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 neighbor.
Having said that, judging when authority has become authoritarian requires a prudent and sober judgment. 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 honoring 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 behavior 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 materialize 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)
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.