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Dictionaries don’t help us much with a word like “authority”. We all sense that someone with “authority” has power over us in some way and in some areas but the problem lies in determining how much and in what way they have power “over” us.
We do tend, I think, to dislike the notion that people have power over us and much of the time it isn’t to our credit that we feel that way. Speaking religiously, you see it in how we’ve treated people given authority by God. Moses, Deborah, David, Huldah, Jeremiah and the rest of the prophets (see Matthew 23: 34 and Acts 7:52), Paul and Jesus himself illustrate the point. We know the “inside story” from a safe distance and gladly acknowledge the authority God gave these leaders but those who found themselves “under” them disputed their authority or how it was expressed.
But the dislike of authority “over” us isn’t confined to religious people or the religious realm. The electorate in “democratic” countries gather in their tens of thousands in an attempt to keep someone from gaining authority over them. The reason’s clear enough—they’re sure that that person will keep them from getting what they especially want. They choose a representative who will more nearly give them what they particularly want.
This leads us to something that lies under the entire problem of people with authority. The “authority” that God gives to leaders isn’t coercive. [Even his un-derived authority is not coercive. That is, his universal and complete power doesn’t turn us into non-choosing beings; despite his power we remain capable of defying him because he makes humans choosing beings. Of course we lose in the process if we persist in defying him. However we spell out God’s authority he chooses to grant us the right to say no to him. It changes nothing that he works our no into his overarching Yes—it is our no that he uses to bring about his Yes.]
We might think that when God gave Moses authority that everyone in the nation would gladly accept the situation but all his life his authority was disputed. Paul’s apostolic authority was always disputed even by those he brought to Jesus. What does that tell us? And of course we have Jesus himself with power to coerce even storms and death to obey him—Jesus refusing to coerce faith and obedience. This is true and it’s true in part because faith and obedience can’t be coerced!
Let me say it again, authority doesn’t transform the minds of the people under that authority.
Furthermore, authority isn’t to be flaunted and turned into lordship over people. Paul bluntly claims he has been given authority over the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 13:2, 10 and elsewhere) but he gladly foregoes liberties to do them (and others) a service.
Paul’s authority was not the power to coerce men’s minds; it was a commission to proclaim the truth of Jesus without apology and without asking permission from anyone. There lies his authority from God that transcends all opposition—“No man will stop me proclaiming the gospel.”
His authority is a commission to proclaim as false anything (teaching or behaviour) that would destroy that truth and the lifestyle that grows (indispensably) out of that truth about Jesus.
When it comes to the essence of the gospel Paul was utterly inflexible but beyond that he would offer advice, suggestions and his own personal view of things and leave it to the hearer to take it or leave it (see this demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 7).
He claimed no special power in matters that didn’t immediately affect the gospel and its essential fruit in life and thought.
And he had no real interest in whether a man lived in Jerusalem or Timbuktu; he had no interest in whether a man could speak eloquently or if he had support from acclaimed churches or people. His only concern was, “What does he preach? If it’s the gospel he has my blessing. If it isn’t, he has my undiluted opposition no matter who he is or who sent him.”
Percy Ainsworth somewhere said to his students: “I won’t define it because I want you to understand it.” There’s a nice recognition of the dangers and limitations of definition. Even the simplest objects can be difficult to “define”—even the word “define” gives us difficulties. Take the word “book”. How would you define that? “Something you read.” That’ll get it, but…when we read graffiti on a wall are we reading a “book”? Perhaps a book is “a collection of words intended for reading.” Hmmm. Is the famous Behistun Stone a book? It’s certainly a collection of words intended to be read but they’re carved out high on a cliff face—a “book”? Is a private letter “a book”? What is a “chair”? We sit on sofas and bean bags and park benches—are these chairs?
If the simplest things are difficult to define how difficult is it to define “authority”? It helps only a little to learn from the OED that our English word comes from a Latin word (auctor) which means (something like) originator or promoter. We can see how that makes sense when we think of the word “author”—whatever it is we’re thinking of, it begins with the “author”. [That immediately generates more questions but we have to stop somewhere.]
An authority—someone with authority—in some sense is someone with whom something begins; in that area in which he/she is an authority we don’t go beyond that person. This person is the final appeal. Our actions or thoughts or attitudes come under the judgment of that person in the area in which we regard him/her as an “authority”.
Unless you’re God or his Lord Christ you don’t claim to have absolute authority. What authority a human “authority” has is not only derived from God it is limited to the area in which God enables the person to function as an authority.
Yes, but what is “an authority”? An authority is someone who has the right to a respectful hearing with a view to our being conformed to his/her influence and instruction.
We find this difficult to accept in part because “freedom” to be the captain of our own souls is almost worshiped in the West. This worship is promoted, in part, by what we’ve seen of tyranny. There is, too, our inordinate desire to get our individual rights which is like acid that destroys any sense of community. We give authority to presidents and prime ministers and political leaders who promise to give us as many of our personal desires as is humanly possible. If they don’t live up to that commitment then we vote them out of office and replace them with others who’ll do the job. This contractual type authority is what we carry across to the Community of Believers—if the leaders don’t please us we get rid of them or move to a congregation where the leaders will please.
But more; we have the sense that church leaders exist to satisfy all our needs rather than to promote and defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Christ-imitating righteousness that the Body of Christ is to flesh out. We think church leaders exist to provide programmes to cater to our children’s need for entertainment, our teenagers’ need for romance, our depressed members’ need for counselling, our sick people’s need for visitors and in general, programmes to fulfil our social needs and make our corporate worship periods not only God-exalting, Jesus-honouring and Spirit-filled (of course!) but bright and pleasant and entertaining as well.
We have classes not only for the little children; we have classes for the several age groups between primary/grade school, then we have junior-high, then high-school, then young adults, then older adults and then senior-citizen classes. We have classes for the singles, the single-again (whether divorced or bereaved).
Such a “Church enterprise” is people-centred and the leaders must cater to the people. In the final analysis there is “no one in charge” and “every man does what seems right in his own eyes” or puts up front those who will get for him what seems right in his own eyes.
God-centred, Spirit-inspired and Jesus honouring “authority” remains immediately in touch with the core of the Christian faith and the life that such a faith brings about in those who pledge allegiance to Jesus. True authorities are commissioned men and women whose lives and teaching remain immediately connected to that gospel commission. See 1 Corinthians 11:1 for the kind of authority Paul claims for himself!