What Is “Authority?”

What Is “Authority?”

I grew up in a religious community that highly valued “authority.” That was true whether the authority be secular or religious. “Authority is given by God” was a common maxim. Children should not question parental authority. Church members should not question church leaders’ authority. Pastors should not question denominational leaders’ authority—unless they are obviously violating biblical doctrines, divine commands or the law. Even then, I was told, subordinates’ duty is only to pray for them. Citizens should not question civil authorities—especially not when such questioning involved civil disobedience. Loyalty, subordination, obedience, submission…these were taught as cardinal virtues.

We largely agreed with Martin Luther King’s goals but condemned his methods. We looked upon Richard Nixon as a victim of some insidious conspiracy of rebellious left-wingers. The benefit of the doubt was always given to those in authority and we supported them unless it turned out they were absolutely, unequivocally involved in corruption of some kind. But it would have to be someone else who exposed them; we didn’t think that was a Christians’ duty. Our only duty was to pray for those in authority.

But sometime fairly early in my life I began to notice inconsistencies in this religious authoritarianism. We celebrated Independence Day fervently. We thought Martin Luther was a hero, as was anyone who questioned or challenged the authority of the pope. Our own denomination was born out of rebellion—against a female evangelist who founded the denomination ours split from. And then there were the Old Testament prophets who were constantly going around challenging kings. And the Apostle Paul who confronted Peter at Antioch.

I also began to see corruption within our own denomination and its college where I was a student. Money was clearly being misappropriated by someone in authority. Spiritual abuse was rampant. I recall an incident when an evangelist was invited by the college’s president to speak during “Spiritual Emphasis Week.” The evangelist was unquestionably teaching false doctrines and engaging in abusive practices, but because he was invited by the college’s president we were not supposed to question him. When I attempted to, privately, I was shamed and denied access to him.

I don’t know when I first saw the bumper sticker “Question Authority,” but I recall my response. I agreed with its message. It didn’t say “Challenge Authority” or “Overthrow Authority.” Everyone needs accountability, even and especially those who have power.

Reinhold Niebuhr said “Love everyone; trust no one.” I was raised to trust those in authority over me. I came to agree with Niebuhr instead. Lord Acton said “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I came to agree with Lord Acton.

At the same time, I also agree with John Howard Yoder who argued for Christian “voluntary subordination.” It seems to me the biblical commands about obedience to authority aim at that—voluntary subordination instead of abject submission and unquestioning obedience. IF they aimed at the latter, the prophets would have been wrong.

All this made me consider more deeply what “authority” really means—beyond “holding a powerful position over people.”

It seems clear to me that “authority” must be broken down into two distinct definitions. First is “having the legal right to order others.” (By “order” here I don’t mean “give orders,” although that might be included, but “to create and/or sustain order.”) This first definition has to do with rank, power, office, position. Hierarchy is necessary in a world of sin. “Pure democracy” is a myth, even if a beautiful one. It is at best an “undeconstructible” (Derrida) and at worst an illusion, a pipe dream of anarchists.

Second, and more importantly, is “truth.” Higher than rank, power, office, position must be held truth. Ultimate authority, in human existence, is truth. Truth trumps power. Or it ought to.

Without this distinction kept clearly in mind, the prophetic impulse dies away. The high priests of order take absolute control and face no challenges. King David goes his merry way without Nathan. The pope silences Luther. Bull Connor and Lester Maddox defeat Martin Luther King.

To me, “Question Authority” does not mean “overthrow all authority” but “hold human leaders accountable to truth.” That applies above all in religious contexts.

One reason I am a Baptist is because that tradition at least pays strong lip service to truth over office. I am afraid of power and official authority not accountable to truth whatever its source may be.

And that is my main point here. Truth, when spoken by anyone, however humble in terms of rank, trumps power. That should be our motto, always and everywhere. Unfortunately, it is not. Most people bow to power over truth.

We’ve all heard the story of “the emperor’s new clothes.” A child dared to speak truth to power. Unfortunately, I believe, in the real world, outside a Dr. Seuss book, the child would have been hushed and hustled away from the parade, perhaps even punished.

My point here is that truth should trump power regardless of its source and that source’s status as child, subordinate, newcomer, outsider, heretic, etc.

Not long ago I saw a documentary about a nuclear holocaust that almost happened. I won’t recount the all details here. A Russian military officer ignored an order to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. because he strongly suspected the “incoming missiles” were not that at all but a weather fluke that made radar seem to show missiles. A nuclear holocaust was averted by his disobedience. How was he treated? The last few minutes of the hour long documentary showed how he was stripped of all rank, thrown out of the military, denied his pension and lived out the rest of his life in poverty and obscurity. He should have been given a medal instead.

