Many people have observed an epidemic sweeping across the American landscape.
It is not an epidemic of germs but of attitude, a general lack of respect for authority which has crept into our culture. While the disrespectful are in the minority, there are enough of them to threaten civilized society. Children disregard their parents’ rules; students laugh at their teachers’ vain attempts at maintaining order; citizens regard law enforcement officers with contempt. While some wring their hands with angst, or shrug with resignation, I maintain that authority is ours to win or lose in every circumstance.
The matter of authority came up at my ordination ceremony years ago. On that solemn occasion, the bishop spoke of the heavy responsibilities that come with the office I was about to undertake. After admonishing me not to "trifle away my time" and several other of my favorite vices, he laid his hands on me and said, "Take thou authority to preach the word…."
Those words hit their mark. "Authority? Is authority mine to take," I asked myself. What power comes with the title "Reverend"? I was confusing authority with power, an error I share with many who seek it. In the practice of ministry, I have had to learn the important distinction between power and authority.
Will Willimon draws from Dale Rosenberger to contrast the two:
Power is self-centered and self-serving; its clarion cry is "my will be done!"… It is brokered by fear and intimidation…. Its goal is always to win and, in winning, to create losers…. Power always believes in its own wisdom, its own strength, its own purpose. Power answers to nothing beyond itself, not even to God.
Authority is temporarily entrusted to our stewardship by that which is greater than we are and to which we are accountable… Spiritual authority seeks to empty itself of the conceit of possessing its own wisdom, so that it may say not "my will be done," but "Thy will be done."
Tony Compolo notes that power is the ability to coerce; authority is the ability to influence. For him, the ability to influence comes from sacrificing to meet the needs of others. In The Red Letter Christians, he recalls a time when he heard Mother Teresa speak at a National Prayer Breakfast. Before an audience which included the president, the vice president, and a host of other world leaders, she, "said things that many of those present did not want to hear, but everyone listened to her with great respect. She spoke strongly against abortion, even though those at the head table with her were overtly pro-choice. She spoke with authority, authority that had been earned through her sacrifices for the dying poor on the streets of Calcutta. I surmise that if push came to shove, more Catholics would likely have listened to Mother Teresa, who gained authority through her sacrifices, than to the Pope, regardless of all the power he wields as the head of the Vatican State."
The scriptures tell us that Jesus spoke as ‘one having authority’ (Matthew 7:29). While others parsed the ancient scriptures to justify their actions, he exposed their duplicity and hypocrisy with prophetic command. His message was demanding, yet he drew large crowds wherever he went. He spoke the same truth to the powerful and the powerless, which confounded one and delighted the other. People listened because they sensed he was self-sacrificing instead of self-serving; the attitude behind his words was not ‘my will be done,’ but ‘Thy will be done.’
Perhaps this is what is lacking when those who seek power over another cannot seem to muster the authority. Governments, parents, and civic and religious leaders are challenged to be self-sacrificing servants of those they wish to lead; to be answerable to an authority higher than their own; and to exercise their authority with humility, in fear and trembling. While we all need to answer to authority, that authority needs to be an extension of God’s ultimate authority over all of us.
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.