An article by Ron and Karen Schwartz

Spiritual Authority

Part 1. Understanding Spiritual Authority


May 16, 2007

From Ron and Karen Schwartz





There is a great deal of confusion over the subject of Spiritual Authority because people tend to confuse natural authority and spiritual authority.  This confusion is pervasive in the teachings of well-known Christian teachers like Bill Gothard and Watchman Nee.


Natural authority is the power (or authority) people have over others.  People tend to exploit the areas of their lives that contribute to their sense of power.  For instance, it is not unusual for influential men to spend in excess of $1,000 on a name brand suit, $150 on a silk tie, $200 on leather shoes, thousands on a Rolex watch, and tens of thousands on classy cars.  To them, generic and inexpensive do not convey a sense power.


Men are not alone in their pursuit of power.  Women live in what they consider “a man’s world.”  Therefore, in order to feel significant, women feel they need to have some sort power over men.  But since they are far less physically intimidating than most men, women have had to learn other ways to achieve power and control.  One especially effective tool is there sex appeal.  The most common way to do this is by accentuating their physically sensual characteristics.  They tend to wear clothes that accent their physical shape, stockings and shoes that show off their legs, make-up and hairstyles that accent their faces, jewelry and nail polish to show off their hands, etc.  Women have come to understand that a man’s sexual drive is his weakness, and so when they successfully exploit this weakness, they gain power over him.  Other women go to the opposite extreme and attempt to act and dress like their male counterparts trying to fit in with them.  None of this has anything to do with spiritual authority.  It is merely people using natural authority to have power and control.


Natural authority has to do with intimidation, which then translates into power and control over others.  You will find this true throughout all nature.  Packs of animals have dominant leaders.  They are usually the ones that are the most intimidating.   Phrases like “the pecking order” or “the king of the jungle” come from the idea of natural authority.  Likewise, men of stature, with deep voices and strong personalities, convey a sense of power.  People who have large expensive homes and cars, and toys like yachts and planes naturally intimidate those who do not own such things.  People with jobs in politics, upper management, the IRS, police departments, and pastoral ministries carry a sense of intimidation.  Natural authority is all about the exertion of power and control over others.


Much of the Christian teaching on the subject of spiritual authority attempts to reconcile natural authority to the spiritual realm.  But it just doesn’t work.  It tends to create totalitarianism.  It is responsible for the traditional thinking that spiritual authority is 1) a position held that is governing and controlling others and 2) measured by quantity (i.e., the number of people over whom they have power, the size of the corporation they manage, their income level, etc.).  But this is nothing more than natural authority renamed.  It is not true spiritual authority.


The mixing of natural authority into spiritual authority has made unclear the true nature of spiritual authority.  It causes men to feel the need to be the pastor a church in order to be “significant,” because having a church fulfills their need for authority.  As a result, there is no end in sight to the startup of more and more small churches as men struggle to realize their twisted view of spiritual authority.  And because quantity is the measure of such authority, there is no hope of unity, because pastors must then compete with each other for members in order to increase the size of their own church, which, in turn, increases his own authority.  With natural authority, the winner is the one with the biggest piece of pie.


Could this really be what God intended spiritual authority to become?  Of course not.  This is actually the result of the lack of understanding of true spiritual authority.  Spiritual authority is not about power or rule.  It is about serving.  It is measured not in the quantity it controls but in the extent of personal sacrifice.  Spiritual authority is the opposite of natural authority in almost every respect.



Old Testament Influence


Throughout the Old Testament, there was no direct access to God.  God did not speak directly to His people but through the law and prophets.  Men were appointed as priests to represent the needs of God’s people.  In addition, God did not work directly in the lives of His people, so they were incapable of transformation.  They would never be anything more than what they were at birth.  In the Old Testament, spiritual authority came through men who spoke for God as prophets or who represented the people to God as priests.  It was a pyramid of authority that had God at the top followed by His governmental and religious leaders.  The people of God were at the bottom.


In the New Testament, people no longer need to go through men to have direct access to God (And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. Matthew 27:51).  In the New Testament, God does speak directly to His people.  Under this testament, God’s people no longer need men to represent their needs to God.  They are able to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:16).  The roles that men once filled and the spiritual authority they once provided now belong to God who works in the heart of every believer.


