Posted by: dacalu | 5 January 2014


I’ve been giving some thought to questions of authority lately.  One of the challenges in our society over the last two decades has been a restructuring of authority.  These changes make it difficult for many to orient themselves in society.  They also allow new structures to arise.  Thus the uncertainty is both good and bad.

One of the common critiques of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has been the prevalence of hypocrisy.  That one word covers a variety of sins, but I think misuse of authority must be near the top.  Millenials share their parents’ distrust of authority but, unlike Boomers and Gen-Xers recognize that someone should be in charge.  They want power, responsibility, and appearance to be aligned.

In a previous post I suggested that “authority” constitutes a combination of “power over” and “responsibility for.”  Each of us wields power in a number of ways and we have a moral obligation to use that power responsibly.  Sometimes society recognizes a particular suite of powers and responsibilities and we create “authority figures.” An authority figure is someone we defer to, that is someone whose judgment we trust in a given situation, often over our own.  So we need to ask two questions:  To whom do we defer?  And when?

The authority figure I want to talk about today is a Christian minister, but in many ways, the same rules apply to other authorities as well.  There is a time and a place for deference but – and here is the key – there is also a time and a place for them to defer to someone else. We all want other people to defer to our judgment, so there is a strong temptation for authority figures to abuse their power.  This post is all about when deference is appropriate and just how far it should extend.

Ministers fill a number of roles in a community – teacher, prophet, representative, etc.  I would like to suggest that for each of these roles, the fundamental power/responsibility commitments stay the same.  For example, a teacher always has a responsibility to know before teaching and a representative has to accurately reflect the people she represents.  Confusion arises when ministers take up a new type of power, but only adhere to the old responsibilities.  Should a science teacher teach the objective truth or the common understanding of the community?  Should a congresswoman vote according to her knowledge or the will of the people she represents?  These are not always easy questions and they are harder when society changes the rules.  I think we have been slowly changing our expectations for the US Senate and Federal bench along exactly these lines, but that’s not the subject I want to talk about today.  I want to talk about Christian ministers.

I have read a couple posts recently about professional boundaries for pastors, and   while I sympathized with the issues they addressed, I also think they confused ideas of deference.  They represented a type of entitlement that my atheist friends had warned me about, but which I had not seen clearly before.  They represented Christian ministers who felt entitled to “serve” their communities in a particular way, either as the arbiter of truth, or the head of the community, or the master of ceremonies for a ritual.  They wanted their communities to defer to their judgment without being explicit about why they warranted that deference.

Along with many Millenials, I think these are rolls that really need to be filled by the appropriate person.  I believe in authority.  At the same time, I don’t think we have consensus as a society about who that person should be.  Nor do I think that the pastor of your local church is automatically that person in all cases.  The charge of hypocrisy rings true when the proper authority (the person with the best gifts) and the institutional authority (the person with the title or the job) are not the same and  the latter prevents the former from acting.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a range of authorities that may or may not apply in any given case.  For each type of authority there is a time and a place to defer, to step aside in favor of someone else.  I don’t believe that there is any level of authority that never defers.  (Even Paul went to James before preaching.  Even Jesus went to John to be baptized.)  I am a believer in giving people power to accomplish things, giving them responsibilities to limit that power, and giving different power to different people.  This is a guide to deference – when to step aside.


Personal Gifts

All of us have gifts.  Sometimes it comes from natural charm or intelligence.  Other times it comes from money or connections.  Even physical attractiveness can give us a surprising amount of power over others. We have a moral responsibility to use our talents not only for ourselves, but for the good of others.  Though we may not think this has to do with ministerial authority, it turns out to play an important role.  The gifts of teaching, leadership, and community building are often built on personal charisma.  The skills of learning and wisdom are often acquired by those with the resources to pursue an education.  There is nothing wrong with recognizing that personal gifts go into the making of a minister.

Difficulties arise precisely when personal gifts are passed off as personal authority.  Charisma (personal charm) can be used to counterfeit charism (divine gifts).  Intelligence can be used to counterfeit knowledge and wisdom.  Hypocrisy arises when we pretend that our personal gifts represent more than they actually do.  No one should defer to you on the basis of personal gifts.


