Spiritual Authority (1984)

by Hal Miller


Scripture says, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account." At least that's the way the NIV translation renders Hebrews 13:17. The body of Christ at present seems to be quite involved with the problem this text raises, for if leaders have spiritual authority the way in which they function becomes very important to the shape of church life.

How has this problem arisen? A pair of reactions to the situation of the church seems to be involved. On the one hand, some people look at the admittedly sad state of affairs in American Christianity and notice that people aren't following the truth. Everyone is out there doing their own Christian thing, often in ways that are counter-productive or downright harmful. Everyone is doing "what seems right in their own eyes" with little apparent sensitivity to Christ the Lord.

Some respond to this situation by emphasizing the obvious - the Bible teaches a role of "authority" among God's people. In the Old Testament there are kings and priests, and in the New Testament there are apostles and elders. Clearly, God wants people under authority, following after specified leaders. Often, this teaching focuses on the concept of "headship": every person is answerable to someone else for direction in his or her life. A wife's head is her husband, a husband's head is his elder, an elder's head is his overseer (perhaps), an overseer's head is (presumably) Christ, and Christ's head is God. The church is one long chain of command, not unlike an army in its organization.

Leaving aside for the moment how much of this, if any, is true, we need to notice that there is also another reaction - a reaction to this reaction. Some (other) people either see or are victims of the excesses of the "headship" theory. They recognize the horrors of authoritarianism: the way it keeps Christians in spiritual infancy, or worse the way it misleads them into false understandings of truth (as in the cults). They see the way that genuinely good men can injure the people of God, ostensibly for the best of motives, simply because their authority (and with it their fallenness) is unchecked. They respond to these excesses by pulling back from any notion of spiritual authority into a new version of "lone ranger Christianity" which reaffirms the autonomy of the individual believer. Their reaction ("do your own thing") to the reaction ("headship") puts us back to the other extreme, where the problem began.

The Inescapability of Spiritual Authority

Sad to say, though, the autonomy of "lone ranger Christianity" is impossible. When people try to reject spiritual authority what they actually do is reject only explicit spiritual authorities, the ones which seem obvious to them. The result of this is not autonomy but unconscious subjection to less obvious spiritual authorities. Usually, these are the covert ideologies of their society (in our case things like consumerism, goal-orientation, and objectivity). Let me try to explain why this is so.

It is important to notice that spiritual authority is a reality; it cannot be avoided by pretending it is not there. In order to appreciate its reality, however, you must realize what a many-shaped thing it is. Spiritual authority is not necessarily good (in a moral sense); it can be either good or bad. Furthermore, spiritual authority need not be religious in its tone; it can be explicitly secular and still function as spiritual authority. Spiritual authority is there in any force which people allow to mould their lives. It gives people cues about what is important and what is not. It orients a person's life to some ends rather than others. In short, this authority forms people's spirits and so is "spiritual" whether it is good or bad, secular or religious.

If you examine your own experience, you will see that you have spiritual authorities, just as does every other human being. To take an example, we have a profound capacity for finding "mentors," people whom we wish to emulate. In our culture generally, people find their spiritual authorities in movie or TV characters, or in athletes, or in musicians. If you read a lot, you find that certain authors take on authority; you begin to believe what they say because of who is saying it rather than because of what they are saying.

Sometimes, it is easy to confuse spiritual authority with intellectual authority, especially because we are so enamored with "experts." The two, however, are different. If your spiritual authorities are authors (as many of mine are), it is possible to fool yourself into thinking that spiritual authority can be reduced to intellectual authority. Yet if you attend closely to the way you relate yourself to various authors, you find that after a while you are biased toward believing some, and biased toward doubting others. This bias should clue you that something besides a mere digestion of information is happening.

Take someone like John Calvin, who is a spiritual authority for many people, including me. When I read him, I find myself biased toward believing what he says, not necessarily because I can judge it to be true but just because he said it. St. John, after all, is a formidable character to disagree with. Examining his ideas, however, may lead me into disagreement with him, even though I was biased to agree with him initially. This bias is an indicator of his spiritual authority.

Still, it is not true that spiritual and intellectual authority are unrelated. One reason I am biased to believe Calvin is that I have grown to trust him because he has told me truth in the past. Now, however, he has authority of a different kind as well - spiritual authority. I allow him much greater play with my thoughts and life than I would if I saw him as a mere purveyor of information.

