The Authority Paradox

A biblical view of the source and function of authority in the church

Roy Naden, Ed.D. {retired) is a professor of religious education at Andrews University. He lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The most misunderstood idea in America" says the provocative phrase on the paper jacket of a book titled Authority. 1 The misunderstanding isn't just limited to America, however.

In both secular and ecclesiastical life, misconceptions about authority continue to challenge organizational life everywhere, including our church.

For example, when I first began to teach a course on spiritual gifts in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Semi nary more than two decades ago, all my D.Min. students accepted the following paradigm regarding the prophetic gift. I discussed with them the normative expression of that gift exercised by the writers of the Scripture, the formative expression seen in the ministry of Ellen White (and others such as Reformation leaders that continue to influence thought throughout the Christian world), and a simple informative expression exercised by inspired individuals in every local congregation. In addition, I emphasized that according to scriptural definition, the compound prophetic gift has only three elements: instruction, exhortation, and comfort (1 Cor. 14:3).

Inevitably, however, discussion developed over the issue of authority. If, some asked, the manifestation of the prophetic gift were to be recognized in lay members of local congregations, the balance of power would be upset. The leadership of pastors, elders, and conference personnel would be challenged; they would be placed on the defensive in some elusive, undefined way. How would a local congregation sort out the authority hierarchy between several individuals? Perhaps most significantly, where would the authority of God and the church fit in? In a hierarchical way of thinking, there has to be a clearly defined descending order of authority. Who is at the apex of this structure in the local congregation: the church-elected elders, the conference-appointed pastor/s, or the God-selected lay members with the prophetic gift?

These questions can be broken down into simpler ones: what is true biblical authority, and how should it be exercised in the church?

The question of authority

On virtually all occasions where the words "authority" and "power" are used in the KJV New Testament, the translation is from exousia. The Greek exousia with these twin translations is used in the New Testament some one hundred times. Matthew uses the word with the meaning of "rights," as in, "The Son of man hath power on earth to for give sins" (Matt. 9:6); and with the meaning of "jurisdiction" as in, "I am a man under authority having soldiers under me..." (Matt. 8:9). John uses the word with the meaning of "liberty" as in, "I have power to lay it down [my life], and I have power to take it again" (John 10:8, emphasis added); and with the meaning of "prerogative" as in, "But as many as received him to them gave he power to become the sons of God" (1:12, emphasis added). Luke uses the word with the meaning of "energy" as in, "They were astonished at his doctrine for his word was with power" (Luke 4:32, emphasis added). Paul uses the word with the meaning of "the exercise of control" as in, "The husband hath not power of his own body" (1 Cor. 7:4, emphasis added); and with the meaning of "under another's control" as in, "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (6:12, emphasis added).

The New Testament usage of exousia suggests that "authority" may find expression in both disabling and enabling ways, in both crippling and in freeing ways. This reality introduces a discussion of the complexities and paradoxes often associated with "authority" in the church.

The historical roots of hierarchy

Kennedy and Charles posit that the notion of hierarchy can be traced back to the birthplace of Abraham Mesopotamia. 2 The priests of this city-state developed a sophisticated knowledge of the heavens and were deeply impressed by the mathematical precision of the heavenly bodies. Over time, the Sumerian priests made an impressive deduction: the order that the gods had established in the heavens was to be the model for society. Just as the earth lay unchallenged at the center of the universe, so the king should reign unchallenged at the center of society. That is, both the hierarchy in the heavens, seen in the planets and stars orbiting around the earth, and the hierarchy of members of society orbiting in their appointed paths around the king, were divinely ordained. Those deductions of 3,500 years ago continued essentially unchallenged for nearly three millennia; they constituted the corner stone of the long-accepted view of "the divine right of kings." Subsequent hierarchical arrangements in both church and society were the direct descendants of this thinking.

