Nathan Colquhoun is one of my new favorite bloggers. A week or so ago, he had some thoughts on authority (HT: Pernell). When I read the post, I had flashbacks all over. A week or so ago, I told someone that I could sum up 16 years of experience in a particular church in this way: “No, I don’t have a problem with authority. You have a problem with control.” Hope that helps set the stage… the place I came from was pretty big on the notion of “spiritual authority,” by which I mean big in a way I couldn’t be based on an understanding I couldn’t stand by.
While Robbymac was working on his Post-Charismatic series, I exchanged many emails with him and we had numerous conversations on the subject of authority, relationship, church government, and servant leadership. In the midst of the series, he moved his family from the Toronto area out to Kelowna, and spent several days in Winnipeg as they passed through. It was at that time that Rob and I had several conversations about the shepherding movement, the abuse of authority, and other bad church leadership experiences and observations. Far from wanting to outline the problem and stop at a hopeless end, we tossed around ideas of what accountability, authority, and servant leadership should look like, and how it should work. I recall that the afternoon we were discussing these ideas, we were engaged in the mundane errand of dropping by Safeway to buy cat food. During that trip, I voiced my unease about any notion of accountability that wasn’t mutual, since “holding someone accountable” implies a power relationship — that is, if one understands that holding someone accountable implies that the one doing the “holding” has some kind of consequence to wield.
In any event, the conversation went from this to the idea of authority. I postulated that authority was in many ways not something given by God to men who ruled over others as is commonly supposed, rather it is simply given by one person to another. Radical, yes. I wouldn’t suggest that God is completely uninvolved in the process, as he dispenses leadership gifts. People choose leaders to whom they will “submit” and they have the freedom to revoke that choice. If they don’t, they might end up stock-piling munitions and drinking magic Kool-Aid in the desert somewhere; not everyone chooses wisely. The main point here is that this kind of authority is never absolute, and with an eye to past abuses, it’s worth pointing out that one cannot legitimately appeal to a heirarchical structure leading from God down through their leadership and so exert their will upon another individual. Remember, the pyramid is inverted, and leaders are to be servants, not “lording it over” others. It’s the individual who decides if the leader has any “authority” over them or not.
Anyway, this is admitedly an unusual concept, certainly not in the mainstream of how authority is construed in the Christian tradition. I haven’t found any external corroborating opinion on this… at least, not until I read Nathan’s four-paragraph post on authority. I quote the second paragraph:
Authority to me is not power. It is not something that can be hung over someoneâ€™s head or something that can be misused. Authority, in my understanding is not something that the person with authority chooses to have or not. Authority is something that can only be given to someone by the person who is going to be under that authority. Authority is a decision by the person under it, not by the person administering it. This is why I think authority is one of the most fundamental concepts that a Christian can hold. Christ has given us freedom, and we need to use that freedom to give him authority.
Nathan’s actually got a whole category called Authority Series, so it looks like I’ve got some more reading to do… but so far, it looks like Nathan’s thought this thing through in similar ways to me and arrived independantly at a very similar position. Well worth a read is his thinking on Hebrews 13:17 which takes a look at what the Greek word translated “obey” really means, and determines that the text here doesn’t necessarily mean what somebody else may have told you it means. The cynic in me suggests that you (like me) were probably told what it means by someone in a “position of authority.”
This word â€˜obey,â€™ takes on completely to meaning all of sudden. It puts responsibility not just in the person who needs to do the obeying, but in the person who is being obeyed. They need to live a life worth believing about. They need to live a persuasive life; they need to be trustworthy. It is up to the one with â€˜ruleâ€™ to live a influencing, persuasive life. A persuasive life doesnâ€™t need to demand anything, they donâ€™t need to tell people what to do and boss people around. All they need to do is be a leader, lead by example and live a life worth following.
Authority in the Kingdom doesnâ€™t come by authoritative measures. Authority comes from influence, persuasiveness and trustworthiness. If you have to demand followers, or convince someone to follow you; my guess is that you should switch tactics and start worrying more about living the kind of life that influence people to become better people not by spiritually handcuffing them into submission.
I think he’s got it. Remember, we need to re-think leadership in order to get to the heart of the Kingdom version of it… we should expect it to look fundamentally different than the way we gravitate toward trying to achieve the practice.