Yet this very relationship between spiritual and intellectual authority is what makes their confusion dangerous. Scientists or physicians, for example, might have intellectual authority. They are expert in certain specific fields of knowledge, and so can be referred to as "authorities" on geophysics, immunology, or inorganic chemistry. Yet because of our tendency to invest intellectual authorities with spiritual authority, their opinions carry weight when they speak on things far outside their expertise. What do scientists know about theology? Usually, nothing - or less. Why then do their theological opinions (or lack of them) carry weight for us? The only reason is that their intellectual authority (in a specific area) transmutes into a spiritual authority; they become thought-leaders.

In any case, spiritual authority is an unavoidable part of our lives. We want to think of ourselves as independent, rational creatures - and to an extent we are. But that is not all we are. We also place ourselves under the influence of spiritual authorities, whether earthly or heavenly. This submission can be good or bad, but it is surely a fact. Ignoring it will not make it go away.

These spiritual authorities are the ones whom we allow to mould our lives. If "Saturday Night Live" is your spiritual authority, it will give your life a bitter edge. John Wayne gives it a swaggering confidence. Hunter S. Thompson gives it a nihilistic undercurrent, and Tammy Wynette a bluesy mistrust. Depending on which of them functions as a spiritual authority for a given individual, that individual's reality will be modified by their influence. Such people and their works form and flavor our lives.

This may seem to be saying merely that we are all influenced in various ways by various people and things. And that is true, so far as it goes. But not all influences are spiritual authorities, precisely because spiritual authorities have authority. They are influences to which we give ourselves.

All this is to say: they are our leaders. Their leadership may be formal or informal; they may speak to us through conversation, writing, music, or the media; they may be dead or alive. But however they do it, they lead us. Somehow, spiritual authority seems intimately connected with leadership in our common understanding.

Now every spiritual authority is not equally good; some may even be downright destructive. That is where the real problem of spiritual authority begins, for the issue is not whether or not we will have spiritual authorities, but which ones we will have. Only the silliness of our individualistic mentality, a mentality which cannot measure up to the blunt realities of our lives, dupes us into thinking we can live without spiritual authorities. On the contrary, we always have them. The trick is to have good ones.

This means, to come back to where I started, that one cannot escape spiritual authority by rejecting explicit spiritual authority in favor of the autonomy of "lone ranger Christianity." All that accomplishes is subjection to other, less obvious, spiritual authorities. This is a serious problem because most people are not conscious of this process and often refuse to admit that it is happening. They think they are free; but in reality they are, more often than not, playing into the subtle corruptions of their culture.

This double reaction to the state of the church seems to leave us with the unhappy choice between the extremes of spiritual authoritarianism and an alleged autonomy which really amounts to merely another (implicit, this time) authoritarianism. If we are to avoid such a hopeless dilemma, we need to face the problem head on: how ought we to understand spiritual authority and its relation to leadership? It is a live question for us, and an inescapable reality of life. But how do we discern the good from the bad, the productive from the corrupt, or the divine from the demonic? Scripture can give us some important insights here.

Authority in the New Testament

The New Testament has some things to say about leadership in the church. And it has some things to say about spiritual authority. But (oddly enough, given the magnitude of our present debates about leadership and spiritual authority) it has very little to say about a link between the two. That is, though the scriptures are concerned about both leadership and spiritual authority, they are strangely silent about leaders having spiritual authority or spiritual authority flowing from leaders. This silence, it turns out, is quite significant. Let's examine this problem from the point of view of the New Testament's understanding of spiritual authority (although we could equally well start from the standpoint of leadership).

There are two words in the New Testament which correspond to different aspects of what we mean by "authority." The first, dűnamij, is usually (and rightly) translated as "power." This word is less important for us because though "power" may come from some kinds of authority, it also can exist without authority. A man with a gun has a certain amount of power over others; he does not have authority unless he is "authorized" by someone or some group to have it. Thus a policeman and a felon may both have power, but only the policeman may have authority.

Still, it is worthwhile to look at who has dűnamij in the New Testament. If you take a walk through a concordance, you will find that the following possess power: God, Jesus, the Spirit, and various heavenly entities (angels, demons, "principalities and powers"). Human beings may exercise these powers, or (more exactly) be energized by them. The ministry of the gospel, the miracles of the apostles, and the lives of believers are all conditioned on the "power of God." Yet, strikingly, the New Testament seldom (if ever) recognizes a human being with "power" in his or her own right - power always comes to people from elsewhere.

Things become even more interesting when we turn to the other New Testament word relevant to spiritual authority: exous▀a. This word is usually translated as "power" or "authority" and is the closest equivalent (in both denotation and connotation) to our English word "authority." The list of those who have exous▀a is basically the same as those who have dűnamij: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels and demons. But now, the list can also be extended to humans who are not merely energized by heavenly authority but have it themselves.

