Posted by: Nathan M. | April 1, 2009

The Source of Authority

One of the most important questions that political scientists seek to answer is the source of authority. There is a common trend within human nature that results in individuals ruling over each-other, often for the sake of organization and peace-preservation. Throughout history, there have been monarchs and rulers who have dictated the laws and rules over their subjects. Over time, various power-structures have developed, often increasing in complication as time passes. Each of these structures for governance holds certain assumptions on where power and authority originates from, and who has the right to rule over others. These assumptions have all had drastic impacts on society, and continue to influence the way that politics operates in every nation in the world. Canada is no exception to this fact, and so it is necessary for Christians in Canada to understand that there are certain assumptions that are held in the political arena in regards to the roots of authority. Because of this, Christians must realize that there are pressures placed on politicians to submit to certain assumptions which often deny that God is the source for all authority. These assumptions have a major impact on Canadian politics, and it must be understood that in the Canadian political system, God is not recognized as the root and purpose of authority-instead, humanity itself is seen as the primary drive and source for law, justice, and ethics. This view on authority is anti-scriptural and causes a great deal of complications for Christians desiring to influence politics. However, the first step towards a Christian influence on politics is the recognition of the political assumption that are held within Canadian society.

For most of history, the predominant belief on authority has been that might makes right. This philosophy has been promoted and explained in great detail in Niccolo Machiavelli’s famous book, The Prince. The majority of this book contains advice on methods for keeping and preserving authority over land. Machiavelli advocates the use of force when necessary, as well as manipulation and essentially any method that will maintain the respect and loyalty of the subjects of the land.[1]Through this, Machiavelli suggests that strength and ability are directly linked to authority. In fact, according to Machiavelli, authority is rooted in the ability to force others to do what you wish them to do. This idea, which designates strength as the major driving force of authority, was popular for the greater part of European history since it legitimized monarchic power. Kings and Queens had the right to rule because they had triumphed in the great game of life, and had earned their power resultantly. This belief eventually led to the conclusion that the greatest way to run a nation was to promote as much free will as possible, although this conclusion did not come from the monarchs. It was this that led to the development of liberalism, since liberalism promoted limited government for the sake of allowing free will among the people.Liberalism was developed partly as a reaction to the authoritarianism promoted by Machiavelli, since people subject to the government wanted more freedom and opportunity for success. Liberalism still triumphed the idea of power belonging to the strongest and most able, but it limited the abilities of the government itself. Essentially, it taught that there should be as little control over human action as possible. It only sought to limit government, all else would remain free. This would allow a type of free-for all, in which the most talented and intelligent people are able to triumph over others. This aspect of liberalism is not the banner-call of the ideology since liberalism tends to promote ideals such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, as stated in the American Declaration of Independence, which was largely based on the writings of John Locke, a late 17th century liberal.[2] However, since Liberalism promotes freedom, the pursuit of happiness may be protected, but only those who are able to succeed in competition with their peers are able to capture the illusive notion of happiness. Furthermore, liberalism has largely emphasized a freedom of economic transactions. Adam Smith summarized this freedom and explored its uses in his book Wealth of Nations. Smith alleged that if the economy is allowed to simply move without limitations, a balance will be reached and the economy will flourish.[3] The problem is, the invisible hand[i] is dependent on everyone striving to gain more wealth and prosperity, which means that its fuel for progress is selfishness. This concept is obviously contrary to scripture since Jesus, when talking to one of his perspective disciples, said to the man, “go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven;”.[4] From this, we see that Christ advocated a lack of reliance and desire for wealth. This teaching makes an attack at the very foundation of the capitalist, invisible hand system.

Thomas Hobbes, whom many consider to be the first of the liberal political theorists, argued that the authority of rulers comes directly from the consent of the people that they rule over. This was what Hobbes termed as the social contract.[5} In this social contract, Hobbes argued that the people agree to give their power and liberty to one person or government, on the condition that the holder of this power maintains peace and order. In this way, the authority of a government stems directly from the consent of the people to have a ruler over them, in order to preserve a peaceful state. This theory has developed into one of the most significant modern assumptions concerning authority. Most people in Canadian society will agree that the authority of the government comes directly from the consent of the people within Canada to obey the government. This is in direct opposition to the idea that authority stems from God, and society needs to be directed towards obedience to God’s law. As Noah Webster, the famous dictionary author said, “the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed[…] No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people”.[6] Webster professed a profoundly important aspect of a Christian belief about the world and government. The government of a nation must be directed by God, and not purely by the ever-changing whims of the masses. However, this is exactly what authority is built on in modern Canadian society-the approval of the masses.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the most influential political scientists in history, argued that Thomas Hobbes’ social contract was more than simply consent of the ruled to have a ruler. Rousseau argued that, in order for the contract to be valid and the ruler to rule with legitimacy, democratic action was inherently necessary. Rousseau argued that the people made up what Rousseau termed as the General Will, which dictated how authority should act. The General Will would direct the government in authority on how the people should be governed, and the authority of the government was only legitimate if the government obeyed this General Will. Rousseau claimed that the desires of the General Will could be determined through democratic process. Because of this, every issue should be voted on, in order to determine the General Will concerning all issues.[7] Through this, the concept of authority being rooted in the people was expanded to a more active position. The idea that the General Will was a type of God became a common belief. This essentially made a God out of humanity, as an infallible decision-maker. Democracy became the method to discover what this “god” desired, and thus democracy has become a mantra of modern Western thought. The common belief has become, as Jane Addams said, that “the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy”.[8] The real issue with this is, of course, that democracy assumes that authority is rooted within humanity, and not in God. This means that, if humanity voted on issues of morality, humanity would have the ultimate decision. For example, if a referendum were to be held on the morality of murder, and it was voted that murder is completely moral, this would mean that murder would no longer be wrong in any way. This is obviously an extreme example, but it makes the point. From this it can be seen that morality and ethics should not simply be left in the hands of the majority.

The many assumptions that Canadian political society is built upon are often completely contrary to scripture. The Bible tells us that “the kingdom is the LORD’S, And He rules over the nations”.[9] Nations are not independent from God’s authority, and the authority of rulers do not originate from the consent of the people, but directly from God. In fact, we are told to “be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God”.[10] It is very clear that the Canadian political construct contains within it a completely misguided view on authority according to scriptures. Yet, we as Christians need to be able to live and operate within this flawed system in order to spread the gospel throughout our society. It is important to understand that we, as Christians, are living within a political system that does not follow scriptural teachings. Democracy and Canadian political society is not without flaws, and it is not the solution to all of society’s problems. It is important for Christians to recognize that without scriptural influences on government, we cannot embrace a political system as one with Godly ideals, especially when the system in question places the status of godhood on humanity as a body.

[i]The invisible hand was the phrase that Adam Smith invented to describe the factors that guided the economy into a balance, such as the competition between different interest groups.


[1] Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York, New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2006. Pages 1-54

[2]Continental Congress. “Declaration of Independence.” House Document, 1776.

[3]Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Germany: Management Laboratory Press, 2008.

[4]The Believer’s Study Bible. New King James Version. Criswell Center for Biblical Studies, 1991. Mark 10:21

[5]Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1994. Pages 81-82

[6] Webster, Noah. American Dictionary of the English Language. New York: S. Converse, 1928. Preface.

[7] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses. London, Great Britain: Everyman’s Library, 1988.Page 200

[8] Addams, Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Pages 11-12

[9]The Believer’s Study Bible. Psalm 22:28

[10]Ibid. Romans 13:1


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