All authorities are limited, and one way in which they are limited is by God’s moral law. Even God’s authority is limited by this. He never does anything that is morally wrong.
The same is true in human relationships. A father has no right to tell his children or his wife to do something morally wrong. That is beyond the limits of his authority. This is true as well for an employer, a government official, or a spiritual leader.
God also limits himself in that he voluntarily respects the authority he has delegated to others. He has given us freedom of choice in our response to authority-submission relationships.
Authorities can also have defined, agreed-upon limits, such as the job description for your work, which indicates what responsibilities and what decision-making authority you have, and where these begin and end.
When my wife and I were younger we had several young men living in our home, and one thing we had to work out was a refrigerator policy. Otherwise, all the leftovers my wife was counting on for future meals would be gone. So we decided that anything on the second shelf was okay for these young men to eat, but everything else was off limits to them.
The limits of authority in a given relationship can change with time. In raising children, you must keep in constant communication with them because the limits of your authority are always changing. When the children are small, you are autocratic. You don’t sit down with them and take a vote on whether they should play in the street. But later they can make more and more decisions themselves, and you need to check with them at times to be sure you’ve communicated what the rules are at this particular stage. Authorities are also limited by other authorities. In the example of the woman whose husband told her to drive seventy miles per hour, the wife had the right to decline because the government, and not her husband, has authority for setting speed limits. The government’s authority limited the husband’s authority in that situation.
On the other hand, of course, the government does not have the right to preempt the legitimate authority which the man has in his family as a husband and father.
All authorities are limited, and trouble comes when these limits are violated.
We have refused to stay within the limits
Adam and Eve were given authority with limits.
The Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Satan tempted them by focusing their attention on the thing they could not do, rather than on all that they could do. We are often like this today: We’re bothered by the few things we can’t do, instead of being content with what we can do.
Notice Satan’s subtlety:
He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
Had God said this? No, he had not. God had given them authority to eat from all the trees in the garden except one.
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'”
Had God said this? No. He told them not to eat from this one tree, but the Scriptures say nothing about not touching it. Little by little, the subtle trap closed. Adam and Eve ate, and sin entered the human race. God had given them great authority with limits, but they refused to stay within those limits.
I’m reminded of a cute little dog we once had who was always digging out from under the fence around the yard when we weren’t looking. She seemed to have an obsession with getting outside the limits placed around her. If we had fenced in the entire block, or even a whole square mile, I think that dog would still have one thing in mind: getting out under the fence.
That’s what has happened to us. Like Adam and Eve, who got their eyes off all the things they could do and instead focused on the one thing they could not, we have refused to stay within God’s limits.
The result of this sin: bondage and contamination
This refusal to accept God’s limits is sin. It is putting ourselves in the center and deciding for ourselves what the limits will be. We put ourselves in’ God’s place. Our big sin is pride-self-assertiveness and self-centeredness.
The first result of this sin is separation from God. The day they first disobeyed God, Adam and Eve died spiritually. Their spiritual lifeline was cut. Sin short-circuits us.
Another result is bondage to self. It’s interesting to note that some people think the Ten Commandments place us under bondage. But notice how God introduced these commandments when he first spoke them to Israel at Mount Sinai.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)
Since he brought them out of slavery, would he now give them the Ten Commandments to place them under bondage again? No, he gave them these instructions and guidelines to keep them out of bondage.
Someone has called these commandments the Ten Freedoms. James called God’s law “the law of liberty” (James 1:25). For who is more under bondage than a liar, or an adulterer, or the worshiper of an idol? To ignore and transgress God’s guidelines brings bondage, not freedom, and deadness, not life.
In Proverbs 5:22 we read, “The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast.” Each time we fall to a certain temptation, it’s like a thread being wrapped around us. If it happened only once or twice we could break it. But it wraps around us again and again, day after day, until finally we are held in bondage with the cords of our sin.
We see the effect of sin in all seven of the authority-submission relationships. In man’s rule over nature, the earth has become polluted. In marriage, husbands abuse their authority and wives rebel against it. Neither is happy.
Sin has also contaminated the relationship of parents and children. A few years ago in a high school baccalaureate address I spoke on how to leave home. I said, “Here you are graduating from high school and you’re eager to leave home. In fact some of you can hardly wait. The whole thing has been a pain, and you are eager to get out. But you know, those of you who have been in the most conflict at home are emotionally the least able to leave.” I went on to point out that without a good conscience and a forgiving spirit they could never really leave home emotionally.
We’ve also seen what sin has done in the relationship of governors and the governed-from the tyranny of Idi Amin in Uganda to the anarchy in Lebanon. Sin has contaminated all our authority-submission relationships.
Jesus Christ is the solution
There is no solution to this contamination other than the gospel of Jesus Christ-the gospel of peace and reconciliation. Only Christ can change the hearts of men. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” He went on, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf. Be reconciled to God.”
Have you been reconciled to God? If not, right where you are now you could pray, “Lord Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner, and I believe you died on the cross for me. If I never asked you to come into my heart before, I do ask you to come in right now.”
If you already know Christ as Savior, is your conscience clear right now? As far as you know, have you confessed every known sin? Can you lay your head on your pillow tonight with a good conscience? That means not only being reconciled to God, but being reconciled to your brother or sister in Christ as well.
This application of the gospel is absolutely imperative if we are to resolve the problem of authority, which is sin. We have seen what sin is and what it has done to the relationships of life. How grateful we are that God has found a solution in the gospel of Christ! May God help us apply this in a our relationships, that we may live life as he intended us to.