In the coming weeks (at least I hope), I will spend some time putting together a paper on the nature of apostolic authority today. Yes, I believe apostles (and prophets) still exist today. Jesus was the greatest apostle (not Paul), he sent the Spirit to continue the same apostolic work, that Spirit empowers the whole body to walk out their apostolic calling in Christ, and, thus, it only makes sense that Jesus would continue to gift people as apostles to help equip and prepare the church (ala Eph 4:11-16).
Of course, they aren’t called to write canonical Scripture. And they are called in line with the original apostolic gospel-foundation laid by the first apostles. But such a ministry is very much needed, since we very much need the whole of Christ’s ministries in our world today. I share more about what an apostle is here.
Over the past weeks, as I’ve pondered some things that I want to share in this paper, I also had a brief discussion with a recent church leader about the nature of apostolic authority. I mentioned the paper to him, as he works with a network of churches similar to the one I work with, also believing apostles are needed today. And he made an interesting comment, one where he was recognising a fault. It went something like this.
In today’s world, authority is more about influence.
In all of this, it has got me thinking a lot about the difference between these 2 words: authority and influence.
I definitely believe there are connections between the two, but also dissimilarities.
To be honest, I’m not sure of a good and proper definition of authority, in the sense of a one-sentence statement. But I am well aware that this word is a not-so-popular term today. It leaves us thinking, at least in the church, of hierarchical structures sending out orders of what everyone must do, or else there are consequences. We think of high-strucutred clergy lording things over the weak and defenseless. For some who were part of the shepherding movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s, such a word like authority fills one with strong emotions and even worse.
On my little dictionary widget on my laptop, the first definition given begins with these words: the power or right to give orders. Hmmm. Yeah, people don’t like that today.
But maybe that isn’t the best definition.
Let me come back to authority in just a moment.
As I have suggested, it can be (and must be) distinguished from authority. Of course, those who have been given authority might influence us. But those who influence us might not have authority.
For example, Batman might influence a young kid (or adult!), but the parents of the child have the authority in that child’s life. Of course, authority could be granted by the child to Batman (in some manner, at least). But, normally, Batman simply influences a child in the way he/she might play, interact, etc. Batman does not become the child’s authority figure.
What is interesting to realise is that both influence and authority have to be granted (you might say, even earned). No one can force influence or authority. I don’t want to walk down the well-worn path of Calvinism vs Arminianism, but I don’t believe God even forces His own authority, lest we become simple robots. He is sovereign and He will ultimately show His authority to right all wrongs one day. But God draws people to submit to His authority. This is because they have seen how good and compassionate and gracious and strong and amazing He is. And even when He exerts His sovereignty in the end over all things, there will still be those who have not submitted, thus receiving the justice deserved as God rights all injustice.
I’ll give you an example in my life.
There are people who have influenced me theologically – N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight might be two of the foremost. When I read their works, I find myself being influenced by their teaching and, thus, agreeing with them. Whether one agrees with their theological take on things, at least recognise that they influence people, like me. Such could be said for others around the writings of a C.S. Lewis or John Piper or Wayne Grudem or F.F. Bruce or Darrell Bock, etc al.
But neither of these two guys, Wright or McKnight, have authority in my life. None whatsoever. And I don’t think they would be bothered to know that. They don’t want such.
Rather, the God-given authority in my life are the leaders around me, the local elders in my congregation and, even more, the apostolic team within our network of churches (this is a term we use to describe those who have apostolic and prophetic ministries who work amongst our churches, those people practically functioning like a Paul & Barnabas as we read the book of Acts).
So I might agree with and appreciate a particular teaching of N.T. Wright, such as the new perspective on justification. Yet I still have to keep this submitted to those in authority in my life. And this is true whether I like it or not. I could feed on N.T. Wright all day long, talking with Wright-arians around the world, and build up a whole club (and some do so). But, in the end, Wright has no authority in my life. It’s just as plain and simple as that.
Of course, this could create all kinds of problems in certain situations. But it a) doesn’t have to and b) really isn’t supposed to. I know it’s not as simple as that, and we have been good at splintering the church over issues ever since things were set in motion some 494 years ago with the Reformation. But I hope you can at least see there is a difference between influence and authority.
