What We Can Learn about Biblical Authority from Jane Eyre

Jane saying her evening prayers, from an 1847 illustration by F.H. Townsend

I love Jane Eyre. It’s one of the few novels that I have revisited after completing the final pages. Whether it is a landmark achievement in the history of feminism or a subtle attempt to reinforce Victorian marital ideals, I cannot say, though I am more inclined toward the former. In any case, what I find most interesting about Charlotte Brontë’s lone novel of note is its spiritual content. This is ironic, since many of the critics in her own day called it an affront to religion. Yet while it may have been an affront to bad religion, I do not think we can say that about religion in general.

There are important lessons to be drawn from the pages of Jane Eyre in regard to personal guilt, sexual morality, forgiveness, and cultural Christianity vs. true Christianity. It is not a book that simply condemns religion or trumpets it unthinkingly. There are four main villains in this work, if you don’t count the crazy woman in the attic, who in any case couldn’t really help herself. The first is Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, whose religion is nominal at best. Then there is Mr. Brocklehurst, a fervently religious man who is all law and no gospel. Next, we have Blanche Ingraham, Jane’s romantic rival, who worships nothing but herself. The last villain is often not seen as a villain: St. John Rivers, the cleric who is hell-bent on saving souls but has walled off his own emotions to the point that he could hardly know much about Christ.

The heroes of Jane Eyre also have a variety of religious beliefs. The most obviously good person in the story is Jane’s childhood friend, Helen, who is raised up as a model of true Christianity, showing compassion to those around her while also treasuring the Bible. Jane herself has a strong moral core, no doubt influenced by her Christian upbringing. Even so, you are unlikely to hear her spouting complex doctrines. She is more interested to see how those around her, who nearly all espouse Christian beliefs, actually put those beliefs into practice. Then there is the anti-hero Mr. Rochester, who has committed numerous sins and yet acknowledges his sinfulness and longs for redemption. In this, the novel seems to suggest that he is more Christian than many of the “Christians”.

Young Jane and Mrs. Reed, from an 1847 illustration by F.H. Townsend

The book follows our heroine, Jane, as she attempts to overcome obstacles of class and gender. She is drawn to Mr. Rochester in large part because he treats her as an equal. This is true both in terms of her gender and the fact that she is far below him on the socioeconomic scale. However, there is no suggestion in the novel that societal categories are mere figments of the aristocratic imagination. In fact, it is Jane who seems more concerned with respecting societal conventions, even though she has the most to lose by doing so. But while she treats those in authority over her with respect, Jane also sees a deeper equality that underlies all of that: one that has its foundation in our standing before God.

In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, Jane finally confesses her admiration for Mr. Rochester when they are about to be parted forever. She does so not by acknowledging his social superiority, but by appealing to an ultimate equality between the two of them.

I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; – it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are!

These lines always strike me when I read them, for they contain a profound theological truth. Jane acknowledges two ways in which we related to one another. The first is within this earthly realm, where some people are indeed in authority over other people and thus are entitled to a proper amount of respect. Here, Jane was thinking not so much of the fact that she was a woman and Mr. Rochester was a man, but rather that he was her employer and social superior. Jane also acknowledges a second reality, which we might call an eschatological reality. In death, we all become equal and stand before God bare, without any of the trappings of this life. We have only the grace of God to fall back on, and it is to Him that all honor is due. In the eschaton, all authority is given over to our Lord Jesus Christ.

What exactly do I mean by this? Well, we know that God is the true source of all authority. Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…” (John 19:11a) The Apostle Paul also tells us, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Romans 13:1)

Now, there are people who like to focus a lot on the authority that men have over women, even suggesting that any breakdown in this authority structure goes against God’s creative design and will lead to anarchy. I acknowledge two areas where God has given men the highest authority: as elders in the Church and as husbands. Yet in both of those situations, authority does not exist in a dictatorial sense. For one thing, it is modeled upon the servant leadership of Christ and ought to be characterized by sacrificial love and compassion. For another, such earthly authorities are really only middle men serving under the ultimate authority of Christ. As He Himself said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18b)

Jane returns to Mr. Rochester, from an 1847 illustration by F.H. Townsend

There are also some limitations to this model of authority within those two relationships I mentioned. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7:4, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Moreover, the Apostle Peter told husbands there would be spiritual consequences if they failed to treat their wives properly. “You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7) The word “weaker” there does not imply intellectual inferiority, but simply a lack of physical strength. In addition, Paul outlines measures to be taken if elders do not live up to their calling. (1 Timothy 5:17-22)

The Bible also tells us that these authority structures are temporary. They are part of the current earthly age and will not carry over into eternity. I base this partially on Jesus’s comment that those in heaven do not marry (Matthew 28:30), but even more on what Paul said about Christ to the church in Corinth: “…then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.” (1 Corinthians 15:24-25)

When Christ came to earth as a human being and laid down His life in accordance with the Father’s will, He was in turn raised by the Spirit and glorified by the Father. Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness, offering Him all the kingdoms of the world without sacrifice. (Luke 4:5-8) However, Jesus obtained authority over all the kingdoms of the world through His active obedience. That is what He meant when He said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Yet this is also an example of the classic already/not yet conundrum. Clearly, we are still praying, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) But Scripture assures us that all earthly authorities derive their power from God, are accountable to God, and will ultimately have their power returned to God. Thus, we have the proclamation at the end of time, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15b)

There is a clear application here for our human relationships. Yes, authority structures exist, and we must respect those in authority. This applies to those in government, however much we might dislike their policies (and their Tweeting habits). This applies to those in authority in the Church: the elders committed to preaching the Word of God and shepherding the flock. This also applies to husbands. All of those leaders are fallible, and we do not follow any of them into sin. Why? Because they too are under the authority of Christ. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that earthly authorities exist and are ordained by God, even if they remain accountable to God and to those they serve.

However, we must also remember that such authority structures are temporary and they do not speak to the intrinsic worth of a person. This is an important concept for us to grasp. When we interact with one another, we must do so not only in view of the temporary reality of these authority relationships, but also in view of the eschatological reality of our equality before God. We submit to authority for a time out of reverence for God and in obedience to His commands. However, our ultimate worth is not based on our race, gender, or social status, for we will all stand before the throne of God as equals.

Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to defend the temporary reality that we forget about the eschatological reality. There are also some of us who so long for the eschatological reality that we want to dismiss the temporary reality and pretend that it does not exist. It will not do to either deny earthly authority structures or see them as the be-all-end-all. Those in authority must treat those below them as if they were equal in value…because they are! They must realize that their authority is only for a time, that they themselves are subject to Christ, and that they must perform their duties in accordance with His will. Those in submission to authority must realize that they respect those authorities out of obedience to Christ, to whom our true allegiance is owed.

Therefore, I conclude that reading good literature can teach you some important spiritual truths, although you should always check to see if such things are really in line with the Word of God. In this case, I think we have a gem.

The text of Jane Eyre is in the public domain. All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.