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.
As much as authoritarian leaders are a pox on the church – and many of us carry the scars to show it – 1 Samuel 8 suggests that the people of God are too often the ones who want a king.
“Tell me what God is saying to us.” “Just, tell me what to do.” “I want a flesh and blood leader to follow.”
Mutual submission is much harder. Working at a relationship with the Creator of the Universe is downright scary.
Much easier to submit to the authority of a fellow human. And easier to walk away from…
Your description of authority vs. control felt like cool water on a hot day. Exactly … Most people who are in authority have control issues (including me!).
I pulled together a confession liturgy for my church for last Sunday that included the phrase “…none of us can be trusted with too much power over others.” I’ve been meditating on that all week. Particularly I’ve been thinking about how it’s been ingrained in human nature to entrust leadership in one or two people in a group. But what would it look like to break out the leader roles and spread those out to most of the people in the group according to the group members giftings and passions? That would be more like mutual submission (codified), it would be messy and inefficient. It would require the group to know one another really well. The other thing I’ve been thinking about in terms of servant leaders that we miss is that when you think of servants there are always lots of them for one king, but there’s only one king. Hmmmm … so if we’re trying for this Biblical topsy-turvy servant leadership, I think we’d need lots of them, a flat distribution, rather than a conical shape.
Probably, I should stop thinking so much … this is sounding garbled.
One other related thought.. I believe authority is measured by submission to an Author.. of which there is only One. That Author has told us everything we need to know for life and godliness. It is up to us NOT to submit ourselves to someone whose life does not conform to that standard. Of course this puts the onus on the entire community to know Scripture.. really a daunting task but we do have a common Teacher.. From the other side this means that any requested submission (assuming the mutual agreement you postulate) must also be rooted in Scripture. I can’t ask anything of anyone that cannot be justified by Scriptural argument, and probably also affirmed by the community. The test for all authority is the Word of God.
Have you ever read the works of Jacques Ellul? I’m not positive but I think some of his views on authority and Christianity may be parallel, though they come from a bit different perspective…
A friend of mine made an interesting observation while we were having a similar discussion, he said ” scripturally it seems that all authority is Given….therefore authority should never be Taken” Much as you have stated, a “leader” should have however much authority as the “followers” will give…