But hierarchy has fallen on hard times. Although it has taken time to slay the dragon that has abused so many, change is evident. The birth of this change can be traced to Copernicus, the first to prove that the earth did not occupy a privileged place at the center of the cosmos. He perceived that our part of the universe is "other" centered; we orbit the sun--not the sun us.

So just as a pre-Copernican way of thinking found expression in hierarchy, a post-Copernican way of thought led society gradually to accept an integrated, democratic, and interdependent conceptualization. The change led to the rejection of monarchy in secular society as it had existed for centuries, and a challenge in ecclesiastical life in England (with the actions of the much-married Henry VIII and the establishment of the Episcopal church), and in France with the rejection of Catholic leadership during the revolution. But these happenings were just beginnings.

The Roman Catholic authors of Authority note the influence of this changed way of thinking in their church. "The Roman Catholic Church grasped the problem of the age early in the century, perhaps in reaction to Pope Pius X's (1901-1909) excessively authoritarian rejection of the modern world through encyclicals and other measures he initiated to suppress the influence of 'Modernism' on church life. In Vatican Council II (1962-65), the Church responded by reorganizing it self, restoring the fundamentally non hierarchical collegial pattern established by Jesus Christ in his relationship with his apostles... "3

But then, as David Remnick is quoted as saying, Pope John Paul II (1978- ) has been "determined to re verse what he sees as the multiple crises of the Church principally, an erosion of moral purpose and obedience to hierarchical authority"4

The unending debate over the issue of authority illustrates how both secular and ecclesiastical society have wrestled with the new paradigm, sometimes unaware that this is in its essence a biblical issue. Indeed, we are beckoned to Scripture for understanding and resolution.

The biblical norm

Hierarchy has been inextricably intertwined with the abuse of power, of force, of the denial of freedom for the many and the control of a few. This abusive form of hierarchy is essentially immoral. By contrast, biblical authority is moral. It is rooted in love. It does not force, does not operate from top to bottom, and does not seek to be exclusive. Rather it is intrinsic, based on relationships, reaching out to facilitate inclusiveness.

Biblical authority is God-given. It enables people and frees them to grow and fulfill God's loving destiny for each individual, which in turn promotes the expansion of the kingdom of God. "Authority is not larger than life. It fits any really human life exactly. This kingdom of God lies within all healthy persons. Their lack of fame may be more an as set than a hindrance to their exercise of sensible authority. Such persons may seem outnumbered and beleaguered in a non-discriminating popular culture where good and bad, right and wrong, sense and nonsense, have been granted equal citizenship rights. Even so, the natural authority of ordinary people generates an effective, if not culturally celebrated, set of sensible standards."5

Such a vision of authority within each of us, bestowed by God, revealed in His Word, and quickened by His Spirit is the only organizational model that can carry out God's will. This view of authority can be found in the words of Jesus.

The servant/leader

One of the truly challenging constructs in the New Testament is Jesus' admonition to leaders that they be servants. From at least the time of Abraham, the hierarchical model of leadership had prevailed. Even in the Jewish community, the High Priest came to assume a highly political role worlds apart from the spiritual leadership initiated for this role at Sinai. Seeking to invert so many of the distorted views of God's will for individuals and communities, Jesus asserted that what had been taught and followed had to be superseded by a new paradigm.6 And considering the work of the yet-to-be- born Christian church, Jesus sought to establish a pyramid of leadership style, the opposite of the inverted pyramid style formulated in patriarch Abraham's homeland. Jesus said," 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority [katexousia] over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be come great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28, NIV).

"Servant/leader" is a widely recog nized expression in church and industry today. The modern coining of this nomenclature came from Robert Greenleaf in 1970. Greenleaf spent 40 years as an administrator at AT&T and then began another 25-year career as the head of the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership. Today some of the best-known names in writing and consulting lend their support to this concept, including Stephen Covey of The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, John Blanchard of The One Minute Manager, Peter Block of The Empowered Manager, and scores of others, the titans of consulting among the Fortune 500 companies.