Personal Authority

Personal authority is slightly different.  In this category I want to include those powers that can be held by an individual that come with individual responsibilities.

Teaching Authority comes about through study.  The acquisition of knowledge and skill obligates you to use that knowledge for the sake of others.  Along with that knowledge comes a just expectation that others will defer to you, with regard to the subject of your study…but only to the extent of your knowledge on the matter at hand.

Teachers must defer to those with greater knowledge or skill in the area in question.  This can be a hard one, particularly for pastors.  If it’s genuine knowledge, chances are someone out there knows more than you.  You have an obligation to direct your students to them if the opportunity arises, or at least to seek them out yourself and learn what you can.  Greater knowledge does not always come with greater teaching ability, but this should never be an excuse to shield your students from expertise.  The higher the pinnacle of expertise, the narrower, in any case.  Great experts will usually be great in a very specialized area.

Technical Authority also comes about through study, but reflects an ability to do rather than comprehend.  It can overlap heavily with teaching authority, but need not.  We often call upon technical authorities to accomplish a specific task, from plumbing to therapy.  As with teaching authority, there is an obligation to share your skills, but also a requirement of deference to those better able to do the job at hand.  When situations become difficult a surgeon readily defers to a more experienced surgeon, an engineer to a better-qualified engineer.  [This does not mean that the greater expert always steps in, only that when she does, the less qualified person steps out of the way.]

Priestly Authority historically comes about in individuals who have unique, or at least preferential, access to God – necessary intermediaries.  Christians have generally held that all baptized Christians are priests in this regard.  You need no intercessor except Jesus.  Thus a pastor should never claim priestly authority within the church.  Outside of Christianity, the rule would hold that priests should always defer to priests with better access.  This sort of thing happens with the power contests so popular with Old Testament prophets scaring off the priests of Baal, for example.

There is a related technical authority that has to do with talent and skill at facilitating rituals.  Because God cannot be compelled and because all Christians have equal access, it can be difficult to judge just what constitutes an “effective” ritual, but if the ritual accomplishes anything, there must be better and worse ways to pull it off.  If you claim technical authority in ritual, it’s worth thinking carefully about what you believe you are achieving. [If you don’t think the ritual accomplishes anything, you shouldn’t be doing it.]


Institutional Authority

Institutional Authority has to do with powers and responsibilities that come from membership and/or rank within a group.  It is more visible than personal authority, because it always comes with outward indicators (e.g., collar, robes, certificate), but it can also be less connected to real competence, because of its external character.

Delegated Authority occurs when someone in power sends you to perform a certain task or work with a certain group.  Technically vicars and deacons operate as delegates of the bishop diocesan.  Associate pastors act as delegates of the rector or senior pastor.  Delegates have a responsibility to accurately represent the interests of the sending authority.  [NB: It is entirely possible, if rare, for a sending authority to place complete faith in the person rather than an agenda.  In the Episcopal Church, delegates to General Convention represent their dioceses by voting their personal conscience.]

Delegates must yield to their sending authority.  A vicar must always defer to a bishop and an associate to a rector insofar as they are acting as a delegate.  This comes with two important caveats.  First, a vicar is not only a vicar; other authority may come to play.  Second, as with technical authority, the sending authority need not step in.  Indeed, wisdom suggests that she rarely do so.  Nonetheless, the rule stands.  Delegates defer to senders.

Some pastors consider themselves to be delegates of God rather than any earthly authority.  This is actually a form of priestly authority, in that you think you have been delegated in a way that other Christians have not.  It is a highly problematic claim within the framework of Christian theology.  I do think prophets arise on occasion, but it is terribly important to recognize that prophetic authority is independent of other types of authority.  It doesn’t shore up your position as a rector.  In fact, it is far more likely to undermine it.  Prophets are needed most in those times when earthly authority structures aren’t working, thus they usually conflict with institutional authority.  This doesn’t mean you can’t have both, just that if you do, they will likely be in conflict.  Hope, but don’t expect anyone to defer to prophetic authority, and recognize that it occurs rarely and with a very narrow focus.  [Some Episcopalians like to speak of “truth telling” as prophetic authority.  This falls under teaching authority in my scheme.]

