Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Exercising Authority

"Because I told you so." Have ever heard that as an answer to why a thing should be done a certain way? There is a temptation for those who are in authority to use to use that authority to support their decisions rather than explaining them. But this can be a dangerous practice, particularly in the Christian church. For in the Christian context, we are told the proper way to be a leader is to be a servant (Matthew 20:25-28; Luke 22:25-27; 1 Peter 5:1-4). But if we become more concerned with upholding our authority than God's truth, we are in trouble.

The ancient Christian church was assailed by many groups which claimed their new-found variations were better than traditional orthodoxy. To protect the ordinary Christian, the early leaders of the church came up with an idea to help. They pointed out that Jesus had taught the apostles, who had passed on His teaching to the leaders of the early church. Therefore, who are you going to believe, the church descended from the apostles or some upstart peddling a new doctrine? This reflects a degree of sense, as one argument to consider. But it grew into a magic talisman for determining correct teaching: the church descended from the apostles must always be right. Or take the split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. While there were issues involved, such as the date of Easter and the required degree of clerical celibacy, the real question was who was in charge. Or take the movement in the later half of the Middle Ages to reform the lax spiritual state of the church. It started out as an attempt to correct legitimate abuses (though I disagree with its endorsement of clerical celibacy). But it ended up in a pure power struggle with the civil authorities. As a result, the church authorities became more corrupt than the civil authorities they opposed. In fact, they had made themselves so unchallengeable that they prevented all moderate schemes of reform and only the Protestant Reformation was able to break their hold.

Now I have deliberately placed this discussion in the past to give it perspective, but even among Protestants who started out fighting this idea there can be a danger of relying on authority to settle issues rather than on the truth of Scripture. It is always easier to rely on being in charge and to uphold the way we have always done things rather than grapple with truth. I have never been a pastor, but I have been in church leadership positions for many years, and in my experience I am in an extremely dangerous position when I start worrying about my authority rather than what is right before God. That is not to say we should not be subject to those God has put over us (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13; 1 Timothy 5:17). But once the issue becomes the leaders' authority, the discussion has already taken a wrong turn.

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