Question: "Does the Bible give any one individual spiritual authority over another individual?"
Answer: "Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you" (Hebrews 13:17). Yes, the Bible clearly states that God gives some individuals spiritual authority over others. There are various levels of authority in any person's life, and each of these levels may involve different people in different positions of authority. Of course, we must begin with the highest authority, which is God. Genesis 1:1 states, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Everything that exists was created by God, and by that fact, God has ultimate authority, or sovereignty, over all things. When Moses delivered the law to the Israelites, God’s sovereign authority was the basis on which they were to submit to it (Deuteronomy 4:39–40).
When Job was wrestling with the problem of pain and suffering in his life, he acknowledged that God made all things, and no one is able to challenge His authority (Job 9:1–12). In the Old Testament, one of the titles reflecting this authority is “the most high God” (Genesis 14:22), and in the New Testament, He is called “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh, holds all authority (Matthew 28:18) and has distributed some of that authority to various people on earth. Because of our sinful nature, and because of the abuses or failures of authority that we have experienced, most people struggle on occasion with submitting to authorities.
One level of authority that God has granted to men is civil or governmental. Romans 13:1–6 states that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” Whether rulers are believers or not, and whether they recognize it or not, their civil authority is actually a type of spiritual authority, for “they are God’s ministers,” exercising power on God’s behalf. When we resist their authority, we are actually resisting God. The Bible reminds us in Colossians 3:22–24 that our submission and service to human authorities should be done “heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.”
Another level of authority established by God is within the home. Ephesians 5:22–24 commands wives to submit to their husbands as they would submit to God, because the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the Head of the church. This ladder of authority is stated again in 1 Corinthians 11:3, showing the woman submitting to the man, who submits to Christ, who submits to the Father. Children are commanded to submit to their parents in Ephesians 6:1, and Colossians 3:20 adds that this is well pleasing to God.
Just as God established authority within civil government and the home, so He established specific authority within the church. As Christians, we are all joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17) and have full access to God by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). Though God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11), He has chosen to place some in positions of authority for the sake of order and growth (Ephesians 4:11–13). The early church recognized the authority of the apostles and submitted to their teaching and direction (Acts 6:2; 15:2). Next to the apostles in authority were the elders, or pastors, of the churches. As Paul and Barnabas established churches in their missionary journeys (Acts 14:23), they ordained elders in every church. These elders (presbyters) were responsible for teaching (pastoring), supervising (being a bishop), and being examples to the church (1 Peter 5:1–3). As spiritual leaders, these elders have a greater responsibility to God (James 3:1) and must meet the qualifications God has established (Titus 1:5–9; 1 Timothy 3:1–7). Believers are told to acknowledge and respect those who are over them in spiritual matters (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13) and even to support them financially (1 Timothy 5:17–18).
In matters of authority, the underlying guiding principle is submission. First Peter 5:5–6 says, “Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” In God’s matchless wisdom, He has chosen some to hold authority and others to be under that authority. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that He has also taught that one of the highest qualifications for those in positions of authority is humility. “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). This is the example that Jesus, the highest spiritual authority, gave when He became the humblest of all and submitted to die in our place (Philippians 2:7–11).