Authority. Just mentioning the word in the context of religion conjures up images of manipulative TV evangelists, dictatorial Imams, and abusive priests.
Our instinctive allergy to religious authority may often be justified. Too often has religion become a means for charismatic individuals to satisfy their own lust for power, at the expense of their flocks. We do well to stay away from such corruption.
But although many Christian communities endorse oppression and tyranny through a framework of religious legalism, this is not the authentic Christian understanding of how authority works. For one thing, Christianity properly understood is not the daily performance of a set of propositions, legal tenets or rituals to appease a potentially vengeful God. Rather, Christianity is a loving encounter between us and God, in and through the man Jesus—born, crucified and raised from the dead.
The Christian understanding of authority flows directly from the Incarnation. God is indeed all-powerful and just, but His authority is not demonstrated in decrees, punishments and blessings from “on high.” Rather, He demonstrated His authority once and for all by emptying Himself in love, to submit to and serve His creation, even to the point of dying with it. In descending those depths of powerlessness on the Cross, He revealed the heights of everything he gave up to do so—all His power and glory as God.
As Saint Paul tells the Philippians, “[He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8)
Jesus’ self-emptying demonstrates the depths of God’s love for the world. At the same time, His identity as the Almighty God crucified in the flesh invests all human suffering and death with a profound depth and meaning that it did not possess before.
Permit me a little analogy here. Imagine Steven Harper arrived in Cranbrook one morning, took off his suit, threw on some overalls, and joined one of our waste disposal crews collecting garbage in the alleys. Assuming this was not some political photo op, this would be an incredible turn of events, don’t you think? Harper’s spontaneous act of service would demonstrate the best qualities for a leader of our nation.
At the same time, the startling fact of seeing a Prime Minister collecting garbage would also serve to highlight the quality and value of what our waste disposal crews do anonymously every week. The service gives value to the authority, and the authority ennobles the service.
Authority, then, is an essential part of what makes loving service to others real. All of us, Christian or not, have to deal with authority by virtue of being parents, older siblings, employers, managers, team leaders, or just adults. Whatever our issues may be with abuses of power inflicted upon us or the world around us, our challenge is not to reject the authority we possess, but to give meaning to it by serving and loving those for whom we are responsible, putting their needs before our own. To borrow the title of one Christian leader, we are to be “the servant of the servants of God.”
Without our loving service to others, our authority over them is mere egotism and tyranny. But without our authority, the meaning of service itself is lost and along with it, the meaning of love itself.