Thus, kings have authority (Rom. 13:1-2), Jesus' disciples have authority over diseases and spirits (e.g., Matt. 10:1), and so on. Furthermore, believers have authority over the various aspects of their lives: their possessions (Acts 5:4), and eating, drinking, and being married (1Cor. 9:4-5). Though both of these instances concern specific people (the first being Annanias and Sapphira, the second being the apostles), there is no reason to limit its application to them; on the contrary, both instances seem to be appealing to a broader "authority" belonging to everyone, which they too exercise.

What is interesting here is that the New Testament does not know anything about one believer having "authority" over another. We have plenty of authority over things, and even over spirits, but never over other believers. Given our debate about spiritual authority and leadership, that should be surprising. Kings have authority over their subjects; Paul had authority from the high priest to persecute the church (Acts 9:14, 26:10-12). But those are from outside God's people. In the church, one believer is never spoken of as having exous▀a over another, regardless of their position or prestige.

With the exception of 2Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10. In these texts Paul speaks of having "authority to build up, not tear down." It seems that he, at least, has exous▀a over other believers, specifically the church at Corinth. Admittedly, one has to over-read the texts in order to make them a real exception (since in both cases this is not an authority "over" anyone but rather an authority "for" a purpose). But even granting that the over-reading is plausible, this exception is really more a proof of the rule than a problem when you take two things into account. First, by his own admission, Paul is speaking "as a fool" in this section of his letter. He studiously avoids claiming authority over others when he speaks "soberly," so it seems unlikely that he would be pleased with us using his "foolish" speech as the (only) basis for claiming that church leaders have spiritual authority over other believers.

Second, the context of the letter is one characterized by "persuasion." (The significance of this will become clear in due course.) Paul spills a great deal of ink trying to persuade the Corinthians to listen to him. If he "had authority" over them, in the sense we think of it, why did he bother? Why not just give the orders and be done with it? The answer, as we will see, lies in the peculiar nature of the relationship the New Testament sees between leaders and other believers. But even before we come to that, Paul's lack of authority (in our naive sense of the word), even when he is "asserting" his authority should caution us against thinking of leaders as having authority on the basis of the two texts in 2Corinthians.

Let's look at things from the other side. Rather than asking "who has authority" in the New Testament, let's ask "whom should one obey?" The answer here is interesting, too. If you look up $pakořw, which is the Greek equivalent of "obey," you will find that we ought to "obey" God, the Gospel (Rom. 10:16), and the teaching of the apostles (Phil. 2:12, 2Thess. 3:14). Children are to obey their parents and servants their masters (Eph. 6:1, 5). Are believers to "obey" church leaders? If they are, the New Testament doesn't know about it.

Maybe the people who reject any kind of leadership in the church have the New Testament on their side after all. But not so fast - what about the text in Hebrews 13:17 about obeying your leaders? This text is interesting, because it can give us an insight into the positive side of the New Testament's understanding of leadership. Up to now I have emphasized the negative - that they do not have spiritual authority in our usual sense, and believers are not told to "obey" them. In spite of all this, the New Testament insists that there are to be leaders in a local body, that they are to be recognized, and that their existence and ministry is important to the health of the body.

What is this positive side of the New Testament's understanding of leadership? There is a clue in Hebrews 13:17. If you examine the verb translated "obey" in this text, you will find it to be a form of the word pe▀qw which means "persuade." In the form used here (the middle-passive) it means literally "let yourself be persuaded by" or "have confidence in." Now that's helpful. Believers are to let themselves be persuaded by their leaders. Leaders are to be accorded a certain "prestige" which lends their words more weight than they have in and of themselves. And the rest of the church should be "biased" in favor of listening to what they say. We are to allow ourselves to be persuaded by our leaders, not to "obey" them mindlessly but to enter into discussion with them while being biased toward what they are saying. (By the way, now do you understand why I said earlier that it was significant that Paul's statements in 2Cor. were in a context of "persuasion"? He was trying to persuade them to let themselves be persuaded by him.)

The other verb used in Hebrews 13:17 reinforces this conclusion. When the text goes on to urge people to "submit" to leaders, it does not use the garden-variety New Testament word for "submit." The normal word is $pot▄ssomai, which connotes something like placing oneself in an organization under another person. The New Testament urges believers to accept the structures they find themselves under in the political and economic realms rather than fight against them. Thus we are to submit to governments (Rom. 13:1, Tit. 3:1), wives and slaves are to submit to the household economy in which they find themselves (Col. 3:18, 1Pet. 2:18), and we are to submit to the "powers that be" of our society (1Pet. 2:13). In all these areas we are exhorted to take up a meek demeanor toward the power structures of the world as we find them. In short, we are not to fight the structures of life, but to flow with them, and in this sense to "submit" to them.

