Last week my discipleship group was having a conversation about beavers of all things. One of my students said beavers were rodents, but I wasn’t so sure. Of course, everyone at the table pulled out their cell phones to look up the order classification of these mammals. Sure enough, he was right, as much as I hated that fact. Wikipedia, the all knowing authority on all things told us so. Encounters like this beg the question: who has authority? I thought nothing of my student pulling out his phone to check our accuracy. Theoretically, I have authority in the room simply because I’m the pastor or possibly because I’m the oldest person, with two degrees (although neither is in biology). However, without Wikipedia, which one of us would have been “right?” The student? (Who was actually correct about beavers being rodents by the way). Or me, the leader? (Who obviously needs to go back to a basic bio course.)
Authority in the past has been based on tradition, but today is authority commanded through knowledge? Or is it based in something else?
Looking at the locus of authority is by no means a new idea. Classes and addresses given by Iliff alum, author, and pastor of the coolest church in Denver, Nadia Bolz Weber, piqued my interest about authority in the age of Wikipedia. Authority, in case you were wondering, is the power or right to give orders, make decisions, or enforce obedience. See also, dominance, rule, command, and supremacy. Authority can be related to institutions like the church or a government. Yet more often than not, people are skeptical that institutions have authority simply based on their longevity. After all, institutions including the church are simply made up of human beings. Authority is also commanded from individuals. Doctors have credibility over medical matters. Plumbers have authority over the leaking faucet. Even then, these individuals cannot escape scrutiny from the overwhelming access to information available through Web MD or even a second opinion from another doctor or plumber. It seems that you can get anyone to agree with your opinion if you only search long and hard enough. Whether that is for a diagnosis, a cost estimate, or perhaps a certain belief. So again, I ask, who has authority and what is it based upon?
Though we don’t like to think about it, authority is about relationship. People and institutions cannot have authority without first having relationship. If you think about what makes for good relationships, the same tends to hold true for authority. Relationships are fostered by honesty, and brought down by lies. Relationships are kept thriving by asking and offering forgiveness. Relationships continue because of mutual love and support. When we think about the authority of the church today (specifically the UMC), are we basing that authority upon our relationships with people? Or is the church’s authority based upon its longstanding traditions, polity, or policies? Honestly, I think as an organization, the church has long felt the shift toward new understandings of authority, yet instead of trying to garner authority in other ways, we have continued to cling to what authority we have left because we are old, bureaucratic, and political.
In order to gain authority over a new generation where information is at their fingertips, the church and its pastors need to be relational. We cannot rely on our theology or connection, but instead we have to be honest, ask for forgiveness, admit mistakes, and love people. I learned this lesson the hard way, last semester.
I sat around a table with our students during a leadership team meeting and asked them for a minute of silence to think about the highs and lows of the semester. The students revolted… refusing to sit for a single minute in silence. Instead, they marched off to other rooms and other tasks, while I sat down visibly frustrated and not even slightly amused. When they returned, I kept stewing and went off about how frustrated I was. The students began recalling their highs and lows and when the question came back around to me, I surprised even myself by apologizing. I admitted that I should not have been mad at them and that I would try to take their distaste for silence into account next time. Immediately the dynamic shifted. I no longer was trying to have authority based on the nature of my position, but I had authority based on my relationship with them. I wasn’t above making mistakes or asking for forgiveness.
To answer my own question: everyone has the opportunity to have authority. Authority is ultimately based on authenticity. It means being true to you while being in a relationship with another person. It is this kind of authority our world so desperately needs. It is this kind of authority that Jesus embodied.