Perhaps no other doctrine is emphasized so frequently in Scripture as the principle of authority. Yet, perhaps no other doctrine is so discounted, ignored, rejected, or misunderstood. Nevertheless, the Scriptures make clear that, from the beginning of human history, God has required people to structure their behavior based upon His will. We humans have no right to formulate our own ideas concerning religious truth. We must have God’s approval for everything we do.
(emphasis in original).
The first sentence is manifestly false.
The third is certainly true. God does expect to be obeyed, but one can only obey a command. That’s what the word “obey” means. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “obey” as “To carry out or fulfill the command, order, or instruction of.” You simply cannot obey a silence.
It’s certainly true that only God can prescribe religious truth. But it’s ludicrous to say we must have God’s approval for everything we do.
I mean, I just ate a cookie. Did I need God’s permission? Where’s the command, example, or necessary inference (CENI) that authorizes me to eat a cookie? I just bought my wife a cookbook. Where’s the CENI for the author to write a cookbook? For me to buy it? On Amazon? I mean, “everything” is an awfully big word!
Where’s the CENI for space exploration? Or map making? Or capitalism? Or commercial banking? Or securitization of accounts receivable? For women to teach school? For democracy? For Christians to vote? For restaurants? For watching TV? For going to the movies?
Miller then starts with a classic argument of this genre (p. 80) —
If the Bible teaches anything, it teaches that all human beings are under obligation to submit to the authority of God and Christ. Paul articulates this extremely important principle in his letter to the Colossians: “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (3:17). What does the apostle mean by that statement? What is the meaning of the expression “in the name of the Lord”?
(emphasis in original). Miller then argues that “in the name of the Lord” means “by the authority of the Lord” and so Col. 3:17 requires that literally everything a Christian does must have CENI authority. But this is a false reading of the scriptures.
The passage says,
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV)
Plainly, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything” makes the point that Paul is discussing everything. “Whatever.” “In word or deed.” “Everything.” These are intentionally, redundantly all-inclusive. And, yes, each one includes eating cookies. And everything else I mentioned.
The phrase “in the name of” was ancient even in the First Century, going back to the Torah. The meaning is a bit elastic, and so we have to be careful to read without our preconceived notions of the meaning.
It means “as a representative of” or “in honor of.” If an explorer says, “I claim this land in the name of the Queen of England,” he means he’s claiming it as her agent, on her behalf. It’s by her authority, but not necessarily by her command or even with her permission. The explorer may well have no charter from the queen telling him to claim land on her behalf, but out of loyalty to his monarch, and knowing her desires, he may well claim the land in her name anyway. And so, it’s a mistake to confuse “as a representative of” with “following the command of.” They are two very different things.
Consider these scriptural examples —
(Deu 18:5) For the LORD thy God hath chosen [the priest] out of all thy tribes, to stand to minister in the name of the LORD, him and his sons for ever.
(Deu 21:5) The priests, the sons of Levi, shall step forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the LORD and to decide all cases of dispute and assault.
Here, the priests is acting as God’s representative but he’s also acting in God’s honor. But representation seems to be the primary sense.
Or consider Levirate marriage–
(Deu 25:5-6 KJV) If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. 6 And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.
The son conceived this way inherits as though a full son of the woman’s first husband. Hence, the phrase means either “in honor of” or “as a representative of.” It does not mean “by the authority of.” The passage isn’t saying that the widow must submit sexually to the brother because he has the deceased husband’s authority!
(1 Ki 18:32) And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.
(Psa 20:5) We will shout for joy when you are victorious and will lift up our banners in the name of our God. May the LORD grant all your requests.
Here, it likely means “in honor of,” although it could mean “as representative of.” There’s no indication of any command from God to build that altar or to lift those banners. These deeds were done to God’s glory without a command!
(Acts 16:18) She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
Just so, the most natural reading is “as a representative of,” but “in honor of” or “to give glory to” works, as well. It does not mean, “Because I was command by.”
(1 Cor 5:4) When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present,
“In honor of” or “to give glory to” seems to work better here than “as a representative of,” although that could be the meaning as well.
Finally, we get to Miller’s proof text —
(Col 3:16-17) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
It could mean “as a representative of Jesus,” but “to the glory of” or “in honor of” Jesus also works well, especially in light of the context. It does not mean “doing only that which has been commanded.”
Thus, the meaning is, whatever you do, do it to the glory of Jesus. Or “as a representative of” Jesus. In either case, the idea would be that we should always act in awareness that we represent Jesus to the world and so he’ll be judged by our conduct. We must therefore act to bring glory, not shame, to Jesus. It has nothing to do with having scriptural authority.
It’s important to realize that I can live my entire life to the glory of Jesus. Everything there is, is good because Jesus made it and gives it. It’s HOW we use it that can make it wrong.
Hence, I can marry and work and take vacations or whatever in ways that bring glory to Jesus — or not. It’s a matter of letting the Kingdom extend to all aspects of our lives — redeeming everything we touch — in the name of Jesus.
If the translation were “do it all by the authority of the Lord Jesus,” it still wouldn’t mean “only do that which is authorized by the Lord Jesus,” as the grammar is, if you do it, do it in Jesus’ name — not only do what Jesus authorizes.
To argue that “in the name of” means “as commanded by” or some such, Miller cites Acts 4:7-10 —
(Acts 4:7-10) They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “… 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.
Now, quite plainly, Peter is saying that the power of healing is from Jesus. But an idiomatically accurate translation would be that they’d healed “as representatives of Jesus Christ.” The question of having permission from Jesus or being commanded by Jesus really isn’t the point. Rather, the point is that the healing comes from Jesus and speaks of Jesus.
To double check this conclusion, though, let’s look at the context, not just the phrase he emphasizes.
(Col 3:12-17) Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.
And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Verses12-15 speak to how we are treat each other. They’re about getting along as the community of God. The section concludes with a command to be thankful. Verse 16, again addressing the community, tells us how to express our gratitude to God — through song. Finally, verse 17 continues the theme of gratitude, telling us that our gratitude should lead us to alway act as representatives of Jesus.
In verses 18-22, Paul commands submission by wives, husbands, children, fathers, and slaves. He concludes,
(Col 3:23-24) Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
You can’t help but notice the parallel between verse 23’s “whatever you do” with verse 17’s “whatever you do.” In verse 23, Paul’s point is that we should work as though serving Jesus.
Paul then offers additional counsel and concludes a few verses later,
(Col 4:5-6) Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Now, it would be quite a surprise in this context for Paul to say “only do those things authorized by Jesus.” He’s not limiting what people can do. Rather, he’s telling his readers how to live as Christians while doing what they are already doing. And that’s the theme of these verses, and that’s the meaning of verse 17, which is really the theme sentence of this all.