The word here, however, is different. It is řpe▀kw, and it occurs here only in the New Testament. It implies not a structure to which one submits, but a battle after which one yields. The picture (to transfer it out of the military usage) is one of a serious discussion, an interchange after which one party "gives way." This meshes nicely with the notion that we are to let ourselves be persuaded by leaders in the church, rather than meekly submit to them as we might to the questionable powers and structures of life.

The idea of leaders as those whom we allow more easily to persuade us makes sense with the New Testament's "criteria" for leadership (found in the pastoral epistles). There, character is the most important thing about leaders - they should be "respect-able." If they are supposed to be "persuaders," it makes sense that they ought preeminently to be respect-able, because that is the kind of person whose words we are inclined to take very seriously. The kind of respect-ability outlined there lends credibility to the words of leaders, and hence gives us confidence in opening ourselves to being persuaded by them.

So, let me summarize the New Testament's attitude toward leadership and spiritual authority. Do leaders have spiritual authority? Yes and no. Yes, because they are believers they do have spiritual authority over powers and principalities, diseases, demons, and earthly goods. But no, they do not have it as leaders, that is, just because they are leaders. This is because God does not invest authority in positions but in persons. Nonetheless, because of their maturity and character, leaders have the power to persuade. Their words carry extra weight, and the rest of the church is called to be more easily persuaded by their concerns.

Leadership and Authority

We need to take our orientation to leaders in the church from the New Testament's understanding of leadership. Thus, we should begin from the idea of "persuaders" and try to make it practical in our particular situation. The first thing to notice, is that the one by whom people are more easily persuaded does have a kind of authority. But it is an authority different in kind from the "authority" we normally think of.

That other kind of authority is what I'm going to call "secular authority." But because of the New Testament's unwillingness to speak of members in the church as having "authority" as leaders, I will not refer to them as authorities (even though there is a kind of authority there). So, in order to understand church leadership, I will avoid the term "spiritual authority" and instead contrast "spiritual leadership" and "secular authority."

Secular authority is based on force. Ultimately, the police have authority because they have been given the power to throw me in jail if I don't obey the law. This power can be implicit or explicit; that is, they don't actually have to throw me in jail for them to have authority rooted in force, for just the knowledge that they can implicitly lets their words carry weight.

Although it is based on force, secular authority is really authority and not mere power. There are at least two reasons for this. First, in spite of all its drawbacks we seem intuitively to know that we are generally better off with secular authorities than without them. Some may be better than others, but human experience seems to be that any government is better than none at all. Thus, in spite of the fact that it is rooted in force, we appear to be willing to pay the price.

But there is a second, more interesting reason why these secular authorities are not understandable merely as naked power. Ask yourself this question: why is it that the police are not merely felons who work for a rather large mafia (the government)? Or again: why is it that some governments are more "legitimate" than others? Isn't it because governments are not merely secular authorities but also partake to some degree of a spiritual authority? Don't they try to convince their citizens to trust them and claim to stand for truth (or justice or freedom)? Governments in fact go out of their way to establish some spiritual authority for themselves. And one way in which we judge some governments better than others is the extent to which they reflect truth and have their people's trust.

In spite of these two complications, governments are still to be understood as secular authorities, whose authority is in the final analysis based on force. You can see this by noticing the results of disobeying them - when you disobey secular authorities, they apply force. If you don't pay your income tax, the IRS will make life miserable for you. Ultimately, you obey secular authorities because you have to (though proximately, other factors such as the necessity of governments and their possession of spiritual authority enter in as well). This itself is clear evidence that their final basis is in force.

So, secular authorities are those whom we listen to because we have to - they will punish us if we don't. Spiritual leaders, by contrast, are those we listen to because we want to; they are those by whom we let ourselves be persuaded. It should not be surprising that this authority is different from any other authority we know; Jesus himself told us it ought to be. The kings of the Gentiles, he said, lord it over their subjects, and make this rule appear good by calling themselves "benefactors." They exercise their power, and try to make people think that it is for their own good. But it should never be so in the church; rather, the one who leads is a servant and the one who rules is as the youngest (Luke 22:24-27).