God’s reasons for removing men as His people’s spiritual authority goes far beyond providing a way to allow His people direct access to Him.  He wanted direct access to them.  Having direct access to His people would have accomplished very little if His people were to remain in the same state of sin and rebellion (and thus condemnation) in which they were born.  Through His New Testament, God is able to do something that never could have happened as long as men exercised spiritual authority: to change the hearts of men.


2 Corinthians 3:17-18 KJV

17 Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

18 But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.


Only when we submit our lives to the spiritual authority of the Holy Spirit can we realize the transformation God wants for us.  Paul described the difference between the two testaments when he wrote:


Romans 8:2-4 KJV

2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.

3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:

4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.


Many Christians want to revert back to the spiritual authority of the Old Testament.  They liked having men represent them to God as their priests.  But men cannot change hearts.  It is the work of the Holy Spirit.  When men stand between us and God, the transformational power of God’s Spirit is either lost or limited.  That model was a failure in the Old Testament, and it is a failure today.  Consider the lack of spiritual maturity in contemporary Christianity.  What profit has come from nearly two thousand years of men providing spiritual authority?  God does not want His people submitting to the spiritual authority of anyone or anything other than Him.  Men cannot change you, but God can.


Every Christian who has ever experienced transformation knows that it was a sovereign act of God.  They experienced something that is indescribable and is, without question, from God’s Spirit.  Knowing that, why allow men to tell you that this power from God must come through them?  Jesus instructed His disciples:


Luke 24:49 KJV

And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.


The “power from on high” was the sovereign work of God.  When it came, it was not ushered in through a prophet or a sermon.  The transformational power was their spiritual authority given directly to them from God, not through priests or prophets, and it changed the world.  If the world is to be changed again, we must once again submit to God’s Spirit alone as our spiritual authority.



Spiritual Authority or Sovereignty


Spiritual authority is the authority of the Holy Spirit that He brings into our lives.  It is spiritual authority. 


John 18:36 KJV

Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.


Jesus explains that His kingdom – that over which He reigns – is not part of the kingdoms of this world.  He told His disciples, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21).  Christ’s kingdom, to which He brought His authority, is in our hearts.  We Christians have the unique power to lay down our lives.  We have power to overcome temptation and to deny ourselves of sin.  We have the power to love one another as He has loved us.  This is the greatest power that anyone can possess.  It is NOT the power to rule over others (as if His “kingdom were of this world”) but to rule one’s self.  True spiritual authority is the authority over self.  The best description of spiritual authority comes from none other than the Lord:


Matthew 5:38-44 KJV

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.


This is the greatest power!  No conqueror who ever lived, no warrior who ever fought, and no king who ever reigned has had the power to rule the heart.  Natural authority may have power to control others, but only the spiritual authority of God’s Spirit can control our hearts.  Spiritual authority grows, not in having a church, but in laying down your life for others.  In this context, an elderly widow who seeks only to serve others may have more spiritual authority than any other person in her church.


True spiritual authority is foundational. Consider the following scripture:


1 Corinthians 3:10 KJV

According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.


Ephesians 2:19-20 KJV

19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;

20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;


Revelation 21:14 KJV

And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.


Here we find ministry as supporting, or foundational to, believers.  Most ministers have confused spiritual authority with natural authority and have come to see their ministries at the top of their churches.  When ministry is at the top of the church, it becomes sovereign.  True ministry is foundational rather than sovereign.


Most church leaders describe church leadership as an upside down triangle with the people on top and the leaders at the bottom.  It is remarkable how they can say the right things but then not practice it.  They are no more at the bottom than the President of the U.S. is at the bottom of our government. 


