I have wanted to produce the authoritative guide to New Testament teaching on authority, and this is less a pun than an irony. Perhaps sometime I will produce a categorical, comprehensive analysis of each New Testament use of authority. For now: a working outline.
First, the reader should understand that my religious background has been what some might call libertine. It did not lack in corporeal punishment for moral infractions, but it certainly lacked in what is commonly preached as “spiritual authority.” My father was my behavioural authority and he taught me, more or less regularly, from the Bible, but he always emphasized that his spiritual teaching was not to be accepted just because of who he was to me. It is a person’s own conscience, he said, which the Holy Spirit uses to convict a person of sin and righteousness.
It was of course my father who introduced into my life a total rejection of the contemporary church organization, of a laity led by a pastor, a didactic one facing a passive many.
This is what I carried with me to the wide world. People may accuse me of merely carrying it still, of not holding close what I have never let go. I say it has been tested with fire, and as I clutch this sooty rag I am proud even of its scorched holes.
Take a look at one of those holes, here: there are several places in the New Testament where the authors use language which suggests that they will come and enforce their directives. The tone hints of a “By the power invested in me as Christ’s representative, I command you to submit to me!” type of confrontation, the sort of thing we can easily find church leaders doing today.
It is worth noting that such a scenario is never actually recorded. Peter “disciplined” the early church by observing. “Why did you lie to the Holy Spirit?” he asked Ananias and Sapphira. “You’re going to die for it,” he observed. And they did. He did not take the least credit for killing them, saying something like “Because you have lied, now I call on God to strike you dead!” His role bears a resemblence to Balaam’s donkey, as a passive witness to God’s impending judgement.
Paul’s confrontation with Peter is also a little different than we might have guessed. Paul stated the truth of the situation–the implication of his eating apart with the Jews–but he did not say “I command you to stop.” No; Peter’s own sense of shame would have compelled him to stop when his violation of the gospel was made plain. Can you even imagine him saying “That’s just your interpretation of the gospel; I’ll do what I think is right”?
The cornerstone of scriptural authority, in my understanding, is the declaration of the truth. Any child of God, when he sees people claiming the name of Christ who are clearly and grieviously distorting the message of Christ, must stand up and denounce that falsehood. Man, woman, or child, ordained or disdained, they have that obligation. (Of course, we most often want to publically denonce the most trivial issues, like length of hair or kind of music, which we ought to bring up in private if at all; when there is a serious sin we are like Aaron with the golden calf, afraid not to go along quietly.)
But what room does that leave for the positions of authority that Paul clearly speaks of in his writing, as well as other authors? What kind of authority can there be if anyone can stand up and say, “You are wrong!”?
To begin with, the person who stands and condemns is himself (or herself) responsible to leave that assembly if the rebuke is not heeded; either the correction is in order and is received by the authorities or it is rebellious, but the rebel leaves and the order of the church continues.
Still, the adament sense of personal responsibility that I grew up with leaves nothing for submission. If I believe differently on any issue, I can see how it affects the whole witness of Christ in some respect and hence is crucial; everyone must also see it my way, or there is a critical breach in fellowship.
Surely this is too much. Yet I don’t know how to describe any course of moderation that is true to the conviction within. Let me instead describe some examples of what I have already experienced.
In one church I visited, the women were not allowed to speak. I know where this comes from, a superficially obvious passage wherein Paul says “I do not permit a woman to speak.” But there are other passages by Paul where he says something more nuanced. Without making the whole argument here, I believe that Paul requires women to defer to men, so that when a point under discussion becomes contentious (as often happens), the woman does not fight for it.
I know what it is like to be convinced you are right and be denied the fair opportunity to prove it. I must say that it sometimes does rankle me that women are always called to submit. When they are right, it seems to me, they should be able to stand up for it just a rigorously as any man. But this again is a subject for another essay; suffice for now that there are many other things which also rankle me, and apply to me. We are longing for a new creation in which men and women will be “like the angels,” undifferentiated and equal in all senses; but that day is not here.
Still, as Christians our foremost duty is to shadow that kingdom to come, and part of what that entails is allowing the women to speak, because they too have the annointing of the Holy Spirit and can be his vessels of truth. To deny them any voice is to stifle the Spirit; it is fundamentally a silencing of the prophets. And indeed that church felt cold and silent, although the people were warm and friendly.