So what do I propose? I propose that every Christian organization (as a Christian theologian and ethicist my main job, as it were, to speak to Christians) appoint someone to be its “truth protector.” His or her job would be to raise questions of truth. “But is this true? Here’s why it might not be.” That would be his or her constant and valued question and contribution.

Now by “truth,” here, I do not mean just “correspondence with reality” but also “right.” “Is it true” would include “Is it just? Is it faithful to our highest values? To God’s revealed values and will? Is it reasonable? Is it fair? Is it based in fact or fancy?”

In “days of old,” so we’re told, kings and emperors had “court jesters” whose job it was to ridicule the monarch. Whether that’s true or not, it ought to be. The point of the story is that people with power need someone to keep them conscious of their finitude if not humble.

During my lifetime in evangelical Christianity, and during my thirty plus years of teaching historical theology in three Christian universities, I have observed (to say nothing of learned about through my studies of history) numerous cases of Christian leaders who succumbed to megalomania or immorality or some form of corruption because there was nobody near them who could challenge them with impunity.

But I have also observed churches and other Christian organizations that fell into “ridiculousness,” spiritual abuse, utter nonsense, illegality, heresy because they did not care about truth. They cared more about tradition or ecstatic experiences or status quo or protecting the “authority” of the leadership.

Of course, a predictable response to all of this is “But what is ‘truth’?” If someone is skeptical about truth itself and about our ability to grasp it however partially and imperfectly, then I don’t know what to say to them except “I feel sorry for you.”

My point here is simply that power tends to cloud perception of truth—especially truth about yourself and decisions affecting your power. People with power (and that includes church boards, for example) need help with keeping truth paramount.

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  • Rick

    Terrific post. Thanks for this.

  • Jack Harper

    Roger, thanks for your post, very important subject. From a Christian perspective we are encouraged to pray for those in authority so we can live peaceful and quiet lives (1Tim.2:1-3). Personally I have a hard time with some authority because they are corrupt and are detrimental to living a peaceful existence. But true authority, the kind Jesus has was recognized by those that heard him speak(Matt.7:28-29). Most authority we see is delegated, but when someone speaks with wisdom and truth it has transforming power even if it goes against established authority.

  • Trevor

    Great post—this reminds me of a funny bumper sticker I see on a car in my neighborhood that reads, “Question Authority—don’t ask why, just do it!” Hahaha!

    Anyway, I think a good example of power corrupting truth can be found in the creationist movement, specifically Answers in Genesis. Rachel Held Evans pointed out in the, uh, banter she had with Ken Ham a few years ago that such an organization has much more than the defense of a theological position “at stake”; because of their success (read: power), they have a complex assortment of books, DVDs, speakers, museums, THEME PARKS, etc. bound up with their interpretation as well. To consider any other viewpoint would be tantamount to taking away their livelihood, their power. http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/idea-empire

  • J.E. Edwards

    Interesting post. A co-worker and I were just discussing this very thing. In the culture I grew up in, questions were tolerated (and still are) on a surface level. Some leaders see questions of any kind somehow tied to their authority. Believe me, I’m from the school of King David when he had such great respect for King Saul and God’s leaders. I’m glad for the respect I’ve been taught to give pastors and godly people. However, if by seeking answers to questions becomes equated to questioning that position of authority, I begin to get confused. To me, it seems that leaders should be humbled by genuine questions and probably most antagonistic questions, too. Humility goes a lot further than proclaiming authority. I get really discouraged when pastors cling to the passages that speak of submitting to their authority. I get it, but earning people’s honor and respect works much better.

  • Kristin

    Thank you for writing this. As a leader I am seriously bothered by the notion of “unquestioned authority.” I do not want the people on my team or who are “under” me mindlessly obeying my decisions or just assuming that I know best about everything. What is even more scary is that the people who teach unquestioned authority are people who hold that same position of authority!

  • Jon G


    Thanks for this post. It was great and very much walks through many of my questions of authority. For myself, here is a summation of my journey on the subject.

    My journey with Authority started out with my parents. They were/are kind people, but like everybody else, hated having their authority as parents challenged and I got in to countless arguments with them, usually ending with me getting punished. But, from an early age, I was able to see hypocrasy in their lives and figured that I knew better than them. Still, they loved me and introduced me to God and I am extremely gratefult for that. My father, especially, was a devout believer and consumed the Bible (sometimes upwards of 2 hours a day!). It was through him that I learned that God is the ultimate authority, and, since I never really “hear” from God directly, I recognized the Bible as the closest representative of His authority. I still do, although with much modification.