Delegates often have power over a group or in a deliberating body on behalf of a third party. Received Authority happens when a group chooses you to lead them.  Elected office is the most common form of received authority in the modern world, but primogeniture and popular acclaim represent common historical examples.  Received authority is often received with express limitations imposed by the community – oaths of office, standards of conduct, etc.  Rectors receive their authority from the call of the parish and a vote by the vestry.  Bishops diocesan, likewise, receive their authority from the their dioceses.  Mind you, in both cases, part of the agreement involves a promise to abide by the rules of a larger organization, but the basic authority comes from the community.

If power comes from the community, then the community can also take it away.  Sometimes this happens through a formal process of impeachment or vote of no-confidence.  In other cases, authority simply dissolves because the people stop recognizing it. Received authorities must constantly re-negotiate deference with their communities.  For good and ill, you cannot expect the same level of deference from year to year and you should never expect the same level of deference as a previous incumbent.  Received authority must be earned on a continuous basis.  Just as trust grows and deepens in a friendship, so it must grow and deepen in a community.

Collective Authority comes about through the agreement of a group of authorities.  Often, as in the case of professional associations and guilds, we see a collection of teaching or technical authority.  At other times, we see people representing their families or their industry in a way that power and responsibility devolves to all members of the group in their interactions with the outside world.

In the case of collective authority, one must defer to the will of the collective.  Doctors and lawyers both have mechanisms in place by which the credentials of individuals are monitored – and occasionally revoked.


Trading Authority

Authority operates on the basis of trust.  Individuals and groups earn our trust by being consistent, just, and helpful.  They spend that trust every time they behave inconsistently, unjustly, or harmfully.  This becomes important when we start thinking about how our personal gifts and authority operate to finance the authority of others… and vice versa.  The trading of authority is especially clear in the case of professional associations.  Individual doctors shape our respect for doctors as a class.  Each time we visit a new internist, we carry our expectations, hopes, and disappointments from all of our previous doctors.  The church operates the same way, with the charisms and talents of ministers and members affecting the way the whole congregation is perceived.

For good and ill, we use these expectations to help us achieve our goals.  Just as was the case for personal gifts, there will be a temptation to over-represent our authority.  I think teaching authority is a powerful tool – for teaching.  I think it is hypocritical and dangerous to misrepresent teaching authority as priestly authority.  Knowledge and access to God are not the same thing.  We need to keep the different powers in their respective boxes so that we can always keep the respective responsibilities attached.

Pastors in particular, because they exercise power in so many ways, need to keep their responsibilities clear.  Each type of authority must be earned in its own way.   Each type of power, if exercised properly, must defer to someone else under the right circumstances.  Absolute power is not possible, but anything that comes close is deeply unhealthy.

Above all, no one is entitled to respect or deference.  They both come about through the exercise of authority with the demonstration of power and responsibility in its execution.  It is true that many people don’t get the respect they deserve, but only to the extent that everyone deserves a basic level of dignity.  Beyond that, personal authority must be earned and institutional authority must be granted.



I’d like to wrap up with a few practical rules to remember when exercising authority

1) Always figure out who you must defer to before asking deference from others.  It will stop you from over-reaching.

2) Power is something you have or don’t have.  People will defer or they will not.  There is no should.  Therefore, never complain about not having power; instead, work to get it.

3) Responsibility is the subjective part of authority.  It’s up to each individual (using discussion, prayer, and conscience) to negotiate the balance between expectations, abilities, and goals.

4) Power always comes with responsibility; responsibility doesn’t always come with power.

5) Any time institutional authority trumps personal authority, trust is lost.

6) Deference costs.  Any time you ask someone to go against their own best judgment you harm the relationship.

7) Deference leading to success strengthens a relationship like nothing else.  The greatest trust is earned when someone defers to your judgment and discovers they are happier for having done so.

8) Trust and deference decisions are not rational.  Frequently people will trust you more or less than they should.  The only advice I can offer is not to gamble with that trust.  Only accept as much deference in each area as you can reliably repay.




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