Four Kinds of Authority

The Authority of the Bible, Part III: Imagining four ways we engage/experience authority.

(Still) Exploring the Idea of “Authority”

This series (read Part I here, Part II here) began when the hosts of the Desert Voices podcast asked me about my relationship to the “authority of the Bible.”

It got me thinking about the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, and then how evangelical traditions expanded upon that idea (mixed with heavy doses of the suggestion that the Bible is inerrant), creating a culture today where, for example, most conservative Christians believe that the Bible is an exact expression of the mind, heart, and intent of God, and in its original form is perfect and without error, therefore concluding that the only reasonable posture we ought have is one of submitting entirely to these ancient letters, poems, and stories as the final authority for all things in our life.

I know that last week I said that this week I’d share some of the ways in which the Bible remains (or rather, has re-emerged) an authoritative place in my life, but I think I need to tackle a couple more things first. 😬

So then, for today let’s get in to some of the ways in which a thing might (or might not) possess and exercise authority. Because if we’re going to make a claim such as, “the Bible has authority,” we need to clarify what kind of authority we’re talking about.

Acknowledging We Are Not God

Contrary to how people close to me might attest, I don’t actually think I know everything.

To be fair, I often live as though I do; pretending to have all the answers, gratuitously correcting people or “offering my input,” not acknowledging that I’ve learned something and instead just pretend like what, I’ve always known this?!

But even I, when I’m honest, realize I can’t deceive myself on this one.

My knowledge is limited,
my understanding skewed,
and I really don’t know as much as I used to think I did.

As a result of this honest self-assessment—in which it’s painfully clear to me that I’m not an expert in all things nor do I know the best course of action to take in any given moment—my only recourse (assuming I desire a life at least half worth living) is to look outside myself for the breadcrumbs of truth, goodness, and wisdom.

To put that in non-run-on-sentence terms: Other people are smarter and wiser than me, and I’d do well to listen.

Last week I shared a few of these “others” who have made a significant impact on my life through their wisdom. Part of that exercise was to practice naming how my life has been shaped and improved as a direct result of me acknowledging that I don’t know everything (and permitting wiser people to lead me), and the other part of that was to try and put some tangible hand-holds on to the idea of “authority” and what it can look like to submit oneself under said authority.

The gist of it is this:

To speak of the authority of something is to identify how a particular phenomenon (be it a person, law, idea, etc) occupies a position of premiere influence in a person’s life, so that it guides and corrects us as we move through the world.

I think this process involves

  • first, admitting we’re not God and don’t know everything,

  • then, acknowledging the power (or as Stephen Colbert might say, the “truthiness”) of a particular idea,

  • which leads to  an acceptance of its wisdom, and

  • finally, we place ourself under the idea/law/etc in a way that it has a meaningful influence and impact on how we live.

But even with all that said, the more I think about this the more I realize that within the realm of “things having authority,” or, “being under a thing’s authority,” I’m conscious of how that can play out in multiple different ways.

So let me try and flesh this out…

Four Kinds of Authority

As far as I see it, a thing can only be rightly considered authoritative if

  1. The source in question (be it a person or organization or document) has adequate power to exert authority, and

  2. The subjects under the source in question acquiesce to the claims of power.

If either of those conditions are absent I don’t see how we can reasonably use the word “authority.”

We need a source of authoritative power, and then we need those who accept/acquiesce to its authority.

But as I think this through more I’m conscious of how there are various ways in which such “authority” can be played out. Here’s a silly scenario to explain (and please, respond/comment/correct me, because I might be missing some key points here).

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If I walk in to a room full of people and announce, “Everyone here listen up! If you are right handed, go to this side of the room. Left handed folks, over here,” generally speaking one of four scenarios will happen (or a combination thereof, for the crowd might contain a variety of responses ).

  1. People hear me, but they ignore me. (Because who am I and why am I trying to organize the room according to handedness?)

  2. People hear me, acknowledge my request, and commence with the sorting, but they do so begrudgingly.

  3. People hear me, acknowledge my request, and commence with the sorting in a spirit of compliant agreeableness.

  4. People hear me, acknowledge my request, but actively resist, possibly even going to the opposite side in which I instructed! Meanies.

All four of these scenarios interact with the idea of authority, but they do so in different ways.