Of course, those in our lives with authority will have influence, maybe the greatest of influence overall. Or I believe they should. But those who influence us do not necessarily have authority in our lives. And we need to guard against opening such doors to whomever.
You see, on the one hand, some hate the idea of authority because a) we have incredibly bad concepts about authority and b) those in authority have abused it. But on the other, some will allow people to have authority in their lives that they shouldn’t allow for. These people could have positive influence, but should have never been granted an avenue of authority. For example, if I want Scot McKnight to have authority in my life, then some things will need to drastically change in my life, my church’s life, and in McKnight’s life. But that is not going to happen. It’s not what God has set up.
Still, there is a whole different side of things to address. Because some people are fearful of authority, they will only allow a certain level of influence from others (church leaders, parents, spouse boss, etc), but they would never grant them the open door to be an authority figure in their lives.
No way, Jose. It doesn’t work that way in the modern-day, 21st century. I need to do what I need to do to do what I need to do. Thank you very much, though. No let me on my merry little way.
So we love influence today, from all over the place. It is part of our current eclectic world. Hey, come live in Brussels where all nations of the world have descended upon one city. And I don’t think there is anything inherently evil to such globalisation of the world. But we obviously must be careful, be willing to guard against an everything-goes mentality.
And one great way to help with this is to recognise authority, God-given authority, and allow for such in our lives. Such is not a bad word. I am very convinced God designed it this way, in that He designed it that certain people have more than some nice influence in our lives through their ideas. He meant actual authority, and with that, along comes submission.
Uh oh, another bad word!
But authority cannot be forced. It simply cannot. It must be won.
How is it won?
Just take a peek at the greatest authority figure that ever walked planet earth. Jesus.
At the last dinner with his closest friends, those of which 11 had already recognised his authority (at least as best they could to that point), we read these words about Jesus:
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3-5)
This is how the imprint of God, the divine Son who came to show the Father, lived out his authority. And it would get even worse for him at the cross, winning his authoritative rule over all heaven and earth, including that of his bride, through his own submission to the Father’s plan. Interesting view into what real authority and submission looks like.
So authority does exist. It just has to be expressed first and foremost through servant-hearted care – like that existing between a true father and son. And we can trust the authoritative Son because we know he loves, cares for and still washes our feet. The same stands true today as he rules over all heaven and earth.
There is no guarantee that, as we pour ourselves out in service of those given to us, we will garner authority in their lives. It can only be given by God as both parties are committed to the purpose of God being worked out. So, as a shepherd-elder in my local church, I cannot force people to submit to me. They are, no doubt, called to such (from a godly and healthy perspective). It’s simply written in the structure of the way God has established His own rule in the local church-ekklesia context. But I cannot make it happen. I can only get on with serving, caring, compassionate wisdom, pouring out my life for the sheep. If they respond to my authority, they are seeing what God has designed.
But most people don’t even realise what authority is all about. It’s influence and that is it. Say nice things that I enjoy hearing. Occasionally you might challenge me, but I don’t really have to listen to it if I don’t feel like it. You are simply an influence in my life, and there it stops. You have no right of authority.
Yet, unfortunately, that’s not how God designed it. At all.
But if we don’t recognise authority, proper authority design, we will miss out on much of the blessings of what God desires for His people. I mean, we will still feel nice tingles as we walk around with the motto of ‘me, Jesus and my Bible’. But Jesus will look at such a mission statement and weep.
In all, just because something has been abused, this does not make the thing wrong in itself. It just means the object was wrongly used and we need to be stirred towards a godly and healthy focus. Authority has been abused. But there is such a thing as God-given authority – yes, starting with Jesus, but also flowing into the gifted people-ministries that God has given to help shape and build up and equip and mature His body.
So we, no doubt, need a fresh perspective on authority today. It’s different from simple influence. It’s more than appreciating a few people’s ideas. It calls for submitting our lives to those God has put around us to speak into our lives. If such doesn’t exist, we are missing out on something very dear to the heart of God. Of course, it’s a challenge. But well worth the journey.