By what authority?

By What Authority

23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Matthew 21:23-32, NRSV

There are several things one might find quite interesting about my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. One of them is that I have authority issues. In fact, all of my heroes are people who had issues with authority. People like Saint Francis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mohandas Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (And let us not forget that they learned from Jesus, since even Jesus had issues with authority.)

Indeed, the Bible is filled with stories of people whose faith called them to challenge authority. This may come as a shock for most people. As Ted Grimsrud says, “It is one of the great ironies—nay, I’ll say tragedies—of history that the Bible so often has been seen to be on the side of people in power.” I love Ted’s blog, Peace Theology. And in his Question Authority post he says the following:

The Bible tells us that people in power from Pharaoh in Exodus down to the kings of the earth in Revelation often abuse their authority, often damage people and societies, often even act against their own best interests. That’s what power all too often does to people—it bamboozles them.

The issue is not that authority is always bad. It’s just that authority is so easy to abuse, so easily used to push people down rather than to build them up. Often, even most of the time in my experience as a Christian, religious authority is used in ways that are contrary to the gospel. The story of Jesus’ interactions with authority gives us some clear examples of positive and negative uses of authority. As followers of Jesus who take the gospel message seriously, we should be paying close attention to the issues of authority that get raised in the gospel narratives. Jesus’ interactions with religious authority, especially as it is described here in this passage from Matthew 21, is a great place to start.

The passage says that the chief priests and the elders came to him and asked him, “who gave you this authority?” There are two things that can be seen here. First, Jesus is preaching and teaching with a strong sense of authority. Second, the kind of authority Jesus is using is in conflict with the authority of the chief priests and the elders.

Brian Capper, a British scholar who takes a social-scientific approach to his reading of the New Testament, in a paper a little while back explained the difference between the authority of the religious leaders and the authority of Jesus. The first kind of authority, Capper explains, is that of the institutional elite. Jesus’ authority, on the other hand, is that of a virtuoso eliteI’ll let Capper explain the difference.

In sociological perspective, groupings of people are usually led by elites. The elite may be sociologically defined in two ways. From one perspective, the elite are those who de jure occupy the positions of highest authority within a social grouping or organization. Yet from a different perspective, the elite may be understood as those who have attained the highest levels in the group’s most respected and valued activities. What might be termed the “institutional elite” carry the greatest formal authority, while those who might be called the “skill-and-achievement-elite”, or the virtuoso elite, exemplify the group’s highest values and may represent important de facto authority for many in the group and sometimes inconvenient competition for its formal leadership.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Latin legal phrases de facto and de jure, let me briefly explain. De jure leadership is defined by formal law and is handed down procedurally through some institutional process, while de facto leadership is informal, carrying a weight of authority that is often organic. For instance, here in our United Methodist denominational structure, a pastor may be appointed by an Annual Conference and, thus, might have de jure authority. But the congregation may be more concerned with the opinions of a matriarch or patriarch who have been around for many, many years. When these voices come in conflict, that is when de jure authority must rely on some kind of coercive, hierarchical system in order to put weight behind their decisions.

What is important for us to notice is that Jesus taught with authority, but this authority was not given to him through a formal, institutional structure. He did not get granted the right to be a Rabbi by the synagogue leaders. As Luke 13 tells it, when Jesus began teaching in the synagogue in his home town, they kicked him out and told him never to come back. Everywhere he went, those who had been given authority through institutional means were threatened by his teachings. Jesus’ authority was that of a virtuoso. He did not need to rely on formal authority to preach about the Kingdom of God. When he spoke, people knew they were hearing the truth.

That brings me back to the reason I have authority issues, especially with religious authorities. There is a difference between speaking the truth of God and speaking the truth for God. Those who speak the truth for God point to their own authority. And I think the point is all about agency. When we speak the truth of God, we give agency to others. We empower others. This kind of authority helps others see what they are capable of. It gives them the motivation to get up and go beyond what they had previously thought was possible. When someone speaks for God, they take away agency. And this is why institutional forms of authority can be so dangerous. This kind of authority points its fingers at you and says, “You can’t do this. I am in charge. Do as I say because God is on my side.” But this kind of authority looks only to those in charge. It does not look to God. When someone leads by pointing fingers and reminding you of their authority, and their leadership does not bear the fruits of empowering others, this kind of authority should always be questioned.

False leaders show their authority by making others feel like they are the only ones capable of leading. But real leaders, leaders who speak the truths of God rather than speaking for God, show their authority when others can say, “If God can do something great with their life, God can do something great with mine too.”

Jesus’ leadership called other kinds of authority into question. People questioned his authority all throughout. When those who had previously been disempowered questioned his authority, it resulted in awe and wonder. When the institutional elites questioned his authority, it resulted in ridicule and, eventually, in crucifixion. They were two very different ways of asking the question, “Who is this man?”

When I first became a Christian, it was due in large part to coming in contact with the teachings of Brennan Manning and the Ragamuffin Gospel. Up to that time, I had never heard the real truths of the gospel. It was a voice that said, “Hey you! You’re broken and hurting. The voices around you tell you that you don’t measure up. But let me tell you, God doesn’t think about you that way!” Until that point, I thought all religious people were abusive fanatics. But here, I heard the voice of empowerment, calling me to stand up, dust myself off, and begin to believe in myself again.