    But as I immersed myself in the world of the Christian Church, listening to various preachers and reading all kinds of books trying to satisfy my desire to learn more about God I began to see that it wasn’t the Bible that was authorative to me OR the Church, but our interpretations of the Bible. Well that was a big problem! I mean, we are all sinful and our thoughts are skewed…so how could a Bible that nobody agreed on really have authority? The answer for many is to trust orthodoxy…how the Church has agreed to interpret the Bible.

    But then, as I studied the Church, I realized that they agree on very little. In fact, we have so many divisions in the Church that it is plainly obvious that it could not be an effective authority. So then I had to ask what it DID agree upon, and there you boil things down to the Creeds. But again, I had to ask “how do we interpret the Creeds” and, in addition, “how were they formed?”. They seemed to be as much about politics as theology. Now I was really in a bind. It seemed about the only thing everybody could agree upon was God was the Creator, God was Triune, and God saves. Well, I had a lot of trouble with the middle one (for a variety of reasons I won’t mention here) and so that left me with no real authority left except God, but with a huge communication gap between us.

    What’s more, the very nature of my investigation revealed something to me…I was the one evaluating all these systems of authority that I could submit to. In other words, I was the authority. If it didn’t fit with my reasoning, I couldn’t fall in line with it. But to place myself under an authority that didn’t make sense also seemed wrong. So I was in a HUGE dilemma. Trust myself who I know is often wrong but earnestly seeking the truth, or trust a Church who rarely agrees on anything, or trust a Bible which needs incredible amounts of scholarship to properly interpret, or wait for something else to come along?

    In the end, I figured that I am always involved in the trusting part. Whether the Church, the Bible, God, or myself…I am always the one deciding what will be my authority and so, in essence, I don’t see anyway around placing myself in position of authority. But I also know that I have to keep seeking God and so I believe that authority is treated with some humility. I recognize that I am not perfect, that I am not all knowing, and that I am not capable of making every right decision. So I keep grasping for new knowledge, humbling myself before others (repenting and making ammends for my mistakes), and asking God to light my path. In the end, as Roger puts it, Truth is my authority and I keep trying to follow the evidence where it leads. I think everybody does this on some level, but most don’t recognize that they do it.

    And ultimately, I think my approach is consistent with what I see in God. Even though He is the ultimate authority, in some way, by giving me Free Will, He has relinquished some of His authority to me. So I think it is totally ok for me to take it up. Regardless, even in submitting to authority, we are excercising our own authority so I’d rather just be honest and say that I am my own authority humbly following where I think God is leading me.

    And to bring everything to a head, practically speaking, my core belief about God is that He is a loving and good father who looks at me the way I look at my kids. So anytime I have a question about how something plays out theologically I run it through this grid – “If God loves me/us unconditionally, and wants to lead me/us into complete and ultimate joy, then how should I/we act or think about _____?” I can run any topic through that sentence and feel pretty good that I’m on the right track.

    Thanks for letting me open up!


    • Your post is insightful, I think. As I read it, it occured to me that what is needed is faithfulness, not being right. Being right is a human obsession which is often fed in the name of faith. But our faith is in God himself, not in being right.

  • Paul Vipond

    I have been a “silent” observer for some years but your post brought to mind Tom Wright’s book “The Last Word” in which he points out how often when “Biblical Authority” is cited usually the “worldly” definition of authority is unthinkingly imported on to the scriptures rather than allowing the Bible to define, especially through Jesus, what authority really is in the Kingdom. Authority for Jesus, of course, does not include “Lording over” you describe but picking up the “towel” and the cross. Thank you for your post.

  • Coleman Glenn

    I think the brief interchange between Pilate and Jesus captures so well these two vastly different ways of looking at authority: “Pilate therefore said to Him, Are You a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?'” (Joh 18:37-38). Jesus’ kingship was the kingship of truth, not the kingship of personal command; but to Pilate, it seems (although admittedly this might be reading too much into his response), that concept of authority was so foreign as to be incomprehensible.

  • jamie orr

    As you will probably know, there have been many psychology tests been done, that show that subordinate people can act bizzrely and even can commit evil acts, if a person in authority tells them to do it, even they know it is morally wrong. I personally whilst growing up, I seemed to think that people in authority ( policeman, high ranking army officers, Presidents and many more) never commited bad sins or ( just minor sins).