I’m thinking we call scenario one an example of “Impotent Authority.” In this case, no one accepts that I have any power to make such a demand. As a result, they move on with their life. You can’t reasonably say that “authority” is happening in such a scenario. If a tree makes a decree in the forest but no one’s around to comply, does it have “authority?” 

Scenario two I’ll call “Controlling Authority.” Here, people do what I ask, but not from a place of freedom. They might accept that I have power, and so they submit to my “authority,” but it’s done out of resentment or fear or misplaced loyalty. Hence the term, Authoritarian.

In scenario three (similar to two) the crowd accepts that I possess power (perhaps by nature of my position or title, or heck, maybe they all just know me and trust me), and so they’re ready and willing to capitulate. They recognize the source of my power, acquiesce to its influence, and in this way you could say I have exercised a sort of “Agreeable Authority” over them. They retain full autonomy, and, they willingly situate themselves under another person/idea/etc.

In the final scenario, again the people accept that I have power, and they acknowledge that I’m making an authoritative pronouncement, but they actively rebel against it. In this way, you could say I have zero authority over them because they are unwilling to come under it. Plainly put, I’ll call this, “Rejected Authority.” If a tree makes a decree in the forest, but all the other trees work together to chop it down, does it really have any “authority?”

The Bible’s Authority in a Person’s Life

Returning to the subject of the authority of the Bible, I now ask the question: What type of authority are we talking about? What sort of relationship do we have--if any at all--to the “authority” of the Bible?

If a person couldn’t care less what the Bible says, then obviously the “authority” of the Bible is impotent in their life. Non-existent.

If a person is like, okay, sure, the Bible seems to have some Divine origin, but I don’t care what it says, I’m doing my own thing, we might say they’re resistant to, or rejecting the authority of the Bible.

If a person does whatever the Bible says (or whatever someone tells them the Bible says they ought do) regardless of any other factors (such as, you know, their consent), we might say the Bible has a controlling authority in their life.

Finally, if a person accepts that the Bible has a legitimate power source behind it and this power is good (I’ll get to this next week... although, you’ve heard me say that before, huh... #sorrynotsorry), and they willingly submit to it for reasons absent force or guilt or control, then we might say the Bible has a kind of Agreeable Authority in their life.

In the event it’s not painfully obvious, I don’t believe anyone should be forced to submit to a sort of controlling authority of the Bible. This is both using it in the wrong way (the Bible is not a rule book intended to enforce various laws), and it is misusing it to rob people of their freedom.

Likewise, if people reject or resist submitting to the authority of the Bible, odds are it’s for good reason (and not just because the person in question wants to live a debaucherous life, as they’re often accused of). Rather, consider that some people resist submitting to the authority of the Bible because it has been used against them as a weapon of control or shame. Or because the words on the pages themselves seem to communicate (or sometimes just do outright communicate!) really harmful and hurtful things about/toward them.

A lot of people I know have walked away from the Bible as being an authoritative source in their life for very good reasons.

For me, I used to be controlled by the Bible (and in turn, controlled others with it).

Now, I resist some parts of it--maybe because I don’t accept those parts as credible, or, because they’re not good or wise or relevant--and other parts I freely and humbly consent to it as authoritative. Which, I promise, I will get to, although probably not next week. I think I need one more week to unpack this “authority” concept. Specifically, if we’re saying the Bible has authority, what is its source of power? And is that power good? And isn’t it more like God is our authority than the Bible?

To wrap up Part III, if we are going to talk about the “authority of the Bible,” I feel like it only makes sense and only is good if we are talking about an Agreeable Authority. Where the source (the Bible, or parts of the Bible) has legitimate and good power to it, and where the subjects willingly consent to its authority.

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”The Authority of the Bible” Series

Part 1: What is the “Authority of the Bible?”

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Part 2: What it Means to Be Under the “Authority” of Something

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Part 3: Four Ways We Engage with and Experience Authority

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Part 4: The Authoritative Source Must be Good

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Part 5: Does the Bible Interpret Itself?

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What Do You Think?

I truly am curious how this stuff is landing, and where you think I’m on to something and where you think I’m off.

For instance, in the comments to Part I a reader named Andrew was really challenging me to consider if I was conflating “sola scriptura” and “authority of the Bible.” And I think he’s right, I was/am. I’ve been grateful for my interaction with Andrew as I work through this stuff.

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