What are the responsibilities of those in authority?

Understanding basic aspects of headship

9 min

All authority comes from God. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). God delegates authority and has established a balance of power between four basic authority structures (family, church, government, and employment). 

God also instructs us to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well” (I Peter 2:13–14). Every one of us is to be under some authority, with a spirit of humility and submission: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5).

While we are all to be under the authorities which God has ordained for the purpose of our protection and guidance, we will also likely, at some point, be the one in authority over others. What does God expect of those in leadership roles? 

The Concept of Headship

The Biblical term for authority is headship. The Apostle Paul explained headship to the early Church: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (I Corinthians 11:3). Likewise, he noted that the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, His Body (see Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18). 

In civil government, the chief leader of the country is called “the head of state,” and he directs and coordinates affairs for the benefit of all the people. Similarly, the term head describes the function and responsibilities of anyone in authority. The position of the head, or leader, should be distinguished from the personality of the head. In other words, while those under authority may not be compatible or like-minded with their authority’s personality, they must learn to respect the position of the one in leadership.

One misconception of headship is that the head has the power and privilege of making whatever decisions suit him. On the contrary, the one in authority has the responsibility to make decisions for the good of those under him. Leaders are accountable to God for the decisions they make and do not have the privilege of simply making whatever decisions they want or think are best. Every person will have to answer to God someday for his decisions, words, and actions, but the leader will be judged more strictly (see Luke 12:48). Power has an unimaginable capacity to corrupt. Although it may be available to use, power should be exercised sparingly, if at all.

Consider these basic functions of headship:

  • The head must care for the body. (See John 13:5–15.)
  • The head protects the body. (See John 10:11.)
  • The head does not focus on power. (See Matthew 26:53.)
  • The head realizes that he is under authority. (See John 6:38.)
  • The head provides for those under authority. (See Philippians 4:19 and I Timothy 5:8.)
  • The head spiritually leads those under authority. (See Ephesians 5:25–26.)
  • The head prepares those under him for a time when he is not present. (See John 17.)

The Responsibilities of Headship

Individuals in authority (headship) need to, firstly, seek to be under God’s authority. Only then can they be a clear channel of His authority to those under them. Secondly, those in authority need to embrace their God-given responsibilities by serving, protecting, leading, and providing for those in their jurisdiction. If an umbrella is torn or broken, it can’t provide the protection it was designed to give. In the same way, when a leader fails, he is no longer protecting those under his care, and therefore they are exposed to the influence of Satan. 

This cause-and-effect sequence should motivate leaders to make wise decisions and live uprightly, because even their “hidden” sins can bring harm to those under their care. It also motivates those under their authority to know their leaders and to help them make wise decisions by offering encouragement and making appeals when necessary. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).

The following are ten responsibilities those in leadership should carefully consider. Also given are Biblical examples that should serve as admonitions to anyone seeking or carrying a position of authority.

1. The Responsibility for Correction and Discipline of Others

If I am in a position of leadership and have the power to do so, I have the responsibility to deal with the sins of those for whom I am responsible (see Romans 13:4). As a leader, I cannot look the other way nor allow those sins to continue. I should not tolerate some evil for a temporal benefit. (See Proverbs 28:23.)

The high priest Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who abused their priesthood authority. They lay with women who came to the Tent of Meeting, and they ate the forbidden fat and choice portions of the sacrifices. Eli rebuked his sons for their immorality, but they did not listen to him. Furthermore, Eli honored his sons above God by also eating meat that was offered to the Lord. God judged Eli’s family line, and he and his sons died prematurely. (See I Samuel 2:13–3:14.)

2. The Responsibility for Seeking Wise Counsel and Weighing Appeals

If I am a leader, I must be open to the wise counsel of others, especially the cautions of those whom I have entrusted with responsibility. I must learn not to rely solely upon my own reasoning but to trust that God may be working through others to provide necessary information for making a wise decision. (See Proverbs 11:14.)

When King David desired to number the people of Israel, his army commander Joab warned him that this action would not please the Lord. David chose to disregard Joab’s wise appeal. After numbering Israel, the king was convicted of his sin. Although David repented of his sin, he still suffered severe consequences, which included a pestilence that resulted in the deaths of 70,000 Israelites. (See I Chronicles 21:1–14.)

3. The Responsibility to Not Make Friendship with the World but to Be Wholly Dependent upon God

As a leader, my priority should not be the accumulation of wealth, either personally or corporately. (See Proverbs 15:27, 28:16.) I must not use the world’s resources to build security or to advance my program. Also, I am to avoid alliances with ungodly leaders, lest I risk allowing my heart to be turned away from God. (See Isaiah 31:1.)

Early in Israel’s history, God had clearly warned the people what their future king was not to do: multiply horses, wives, silver, or gold. Instead, the king was to copy the Law of God and read it all the days of his life to gain wisdom and humility. (See Deuteronomy 17:14–20.) When Solomon became king, he did not heed the instructions from God. His heart turned to wives, worldly alliances, and false gods, and as a result, God removed Solomon’s kingdom from his son. (See I Kings 10:14–11:13.)

4. The Responsibility for Faithfulness toward God

As a leader, I must not grow complacent by relying on the past achievements of God in my life. I must be alert lest I succumb to the temptation of depending on myself rather than God. This erroneous mindset easily leads to violating God’s ways, even though He has provided for me in the past. I am to persevere and stay the course with the Lord, even when difficulties and pressures come. (See Psalm 37:23–25.)

The first three years of King Rehoboam’s reign were blessed because he set his heart to seek the Lord and to walk in the ways of Kings Solomon and David. When Rehoboam’s kingdom became strong, however, he and the people forsook the Lord. Because of their unfaithfulness, God raised up Egypt as an enemy and led Rehoboam and the nation into slavery so they would remember how blessed they were formerly when they served God. (See II Chronicles 11:16–12:8.)

