Authority, like many good things, can be perverted making it hard to use it in a positive, life giving way. Depending on what your life story is the very sound of this word can conjure negative connotations. Growing up in a communist country, I’ve been conditioned to associate authority first and foremost with oppression. As a result, I have a knee-jerk reaction of skepticism toward authority. Yet, over the years I found myself gravitating toward a regenerative stream of humanity that seeks to redeem things, to bring about the good in everything. Authority is on that list. It must be reclaimed.
If theology is an attempt to articulate truth, the question of authority seems to be an essential one because as soon as you start the quest for truth, you have to choose some kind of criteria to get to it. How do I find the truth? Who can help me with this? We just can’t do it alone. We need to rely on others to help us find the truth. In short, we’re inevitably placing ourselves under some kind of “authority”.
Now, for centuries in theology this authority has been placed in the sacred texts (in the Christian tradition, the Bible). The Scriptures have been defined as playing the role of special revelation. They are believed to be a window into the ultimate authority, God himself. As such it is the final authority. But is that so? Is that where authority really rests? Isn’t that a mere distraction and the real authority hidden accomplishing not so positive purposes?
Leaving aside for now the fact that the Scriptures have been written by people, like you and I, and not handwritten by God directly, the collection of books we now call the Bible have been hand-picked. We’re not going to get into the whole canon history, but we should know by now that the canonical texts were not the only religious writings circulated in the early days. This very fact points to a higher authority that determines what is and what is not supposed to be authoritative texts.
Then there’s the whole hermeneutical conundrum. Even after deciding what the canon is, we have various schools of theology so antagonistic to each other they could not, apparently, live faith together but split the church in three: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant. Then the Protestants who, ironically, beat their chest claiming Sola Scriptura, have split in more groups then probably any other religious tradition. Furthermore, each of these factions preach and act as if their understanding of the Bible is the orthodox one and everybody else is, obviously, in the wrong. If the Bible is the final authority then why is it so important to be interpreted in certain way? Doesn’t this reveal a higher authority being exercised in determining how we are to understand the Scriptures.
Whenever a religious tradition (Church, denomination, etc.) claims they follow the sacred texts (the Bible) ONLY and nothing else, what they actually mean is they follow ONLY their interpretation of the said text.
Now I am not saying that there’s something wrong with choosing a canon. That’s inevitable and necessary (even those speaking against the canon have their own). And I am not undermining the need to interpret the Scripture as that is the natural result of engaging seriously the sacred text. What I want to call out is this false submission to the Scripture, giving it a deceptive authority all the while hiding the real authority. Why don’t we just admit the highest authority is the Church, this way making her accountable in the way it has and continues to exercise her power. When the choices made are good they need to be celebrated and embraced, but when they are found to be anything but life giving, damaging the human fabric, they need to be called out, resisted and discouraged.
When an authority demands unquestionable, complete submission it lost its authority and became authoritarian.
I am not advocating for a secluded genre of spirituality, that the Church is wrong and so we need to abandon it all together. Far from this! I would be a hypocrite since I attend Church regularly and I am involved in her life. Plus, I really believe we have a better chance to find the truth in community than alone. We need authority! What I am saying is we must develop a healthy, more balanced understanding of authority and embrace the fact that there is no such a thing as absolute authority. When we choose to submit to a particular authority (BTW, we all do):
- We should respect those who submit to a different authority than we do and be open to learn from them.
- We should always submit cautiously, never offering total allegiance.
- Since there is no absolute authority, because all authority is ultimately human, all authority must be continually questioned.
May the Church take responsibility for the authority it plays. Let her own it, not hide it under some false pretense. May the Church employ her authority fulfilling her role in redeeming and healing this world, be an agent of change.
Now is your turn …