Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Question of Authority

James W. Skillen


October 7, 2011

by James W. Skillen

This article is excerpted from an essay originally published in the Public Justice Report in 1994 as part of a series of articles articulating the fundamental principles of the Center for Public Justice.

Almost everywhere today, authority is questioned. Anyone who holds an office of authority seems to come under suspicion….[But] whether suspect or not, any position of authority forces this question: by what authority does one hold an office of authority? […]

In democratic countries such as ours, governments are tied by elections and other means to the governed, but "the people" are not unambiguously authoritative. Our Constitution, for example, was designed to set limits to the expression of a popular will…Within that constitutional framework, the president has more authority than any single senator or representative. The U.S. Supreme Court has authority denied to all other Americans. "The people" clearly do not act as a mass to govern themselves. So in what sense is American government grounded in the ultimate authority of “'the people”?

At the very least we can say that American government is accountable to the governed. Americans have, by constitutional design, rejected autarchical government—the kind of government that depends on nothing outside itself and is accountable to no other body of human beings.

But still we have to ask, in what sense do "the people" function as the ultimate authority to which government is accountable? If we answer that the people are ultimate because they need not appeal to anyone or anything beyond themselves, then we have simply transferred the idea of "autarchy" to the people. In other words, people acting democratically can do as they please and design government to do whatever they want it to do without reference to anything outside themselves.

But if this is true, another question arises: what constitutes a people?...Why should I accept the principle that the will of the majority holds authority over me, especially if I think I am right and the majority is wrong? If a human mass of people can be autarchical, why can't every individual be autarchical? In fact, isn't our system based on the principle that "the people" are nothing more than the sum of autonomous, self-governing individuals? If so, then by what authority other than myself should I submit to anyone other than myself?

In the final analysis, there is no way to avoid the question of ultimate authority. Even if we Americans think we have escaped the indignity of being subject to autocratic kings, to aristocratic landowners, to ecclesiastical authorities, and to every other outside authority, we are still left with the unanswered question of why any of us should have to submit to anyone else, especially to a mass called "the people." […]

So, then, perhaps there is no ultimate authority for government. And perhaps that's the reason for the predicament we are in. Governments govern not with authority but merely with whatever meager power they can muster by trying to keep people as happy as possible in the illusion that they are the ultimate authority behind government. […]

Is there any way to resolve these difficulties? If God's authority is really ultimate over government, and in human affairs generally, then there can be no claim whatsoever to human autarchy. Neither individuals nor "the people," neither government nor the church, can be autarchical, because all are subject to God.

The Center for Public Justice affirms that good government is a task of human stewardship granted by God. According to the Scriptures, government is a gift of God's grace, which is being revealed finally and fully in Jesus Christ, who now lays claim to ultimate authority over all human affairs, including human government. This confession authorizes neither Christians nor any church to claim special authority over civil government. It does, however, turn attention to the transcendent grounds of government's authority and away from every autarchical claim by individuals, by "the people," and by anyone who holds a government office. […]

This leads to the biblically grounded proposition that government is directly accountable to God and derives its authority ultimately from him. Governments have a direct calling from and an obligation to God to govern according to His principles of justice.  But government's authority is of a specifically limited, non-autarchical kind that ought to be inscribed in a constitution and guarded carefully by means of regular elections, judicial review, and other means of accountability.

—James W. Skillen is the former President of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”