To understand the quagmire that results from the contemporary spin on spiritual authority (i.e., the rule that men have over others in their church), look no further than tragedies like Jim Jones and David Koresh.  These may be extreme examples of spiritual abuse, but left on their own, every group that allows a person (man or woman) to be the spiritual authority will eventually face the temptation of becoming a cult.  People fail to understand that most cults started out as legitimate churches.  David Koresh and the Branch Dividians were at one time Seventh Day Adventists, Jim Jones was a holiness preacher, David/Moses Berg was part of the Missionary Alliance Church, and Jim Bakker went to Central Bible College in Minnesota, beginning his career as an itinerant pastor.  Each of these men allowed the popular ideology of spiritual authority to get out of control.


Most of us know of churches that we consider cults or that at least act "cultish."  In each case, spiritual leaders with varying degrees of power exercise control over these groups.  Submission is always an important part of each member’s spiritual development.  Anyone who questions the power of the leader is viewed as spiritually underdeveloped (immature) and rebellious.  Quite often, they are compared to Judas.  We all know that this form of power is wrong.  We know intuitively that it is not spiritual authority but a natural authority to which misled people submit.


There is no difference between these extreme examples of cult control and the power we attribute to spiritual authority.  None!  No one involved in a cult believes that their group is a cult.  No one submitting to what they consider spiritual authority believes it to be anything but spiritual.  They submit to what they believe to be their spiritual authority because they are persuaded that it pleases God.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It does not please God that you submit yourself to men when it is God alone to whom you should be submitting.  It is for this reason that God does NOT maintain a spiritual hierarchy among His people.


True spiritual authority is the power to be the servant of all, and being a servant is without question foundational.  Only people who have laid down their lives and who have the active power of the Holy Spirit in their lives can be true servants.  True spiritual authority is one of the most difficult things to master because it requires self-sacrifice and self-denial.  Spiritual authority is the power to take up one’s cross and follow Christ.  Men who submit themselves to the true spiritual authority of the Holy Spirit will not become the spiritual authority to others.  They know that to do this would be to supplant God.





There is a popular notion among many Christian groups that Christians must be “accountable” to someone.  That someone provides the spiritual authority in their lives.  They point to the structure of the institutional church as providing accountability.  We must challenge that notion.


Accountability in institutional churches is a myth.  It does not exist.  Just how involved are church leaders in the lives of the average church member?  How much of their day-to-day activities are they even aware?  Most church leaders have a general knowledge of their members but nothing more.  In fact, barring a phone call from a spouse or reading about an arrest in the newspaper, most church leaders would never know about a person’s alcohol or drug problems.


“Accountability” is not about being aware of someone’s problems.  True accountability is invasive.  It carries with it the sense of legal responsibility.  Look up the word yourself.


Then there are the groups like Promise Keepers that encourage men to come together and to share their inner weaknesses with one another.  They call this “accountability.”  What men choose to share is voluntary, and so is how they choose to color it.  True accountability is not voluntary.  It is “liable.”  Choice is removed.  These “feel good” groups are not invasive into each other’s lives any more than church leaders are in the lives of their members.  So we say it again: accountability is a myth.  Christians act independently and freely with only the fear of getting caught, their actions and motives discovered.


True spiritual authority is transformational.  You cannot resist God once you submit your life to Him.  However, when the “form” of “accountability” replaces true spiritual authority, the response is no longer to God but to men.  Instead of responding to God and experiencing His transformational power, people tend to hide who they really are and learn to deceive in order to hide their sin.  When Adam yielded to Satan for his spiritual authority, he found himself hiding from God and covering himself with the leaves of self-righteousness.


“Accountability,” as defined today, is just another form of contemporary spiritual authority that usurps God’s rightful place.  It breeds hypocrisy and religious form.  The stronger the influence of men, the more hypocrisy and religious form will exist.  Most people really are not afraid of God finding out what they are like and what they do.  They are afraid that their pastor will.  This should demonstrate to them the extent to which men have come to replace true spiritual authority in their lives.


In summary, spiritual authority in the New Testament is the rule of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  It is this rule that has the power to transform us into a “new creature (2 Corinthians 5:15).”  But men have patterned the institutional church after the spiritual authority found in the Old Testament where God did not act directly in the lives of His people.  As a result, contemporary Christianity does not experience even a fragment of the transformational power of God.



Part 2 of this series, The Application Of Spiritual Authority, which covers many aspects of relationship and submission, should follow shortly.