This idea of leadership as service can give us a clearer idea of the basis of leadership in the church. If secular authority is based on power, spiritual leadership is based on truth and trust. Let me expand on this a bit. Leaders in the church are leaders precisely because they are servants. And this servanthood is more than pious rhetoric (remember, even the kings of the Gentiles use the pious rhetoric of being "benefactors"). Leaders in the church gain their leadership because people have seen their lives poured out in service.

When a person truly lives a life of serving others, meeting their needs, acting for their good, others begin to trust that person more and more. If you have confidence that someone is genuinely concerned for you, you begin to trust them; but if you think they are doing things (however "good" those things may seem to be) for selfish motives, or because they love power, you distrust them, even though they appear to be serving you. Spiritual leadership is based precisely on the trust that comes from a life of true service.

But there is more. Spiritual leadership is not based just on trust but also on truth. Think back to the idea of leaders in the church as those by whom you let yourself be persuaded. Presumably if leaders are wrong in their judgment and yet are seriously concerned to serve, they would not be happy with someone following them in their error. Rather, since persuasion presupposes discussion, no one (not the leader, certainly!) will be happy if the truth is not followed. True spiritual leaders love the truth and would hate being listened to when they are speaking a pack of rubbish.

Truth is essential to the persuasiveness of true spiritual leadership. A leader who has the charisma (or whatever) to persuade people of something untrue, and does so is demonic or worse. To be persuaded of a lie (whether by a Jim Jones or a Dan Rather) is the worst form of bondage. Leaders in the church are bound to the truth and serve it above all in their service of others.

This necessity of serving the truth, by the way, is the reason why the New Testament is emphatic that one must "obey" the Gospel or the apostles' teaching, and not leaders. The trust engendered by service is dangerous if it is not coordinated with a common subjection to the truth of the gospel. If truth and trust are not together the basis of spiritual leadership, the trust which can be created by service is just another, more subtle form of power - the power we call manipulation.

So, spiritual leadership is based on truth and trust. Leaders in the church (elders or whatever) are called by the truth to lives which are worthy of imitation, and thus "respectable," and to lives of service. This life engenders the trust of others. Yet leaders as well as the rest of the members of the body are in common subjection to the truth which is in Christ the head. And the leadership of leaders is based also on their apprehension and expression of this truth in their role as leaders.

If you think back to the beginning of all this, the basis of spiritual leadership in truth and trust clarifies our present dilemma over spiritual authority in the church. The "headship" teaching emphasizes that people should trust their leaders. But this trust ignores the question of whether what the leader is saying is true or not. The "headship" notion of leadership is based on trust alone (without truth) and thus falls victim to all kinds of errors and misdirections. The dangers of this for the followers are obvious, for since they need not find nurture and direction in relationship to Christ the Head, growth becomes either impossible or purely external. This ends up binding the people of God either to legalism or authoritarianism, neither of which is consistent with the freedom we have in Christ (Gal. 5:1f., Col. 2:16f.).

The result of emphasizing trust without truth (in the "headship" teaching) has tragic results even for leaders who come under its sway. These results come from the transformation of spiritual leadership into secular authority. Admittedly, leaders here give their authority a religious guise, but it is still the same kind of authority which the kings of the Gentiles wield. The leaders themselves may have the best of motives and genuinely perceive themselves as "serving" - just as the kings of the Gentiles call themselves "Benefactors." To see genuinely good people caught up in such self-deception is heart rending; but it will do no good at all not to recognize it for what it is - self-deception.

The reaction to this, however, recognizes only the necessity of loyalty to the truth which is in Christ, without acknowledging the New Testament's commitment to leaders and the trust people are to put in them. Because it sees leadership as based in truth alone, it "lets itself be persuaded" by leaders only so long as they agree with the individual's perception of the truth. But we all "see through a glass darkly," able to discern only the outlines of the truth. We are in desperate need of others so that we are not in bondage to our own idiosyncratic misperceptions. Leaders, as those who have shown themselves worthy of trust can help circumvent this problem, and catalyze a greater obedience to the truth when people allow themselves to be persuaded by them (not "obey" them, but enter into discussion with them open to being persuaded).

So, in summary, our present dilemma about spiritual authority is insoluble unless we do two things. First, we need to see spiritual leadership as different in kind from secular authority, having a different basis and a different mode of operation. And second, we need to base spiritual leadership firmly in both truth and trust, rather than in one or the other. Only a willingness to "let ourselves be persuaded" by leaders will finally avoid the destructive results of conflicts in the body. And only a common subjection to the truth will prevent the persuasiveness of leaders from becoming demonic in its means, even if it is heavenly in its goals.

Version 3.1

As of 22 August 1996