An understanding of the servant-leader model is vitally important for vibrant church life. But be warned: it is antithetical to traditional hierarchical ways of thinking! Greenleaf summed up his understanding of how each of us can measure whether or not we are working within the paradigm: "Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"7 Those words are arresting enough when posed to a CEO, but they are even more arresting when applied to the leader of any segment of the church.

A commitment to hearing

Servant-leaders hear people's thoughts, including their dreams and fears. This is vastly different from being a good listener. Most leaders understand the importance of giving people the opportunity to speak. But that is not the same as being heard. To be heard in this sense means to be understood. It means especially an understanding of the most important thoughts in a person's heart which are often unspoken. It takes time, discipline, an accepting demeanor, and a perceptive ear to "hear" this way, to feel the hurt, to sense the pain, and to understand anger at a perceived or actual injustice.

Leaders with servant hearts are also keenly tuned to their own hearts. Do we "hear" ourselves talking? Are we aware of what our bodies are saying? The Body Speaks8 asserts that our bodies often offer us symptoms as expressions of the dilemmas in our lives. Our bodies have their own way of keeping score, of sending messages of hurt and the need for healing. But we have to "hear" the mes sages in order to act. And the longer we delay, the more serious the situation, until finally the unhearing often find themselves prostate and staring death in the face.

Burnout in clergy is all too common.9 But those who have learned to listen to their own hearts don't burn out. They hear themselves just as they hear others. They become masters of meditation. They have made a commitment to hearing. And as they hear their own spirits speak, they hear the voice of God. They accept the importance of the message and respond before irreparable damage is done. Self hearing and "other" hearing are two sides of the same precious coin.

A commitment to grow trust in the congregation

Another aspect of the servant-leader approach that facilitates biblical authority in church life is the vital process of developing an environment of trust. If there are low levels of trust in your church, how do things get done? The leadership tends to become autocratic. They give up asking questions; instead, they resort to giving directives. They cease to be collaborative, and soon distrust, and its progeny, diminished motivation, spread their ugliness like algae on a shallow, stagnating pond.

Covey asks what an organization looks like when there are low levels of trust, and he answers, in a word, "rigid." 10 When people in church settings don't feel free to act, to utilize their gifts based on opportunities that the Holy Spirit places in their personal way, the church begins to shrink and die. No church-planned program can be as successful as when all members are taking every opportunity to use their gifts to meet human need. Too many church-planned programs are desperate substitutes organized by church leaders because the members have not felt empowered to act and use their God-given gifts.

Trust is the foundation of a believing community which cares so much about souls that need to know Jesus as Savior that they create a light to guide the lost home. As Covey says: "I don't care how much you know until I know how much you care." 11 The servant-leader's creation of caring, trusting relationships facilitates the operation of biblical authority.

A less-anxious presence

A third issue in the development of biblical authority based on the servant-leader model is the invitation for a leader to be a less-anxious presence. The description "less-anxious" is in comparison with the anxiety level of the group the pastor is leading. The metaphor of a crucible is instructive. The crucible must have a greater tolerance to heat than the contents, otherwise, the contents will all be lost. Thus, being a less-anxious presence means being able to be calm in the presence of anxiety rather than being driven to fix things or to do something. The less-anxious presence remains fully connected with people in helpful ways in the midst of their anxiety. In this situation, people are freed to think more clearly and to act more responsibly as the whole system calms down.

In this process, servant-leaders model the life of faith for their members, not by telling them what to do but by showing the reality of the struggle for growth in the Christian life. They don't try to model perfection, they model process. The former is illustrated in the image of a minister with a smiling face seeking to hide an aching heart that struggles to give the appearance of unending success and continuous victory while hiding the realities of daily struggles and failures. The latter is enshrined in the minister who is willing to be vulnerable and authentic. This person is full of hope and wisdom and rooted in a trusting relationship with the Lord. This is a mode with which the members can identify and which they understand. This is the minister who knows from rich experience how to be calm and to exercise trust when faced with overwhelming burdens like conflict, divorce, disease, despair, and death. No broad smile can mask such experiences. The servant-leader knows it and doesn't try.

