Authority Redux

[beginning of throat clearing] The bad thing about leaving no thought unpublished is that sometimes you get one out there that’s just flat or half-baked. The nice thing about thinking out loud in public, however, is that people can show you where you’re being half-baked or ill-reasoned.

Or, sometimes, you have thoughts that are going in the right direction, but you haven’t quite found the right way of laying out what’s going on. The conversation helps there, too.

It’s been that kind of week at Storied Theology. I’ll return to the creed versus narrative thing a bit later, I’m sure. [end of throat clearing]

But for today I want to revisit yesterday’s discussion of authority.

First of all, there’s one thing I said that I meant, and that continues to grow in significance to me as I think about authority in the church:

Because Jesus is risen from the dead, we can relax about authority.

Jesus has all authority, and while he may or may not choose to delegate that to certain persons at certain times or places, denying that any particular earthly manifestation of that authority is not an authority to which we should bow is not going to cause the Christian faith to come unglued.

Second, folks yesterday made an apt appeal to other first-generation Christians, including Paul. Well done.

Here’s the place where I find Paul compelling as a figure with authority: he returned, repeatedly, to a couple of dynamic indications that he was imbued with authority to speak for God:

  1. The experience of the Spirit in the people to whom he preached.
  2. His own embodiment of the suffering of Christ in the course of his ministry.
  3. The experience of the cross in the people to whom he preached.

Authority is important.

And, all authority in heaven and earth belongs to the Resurrected Crucified.

And, the Resurrected Crucified can give his authority to whomever he will.

Or not, as he will.

The problem with enshrining authority in a person or an institution is that it is virtually impossible to institutionalize cruciformity. The legitimation of a Christian’s authority coming from Christ is found in the renarration of the Christ story in the life of the person or community.

In the Gospels we do read of the disciples being charged to continue and extend the ministry of Jesus. Mark envisions that the Jesus community will replace the Temple as the house of prayer and place in which forgiveness is realized on earth. This is a manifestation of the presence and authority of Christ.

Similarly, Matthew’s locating of the authority of keys in (I’d say) the community is inseparable from the promises of Jesus to be present where two or more or gathered, to be “with you, always, until the end of the age.”

But that “with you,” itself, is not something that we can formalize or institutionalize. None of us wants to affirm that everything done in Christ’s name has had the Resurrected One’s authoritative approval.

There is safety and comfort to be found in giving authority to a fixed entity on earth: an office, a confession, a church.

But I question whether this is the safety and comfort that we’ve been promised: the safety of the firm hand of Christ holding us, the comfort of the presence of the Spirit who will, itself, lead us into all truth, comfort us in Jesus’ absence, work in us the work of the cross.

10 thoughts on “Authority Redux”

  1. Daniel, I’m very sympathetic with this point of view, and I think it addresses well the concerns we posted yesterday. I like the notion that “The legitimation of a Christian’s authority coming from Christ is found in the renarration of the Christ story in the life of the person or community.” However, I wonder how we discern the quality of that renarration. Do we have criteria? If so, how are they established and perpetuated? Does this not suggest some sort of body with some sort of normative authority? I would think so, though I don’t necessarily use the word “institution” to refer to it.

    I think the church does have inherent authority over individual Christians, but I think that is not so much church-as-institution (and I always think of “institutions” as entities having street addresses) as it is church as community around the world and throughout time. This is probably realized much more in the local context than the universal, but the universal matters especially in the political context. But that’s straying a bit. Suffice it here to say that Christ seems, biblically, to invest the church as his body with a measure of authority over individual disciples. However, I use “over” in a qualified manner, since I believe that authority to be held in common, subject to check and correction and change, and exercised by the leading of the Spirit in sometimes surprising ways. Above all, as you argue here, that authority is to be exercised in a cruciform manner at all times (which, of course, we find in all sorts of ecclesial and ecclesiastical contexts).

  2. “The problem with enshrining authority in a person or an institution is that it is virtually impossible to institutionalize cruciformity.”

    That’s THE point.
    very good. thanks.

    p.s.Did you ever read Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity? I think you would like it.

  3. And just to highlight a couple Matthean dots and connect them to what you were saying: The designation of Peter as the rock comes in response to his confession of Jesus as the Christ (authority is located in the confessing community), but it is a confession that only comes about by the work of God, and it only remains in understanding Christ rightly as the one who must suffer and be rejected and die and rise–to be unwilling to participate in a narrative that involves humiliation and death turns one from a foundational rock to the embodiment of God’s enemy, and Jesus will say “get behind me” not validate that authority.

  4. Is a family an institution? Can I have a Christian family?

    Isn’t the family one place where the NT indicates cruciformity is institutionalized (husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church?)

    1. good point.

      but I would argue that in this case, an institution (the family) is made “cruciformed” by the gospel.

      I think it’s different.

  5. Daniel, I have been challenged for some time now by the word “authority” in the NT. It literally means “out of existence”. Jesus’ authority wasn’t just some tool given to Him by God to influence the world. It was a natural ingredient in the life of Christ wasn’t it? When Paul preached Christ and Him crucified, he himself was as you say “the embodiment of the sufferings of Christ”. He therefore wasn’t only bearing witness to the historical Christ, but the Christ who was his own life as well. This to me is the only explanation as to why the verb “to preach the gospel” is always in the middle voice. You cannot truly preach a good news of the death and resurrection of Christ that you are not willing to participate in. It’s sort of like parents telling kids “do what I say, not what I do” isn’t it? Is this sounding a bit like creed and narrative again? What are your thoughts?

    1. Azion, I’d say we’re largely on the same page. I might say that Jesus’ authority is part of his everyday living out of the gospel rather than “natural ingredient,” but I think that’s me picking nits!

      The idea of a self-involved, enacted gospel is spot on, and definitely lies at the heart of what I’m hoping to reclaim with my narrative theology push.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.