When we consider spiritual authority, we might at first relegate it to the area of theory and mystical realms and not realize that it has a bearing on our daily lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let us consider a few applications of the principles that we have just mentioned and see how they work out in our daily living.
Consider a situation where an issue has come before the church and there is not an immediate unity or seeing together. Leadership meets to consider the issue, there is discussion, prayer, and then a final meeting of the minds on the issue. One of the elders stands before the church and says, "We have decided that such and such is what we will do, so everybody is directed to obey." That is an example of natural authority. No person or group of people is vested with the authority to decide any issue pertaining to the things of God. Such exercise of natural authority can only lead to division, setting one opinion against another opinion, and exalting a man or men to the position of the head.
How should it be handled? The issue comes before the church, and leadership meets to consider the matter. They search the scriptures and wait on the Lord to give them His mind on the subject. When one or more of the leaders has the mind of God, and the others can bear witness of this, the matter is brought back before the church. One or more of the leaders give direction to the whole assembly, ministering the word as may be needed to bring each member to a place of understanding so they can move in faith. The responsibility of leadership is to get each member in connection with the Head, not with leadership.
When the foundation has been laid in each heart in truth and in life by the living word, then the whole body can move in unison, directed by the Head. Attention is not drawn to leadership, but focused on Christ. The authority is coming from the Head, not from men. The unity is not because the "elders have decided" but because the Lord is speaking and each member is alive unto God and able to discern and bear witness to His voice in a particular matter. This is spiritual authority in action.
Note carefully that every member is responsible before God to be able to discern and bear witness in the Spirit. There is only one mediator between God and man, and that is Christ Jesus. Each member is responsible to hear God, and that includes hearing God through other members. God may speak to one member, and as that member voices what God has spoken, each member must recognize God in what is spoken and act upon it. It is God who chooses how He speaks, but in the end, the only way we know it is God is by the anointing. "But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things" (I John 2:20). "But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him" (I John 2:27).
Consider another situation where a man sees certain needs and desires to serve the Lord to see those needs met. He may find a mission board that is working where he desires to serve, apply to that mission board by stating his burden to serve the Lord in a certain capacity, and present his religious training and qualifications to be considered. The board meets, approves the application, and assigns the person to serve in a given area, with accountability back to the mission board. All of this is natural authority, and ignores completely that Christ is the Head of the church and is quite capable of choosing whom He desires to serve in a certain place. How should it be handled in light of spiritual authority?
First of all, when we see spiritual authority, we will see that the qualification to serve the Lord is not found in any organized training, or approval of mission boards, or any other man-made criteria, no matter how high the standard may be. The qualification is in the character of God being manifested in a person's life (in reality), and the grace or ability to fulfill the particular calling (in this case, that of apostleship). Secondly, it is the Lord who separates by the Holy Spirit men whom He has chosen to take the message to distance places. This works out as a brother's life is first tested and proven in the local assembly, where his life is an open book for all to see the life of God flowing through him in every circumstance. As the Lord moves in his heart, spiritual brethren bear witness to the grace of God working in him to fulfill the calling he senses from the Lord.
As the Holy Spirit indicates the time for separation, the brother in question would be set aside unto the Lord for the work He is calling him for (See Acts 13:1-4). As he goes out, he is under the direction of the Holy Spirit. God directs him and God pays him. While the church prays for him, and members give as directed by the Lord, the church as a body does not exercise authority over him. Christ is his Head. He does not write back for direction to a mission board, the church, or another man. The Lord is in charge. This is spiritual authority in practical working.
Suppose in the above example, the man comes into an area, and he goes to the church that is established there. "I have been sent of God," he says, "and I am directing you to do this and that." This is also natural authority, whether spoken in so many words or just coming across in such a spirit. It is seeing authority vested in a man. The only way that any person sent of God can speak, whether local or extra-local, is as an oracle of God. He must speak the word of God, and if he does not, he has no authority. His authority is the Living Word being manifested through him in any particular situation. As He speaks the truth of God and manifests the grace of God in a life that is consistent with the nature of God, those to whom he has been sent have the responsibility of recognizing the hand of God being extended to them. But if they do not, the messenger can go no further than Christ did when men did not recognize Him. "A servant is not greater than his master." A man can never move past spiritual authority to try to accomplish God's purpose. It will always end in disaster.
Consider one final example of two people in the local gathering. A brother goes to another brother and says, "The Lord has shown me that this is the direction of God. I am sharing this with you, and you also should obey." This is also natural authority. God may show us truth, and we must obey the truth that He shows us, but we can never come away from the basis of leaving Christ as the Head of every man (I Corinthians 11:3). If we see that our only authority with each other is spiritual authority, we will see that we can only minister the word to one another as God opens the way for us to do it in love and humility, and the final obedience must be unto God and not unto man. Our brother or sister must obey God, not us.
If we will move in this manner, it will leave every man free in the hands of God, yet we will be open to receive the word of God through each other. We must recognize the spiritual authority flowing through the member, and to do so is to hear God. If we do not recognize the spiritual authority, we will only hear the brother or sister, and we will disagree, argue, or disregard, and not obey. But if we hear God, we will either obey or rebel completely, and to rebel is to cut ourselves off from God.