.  Is it being consistent with it’s role?  The Reformers were right to question, and challenge, Rome.

Also, think about it this way: what does the concept of private property rights include?  The authority of the property owner to do as he wills with his own property.  Those who want to oppose all “authority” because they despise it conceptually will find that, if they are consistent, they should be leftists, not libertarians.

Fundamentally, there are ways in which all authorities could conceivably be challenged (some, like the State, are challenged far more often than not).  Except one.  God cannot be questioned.  Why? There is no standard of logic, law, consistency, morality, or anything else by which He can be challenged.  He is the ultimate.  Don’t question that authority.  To question God is to assume your own authority is higher than God.  How dare the sinner presume such a relationship with the almighty Lord!

To conclude, I do not think that “question authority” should mean to disobey everyone who has authority for the simple reason that they have authority.  My reasoning for this is that the Scriptures call us to live our live with a submissive attitude, even if the other party is acting wrongly.  God will judge.  We should seek to be agreeable.  Turn the other cheek.  Live peaceably.  This does in no way justify the actions of others.

Test authority (and all things) according to the absolute standards of Scripture.  But don’t hate the concept of authority.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com