Here’s a question my brother Aaron asked via social media today.
“I’d suggest that rather than questioning authority we might do better to think about authority. Where does it come from? What is it for? Do you know anyone who wields it productively? What are the limits of obedience to authority? Why? What is the difference between authority and power? But don’t take my word for it…ask a question of your own!”
Aaron, great job starting a discussion on a very interesting topic.
I called him and we talked about it together particularly in light of my March 15 blog titled Family Values in which, as I told Aaron, “I excommunicated roughly half of the North American church.”
“Really? You did?” He said. “Under what authority?”
“Are you questioning my authority?” I said.
“No, I’m just asking a question,” he said. Ha ha, we laughed.
I explained the core concept of the blog to Aaron in a little more depth and then posed the question back to him, “where do you think I got the authority?” To which he replied, “your authority came from a revelation from God.”
Well, that means it is prophecy. As I begin now to exercise a prophetic voice more often, I was asking myself these questions, too.
I’d like to start out the discussion by saying I’m not an expert on authority, but my basic observation is that authority, in general (I’m not talking about spiritual authority) comes in one of two basic ways: via a vetting process or via a personality cult. In the above conversation with Aaron, there’s a particular vetting happening when someone else verifies “your revelation came from God.” Vetting is a HUGE part of the process of becoming an authority on something.
Aaron said, “Well, all those vying for president right now haven’t been vetted,” and I said, “No, they don’t have any authority yet. Authority goes in stages, from one stage to the next you’re vetted. For example, Kasich has the authority of the Governor of Ohio, so hes asking us as a nation to vet him to the next level.”
For another example, my authority in the field of life coaching was vetted from a third-party perspective at CCNI and they decided that the quality of my work deserves the credential (authority) at the CPCC level. This was a more stringent vetting process than simply earning a certificate from a training school. It took me seven years to get from the certificate to the credential. The next credential (Master Coach) might take another 10 years.
The flip side of vetting is the WRONG way to get authority. These guys are the political demagogues and personality-driven church leaders. Typically (if they attain any amount of authority that puts them in the public eye) they have a certain and very rare personal charisma. They can stay small and out of the public eye, leading a group of just a few hundred people, and yet even then when their downfall comes about often times the leader of even a group of only a dozen will end up in the public eye as their abuses come to light. When the authority comes from personal charisma, nobody’s holding you accountable to integrity.
Think about how Donald Trump got where he is today, asking the country to vet him in the election process. What political authority has he had before? None. His vetting process up to this point has been based on a personality cult he’s carefully constructed with a great deal of personal charisma and it has no particular basis in terms of integrity; based on all that, he’s very close now to getting a nomination (which still isn’t the authority of the Presidency). Kasich is pretty disgusted with this whole thing; he’s the governor of Ohio, he’s the candidate on the GOP side who’s held the most authority in a position similar to President. Why isn’t he the obvious next candidate for authority on the GOP side? An entertainment-driven society has deceived people into thinking that personal charisma is a reasonable way to become authoritative.
You see the same thing with Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Like his message or not, it’s been the same for 30 years and that means he’s speaking with integrity. When Hillary Clinton says “Where was he in 1993?” His campaign retorts “He was literally right behind you.” Clinton doesn’t look good when she tries attacking Sanders on issues of integrity. Let’s leave politics behind. I’m not an authority on politics. Ha ha.
What is the key characteristic that typically motivates those in authority over others to vet them up to the same level? I submit that it’s integrity. Promises fulfilled. When you’re given a certain level of authority and you fulfill your commitments and live a life of quiet integrity, people see there’s authority in that and they elevate you to the next level.
In a sense, it’s not terribly different from power, in the sense that Margaret Thatcher famously said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell someone that you are, you probably aren’t.” But there are differences, too.
So, where your authority comes from is not how you lead into a discussion. You state what you have to say. Jesus did this. “He spoke as one with authority.” Then, if people ask “where did you get your authority” (and they will) you can tell them. I don’t start a coaching pitch by saying, “I’ve got a CPCC with CCNI” partly because people are going to say “so what” (not because CCNI isn’t an authoritative body, but because they may not have ever heard of it). That won’t work partly because that’s a weak opening statement compared with, say, for example, asking a great coaching question that shows I’m a lady … um, wait, I mean, shows I know what I’m doing as a coach. A powerful use of authority assumes you have it.
The thing about questioning authority, then, is really asking “Does this authority have the integrity needed to maintain their authority?” and sometimes the answer is NO!
Should we question authority? Sure, we should. Aaron did it to me. He said he wasn’t, but really in his question “what authority do you have to excommunicate half the church?” is implied that we need to know where the authority comes from, we want to know if you have the integrity to carry that authority, and we want to keep checking in on that from time to time.
A really good leader doesn’t need to be questioned too often. Follow 90% and question 10% seems to be a rule of thumb that comes to my head. The whole political discussion isn’t to pick sides here, it’s really to illustrate what needs to happen in our churches (that’s the realm I have a lot more authority to speak to) which is this: once we’ve decided to put someone in a position of authority, we need to follow them. We get to expect that they are accountable, and we do not have to be their accountability partner, coach or mentor or overseer. In fact, it is best if we are not functioning in that role if they are also our pastor.
Does that mean we should never question their decisions? Or their integrity? Or their authority? Of course not. But why would we put someone in a position of authority if we didn’t vet them for a measure of integrity in the first place?