    Everyone has read and seen, how people in authority wilf ully abuse their power, As here in the UK, we had the expenses scam where politicians would claim expenses unlawfully, which evoked public outrage. The catholic priest scandal also, where some used their power to devastate lives, there was obviously people who suspected or may have even known, who would not dare challenge authority, in case they look a fool. Lets hope people are bold in their righteous indignation, of the things we suspect or even know are wrong.

  • Thank you for this. I did some research on human authority in the Bible and found that God appears to involve Himself only reluctantly in the setting up of human power structures, and when He does (such as when setting up Israel’s governing structure) He carefully separates religious from secular power so that too much power is not amassed in one set of hands. Also that though earthly authorities are established by God, the New Creation kingdom is characterized by bottom-up servanthood rather than by top-down authority. I have a three-part blog post on this starting here if anyone’s interested:

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Socrates was called a “gadfly” because he challenged everyone (including those in authority). This was a good thing, but not without risk – as the Russian you mentioned also found out.
    You say that in this world with sin, there is a need for this authority to be applied in a hierarchical way (ie. where this is centralized in fewer and fewer with the greater and greater authority). Yet at the same time you confess that Acton was generally correct that power corrupts. Wouldn’t those who are corrupted by power, use the power that they have to keep (and increase) that power – even co-opt “truth” for their twisted gain?
    I’ve heard it said (though in a slightly different way), that Hitler on the City Council is a foul breeze while Hitler as Chancellor of Germany is a hurricane. I don’t understand your assumption of hierarchical authority. I don’t see it promoted by God. Family/Church? Yes. Town? Probably. Country? Yuck. World? Certainly not!
    I do like your idea of the Christian organizations having a “devil’s advocate” (maybe you’d like “truth’s advocate”). Sounds like a great position for a retired pastor/elder.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, by “hierarchy” I don’t mean “dominating power over” but leadership–a flow chart.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I agree that the leadership idea is better than the dominating power over, but those who have been corrupted (Acton again) will subtly replace the one with the other. It is written on nearly every page in human history.

  • Jerome

    Good stuff, Dr. Olson. I immediately thought of Jesus’ admonitions to his disciples about authority. They (and we!) seemed to need it, as they jockeyed for position right up to the Last Supper. The key to authority is a humble willingness to serve in any way needed, no matter how humble. “Washing feet” would tend to keep one from feeling so high and mighty and lording it over others.

  • James Petticrew

    Australian Christian classicist John Dickison has just published a very counter culture leadership book called “Humilitas” in which he touches on the subject of what it means to humbly submit, but as a leader! Interesting stuff, I hope it gets a wide readership inside and outside the church

  • Steve Rogers

    I like the Jesus model. Question and warn others against hypocrisy and misapplication of power. Jesus reminded Pilate that he had no authority over him, while at the same time submitting to him. He did so because he was under a higher authority with a different agenda. Of course that was Jesus. I’m no Jesus. I’ve questioned authority most of my life and only got comfortable with it when I was in it. Bad!

  • Zach

    Great post, we could use you in pastoral ministry! Too many out there feel like they have been endowed by God with authority (Piper, Driscoll, anyone?). “Blessed are meek!”

  • Steve

    Perhaps “what is truth?” is a sad question, but “what is the truth?” is THE question of the human experience. All authorities are subject to truth. Ok… So what is the truth?

    Imagine the questions the truth protector would ask: Is the Bible the truth? Says who? Who decided that those 27 books of the New Testament are the word of God? Why is your interpretation correct? Why is anyone’s interpretation correct?

    It wouldn’t take long before we realize something terrible: The truth exists, but we can’t ever be sure what it is.

    • Being sure is not the same thing as having faith. In fact, I think certainty is often counteractive to faith. If you know something, there is no need to believe or trust. If you are certain you’re right, you never question yourself and become closed to change.

      Understanding that there is no such thing as absolute certainty should be grounds for humility and trust in God, not fear.

  • Great article! In the interest of truth, though ;-), it sounds as if the description of the near-nuclear event in the documentary was inaccurate or hyped, if it’s referring to the incident of Stanislav Petrov (http://bit.ly/Wcdhoe). The real story is inspiring enough, but it does not appear to be quite as dramatic as described by the film.

  • rvs

    The priesthood of believers–the concept–screws up so much of the thinking about “authority” that goes on in evangelical circles. Authority means in many situations (that I’ve seen) the power to bully others into either silence or agreement.