Spheres of Authority

I want to use today’s post to lay out the concept of spheres of authority. It explains the response of the Jews when questioned by Nebuchadnezzar, but it also explains much more. The primary purpose of acknowledging the concept of  spheres of authority is recognizing the limits. The only individual with an unlimited sphere of authority is God himself. As far as other spheres go, they are all limited.

A second use for the concept is to help us understand how spheres of authority relate to each other. Some spheres overlap with others, some are nested inside of others, and some are completely separate. We’ll pick this up again in a moment, but for now let’s pick up where we left off last time.

When we last left our heroes, they had just defied Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. They said, in effect, “if you throw us in the furnace God will deliver us, if you don’t, you’d better give up on the idea of us worshiping your idol, cause it’s not gonna happen.” Does that answer thrill you? It thrills me, especially because God himself backed it up.

The king was enraged. He was infuriated. He ordered the furnace to be made seven times hotter than usual. It was so hot that when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown in, the men who threw them in died of the heat.

The three Jews confidence in God was well rewarded when God sent an angel to keep them safe in the fire.

And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king’s counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them. Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort. Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the province of Babylon.

Dan 3:27-30

Nebuchadnezzar could change his mind pretty fast, and he had a good reason to change it that day.

Now, I want to consider again the first thing the Jews said to the king when he questioned them about their refusal to worship his idol. This statement points to a concept that begins to answer a ton of questions about authority. Let’s read it again.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.

Daniel 3:16 (ESV)

They told the king that he had crossed a line. His authority was not limitless. In truth, it extended only to certain things, and not to others. I call this concept “spheres of authority.” It’s a concept that we easily understand in certain contexts. It’s also a very biblical concept.

Let me give you a hypothetical example of spheres of authority in a setting we should easily understand. I’m going to give you the details of the scenario so that you can let your common sense work out the solution for you. But keep in mind that this scenario is just an example. The principle of spheres of authority is at work in many situations where the details are different.

Imagine a teenager working his first job at McDonald’s. Now suppose that his manager comes to him with some instructions. This happens often enough; ‘take out the trash,’ ‘wipe off the tables,’ etc. But this time, the manager surprises the teenager with instructions about what to do after work.

Manager: I hear you’re going to the movies after work. That’s fine. But if you get butter on your popcorn, I’ll fire you.

Bizzarre, right? It sure is.

Now when the teenage employee returns to work the next day and the manager asks him if got butter on his popcorn, what should the response be?

A: Yes, I did.

B: No, I didn’t.

C: I don’t have to answer that.

What do you think? If you were the teenager’s parent what would you suggest he say?

Obviously, the manager has no business telling the employee how to order his popcorn after work. He has no authority to tell him such a thing. He has no more authority to issue such an instruction than would a random person on the street.

Keep in mind the distinction between authority and sheer power. The manager has the power to fire the young man, and he may carry out his threat to do just that. The young man would be within his rights to complain loudly, and he could even sue. But in the meantime, he will have been fired.

The employee’s best response is option C, “I don’t have to answer that.”

Does my analysis of the manager at McD’s ring true? Does it fit with your common sense understanding of the considerations involved in such a scenario? Hopefully it does.

Now, let’s compare my hypothetical scenario with the situation that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found themselves in. The three men work for the king. The king gave an order he had no business giving. The king backed it up with a threat. All very similar.

Don’t be distracted by the fact that the king has the power to throw them into the furnace. The manager had power, too. A mugger has the power to punch you in the nose, but he has no authority. It’s true that the king claimed to have the authority. He used his power to back it up. But there are illegitimate uses of power, and this is one such example.

Here’s a diagram to illustrate the concept of spheres of authority. First, notice that the big circle is labeled God’s authority. Everything is under God’s authority. Then, the king’s authority is shown as a circle completely inside of the God’s authority. This indicates that the king answers to God for everything that he does. It also means that God has the authority to give instructions to the king concerning anything that the king himself has authority over.

spheres of authority

Not drawn to scale 🙂

But notice that Shadrach’s circle overlaps with the king’s circle. Where those circles overlap, the king has authority over Shadrach. (It’s not a two-way street, in case you’re wondering.) But where they do not overlap, the king does not have authority over Shadrach.

If you were to put a mark on this diagram showing who has authority over who Shadrach worships, where would you put it? (Hint: remember that Shadrach’s circle is completely inside God’s circle. This means he ultimately answers to God in everything within his own sphere of authority.)

This concept of spheres of authority stands in contrast to viewing all authority in the universe as a strict hierarchy. A strict hierarchy might look something this next diagram.


Don’t pay to much attention to where the labels are, the point is that this is wrong.

This shows a chain-of-command scenario. Everything that is in the authority of the person lower on the chain of command is within the authority of the person above them. This is not how God has ordered the universe.

I guess we often think of things as a strict hierarchy. That kind of model tends to work ok with just one huge caveat. We have to leave out everything that doesn’t fit that model! Think about the McDonald’s scenario again. The chain of command might start with the owner, then the general manager, then the assistant manager, shift managers, then comes the bottom-rung, ordinary employees. This works fine as long as we understand that it applies only to the business of the store. Personal business is excluded. If we try to draw a strict hierarchy, a chain of command, that includes the whole universe, we will find it distorts reality.

We must understand the concept of spheres of authority when we read the bible. The examples of the principle in action are many. The response of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to Nebuchadnezzar is just one of them. Civil authority is limited.

Another place in scripture where you can see separate spheres of authority is when considering the authority of church leaders. There are real leaders in the church and they are to be given respect, deference and obedience in their proper sphere.

And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.
Hebrews 13:7

Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
Hebrews 13:17

But when scripture considers the chain of command concerning things in a marriage, the church leaders are excluded.

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

1 Corinthians 11:3 (ESV)

This presents a chain of command for matters relating to the marriage. Notice that no pastor, deacon, pope or king is intervening between the husband and the wife. The wife answers to her husband, the husband answers to Christ, Christ answers to God.

So then there is overlap between what a church pastor has authority over and what a married Christian man serving in that church has authority over. Concerning church affairs, the Christian submits to the pastor. But in the business of that man’s marriage, the pastor dare not interfere, because the husband answers directly to Christ.

The pastor is to teach the commandments of the Lord concerning marriage. That is actually part of the pastor’s job. But he can’t go expanding that job description. If he begins to tell the husband (or the wife) how to arrange the furniture in their home, as though he has authority there, he has crossed a line. And it would be fine to tell him so.

Also! The husband’s authority over the wife only pertains to a certain limited sphere. If the husband goes full-Nebuchadnezzar and tells his wife to worship an idol, a Christian wife should tell him that he’s crossed a line. His authority does not extend to giving such an order!

Nor does it allow the husband to insert himself into the chain of command when his wife is serving in the church. If the pastor asks the wife to lead Sunday school, she may need to discuss with her husband whether she can take on those responsibilities without disrupting family life. But the husband has no business (no authority) telling her how to run the Sunday school class.

There’s much to be said on this subject, and I won’t say it all today. Does knowing that there are spheres of authority mean you know which sphere everything belongs in? No, it doesn’t. But at least we know what we’re looking for.tiny lantern

PS The diagram that shows God, the king and Shadrach, is a highly simplified version of one depicting all authority in the universe. I mean, I left a lot out. If you start working on the full version, let me know! 🙂