Christians these days seem to have a problem with the issue of authority.
Various teachers and pastors claim authority over their listeners or congregations. Disciplers or shepherds claim authority over their “sheep.” I have heard dozens of teachings and read dozens of books about who has authority over whom, and the question is still asked, “Yes, but who has authority?” It seems to be a problem.
Authority is not power. Power, the brute ability to force another person against their will, is shared by both the cop and the robber. Yet only the cop has authority: the morally legitimate ability to compel another, backed by force if need be.
For the most part, we transfer this common notion of authority directly into discussions of authority in the church. And if a person has a dictatorial vision of how authority should operate, the same vision takes shape in the church. If a person has a managerial vision of authority, the church ends up being administered as if it were a corporation. The list could go on, but the point is clear: our tendency is to begin with the idea of authority that we feel comfortable with and transfer it into the church.
Yet none of these transfers are adequate, for authority in the church is different from every other authority we know, if what Jesus said makes any difference.
JESUS’ DISTURBING TEACHING on authority for his followers contrasts them with every other society. The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects, and twist this rule to appear good by calling themselves “benefactors”. They exercise their power, and try (more or less successfully) to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church; rather, the one who leads is a servant and the one who rules is as the youngest (Luke 22:24-27).
Secular authority can and will exercise dominating force to ensure obedience. But leaders in the church are to be genuine servants. As such, their leadership is based solely in truth and trust. Let me expand on this a bit.
Leaders in the church are leaders precisely because they are servants, not in pious rhetoric but in deed. When someone truly lives a life of serving others, meeting their needs, and acting for their good, others begin to trust them. But if they are
doing things for selfish motives or because they love power, you distrust them, even though what they do may appear to be serving you. Leadership in the body is based precisely on the trust that comes from a life of true service.
THE NEW TESTAMENT has things to say about leadership in the church and about spiritual authority. But oddly enough, given the magnitude of our present debates about leadership and spiritual authority, it has very little to say about a link between the two. That is, though the scriptures are concerned about both leadership and spiritual authority, they are strangely silent about leaders having spiritual authority or spiritual authority flowing from leaders. This silence, it turns out, is quite significant.
The New Testament uses two words which correspond to different aspects of what we mean by “authority.” The first, dunamis, is usually (and rightly) translated as “power.” This word is less important for us because though power may be associated with some kinds of authority, it also can exist without authority. A robber with a gun has power but not authority over others.
Even though it will not exactly answer our question, it will still be worthwhile to look at who has dunamis-power-in the New Testament. If you take a walk through a concordance, you will find that the following possess power: God, Jesus, the Spirit, and also angels, demons, principalities and powers. Human beings may be energized by them. The ministry of the gospel, the miracles of the apostles, and the lives of believers are all conditioned on the power of God. Yet, strikingly, the New Testament never recognizes human beings with “power” in their own right, power always comes to people from elsewhere.
Things become even more interesting when we turn to the other Greek word relevant to spiritual authority: exousia. This word is usually translated as “power” or “authority” and is the closest equivalent (in both denotation and connotation) to our English word “authority.” The New Testament’s list of those who have exousia is basically the same as those who have dunamis: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels and demons. But now, the list can also be extended to humans who are not merely energized by other’s authority but have authority themselves.
Thus, kings have authority to rule (Rom. 13:1-2) and Jesus’ disciples have authority over diseases and spirits (e.g., Matt. 10:1). Furthermore, believers are said to have authority over various aspects of their lives: their possessions (Acts 5:4), and eating, drinking, and being married (1Cor. 9:4-5).
What is interesting here is that the New Testament does not know anything about one believer having “authority” over another. We have plenty of authority over things, and even over spirits, but never over other Christians. Given the present debates about spiritual authority and leadership, that should be surprising. Kings have authority over their subjects; Paul had authority from the high priest to persecute the church (Acts 9:14, 26:10-12). But those are from outside the church. In the church, one believer is never spoken of as having exousia over another, regardless of their position or prestige.
With the exception, that is, of 2Cor. 10:8 and 13:10. In these texts Paul speaks of himself having “authority to build up, not tear down”. But this exception is really more a proof of the rule than a problem when you take two things into account.
First, by his own admission, Paul is speaking “as a fool” in this section of his letter, whereas he studiously avoids claiming authority over others when he speaks “soberly.”
Second, the context of the letter is one characterized by persuasion. The profound significance of this will become clear in due course. Paul spills a great deal of ink trying to persuade the Corinthians to listen to him. If he “had authority” over them, in the sense we usually think of it, why did he bother? Why not just give the orders and be done with it? Before we answer that, we should notice that Paul seems to lack authority-in our everyday sense of the word-even when he is “asserting” it. Now this should caution us against thinking of leaders as having authority merely on the basis of two sentences in 2 Corinthians.
