Authority is a dirty word in our current cultural moment, and perhaps even something of a joke. One need only think of that great American icon Eric Cartman1 and his constant injunction of “respect mah authoriteh!” to recognize the depths to which this concept has sunk in the public regard.
I had a friend in seminary who was accused of having a “problem with authority” when he insisted on being treated in a manner consistent with the student handbook, rather than according to the whims of a particular professor. The accuser may have had a point, but his story illustrates why this nine-letter word might as well have four: namely, the propensity for those who have or claim authority to abuse, distort, or interpret it for their own purposes. Speaking to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus observes that those in authority “lord it over [others], their great ones are tyrants over them” (20:25). His words ring as true in the twenty-first century as they did in the first. My guess is that all of us, at some point, have been victims of unjust, unkind authority, whether in our families, relationships, at school, at work or, God forbid, at church.
For these reasons, I confess some discomfort with the idea of authority, both my own and that of others. When my wife and I were first married, we had a running joke that when we found ourselves in a friendly disagreement, I would point a finger in the air and—in a constrained, Thurston Howell III-esque2 voice—shout “submit!,” riffing off of Paul’s infamous Ephesians 5 marital instruction.3 Thankfully, I never dared this gambit when the disagreement was anything less than trivial. Even in the context of a loving marriage, authority can feel dangerous.
When I first entered the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, I took part in a yearlong orientation that covered all manner of subjects related to ordained leadership. One of those classes was on priestly authority: what it means and how to use (and not use) it. That session made me uncomfortable. Over the course of my twenty years in ministry, I have often resisted the idea that I have authority and even sought, at times, to diffuse it—to let those under my care know I am “just a regular guy,” “one of them,” “the chief of sinners,” and all that. Some of this trepidation comes from my upbringing in the Northeast where, as one of my mentors once quipped, “It’s no longer safe to wear your collar in Borders.”4 When I worked as a church planter in New York City, I hardly ever wore my clericals; and on the few occasions when I did (usually for a funeral), I noticed a marked difference in how people looked (or often didn’t look) at me. Given the recent abuse scandals, I can’t say that I blame them.5 Some of my unease with authority also flows from a resistance to being put on a pedestal. I am, all platitudes aside, a broken sinner, a “jar of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7), or as D. T. Niles says, “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” Christian leaders have gotten themselves into heaps of trouble, both vocationally and personally, by claiming (implicitly or explicitly) to be better than they are, and I have no interest in falling into that snare. I am also a California Berkeley alum, where questioning authority is an expectation, obligation, and sport.
And yet the uncomfortable truth is that I do have authority, at least in Houston—perhaps imparted (I will save the ontological change debate of the priesthood for later or never), but definitely imputed. I am consistently shocked by just how much access my collar allows me.6 I can go anywhere, do just about anything. I would be an amazing assassin. People see me differently, no matter how many times I remind them of Jesus’ words to “call no man father” (Matt. 23:9), and I have had to learn to get comfortable with the authority that has been foisted upon me. Furthermore, I have discovered that my authority can be a force for good when wielded rightly, enabling me to speak comfort, forgiveness, and peace (that is, preach the gospel) into the lives of those under my care. So, all that being said, what does Jesus have to say about authority? Might it be something of a balm to men and women who have been used and abused by those in positions of earthly power, as well as a corrective to tyrants and a hope for pastors?
While officiating the Lord’s Supper (or, if you prefer, celebrating the Eucharist) at a recent weekday service, I was struck by the collect7 of the day, which was appointed for the Feast of St. James the Apostle:
O gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church that spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
This is the only collect in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer to include the word authority, and I was struck and encouraged by how that term was qualified and explained:
Pour out upon the leaders of your Church that spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority.
According to this prayer, authority flows from service and self-sacrifice alone. What a different concept of authority this is from our culture and, sadly, often our churches. This is a vision of authority to which I would gladly subscribe.
In John’s Gospel, the Greek word translated as “authority” (exousia) appears eight times in five different contexts. The first is John 1, where the evangelist writes that Jesus gives authority (often translated “power”) to those who receive him, who believe in his name. What kind of authority? To teach? Preach? Cast out demons? No, to “become children of God” (v. 12). Authority in this passage is a gift of status. Jesus gives us the authority to be loved and accepted, to be heirs, to have the same standing before God that he does, to put on his righteousness. It is not authority to do anything but simply to be.