Ironically, the other example also concerns a woman, but it is here I feel I should have submitted in a way that I did not. The relationship that I had with this young woman I felt was fueling the most rapid and deep spiritual growth I had ever known. I felt convicted of my wrongdoing, but not morbidly guilty; I felt an admonishment of pure love. We were talking about marriage.
However, her family strongly opposed that, in part because I did not have any spiritual authority to which I was accountable. And I refused this, and also rejected her father’s desire to direct her path. I felt that she should be accountable to Christ for her decisions. I stand by that completely.
But everyone who has given me spiritual guidance in my family counciled me against this relationship. I have said that my father was against giving authoritative advice, and he did not; but he did express enough that I knew I was going beyond what he could commend. But I was sure this was a good thing in my life.
Since I still believe in personal responsibility, in doing what one believes is right before God regardless of other men’s opinions, it is hard to explain how I feel I went wrong here. Perhaps by way of counter-example, when the relationship began to end I felt a strong sense of certainty along with a sense of abysmal caution. I did not know for sure that my new conviction would end the relationship, but I sensed the potential. This was the opposite of what I had felt all along: a tiny sense that something could go wrong, that things were not beyond doubt, but towering optimism and hope.
These things cannot be laid out in mathematical formulas. They can only be learned, like the sense of balance needed to ride a bike. But in my life it has always been the rock-solid sense of what I must do in the face of terrible unpleasantness that has proven. Great measures of optimism and confidence have always fallen through.
If I ever have to do something like that again, I believe it may kill me.
What would submission have meant? Putting aside this wonderful thing I considered a blessing straight from heaven. It would not have required doing or witnessing anything against the gospel; only against the principle of doing what I think is right no matter what anyone says. It would have taken no sin against this young woman to set her outside of my life. I don’t know if any of my spiritual conselors would have even accepted my ceasing that relationship because of their concern, apart from any acknowledgement on my part that it was wrong. But I believe it would have been right, since it entailed no denial of my understanding of the gospel of Christ–only of what was going on in my own personal life.
The line still appears too marvelously fine for me to be surprised that I crossed it. But it has given me a new respect for spiritual authority, and I offer this as a guide: when you have learned spiritually from someone and respect their insight, you would do well to follow them first, and only depart when you have the sober and unpleasant thought that you might break your entire relationship with them, but you must because the righteousness of Christ demands it. I do not mean every social and personal contact with the person must be broken, Lord willing; I mean the backbone of the spiritual tutelage by which you have hitherto profited.
You might notice that my description of “spiritual authority” does not use the typical nomenclature of pastors, teachers, preachers, bishops, deacons, prebyters, and whatever else. I believe all of these and most other New Testament terms are meant to be used descriptively, not nominally. “Pastor” means shepherd, and describes someone who takes care of people. “Teacher” means teacher, and so forth. “Church” just means assembly; by context, an assembly of believers, but nothing with any particular organizational overtones such as the word “guild” has.
I don’t agree with a man receiving a title and then acting big enough to fill it. Let a man be called by his work–what he does, that is who he is. People should not avoid titles simply because they don’t feel capable of filling all the roles that are associated with it, without warrant, by contemporary churches. Neither should churches try to make sure they have one crayon of every color in their box. Not every church has or needs every gift. Let the things that God has not given be recognized as well as the things that he has.
But when someone has been your spiritual mentor, in deed if not designation, it is in your interest to heed them, and in theirs also. The grief that this person will feel watching you stray is not to be lightly regarded.
Their remains yet a second kind of authority mentioned in the New Testament, the authority of kings and slave owners. This is the authority of the world, power that a Christian is expected to respect and obey in any way that does not violate the conscience before Christ. These are the Roman centurions that Paul obeyed, that Christ himself obeyed. Our physical fathers wield a measure of this authority. But in all its forms this authority is wholly different than the spiritual authority used within the church. The church belongs to the coming kingdom that will supplant all forms of the current world’s power, including that of fathers, and within the church the only such ruling authority is Christ, present through his Holy Spirit.
Though this falls short of a defense, I hope it will serve as a profitable introduction to authority in the life of a Christian.