When the invulnerable pastor becomes anxious (which is frequently), it breeds anxiety and conflict. In contrast, when the leader is a less-anxious presence, anxiety is manageable. Defensive, perfectionistic, invulnerable people are invariably anxious people. They have much to be anxious about! But the struggle shows through the chinks in their armor. Few people are fooled as new waves of anxiety wash over the congregation. Only a less-anxious presence can create the setting for the free operation of biblical authority, which leads to a vibrant trusting congregation, and Kingdom growth.

As Richardson has written: "The leader's main job, through his or her way of being in the congregation, is to create an emotional atmosphere in which greater calmness exists to be a less-anxious presence. 'Knowing every thing' is not necessary to be a healthy, competent leader. When you can be a less-anxious presence, there is often enough experience and wisdom in the group for the group to figure out its own solutions to the challenges it faces." 12

These three elements are crucial for the implementation of the servant-leader model described by Jesus: leaders that truly hear their people; leaders that develop deep trust relationships with their people; and leaders that pursue being a less-anxious presence, modeling process (not perfection!) for their people.


What can we conclude about that "most misunderstood idea in America"?

First, a core of selfishness and self interest will always be enshrined in the hearts of each of us as long as we await the eschaton so biblical authority will always be implemented imperfectly. However, this is not a good reason to delay its implementation, for the alter native is as anti-Christian as anything could be authoritarianism, power play, and self-seeking.

Second, biblical authority must never be confused with hierarchy-based authoritarianism. They are at opposite ends of a continuum, two vastly contrasting styles of organizational life.

Third, to "use" power is an intrinsic attribute of authoritarianism and is always self-promoting. In contrast, love is the intrinsic attribute of biblical authority which seeks the interests, growth, and freedom of others not their control.

Fourth, if biblical authority is experienced in a local congregation by individuals with a variety of spiritual gifts such as leadership, pastoring, and prophecy, there is no need to fear conflict; this is the biblical model designed by God for organization in His body. According to His plan, the members will work collaboratively as fellow servants.

In the church setting, the member's "authority to act" is based on God's "commission to act." It is intrinsic with one's spiritual gifts. It does not lead to conflict but to harmony. Paul's metaphor in Romans, Corinthians, and Ephesians, where he elaborates the joyous operation of all God-given nurturing and outreach abilities, is that all gifts with their intrinsic authority to act come together in the church and form one truly integrated, collaborative, functioning body the indivisible body of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1. Eugene Kennedy and Sara Charles, Authority (NewYork: The Free Press, 1997).

2. Ibid., 7.

3. Ibid., 198.

4. Ibid., 199.

5. Ibid., 205.

6. See Matt. 5, 6.

7. Robert Greenleaf, in Insights on Leadership, Larry Spears, ed. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997), 19.

8. James Griffith and Melissa Elliott Griffith, The Body Speaks (New York: BasicBooks, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1994).

9. Jan Smuts van Rooyen (1997). "Discontinuance from the Ministry by Seventhday Adventist Ministers: A Qualitative Study." Andrews University, unpublished doctoral dissertation.

10. Steven Covey in Insights on Leadership, xvi.

11. Ibid.

12. Richardson, R. W. Creating a Healthier Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 173.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Roy Naden, Ed.D. {retired) is a professor of religious education at Andrews University. He lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

April 2000

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Empowering the Saints for Service and Ministry

Engaging and coordinating lay ministry

Integrity on Trial: A case study of Job

Seeing the essential message of Job in terms of integrity

Nurturing and Preserving New Converts

Ways of caring for newcomers after baptism

The Revelation, Inspiration, and Authority of Scripture

Alternative approaches to hermeneutical positions presented in previous Ministry articles

Church Discipline and Church Growth

A call for the conscientious implementation of an intentional plan for church discipline

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)