In John 5, Jesus describes the authority given him by his Father—namely, the “authority to execute judgment” (v. 22). This is quite a claim, and his hearers must have been shocked, but Jesus doubles down in the verses that follow:
“Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear [my] voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (vv. 28–29)
These are terrifying words and must be read in light of John 3:17, where Jesus tells Nicodemus, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This rather more encouraging verse is reinforced in John 17:2, where Jesus prays that his Father has “given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”
A few chapters later, someone else will claim authority, “authority [again, often translated as “power”] to release, and authority to crucify.” But Jesus makes it clear to Pilate that his death will not be according to any earthly power but rather “from above” (19:10–11). The authority to kill and to die (and rise again!) lies only with Jesus and his Father.
This leaves one more passage, John 10, which is of utmost importance in understanding Jesus’ concept of authority in this Gospel:
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. . . . For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” (John 10:11, 14–15, 17–18 NASB)
The authority Jesus claims is not over others, to “lord it over them” (Matt. 20:25; Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25), but over himself—to lay down his life for the lives of his sheep. Jesus dispenses his authority in the exercise of sacrificial love. As he says in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, he came not to be served but to serve; not to use and manipulate people for his own gain, but to give his life for theirs. The authority Jesus claims in John’s Gospel stands in marked contrast to that of his opponents. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Romans used their authority to subjugate those “beneath” them—and ultimately to kill Jesus. Jesus demonstrates his authority by letting them, thus becoming a manifestation of God’s unthwartable love.
The divergence between Jesus’ and the world’s concept of authority (“right-handed power”) and Jesus’ (“left-handed power”) was explored in depth by the late Rev. Robert Farrar Capon in his indispensable book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. He is well worth quoting at length:
Direct, straight-line, intervening power [i.e. “right-handed” power] does, of course, have many uses. With it, you can lift the spaghetti from the plate to your mouth, wipe the sauce off your slacks, carry them to the dry cleaners, and perhaps even make enough money to ransom them back. Indeed, straight-line power (“use the force you need to get the result you want”) is responsible for almost everything that happens in the world. And the beauty of it is, it works. From removing the dust with a cloth to removing your enemy with a .45, it achieves its ends in sensible, effective, easily understood ways.
Unfortunately, it has a whopping limitation. If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight-line power becomes useless.
Left-handed power [on the other hand—hah!] . . . is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention. More than that, it is guaranteed to stop no determined evildoers whatsoever. It might, of course, touch and soften their hearts. But then again, it might not. It certainly didn’t for Jesus; and if you decide to use it, you should be quite clear that it probably won’t for you either. The only thing it does insure is that you will not—even after your chin has been bashed in—have made the mistake of closing any interpersonal doors from your side.
Which may not, at first glance, seem like much of a thing to insure, let alone like an exercise worthy of the name of power. But when you come to think of it, it is power—so much power, in fact, that it is the only thing in the world that evil can’t touch. God in Christ died forgiving. With the dead body of Jesus, he wedged open the door between himself and the world and said, “There! Just try and get me to take that back!” (18–19)
In reading the Gospel of John, one notices that the story of Jesus is something of a downward spiral. Verse one of chapter one begins with a glorious proclamation—an echo of Genesis but with a startling twist: “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” By chapter seven, Jesus (God) has been rejected by most of his disciples, including his own brothers, and accused of being demon possessed. In chapter fifteen, Jesus explains to his disciples why he is hated and why he will be persecuted. By the end of the Gospel, of course, he will have been rejected by all, tortured and killed. And yet the tragedy itself is a demonstration of Jesus’ authority—the authority to love, to forgive, to save, no matter what.
I remain deeply uncomfortable with and suspicious of earthly authority, its use and often abuse. But I find Jesus’ concept and practice both comforting and convicting. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus used his authority to make me a child of God, to grant me eternal life, to lay down his life for mine. He calls me to do the same—to dispense and demonstrate the authority he has given me through a spirit of self-denying service. That’s the kind of authority that even Cartman could respect.
The Rev. Rutger-Jan Heijmen (MDiv, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry) is the associate rector for Stewardship, Young Adult Ministries, and Harvey Relief at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. Previously, R-J was the founding and head minister of St. Paul’s Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the New York City area director of FOCUS (Fellowship of Christians in Universities and Schools). R-J is also the cohost of Mockingbird Ministry’s biweekly podcast, the Mockingcast.