How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing

The subject of authority is difficult, yet it touches every aspect of our lives. We are deeply enmeshed in a system of interpersonal relationships ordered by layers of authority, whether we exercise it or are subject to it (often both at the same time!). All those who throughout History have sought to abolish hierarchies have inexorably ended up creating new ones. We cannot escape the reality of authority. So, in the face of bad authorities, the solution is not the absence of authorities, but good authorities. This is the thesis of this book, written with realism and depth.

It is a very rich work. I will dwell mainly on the first two parts, which provide the basic definitions and concepts for the rest of the book. I will just mention the rest without going into detail. I will offer a few comments along the way before a final assessment.

Part I: What is Authority? 

In the first part, Leeman helps us understand authority through three stages in the biblical narrative: creation, fall and redemption. In creation, God created man and gave him authority over his creation, so that he would reflect God’s authority to the world. Authority is a gift from God. In the creational purpose, authority is given for four reasons:

  • To grow those under authority.
  • To grow those with authority.
  • To create groups (by binding people together for the accomplishment of a given goal).
  • To teach what God is like (29).

“Authority is the moral right or license to make decisions with that power (capacity or ability to do something).”


Here’s Leeman’s definition: “Authority is the moral right or license to make decisions with that power (capacity or ability to do something)” (24). In other words, authority is the moral authorisation to use one’s power.

Because of creation, human authority is never intrinsic. It is derived from divine authority. Leeman speaks of authority as an “office” (26). It is given to us by an external agent for a specific purpose, with particular responsibilities. Thus, the jurisdiction and duration of an authority is always limited.

In the fall, authority is corrupted, and its experience becomes bad. The framework laid down in creation is subverted. Thus, bad uses of authority are found when “the creature believes he or she stands alongside the Creator as an equal, entitled to all the rights and powers and praise of the Creator” (35). By exercising authority in this way, we make ourselves utterly transcendent. We place ourselves above all those around us, without the slightest recognition of an authority superior to our own.

The tragedy of bad authority is that it teaches heresy (37). Related to the fourth purpose of authority, the abuse of authority teaches a lie to those subjected to it about how God exercises his own authority. It gives a perverted image of divine authority. This is all the more the case in situations of spiritual abuse, where God’s word is used to justify abuse and maintain control. This makes abuse of authority “a particularly heinous sin” because of the lie it teaches about God and the way He exercises his authority (41).

“Authority-in-creation supplies. Authority-of-the-fall steals. Authority-in-redemption sacrifices.”


This leads us to the authority restored in redemption. This authority bears the cost because it intervenes in a fallen world. “Authority-in-creation supplies. Authority-of-the-fall steals. Authority-in-redemption sacrifices.” (45) The archetype of this authority is Jesus Christ, who in his supreme authority sacrificed his life to save us (Mark 10:42-45). Through his authority, Jesus delivers and redeems us. His example must shape the exercise of our authority. Authority in redemption stoops down to go where sin and darkness reign to deliver and restore. It is costly for those who exercise it. This is an essential marker of such authority: it involves more suffering and sacrifice for the one who exercises it than for those who are subject to it. It is an authority that leads to life through self-sacrifice.

Part II: What is submission?

Authority implies submission. It’s a word that makes us uncomfortable. Yet Leeman argues that there’s nothing inherently wrong with submission, quite the opposite. 

Submission is the path to authority (64). According to God’s design for creation, everyone submits in one way or another (65). According to Leeman, submission implies two things: “deferring by moral constraint to another person’s judgment and to deploying your resources for the sake of fulfilling that person’s judgment” (65). Thus, submission implies free agency. It is part of an individual’s moral formation (66). Moreover, the act of submission reflects God, who “submits” (improperly) to the law of His nature. It reflects Christ, who submits to the Father. Indeed, exercising our authority according to God requires us to submit fully to Him (67). According to the second part of the definition, submission is not a purely passive act, but implies full participation in fulfilling the objectives of the authority in question. Thus, submission is constructive and fruitful.

The refusal to submit is at the source of all abuses of authority.

Faith always precedes submission, and submission necessarily follows from faith. Trust in the authority in question is essential to submission (69). Does submission dehumanise? Only if faith dehumanises. In addition, submission “involves agency; submission is the pathway to growth; and submission is the pathway to authority because all good authority involves submission” (69). It is essential to learn to submit before being able to lead, not only because submission is an essential step to authority, but because leading requires submission to the authority that put us in place (71). No one escapes submission. The refusal to submit is in fact the source of all abusive authority.

