What Is “Authority?”

What Is “Authority?” March 7, 2013

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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