I am Also Under Authority
Like many of you, I was raised in a time when the culture said “Question Authority.” (The culture was pleased to put that injunction on a bumper sticker.) It was and remains everywhere, the sense that authority is oppressive, and that to become a full human being we must throw off authority and assert our individuality.
This view is just false. If you are forever questioning authority, you won’t become a full human being. The reason is that to flourish we must cooperate with other people in lots of things, and cooperation always involves a recognition that we live and move within environments that are marked by authority.
Authority is not about one person forcing his will upon others. It is, rather, an essential part of our achieving common goods. If you are a musician, and you want to play in an orchestra, you must submit to the direction of the conductor. If all you do is question her, the conductor’s, authority, you will never get around to playing the music. I’ve written about this in my book, Up with Authority, for which my publisher found a perfect cover picture: a conductor in a polo shirt, baton in one hand, his other reaching out towards you in a commanding way. The conductor is saying, in effect, follow me and you will find your fulfilment as a musician.
Jesus says, in effect, follow me and you will find your fulfilment as a human being.
Saint Luke gives us a remarkable account of the recognition of Jesus’ authority. It comes from a centurion whose had a sick servant near death. The servant sent word to Jesus to ask him to cure his dear servant. Jesus sets off to visit him, whereupon the centurion sends further word. You don’t need to visit me, he says to Jesus; I know you can heal without coming to me. The centurion is not seeking to witness some miraculous display of power. But note his words: they are amazing! I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
The centurion describes himself as “set under authority,” and it is because he is under authority that he is able to speak authoritatively, to issue commands that are effective. He doesn’t say he “has” authority or that he “has been given” authority; he says he is “under” it.
Authority, in truth, is dynamic, multidimensional, flowing up and down. No one is simply an authority wielding power; everyone is potentially an authority because he is also under authority.
This is what Jesus wants for all humanity: for us to flourish. When that happens, we recognize his authority above all else, and join the choir of heaven to offer him praise.
I will be speaking more particularly about the exercise of authority when I give the Fall Theology Lecture on Sunday, October 22. Specifically, because I think they make interesting examples, I will look at authority as exercised in the church by clergy, and also at authority in sport: the various sorts of authority exercised by referees, coaches, and players. I think you are likely to find this interesting also, and I would love to see you. The lecture will be at 6 p.m. at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas, in the church itself. There will be time for questions, and a reception will follow.
Out & About. This Saturday, October 7, I will speak to the OMGs (“Outrageously Mature Group”) at Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville, Texas; the program runs from 9 a.m. to noon. The topic is: Your future is greater than your past.
Sunday, October 8, I will be preaching at the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services at All Saints’ Church in Phoenix. At 10 a.m. I will be teaching on caregiving and suffering, with reflections drawn from Losing Susan.