NOW LOOK AT things from the other side. Rather than asking who has authority in the New Testament, we should ask its opposite, whom should one obey? The answer here is interesting, too. If you examine the usage of hupakouo, which is the Greek equivalent of “obey,” you will find that we ought to obey God, the Gospel (Rom. 10:16), and the teaching of the apostles (Phi. 2:12, 2Th. 3:14). Children are to obey their parents and servants their masters (Eph 6.1, 5). Are believers to “obey” church leaders? If they are, the New Testament doesn’t say so.
But not so fast-what about the text in Hebrews 13:17 which says “obey your leaders?” This text is interesting, because it gives us an insight into the positive side of the New Testament’s understanding of leadership. Up to now I have emphasized the negative-that they do not have spiritual authority in the usual sense, and believers are not told to obey them. In spite of all this, the New Testament insists that there are recognizable leaders in a local body and that their existence and ministry are important to the health of the body.
What is this clue in Hebrews 13:17. If you examine the verb translated “obey” in this text, you will find it to be a form of the word peitho which means “persuade.” In the form used here (the middle-passive) it means something like “let yourself be persuaded by” or “have confidence in.” Now that’s helpful. Believers are to let themselves be persuaded by their leaders.
Leaders are to be accorded a certain respect which lends their words more weight than they have in and of themselves. And the rest of the church should be biased in favor of listening to what they say. We are to allow ourselves to be persuaded by our
Leaders, not to obey them mindlessly but to enter into discussion with them while being biased toward what they are saying. So now we understand that it was significant that Paul’s statements in 2 Corinthians were in a context of persuasion. He was trying to persuade them to let themselves be persuaded by him.
The other verb used in Hebrews 13.17 reinforces this conclusion. When the text goes on to urge people to submit to leaders, it does not use the garden-variety New Testament word for “submit.” The normal word is hupotassomai, which connotes something like placing oneself in an organization under another person.
The word here, however, is different. It is hupeiko, and it occurs only this once in the New Testament. It connotes not a structure to which one submits, but a battle after which one yields. The image (to transfer it out of the military usage) is one of a serious discussion, an interchange after which one party gives way. This meshes nicely with the notion that we are to let ourselves be persuaded by leaders in the church, rather than meekly submit to them as we might to the existing powers and structures of life.
This all makes sense with the criteria for leadership in the pastoral epistles. There, character is the most important thing about leaders-they should be “respect-able”. If they are supposed to be “persuaders”, it makes sense that they ought preeminently to be respect-able, because that is the kind of person whose words we are inclined to take very seriously. The kind of respect-ability outlined there lends credibility to the words of leaders, and hence gives us confidence in opening ourselves to being persuaded by them.
WE NEED TO take our ideas of leadership in the church from the New Testament and not from the world. Thus, we should begin not with a worldly concept of authority, but from the biblical idea of “persuaders” and try to flesh that out in our particular situations.
It is true that the one by whom people are persuaded does receive a kind of respect and authority. Yet this is not the authority-to-be-obeyed kind of authority and the mindless submission which characterizes much spiritual authority today.
We have seen that spiritual authority is based on earned trust in leaders. Yet, in the body it is also based on truth. Leaders in the church ought to love the truth and hate being listened to when they don’t speak it (and since they are not God, they won’t always). Presumably if leaders are wrong in their judgment and yet are seriously concerned to serve, they wouldn’t be happy with someone following them in their error.
Furthermore, truth is essential to the persuasiveness of leaders. But persuasion presupposes dialogue; and dialogue requires that active participation of the whole body. A leader who has the personal charisma to persuade people of something untrue, and does so, is demonic. And terrible, too, is a body of believers who follow mindlessly. To be persuaded of a lie is the worst form of bondage. Leaders in the church are bound to the truth and serve it above all in their service of others. And the body of believers is bound to the responsibility of dialogue toward truth.
The necessity of truth, by the way, is the reason why the New Testament emphasizes obeying the gospel or the apostles’ teaching, rather than leaders. The trust engendered by service is dangerous if it is not coordinated with a common submission to the truth of the gospel. If truth and trust are not together the basis of leadership in the body, the trust which can be created by service is just another, more subtle form of power-the power we call manipulation.
Genuine Christian leadership, then, is based on truth and trust, not on worldly authority. Leaders in the church are called to respect-able lives of service. Such lives engender the trust of others. Yet leaders as well as the rest of the members of the body are in common subjection to the truth which is in Christ.