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Authority--a word study

I had so much fun writing this for CPE I thought I'd share it with you. 

As long as I can recall, I've had "authority issues."  It was no surprise to receive word from the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist, and that they wanted me to work on issues of authority.  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of their request was that they perceived me as not "claiming my authority."  I did not receive instructions about needing to respect their authority, rather I needed assistance in learning to claim and own my very own authority as a pastor.  I came to CPE prepared to further explore my "authority issues."

The word, authority, originally has to do with the work of an author or master of some trade/education.  The word, author, needs some of its own exegetical work.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (crafted by Douglas Harper)[1] an author is one who fathers or masters a particular subject or thing and even "one who causes to grow."  Currently, one associates authorship with a book--the author should be well informed of her subject and thus is hopefully masterful/fully knowledgeable and experienced with her subject and hence then trustworthy.  Authority then should inspire others to trust--to trust in the words, advice, and/or creation of what is offered.  That authority comes from knowing and being well-versed, or even a creator of the particular subject of consideration.  As with most words and things--in and of itself it is innocuous and simply a thing to be used--how one uses that thing or word is what creates the stir--not the thing in and of itself.

Authors and authority should, at their best use, inspire trust and safety.  However, in my personal experiences I've known plenty of people who have claimed authority and used it in nefarious ways.  As a member of "Generation X" I have been indoctrinated into automatically distrusting those who loudly and proudly proclaim their authority.  I am part of a generation who grew up on scandals and the exposing of hypocrisy especially in religious and political arenas.  I learned early to "question authority."  Question authority I did and continue to do so.  I do not implicitly trust anyone, especially those who want to give proscriptions to myself and others.  And yet, I heard God's calling on my life and choose to follow that calling by giving myself over to the authorities of the church.  I long for their approval and am willing to give much of myself in order to receive it.

As a young child, the first authority figures in my life--my mother and father--were complex and complicated as we humans tend to be.  My father filled with anger and rage, fueled by intense emotions, expressed himself in both loving and terrifying moments.  There was little to trust--I trusted that there would be pain and tears to accompany his love.  My mother fled from his wrathful and jealous love, leaving me with him, trying to take comfort in the belief that he'd never hurt me and knowing that in doing so she protected the lives of her parents and herself.  There was little to trust--I trusted that I could rely only on myself.  I learned to take others with a grain of salt--to protect myself by intuiting others' emotions and what they wanted or expected me to do or say.  I learned not to trust.

The word authority grew from being an " invention, advice, opinion, influence, command"[2] from a creator/master/father/one who causes growth into something with "power to enforce obedience."[3]  Unfortunately, whenever we begin to believe that we have the answers or the right idea we also begin to believe that we must force others to go along if we can't persuade them by our tongues--this is part of our human brokenness, our wanting to be God.  Sometime in the 14th century we moved from an author who causes growth into an authority which can use force to get its way, to make others play by our rules.[4]

It is this enforcing where authority has gone wrong, lost its way.  Real authority is authority that is given out of trust and respect--it does not need to enforce.  Real authority is like love--it is freely received, it does not force.  Serious authority relies on trust, the inspiration that comes from the one who is able to cause growth.  Serious authority, the authority that inspires fear in all the fakers--all those who'd use force to get their way--does not need force, it is freely given and freely received.  This is the authority that is hard to embody, to incarnate.  This is the authority that I wish to live out in my personhood and in my ministry.  I reject authority that requires force or a voice (ala Cartman) squealing "Respect my authority!"

So how does this authority even begin to get lived out?  This authority begins with grace, humility, and love.  This is the kind of authority ministry requires--this authority that causes things to grow is exactly what the church needs, it's what we all need.  We've had enough of the authorities that put a stop to life, that demand, that command, that must be ordered.  We need authority that encourages trust, loyalty, and causes life to grow.

I hope to live out this authority in my ministry by listening to the people in my congregations as well as by having an ear to the community and hearing what those on the margins are saying and needing.  In these 9 months I've learned that the best use of my authority comes from remembering who I am, what my purpose is, and from whom it comes.  I have no need to enforce my authority on others, even when questioned.  Neither must I bow to those who question my authority, instead I remain calm and follow through on my purpose.  My authority cannot be taken away--it can only be freely accepted and freely given.

[1]  4/30/2011.  "Douglas Harper is a historian, author, journalist and lecturer based in Lancaster, Pa."  Harper also provides a list of his sources, more information on his biography and overall "checks out."
[2] 4/30/2011
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.  Supposedly this comes from the French!


Terri said…
Authority is a sticky wicket for women - how we own it and live into our authority. Some women express authority like men, but it doesn't really work for us to express authority as men do. Still, we have to own and proclaim our particular God-given, I think you have said this well. I hope others see it in you.

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