In Search of the Correct Final Authority

Posted on November 29, 2017


In all legal differences, the “final authority” is the court system. In the schools, it is the principal and teacher, although that may be old-fashioned these days. In the home, it is the parents. Anywhere there are differences, there is a high authority to appeal to.

Even in war, nations appeal to “higher” laws and principles to drum up support among the people and justify the expenditure of time, blood and money. At the end of the Second World War, Nazi war criminals were held to account at the Nuremberg trials for, among other indictments, “crimes against humanity.” The accused claimed, broadly, that they were simply “following orders,” but the courts appealed to a higher authority than man’s laws — God’s laws.

Some appeal to reason, some to God, some to ideology. The very word appeal implies laying your case before a higher court to adjudicate the matter.
Whatever category your dispute falls in — be it moral, legal, ethical, spiritual, practical, philosophical or personal — you will make your argument based on a higher truth or principle and appeal to that authority for adjudication.

Let’s take an easy example that gets complicated with the passage of time. In families, small children are governed by parents. As they grow older, other sources of authority are encountered — schools, churches, teachers, coaches, peers, pastors. We all know the drill.

Eventually we reach the “age of reason,” a term that is loose in the extreme. Jewish children go through bar mitzvah at age 13 when they become accountable for their actions. Some Christian denominations go through their own rite of passage – confirmation — at about that age.

At 15, the girls in the Hispanic tradition have a great party and rite of passage, the quinceañera.

At all these different ages, children pass into a phase of adulthood when they must seek out the authority on their own to govern their actions. It is a sign of responsibility. Parents don’t, obviously, instantly abdicate their responsibilities to exert authority, but it is a recognized rite of passage.
When you are 18 in this country you can enlist and you can vote, and at 21 you can legally drink. That we can vote and go into the Army before we can buy a drink always struck me as a bit at odds with reality and logic, but, heck, I don’t make the laws.

Laws are of two basic kinds: secular and religious. They are either drafted or made by man, or they come to us through Scripture, inspired by God.
So, we have two sources of our laws, binaries in the modern lexicon — secular and religious, civil and canon, natural and spiritual. There are many ways to express this reality.

Which is foundational? Or, in other words, when we have a great dispute or disagreement in our land, which is the final arbiter? Which one decides? Which one is the trump card? Sorry for the political allusion, but the word fits, especially for you bridge players.

Some of you will come down squarely on the side of Scriptural statutes; others will just as emphatically claim the high ground for civil law, including everything from the Constitution, codes and criminal and civil law.
Each has been used and abused over the ages. Looking at all those angles takes books.

A simple solution would be to judge spiritual issues with Scripture, and natural issues with man-made authority and law. There were no women at the writing of the Constitution. Don’t be offended my genderized readers. This is just simple history.

For those of you who know this column, you know my prejudice. If I have a choice, I will come down on the side of God’s authority always when compared with man-made laws.

But my thinking is logical. Most of what we consider basic and constitutional in this country was written by God-fearing men. Read Proverbs 9:10.
The possibilities of debate and discussion are almost endless. What authority reigns in determining issues related to equality, justice, liberty, truth, freedom, order, obedience and dozens of others? It is the stuff of lawyers and philosophers and ministers of the faith, just for starters. Academics and rioters would probably also like to have a say.

Searching for the correct higher authority is not going to resolve all your conflicts. Yet, I sometimes wonder whether there is some Biblical advice for how to deal with the jackass who cuts me off in traffic. Sigh. I do remember a talking jackass in the Old Testament. I’ll have to do some research.

Published Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, as “In search of the correct final authority,” in The Tuscaloosa News.