January 28, 2009

By Whose Authority?

by Brian Volck
Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28

A little word history from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Authority: First written appearance in English: 1230, autorite "book or quotation that settles an argument," from from L. nom. auctoritas ,"invention, advice, opinion, influence, command," from auctor "author." Used to mean "power to enforce obedience" is from 1393; meaning "people in authority" is from 1611. Authoritative first recorded 1609. Authoritarian is recorded from 1879.

Power: First written appearance in English: 1297, from L. potis "powerful" Used to mean "a state or nation with regard to international authority or influence" dates from 1726. Powerful is c.1400. The powers that be is from Rom. 13:1.

The relationship between authority and power is long, complex and subtle. Distinguishing them in common usage today is challenging. Was Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s appointment of Barack Obama’s senatorial replacement an act of power, authority, or both? When I tell my sons, both of whom are now taller than I, to do something they don’t want to, am I relying on the power of the purse, the authority of paternity, or some combination?

These days, the word, “power,” carries a whiff of brutality and illegitimacy. No one, for example, brags about “speaking truth to authority.” Then again, “authority” isn’t what it used to be, with countless bumper stickers demanding we question it.

Yet, even in the twenty-first century, humans haven’t escaped the conundrums arising at the necessary intersection of freedom, community, authority and power. The problem has been around a long, long time.

Jesus teaches in the synagogue “as one having authority and not as the scribes.” He also casts out “an unclean spirit” – who, like Legion, know(s) with whom it or they contend – and the amazed onlookers cry, “A new teaching with authority! He commands even unclean spirits and they obey him.” It’s not immediately clear how authoritative teaching and power to cast out spirits go together, but the residents of Capernaum apparently take it for granted.

Today – and particularly in the developed world – Christians have more trouble making that connection. Paul reminds us that we are not all called to the gift of prophecy – a helpful reminder, given what Deuteronomy promises to those who falsely speak in God’s name. But if not all called, who is? In our churches, where or to whom do we turn for authoritative guidance? If the Bible, then how is it read and interpreted? If in wise persons, then which ones? Pastors? Spiritual directors? The Saints of our Tradition? Bishops and Patriarchs? An “inner light?”

In the Ekklesia, the community into which Christ calls you, where is Jesus’ “new teaching with authority” found? How and with whom will you find the strength to follow it?

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