Where does the moral obligation to submit come from? From God and God alone. “No human being possesses inherent authority over another human being” (71). This is where the concept of authority as an office comes in: any authority we have over others, we have by virtue of an office given to us. In submission, we submit to an office, not to a person per se. And in submitting to an office, we submit to the one who established that office (72, a chain that always goes back to God).

Submission to creatures is never absolute and has limits:

  • When an authority requires sin (77).
  • When an authority drives outside its God-assigned lane (77).
  • When protecting oneself from wrongful harm (79).

All earthly authority is relative; only divine authority is absolute.

The theological framework of authority and submission laid down by these two parts is very well argued and faithful to Scripture. It captures the complexity of these issues (in both theory and practice). It is not based on certain verses alone, but on a global reflection on the biblical narrative. As a result, his conclusions are not skewed by the omission of important data and demonstrate a healthy balance.

Part III: How Does Good Authority Work? Five Principles

Each chapter in this section respectively develops the principles set out below.

  • It is not unaccountable, but submits to a higher authority.
  • It does not steal life, but creates it.
  • It is not unteachable, but seeks wisdom.
  • It is neither permissive nor authoritarian, but administers discipline.
  • It is not self-protective, but bears the cost.

Each chapter contains both positive and negative examples illustrating these principles deeply rooted in the Bible. Leeman gives concrete guidelines for growing into a good and healthy authority, as well as penetrating diagnostic questions. Leeman gives us a rather comprehensive and convincing picture of the key principles of good authority. Exercising authority well is not easy. It requires real humility, sacrifice, and a lot of wisdom. These chapters will be of great benefit to anyone in a position of authority.

Part IV: What Does Good Authority Look Like in Action?

This is where Leeman introduces the distinction between an authority of command and of counsel. The authority of command has received from God the power of discipline, symbolized by the sword for government, the keys for the Church, the staff for parents. The authority of counsel does not have this power of discipline, but it retains the moral right to give directives that bind the conscience (153). Thus, the husband or elders of a church have no authority to impose their authority (there is no equivalent of the sword, keys, or staff for them). At first glance, it seems that the authority of counsel is emptied of its power, but this is where the eschatological dimension becomes key: every conscience will have to give an account before God for its submission in the face of these authorities (just as every authority will give an account before God for the way it has exercised its authority). It is not the role of the authority of counsel to judge and discipline.

The authority of counsel follows the logic of the Gospel

The authority of counsel follows the logic of the Gospel (or the New Covenant): it pleads rather than commands (164). It seeks to win the hearts of those under its authority, not to force them. It does not seek formal, outward submission, but joyful and glad submission from the heart.

Leeman dedicates a chapter to each of the following offices and develops their job description: husband (counsel); parent (command); government (command); manager (command); church (command); elder (counsel).

Each of these chapters is very enlightening. He clearly links the theology of Parts I & II, the principles of Part III, and these offices with their specific prerogatives. The distinction between authority of command and of counsel is very relevant and convincing from a biblical point of view. This distinction disarms those who think they can use the Bible to abuse their wives or congregations. Furthermore, the connection between the authority to counsel and the dynamics of the New Covenant is extremely insightful and makes this type of authority all the more attractive.

Overall Assessment

This is a much-needed book. It sets out several concepts and distinctions that are so important to a proper understanding of authority. But this book is also very concrete and practical. It bridges the gap between theology and the everyday experience of authority. The book is written in a conversational style, which makes it very accessible. It is peppered with real-life examples to illustrate the arguments. It is thought-provoking and provides a basis for evaluating our practice in the light of Scripture. It invites repentance. Finally, it encourages us to contemplate and cherish Christ’s authority in all its goodness.

It should be added that, in this book, Leeman is openly Congregationalist and Complementarian. He makes no secret of it, but this only concerns a few sections of the book. Those who do not share his views on these points will nevertheless benefit from the central arguments and be stimulated in their thinking on the subject. At the same time, the book helps to correct misconceptions about complementarianism (that it oppresses women, that men have all the power, etc.). A beneficial book in that respect too.

In short, it is destined to become a reference work on the subject of authority. Every pastor, and more broadly anyone in a position of authority (according to Leeman, that is most people) should read this book. 

Leeman, Jonathan. Authority: How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2023.

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