Monthly Archives: April 2017

Authority and Authoritarianism

When authority is usually discussed, about three sentences later, the word authoritarian will make its entrance. In fact, for some, authority is authoritarian – there is no other kind. Recovering the mangled word authority from all the thought-debris that has been hurled at it requires distinguishing it from authoritarianism. I’m not sure whether dictionaries help or hurt the cause of clarification, but for what it’s worth, Webster’s has authoritarian as “of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority” and “of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people”. For ‘English language learners’, Webster’s defines authoritarian as “expecting or requiring people to obey rules or laws”, which, unfortunately, implicates every parent, schoolteacher, policeman, and pastor on the planet as authoritarian.

The slipperiness of these definitions becomes downright frictionless once it gets into popular usage. There, authoritarian can mean anything from dogmatism to bullying, from having a visible leadership structure to insisting upon ‘blind submission’ to unaccountable authority. And as we know, when something can mean almost anything, it means almost nothing.

If we have a biblical idea of authority, authoritarian has to represent some kind of deviation from that idea. As we have seen, authority is good, and authority is grounded in Someone who did not derive His authority from anyone outside of Himself. God is  a “concentration of power not constitutionally responsible to the people”, but this is hardly a bad thing. For that matter, sometimes God requires submission without giving us lengthy explanations of the purpose or rationale behind our obedience. If that constitutes ‘blind submission’, then there’s a good deal of it in biblical religion.

Clearly, we need another way of distinguishing authoritarian from biblical authority. Perhaps authoritarian could be rightly defined as “human authority which asserts itself as an end in itself”. Genuinely authoritarian leadership would be the kind that is more conscious of its position than of the direction it wishes to point others to, more aware of its status than its function. Authoritarian leadership mistakes the means (authority) for the end – which ought to be the glory of God and the good of our neighbour.

Having said that, judging when authority has become authoritarian requires a prudent and sober judgement. It is not necessarily authoritarian to

  • assert authority to accomplish God-glorifying goals
  • have explicit authority structures and teach the importance of submission
  • require submission and enforce it against the will of another (e.g. child discipline or church discipline)
  • defend one’s authority against rebellion or divisive people (e.g. the book of 2 Corinthians).

Every Christian parent, pastor, manager or governor has to do every one of those four at some point. Almost always, the accusation of authoritarianism will follow. But the humble leader must accept those calumnies as part of leading in a fallen world. He may be tempted to abdicate his role or back away when such accusations come, fearing that the appearance of authoritarianism is enough to mar his blamelessness. But this would actually be honouring his own reputation above the glory of God. It would be to cede ground to those who hate authority itself, not merely authoritarianism.

He may also be tempted to respond to such attacks or rebellion by furiously defending his role as leader, and resorting to strong-arm tactics, intimidation, power-plays, or manipulation. Such fleshly behaviour turns what was a false accusation into a true one. It plays into the hands of the scoffers who begin with lies, and wait to see if they will materialise into truths.

He must accept that even the humblest leaders will be accused of self-promotion. “They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?'” (Num. 16:3)

A faithful leader’s goal is to lead people to where God wants them, using God’s methods, and seeking to display God’s character. He need not defend himself against every fool, but he should explain authority and submission to those who have ears to hear. When God’s church is in danger, he should defend the office of authority, even if it appears he is defending his own name. He should stay the course, outlast the rebels, disciple the teachable, and let the implacable implode on their own.

It is the easiest shot to make: when authority acts like authority, accuse it of being authoritarian. But those under God’s authority see through this.

Evil men do not understand justice, But those who seek the LORD understand all. (Prov. 28:5)

Pastors – Become Literate in Christian Culture

When the topic of music and worship comes up, a favourite slap-down argument against thoughtful discrimination of music is that pastors need not study music to be faithful pastors.

It is beside the point to say that pastors need not become art critics. If their vocation is that of shepherding the flock, it is manifestly true that they are not called to a full-time practice of judging the merits of art. The real point is that pastors are leaders of Christians, and they are to lead Christians not only in theological thought, but in the practice of worship. It is impossible to worship without art (for we must at minimum use music and poetry – Colossians 3:16), so a pastor who knows nothing about art and wishes to provide leadership in worship is equivalent to the pastor who wishes to lead through the pulpit but neglects to learn a modicum of theology. However sincere he may be, however homiletically gifted he may be, a theological bumpkin will confuse and mislead in the pulpit. He must master (or become competent in) the canons of theological thought if he is to bring lucid biblical ideas to believers.

Not every pastor will have been trained musically, poetically or otherwise. This is a disadvantage, but not a crippling flaw. To lead he must grow in judgement, not in technical proficiency. Judgement of art may be enhanced when the critic is himself a musician, poet, or writer, for he understands better the materials used, and the skill required. But judgement and artistic ability are not Siamese twins, by any means. Many musicians are abysmal critics, poor judges, and have appalling taste. Indeed, in some cases, they are the worst critics, because their technical ability blinds them to their poor taste. Some critics cannot play or sing, but can make valid and insightful judgements. This is because art is experienced before it is understood technically or judged critically. Every man is capable of experiencing art, and reflecting on his experience – though technical and critical judgement should make us more reflective about our experience.

How should a pastor become a better judge of the art to be used in worship? I would not discourage the man from seeking to learn about music or poetry from composers, such as Bernstein, Copland, or Meyer, or by reading the judgements of men like Scruton. As a pastor myself, I have a suspicion that he will be hard-pressed to fit these books into his reading list, which itself is forever being postponed by ministry necessities.

What I would recommend is that the man expose himself to historic Christian culture. Let him read the poetry and hymns of his people in his devotions. Let him him hear their music in his office, in his car, and in his living room. Let him surround himself with Christian voices worshipping, until he begins to hear in them voices in union. The longer he spends with historic Christian verse and music, the more he will imbibe its sentiments, its affections, its very posture before God.