When I say that the Bible, that the teachings of Jesus, that the Gospel, calls us to question authority, I do not mean to advocate violence, or pumping one’s fist in the air in fits of destructive rage. What I mean is that God is for you, not against you. That God’s authority is empowering. As Gandhi said, “Moral authority is never retained by any attempt to hold on to it. It comes without seeking and is retained without effort.” Contrary to what happens when we speak the truth for God, God’s truth has a power all its own. When we speak the truth of God, it doesn’t need to be defended.  Maybe from this following example you can see more clearly what I mean. It is an example of someone who, like me, fell in love with the Ragamuffin Gospel: Rich Mullins.

Rich Mullins was a fantastic and prophetic Christian singer/songwriter in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He wrote hits like “Awesome God,” and

Michael Koch as Rich Mullins in the new Ragamuffin movie.

Amy Grant’s hit “Sing Praise to the Lord.” A movie just came out that tells his story, aptly titled Ragamuffin. At one point, Rich Mullins and the band are getting ready to play for a preacher who orders them to shape up and put on their shoes. He explains that he is going to preach on holiness, and he wants them to play something that really drives his message home. In his sermon, this preacher says, “If you’re going to get serious about your faith, you need to look at this [Bible] like a rule book. It has the dos and the don’ts. Are you going to choose the dos? Or will you choose the don’ts?… As [Rich Mullins’s Band] comes up to close us in song, I want to leave you with this question: Would Christ be proud of you?”

As the preacher leaves Rich to play the closing song, Rich is there at the piano, barefooted, with his long hair in his eyes, rubbing his scruffy beard. And Rich responds by explaining that the entire Gospel can be summed up, not as a list of dos and don’ts, but in the words of the song, “Jesus Loves Me.”

In conclusion, I will just confess that authority is tricky. Real, godly authority is needed to help us stay accountable, to keep us on track. But godly authority, the kind of authority with which Jesus preached, is also empowering. It doesn’t need to speak for God. Rather, it connects you to the truth that God has been speaking all along. Godly authority is needed. But any authority that claims to speak for God should always be held suspect. And, when the truth is spoken, those who speak the truth of God will always do it with the acknowledgement that they are merely human. That all of us, even when we are doing our best to follow Jesus, can get it wrong. And, I think, it will sound a lot less like that preacher and more like how Rich Mullins responded.

I never understood why going to church made you a hypocrite either, because nobody goes to church because they’re perfect. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go. You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning. Every time you go to church, you’re confessing again to yourself, to your family, to the people you pass on the way there, to the people who will greet you there, that you don’t have it all together. And that you need their support. You need their direction. You need some accountability, you need some help.

— Rich Mullins

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Miller says:

    Hi Michael,

    What’s going on with the above four replies? They don’t make sense. Maybe some editing is necessary?

    There’s another version of the Capper piece you cite called “How Did Jesus Help the Poor?…” It’s in Capper’s academia.edu slot.

    Your citation from him made me think: Is it that when the truly virtuous speak they simply to carry authority? And why would that be, theologically – because truth and goodness carry authority since they are of God?

    Steve Miller

  2. Thanks Steve…

    About the comments, I have absolutely no clue where they came from. They must have been automatically generated. I will have to figure that out.

    Thanks for the question.

    I think on a basic, sociological level, the “skill-and-achievement-elite”, or the virtuoso elite, are not necessarily the “truly virtuous.” They simply gain authority indirectly, outside of the formal institutional structures, because they exemplify the group or population’s values. The example that often comes to mind is from the movie Good Will Hunting. The academic has institutional authority, but Will’s abilities allowed him to exercise a sense of de facto authority–even with his lack of a formal education.

    Theologically, I would start with two things as given. (1) God is alive and active, and that (2) ourselves and the world we live in are part of God’s good creation. From that, I would conclude that all of us have been given an equal access and ability to interact with God. Of course, there are differences of intelligence and experience, but that only changes the means of interaction, it does not necessarily change the quality. On two levels, our interactions with God have been problematized. (A) On the first level is rebellion. In every facet of life and on every level, humans have been developed into a world in rebellion. This means that our habits and values, our cultures and our languages, our very ways of being in the world, are often based on attempts to be gods rather than to be in relation with God. (B) On the second level, this rebellion works by erasing or undermining the dignity of every other creature. This leads to two basic options for humans, either (a) we hear the voice of the world calling us and take up the task of trying to be god, or (b) we hear the world seeking to undermine our dignity, so we come to believe we are worthless. And so sin works itself out in these two basic forms of rebellion.

    If Jesus’ authority had been institutional, that would have affirmed the dignity of whatever institution that authorized him. Instead, Jesus’ authority came by way of first, rebuking the authorities’ participations in the rebellion (not A) and their practices of undermining the dignity of others (not B), and by undercutting the self-deified (not a) and affirming the value of the downtrodden (not b).

    In the end, de facto authority does not necessarily mean divinely authorized. There are many ways that humans have adopted forms of living and being that are antithetical to the kingdom of God. So their broken value systems based on (A) the world in rebellion may cause them to lionize or deify (a) individuals or institutions ascribing to them a sense of de facto authority, but not a godly authority.

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