“Authority.” Just the word makes me cringe. I grew up in a Christian culture where words like “authority” and “submission” were used interchangeably – mostly by older men who had issues. “Biblical Authority” meant that “God told me to tell you…so you’d better listen.”

Okay, to be fair, it wasn’t always that way. And there is such a thing as real authority that’s healthy and helpful. So, what is it and what is it not?

1. We have to begin by saying that all authority is from God. Lots of pretend or false authority comes from people and organizations, but all true authority stems from God – by definition.

Of course the problem with recognizing this truth is that it leaves us in an awkward place – that ALL authority comes from God. In other words, men and women can and do choose to abuse this authority (quite often) but it still originated from God. God raises and lowers the leaders of the world. He moves the hearts of Kings like a river. Even David recognized that the evil leader Saul had authority from God (which is why David didn’t mess with him – a profound lesson).

2. True God-ordained authority never comes from a title or an organizational chart. Knowing this does not give us permission to rebel against the man-made authority systems we work in, but it’s simply a reminder to know where real and false authority originate.

Perhaps the most damaging misuse of authority has happened in religious circles. The religious tradition I grew up in, Christianity, has had its fair share of issues in this arena. But I see it with my Muslim friends as well. Religious leaders pretend to have God-given authority so they can control and manipulate people for their own ends. It’s often very subtle. I think many of these leaders don’t even know they’re doing it. It could simply be for their own ego and self-worth.

3. True authority is always earned. It is initially given by God, but renewed and confirmed by men. Leaders are leaders because people are following. Not because they have a title. I could be the Pastor or the President or the CEO or the Rabbi or Imam, but unless people trust me – they will not follow. Authority given by God, but is earned and confirmed out of relationship.

I realized years ago as a “team leader” for an organization in Lebanon that my team would follow me as much as they wanted to. My title meant nothing. They either trusted me or they didn’t. And it could (and did) change by the day.

It would do us all well to recognize this. Not as a license to do whatever we want – to the contrary. David recognized this principle and it was because of it, that he chose not to “touch God’s anointed.” We treat our leaders with dignity and respect precisely because we know that ALL authority comes from God. When we mess with them, we mess with God.

And at the same time, we strive to be men and women under God’s authority. With humility serving and loving those around us – which, in turn, earns us more authority.

These thoughts initiated in my head while in DC last week among 3500 world leaders. Interestingly, it was easy to spot the insecure ones running around trying to gain or earn more authority by their titles, business cards or who they knew. And others were comfortable sitting in the back chatting nonchalantly with a friend.

The person with the coolest business card, best title, most money and largest entourage does not win the day in my book….or God’s. It’s the woman who skipped the “important meeting” to be with their kid. It’s the man who chooses not to flaunt his wealth. It’s the humble servant who waits on our tables. It’s Jesus!