While he does this, he should compare what he is hearing from the church triumphant, with what is written and produced by the professed church militant. If he is doing this thoughtfully, he will begin to notice some very different Christians resemble each other in their worship, while some very similar Christians (theologically) differ widely in their worship. Though separated by centuries, theological chasms, and even language, he will easily find parity between Bernard, Rossetti, Herbert, Watts, Wesley, Montgomery, Milton, Donne, Faber, and Tersteegen. Likewise with Palestrina, Bach, Mendelssohn, or Górecki. Should he live with these men and women, he will listen to 21st century verse or music with a different ear. When judging music or poetry from our era, he will not be looking for something nostalgic, but for something equivalent in our day. He will not be looking for what merely seems accessible or familiar, but for something that echoes historic Christian sentiment.

Becoming culturally literate in your own culture should be a small ask, particularly for those men charged with reproducing Christian culture on a micro-scale in their local churches. Sadly, too many pastors have embraced a view of culture and a view of Scripture that disputes the very existence of Christian culture, and grants a kind of autonomous power to propositional statements from Scripture. For these men, the only question is what music or poetry can be culled from contemporary pop culture that seem (to their judgement) to support the propositional statements of Scripture. And having no comparison for their judgement, the decision comes down, ironically, to how the pastor ‘feels’ about these bits of pop – hardly a propositionally-based judgement.

If I have not persuaded you, at least listen to the Narnian:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period…. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books….The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books. (On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis)

Authority – Its Origin

The English words authority and author come from the same Latin root, auctor – an originator. Strange how far we’ve come from older ideas, where the concept of authority was connected with authoring, creating, and making. Today, authorities are guilty until proven innocent of being destroyers.

English etymology aside, Scripture, in its first chapter,  makes the case for authority being creative. There the God who brought order from chaos delegates a similar sub-creational role to Adam and Eve, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28) The Author calls on His image-bearers to author with Him. He authorises them to exercise dominion over creation, subjugating it. Adam and Eve are to expand the Garden to encompass the Earth. They need authority to do so, and have just received that delegated authority from God Himself. As Paul would say, “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” (Rom. 13:1)

Authority, then, is a gift from God. Order is superior to disorder, and God, the self-existent Authority delegates authority to man. Rightly used, it spreads the glory of God with loving subjugation. From the smallest acts of a humble vocation, to the stately acts of princes and presidents, humans shaping creation are authorities. Further, humans will not only order fields and streams, they are to order human life – which means exercising authority over one another. By creating Adam and Eve separately rather than simultaneously, God was symbolising an authority structure for the home. So far, nothing is fallen or cursed in any of these concepts.

The problem began in Genesis 3. There Adam and Eve sought a new kind of authority. They were pleased to be King and Queen over the Earth, but Satan suggested they be independent kings and queens, rulers in their own right, determining what was good and evil for themselves. The act of eating the fruit, as mundane and simple as it was, represented a high-handed break from God’s authority, a full-fledged declaration of independence from God, a revolt against the Author.

Every abuse of authority begins there. Every tyrannical king or president, every abusive husband, every cruel parent, every manipulative manager, every bullying pastor – and indeed, every act of rebellion to God-given authority – is a ripple from the Tree. God’s authority causes humans to flourish. All forms of its distortion, in small or great ways, bring some kind of death.

Authority is good, and it is permanent. Authority is no necessary evil, nor is it a temporary arrangement. God will always rule, and He will always mediate that rule. The imperfections and evils of authority will pass away with sin, sorrow, and death, but authority will endure forever.

Ten Mangled Words – “Authority” (1)

The popular consciousness has knee-jerk reflexes when it comes to authority. Play the word-association game with the average person, show him the flash-card “Authority” and ask him to blurt out the first word that comes to mind. I’ll wager that if you repeat the experiment across thousands of subjects, you’ll have a top-ten list pretty soon, and it’ll sound something like ‘domineering’; ‘exploitation’; ‘dictatorship’; ‘corrupt’; ‘power-grab’; ‘oppression’; ”bullying’; ‘force’; ‘abuse’; ‘self-serving’.

Of course, were you to do the same test with someone deeply saturated with Scripture and a Scriptural understanding of authority, the words would look completely different, perhaps something like: ‘order’; ‘safety’; ‘restraint’; ‘grace’; ‘delegation’; ‘service’; ‘honour’; ‘mediatorial’; ‘protection’; ‘roles’.

Unfortunately, the average church-goer has a fairly chronic (if not acute) case of secular culture-sickness. His cultural mentors have predominantly been movies, talk-show hosts, Facebook memes, and a few friends with similar influences. When this is shaping your cultural vocabulary, authority means something close to “the necessary evil of having someone in charge, who is usually a self-serving loser and needs to be watched extra carefully”. Mix this in with some phrases he has heard (“the consent of the governed”; “one man, one vote” “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”) and what results is the idea that authority is really the permission that those following give to their leaders. From this mangled idea, churches are frequently accused of authoritarianism, “brain-washing”, or spiritual abuse. Sometimes the charges are true; in some cases, even flawless leadership will be tarred with the same brush. Answering several questions may help us recover a biblical idea of authority.

First, what is authority? Where does it originate, and how does it propagate?

Second, what is authority’s purpose? If we understand its purpose, we will understand its lawful use, and conversely, easily recognise its abuse.

Third, how do we identify an authority, not only in church, but in wider society? Is there such a thing as expert opinion?

Fourth, what does lawful authority look like in that community of self-denying servants, the Church? Democracy? Populism? How do churches incarnate and extend God’s authority?