5. The Responsibility to Fear God Rather Than to Fear Man

As a leader, I must resist the temptation to compromise the clear instruction of God in order to pacify people. When the people under or around me make demands, my responsibility is to seek and do the will of God, not the will of the people. (See Romans 13:1–5.)

God promised King Jeroboam that He would strengthen his kingdom if Jeroboam would observe God’s statutes and commandments. Jeroboam chose instead to build two golden calves for the people to worship because he feared that if the people were permitted to offer sacrifices back in Jerusalem, their hearts would return to his rival Rehoboam, and they would then kill him [Jeroboam]! (See I Kings 11:37–12:28.)

6. The Responsibility to Seek the Favor of God Rather Than the Favor of Man

As a leader, I must resist the temptation to influence others, particularly through bribery, in order to achieve my goals. “LORD, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth. Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men: In whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes” (Psalm 26:8–10, emphasis added).

When Israel put pressure on Judah’s border, Judah’s King Asa decided to influence Benhadad, king of Syria, with a bribe in order to break Syria’s treaty with Israel. As a result, God declared, through the prophet Hanani to King Asa: “Herein thou [Asa] hast done foolishly: therefore from henceforth thou shalt have wars.” The king was enraged at the prophet’s news and put Hanani in prison. The king also began to oppress some of his own people. (See II Chronicles 16:2–10.)

7. The Responsibility to Remain Free from Entangling Alliances

As a leader, I am warned about entering unequally yoked alliances (partnerships) to strengthen my position. The consequence, in the end, is self-destruction and judgment that will affect succeeding generations. God has warned that “Thou shalt make no covenant with them [the heathen], nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee” (Exodus 23:32–33).

In order to strengthen his kingdom, Jeshoshaphat, king of Judah, allied himself with Israel’s wicked King Ahab through their children’s marriage. When Hanani the prophet warned Jehoshaphat about his love for and help to those who hated God, Jehoshaphat refused to listen and continued his forbidden alliance with Israel. Thus, Jehoshaphat began to lead Judah astray because of Israel’s evil influence upon him. His enemies invaded, taking his wife, sons, and all his possessions. God also struck Jehoshaphat with a disease which caused an early death and the end of a reign that lasted only eight years. (See II Chronicles 18:1–3, 19:2–3, 20:35–37, 21:6–20.)

8. The Responsibility to Remain within the Bounds of My Jurisdictional Authority

As a leader, I must humbly act within the limits of the authority given me. Rank and position do not include special privileges to do whatever suits me, but rather the opportunity to lead others in the ways of God for their benefit. I must be accountable to men and to God for all that I do. (See Luke 7:7–9 and Romans 13:1.)

When King Uzziah sought the Lord, his reign and the lives of his people prospered. His fame was spread to all the nations around Israel. However, over time his heart grew proud, and he took the priest’s service upon himself by burning incense on the Temple altar. When the priests confronted the king about presumptuously overstepping the limits of his authority, he became angry. There in the Temple before the priests, Uzziah was struck with leprosy. He remained a leper, excluded from the Temple and from the people, until the day of his death. (See II Chronicles 26:5–21.)

9. The Responsibility to Avoid Unnecessary Battles

As a leader, I must exercise restraint in using power. I must discern the Lord’s intention and choose battles carefully in order not to interfere with God’s ultimate objectives. (See Proverbs 26:17.)

King Josiah achieved great success when he followed God’s Law and brought great spiritual reforms to Judah. However, when Pharaoh Necho sought to war with the Babylonians, Josiah went out to battle against him even though he had been warned about not interfering in God’s mission which did not include Josiah. Josiah disguised himself and used his power (armies) to help to defeat Egypt. He was shot with an arrow in the battle and died at the young age of thirty-seven years old. (See II Chronicles 35:20–24.)

10. The Responsibility to Admit That I Am Wrong (and Repent) When Confronted with the Truth

If I am a leader, I must be willing to admit my wrongs and lead those under me in a spirit of humility and genuine repentance. I must recognize that God’s grace comes only as I humble myself, and His wisdom and instruction are gained through reproof. (See I Peter 5:5–6 and Proverbs 15:31–33.)

If I am a leader, I must be willing to admit my wrongs and lead those under me in a spirit of humility and genuine repentance.

When Judah’s King Jehoiakim heard a portion of the prophet Jeremiah’s scroll being read that explained what God was about to do with Judah, he cut it with a knife and burned it. The king disrespected God’s words, having no fear of the prophecy nor showing repentance as he and his servants did not rend their garments. Because of King Jehoiakim’s refusal to listen and repent, God declared that Jehoiakim would have no descendent to sit upon the throne, and that Jehoiakim himself would be cast out. Those under Jehoiakim’s care would experience the calamity which God had promised. (See Jeremiah 36:22–31.) (Compare Johoiakim’s response here to the prophet Jeremiah with the response of David in II Samuel 12:13 to the prophet Nathan.) 

As we have read, even the most successful and powerful of leaders can, in a weak moment, make decisions that can turn the course of their lives and the lives of those under them for generations. Failures such as the ones mentioned above are not unique, but they are nonetheless examples given to us in Scripture from which we can learn invaluable lessons. (See I Corinthians 10:5–14.) 

God reveals to us, through these accounts, what He expects from those who are in authority over others. Each leader was raised up to his headship position by God. Each one in authority was given the responsibility of guarding and protecting those under him. Each leader was expected to honor God and follow His leading. Each head of nation was not to abuse his power but was to heed wise counsel and appeals and to lead those in his jurisdiction with a spirit of humility and genuine repentance. Finally, each head would do well to keep before him Christ’s admonition in Luke 12:48, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

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