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’; ‘honor’; ‘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 recognize 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?