Q&A: Power and Authority

Q&A: Power and Authority

Q: Is there a "Christian" way to think about, and use, power and authority?

A: Models of church authority abound, from the Pope speaking to Roman Catholics "ex Cathedra," to the consensus model of Quakers. Culture today tends to push us toward the "Pastor-as-CEO" model. Before adopting it uncritically, we should ask, "Is this a biblical model?" On the surface, it may seem so. The Old Testament showcases kings and others with near absolute authority. Various New Testament writers instruct Christians to obey those in authority, in the state and in the church. We should take a closer look, however.

As with many questions, we need to answer a prior question first.

Since the church is people, we need to know how God views people.

When we understand Genesis 1 and 2, we can say with confidence God created people to be intrinsically equal, under God. Sin disrupted this, but Christ's redemption includes its restoration. (Among many texts teaching this, the most familiar may be Galatians 3:28.)

Modeling this restored brother-sister equality, under the Lordship of our Elder Brother Jesus, is one way the church demonstrates the amazing grace of God's redemption to a skeptical world.The Twin Principles: Inherently, by God's Creation, every human is our equal. Through Christ's redemption, every Christian is a child of God and, thus, our brother or sister.

In small groups, this often is not difficult to practice. Deciding which people are best for which positions and tasks, the group draws on their knowledge of each member. Working through issues, discussion continues until everyone knows all concerns have been addressed. For a variety of reasons we delegate many decisions to boards and committees in the local church, to District and General Boards and, ultimately, to the General Assembly.

How, then, do we practice equality within God's family in our distribution and use of power? While power is necessary and useful, it is critical that all who delegate and all who accept any power remember:

  • Power always is dangerous. Used carelessly, power always hurts people.
  • Power must be entrusted only to the trustworthy.
  • Power is not the privilege of one, or of a few.
  • Power is no one's permanent possession.
  • Power must be delegated for specific purposes, for a limited time.
  • Power must be exercised within strict, well-defined parameters.
  • Power must be exercised with clear, regular accountability.
  • Power is God's gift to the church. God expects us to use it wisely.

—jc

Q: How can I go deeper and get the most out of my Bible reading?

A: I just spent the last two years in a masters program, which required me to read a lot of books in a very short amount of time. For most assignments my goal was to master the text-read it, dissect it, and extract the relevant information I needed. This informational approach was very effective and highly appropriate for the work I was doing in graduate school.

However, as I reflect on the best way to read Holy Scripture, I have to conclude that my graduate student methodology is terribly inadequate. When reading God's Word, it is far more important for me to be mastered by the text, instead of the other way around. Unfortunately though, many of us in the modern day church find ourselves much more oriented towards an informational approach to Scripture rather than a formational approach. That is, we often find ourselves looking to the Scriptures primarily for scientific and historical truth rather than saving truth. We forget that our primary goal when reading Scripture is to allow us to be shaped and formed as a holy people. How did we get here?

Certainly the early church and early church fathers did not view Scripture from an informational perspective. For them, it was the spiritual sense of a passage that was only and always of primary importance. Some historians suggest that it was the Reformation that eventually led many Christians to dramatically change their approach to Scripture. The argument goes something like this: in their zeal to elevate God's Word to its proper authoritative status and to provide a much needed corrective to the excesses of Catholicism, the Reformers "threw out the baby with the bathwater."

For the Reformers, it was the literal meaning of Scripture that became the primary way of interpreting a passage and they began to lobby for a meaning that aligned with what the original author had intended to say. The Reformers' more literalistic approach was not drastically different from that taken by our theological heir, John Wesley.

Yet Wesley seemed to have held the literal meaning of a text much more loosely than the Reformers. He was not extreme in his quest to discern one clear, definite, authoritative meaning to a passage of Scripture but rather allowed for the fact that there might be ambiguity and mystery in Scripture. He allowed for the fact that some texts may never be clear to us. Further, although Wesley was as concerned to discover the literal meaning of Scripture and the original author's intent as the Reformers were, he was far more concerned to discover the God to which Scripture points. As with the early Church fathers, Wesley was concerned ultimately with Scripture's spiritual sense. So, what pathways might lead us back to reading Scripture in more formational ways in the present day?

First, it is important for us to bring back into play the relational aspects of reading Scripture. That is, we should view Scripture as the main tool that God uses to shape us into persons who can be in significant and meaningful relationship with Him and with others. Another dimension to this relational aspect of reading the Scriptures has to do with our openness to God's Spirit as we read. We must allow the Holy Spirit, who guided the writing of Scripture in the first place, to guide our own individual reading and understanding of the Word.

Wesley recommended "framing" all of our Scripture reading with prayer because when we begin our reading with a request for the Holy Spirit's help and illumination, we are more likely to understand who God is and what He expects from us. By framing all our Scripture reading with prayer, we begin to allow a synergy to happen between the Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and our own spirits. We begin to rely on the Spirit to illuminate the text for us and, ultimately, transform us through it.

Finally, we must continually strive to strike a healthy balance between the informational task of reading Scripture with the formational. As already stated above, for Wesley, reading the Bible for its literal meaning was not a negative thing. However, when reading and interpreting Scripture, Wesley would not allow his focus to remain on information alone. He believed that Scripture's main purpose was soteriological, to transform believers to become more like Christ. Ultimately, Wesley was concerned with the spiritual results of our Scripture reading. Who are we becoming as we read Scripture? Is it making a difference in our lives? In sum, are we being mastered by the text?

—dp

Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2007