Tag Archive for authority

Who Made You the Authority?

The explosion of information on the web has made the idea of authoritative information almost a thing of the past. A CGI-Enhanced Youtube video about the non-existence of the South Pole is as accessible as the online Encyclopedia Brittanica’s information on Antarctica. The crowd-edited Wikipedia is found as easily (or more so) than a peer-reviewed journal. The Internet has not only granted full democracy to all ideas, it has tended to flatten out all judgement, and scrap a sense of hierarchy of trustworthiness. No longer do canons of received knowledge exist in hard-bound Oxford or Cambridge Press volumes. No longer do scholars carry the weight of authority they once did in the popular mind. If a video has garnered three million views, it may just be true.

The democracy of ideas is simultaneously the pooling of ignorance. As Doug Wilson quipped, “We have not yet realized that the computers may simply be moving our ignorance around the planet at incredible rates of speed. As one wag put it, ‘We used to think that a million monkeys typing away at a million keyboards could produce the works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not the case.'”

For many, this democracy is seen as a good thing. After all, canonised error is harder to overturn than the slander and hear-say of the gossip-rags. Further, doesn’t the whistle-blowing potential of the web keep people honest? Any man with a phone can now publish to a worldwide audience, and all strongholds of secrets are vulnerable. Ideas which would previously have been actively suppressed, or dismissed by the large publishing houses, can now see the light of day.

Benefits exist, to be sure. Hide-bound ideologies like Darwinism or liberal progressivism meet their match on the web. Like-minded people meet, though separated by oceans. False teachers and false teaching can be called out as soon as they record. Every idea is exposed to challenge through this technology.

On balance though, one wonders if the negatives outweigh the positives. It is the very cacophony of ideas, and the absence of some filter to discard and retain ideas, that tends to destroy any real sense of judgement in most people. People either grant authority to people and ideas that they ought not, or they become intensely cynical about anyone being an authority. Overwhelmed with ideas and competing authorities, the average person simply sets himself up as the authority, deciding eclectically what he deems plausible.

For example, witness the obsession with fake news. Is fake news alternative media? Is it news that does not support the agenda of the Broadcasting Magnates? Is it the news the Broadcasting Magnates disseminate? Who gets to decide? How do we decide? Or consider conspiracy theories. In the world of the Truthers, a conspiracy theory is true precisely because most people think it isn’t. It is considered factual because They deny it. Every denial, or evidence to the contrary, finds an explanation that supports the Conspiracy Theory narrative.

What this amounts to is a crisis of authority. Who can be trusted? When criteria of judging knowledge to be authoritative have disappeared, when human authorities no longer exist, there is no good reason not to take seriously Youtube discussions of the existence of mermaids, accounts of teleportation to Mars, or evidence of time travellers in old photographs.

But discerning who is an authority is exactly where things begin to fall down. We find ourselves in a kind of catch-22: authorities will give us the right kind of knowledge, but we need the right kind of knowledge to spot the genuine authorities from the self-appointed posers. Experts help us to discern the issues, but we first need to discern who the experts are.On what basis should I trust a professor’s word over Wikipedia’s? On what basis should I listen to one pastor and not another? On what basis should I trust one book over another?

This is where the value of tradition comes in. Whether it is an intellectual, cultural or religious tradition, it reflects the process of elimination and assimilation that people do over centuries. Human beings were not meant to do on an individual level in a moment what is meant to happen on the scale of entire cultures over hundreds of years: evaluate meaning, recognise authorities, and deliver a consensus. Of course we must each make judgements, and trust certain voices, but we were meant to do so with the backing of tradition. Within a culture, judgements are passed on from one generation to another. People who have spoken well on an issue are pointed to, and younger consciences are formed as they are exposed to these judgements. People growing up within the bounds of a tradition had the safety of hundreds of years of judgements from which to learn. If your father’s father’s father said it was good, useful, dangerous, healthy, true, or false, there was good reason to listen. When we don’t know, we must trust our betters. In a tradition, we knew who our betters were.

Certainly, tradition can be a great evil, if it hands down false religion, poor judgements or liars held up as paragons of virtue. But most cultures have experienced some common grace, and therefore some truth. Few traditions are completely useless. Cultures most exposed to the special grace of the gospel usually have (or had) more evidences of helpful judgements handed down.

What we face now is every man adrift on a sea of opinion, cut loose from the Western cultural and intellectual tradition, cut loose from the Christian worship tradition, with gales of opinions battering each pathetic raft that each person is on. We are back to the book of Judges. Within this storm, we nevertheless have to (and do) choose whom we will trust. Whether the person is living or dead, we should consider three suggestions for evaluating his or her trustworthiness, and therefore, his or her authority. We’ll consider these next.

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)

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?