The Difference Between Civil and Spiritual Authority
An area of confusion needs to be addressed here, as it is already causing turmoil in countries where the Mountain of Government is being taken by sons and daughters of the Kingdom. The confusion arises in misunderstanding the difference between civil authority and spiritual authority. When a person known for spiritual authority steps into a position of civil authority, people wrongly transfer their expectations from one area to the other.
Spiritual authority comes from one’s standing before God and refers to influence in heavenly places. It could also be considered as one’s position of influence among believers. Civil authority is also a God-given authority, but it’s very different. Someone may be granted civil authority by the Lord yet still be headed for hell. Civil authority governs society while spiritual authority governs the church and the spirit realm. Many understand this concept pretty well until someone established as a spiritual authority comes into a civil authority position and must then exercise authority differently.
I recently saw a perfect example of this. In a South American country, a pastor friend of mine entered politics very late in life. As leader of a large church, he had a well-established ministry and great spiritual authority among believers and was well-respected throughout the nation. When led by the Lord to cross over into politics, he was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. He resigned from his church to fill a prestigious political position, where he is now helping set the political agenda for the nation.
During election season he was asked if he thought the death penalty should be invoked for a certain heinous crime. My friend said that he would in fact support the death penalty for this crime. That caused a bit of an uproar, both in secular circles as well as among Christians. “How could a pastor be for the death penalty?” many asked. This line of questioning arose because of confusion regarding the two types of authority. The expectation was that my friend would continue to represent himself as a spiritual authority when the issue was a civil authority issue. Neither the world nor the church knew what to do with a pastor who supported putting someone to death.
I had an opportunity to speak into the situation, and I used Romans 13:1-4 as a foundation for understanding the matter. Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil (Romans 13:1-4).
This is such a key area that we not only need to personally understand it, but also to be able to explain it to secular society. When a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ accepts a civil role, he must fulfill the God-ordained responsibility assigned to a civil authority. Both spiritual and civil authority are ordained by God, but wielding that authority looks very different for each. One’s role as a spiritual authority is to lead by example and not by constraint (1 Peter 5:2). It is a grace-based position of leadership and trust, and at no time is a spiritual authority to use his position to terminate someone’s life. That position never requires force or intimidation-except when it opposes spiritual forces of iniquity.
A civil ruler, on the other hand, is entrusted with an entirely different authority. A central purpose of a civil ruler’s call is to deal with lawlessness. Striking “terror” in the hearts of evildoers fulfills a specific assignment for which he will be accountable to God. Note that “he does not bear the sword in vain” and that he is “God’s minister” while doing this. Obviously, the sword was not for shaving. It was an instrument of death. Those in a position of civil authority must be prepared to fulfill the God-given demands of that role. Those who cannot do that must remain in the spiritual arena of authority. This is an important distinction.
My pastor/politician friend carries both types of authority and needs only to make it clear which authority he is speaking from. He is for the death penalty in extreme cases, but he himself would not want to be the one to perform the execution because of his recognized spiritual authority. Though regularly interviewed because of his standing as a spiritual leader in the nation, he has to be willing to declare himself in favor of severe punishment for evildoers. Otherwise, the country would be afraid to make him president. No one wants a civil leader who is not willing to forcefully resist those who would harm or even invade the country.
As I write this, President George W. Bush is a Christian who also serves as civil leader of the most powerful nation on earth. This position carries great responsibility-beyond what most people understand. “Most powerful nation” status is given by God; just as He places leaders in nations, He also establishes leadership among nations. President Bush has a responsibility before God to terrify terrorists and rogue nations. He probably relies on his personal walk with the Lord for guidance for the correct strategy to do so. But it’s important to know that he has a biblical, God-ordained command to exercise “the sword” to stop those who would do evil. Confronting evil and delivering practical justice is a central call of those in civil positions of authority.
A new model of national leadership will develop as God exalts His mountain above all other mountains. There will be Joseph-type presidents of nations who will carry great spiritual authority and great civil authority. At various times, these presidents will need to step back and forth between those roles and address the concerns of each. There will be times to address the nation and say, “I will now speak to you outside of my civil authority but in my capacity as a minister and servant of God.” One can then address the moral and righteousness issues of the nation and speak out of the spiritual authority God has given him or her.
This topic probably deserves an entire book (which may, in fact, already exist). However, it needs to be addressed here at least minimally because understanding this dynamic will be so crucial as the Lord raises us up to lead our countries. We cannot exert the same type of authority over a nation that we exert over a church. As civil leaders who have been called to lead churches have to adjust from the civil authority model to a more benevolent spiritual leadership, so will church leaders who have been called into government need to adjust their use of authority. We must understand the interplay and the limits on civil and spiritual leadership models.
by Jhonny Enlow