Power and authority fill my thoughts, in part because I struggle with authority.
I struggle with authority, even as I accept it as a sociological reality and, I think, a theological one. I struggle because I affirm the equality of all believers. And, so, rarely will you catch me talking about authority over. More often, save for when I slip into traditional parlance unaware, you will hear me refer to authority in relation to.
I dislike over, for I rail against reification of role and sedimentation of hierarchy. I refuse to celebrate an authority which has forgotten flourishing. An authority which determines that I, and I alone, will dictate your flourishing. That your flourishing may go so far. To the ceiling of my authority and no further.
I dislike over and I accept in relation to. Because I know that to each God assigns spheres of responsibility, of service. That I have authority within the sphere which is those hallowed halls, a responsibility which is the flourishing of those in that sphere which is my kanonos. I know that without authority there would be no responsibility. I can only carry responsibility where I have authority, response-ability. And because I am authorised here with these people for this aspect of flourishing, and there with those for that, I cannot also be authorised in every sphere. For time would not allow, nor capacity.
Authority is grace. And so is not-authority.
I rejoice for the authority I am given. And I rejoice too for that which is not mine. I rejoice that, in this season, a church is not mine. That I can improvise around the edge of ecclesial life. Do the fun bits. The casual mentoring. The odd bit of preaching. The ministry of presence and of delight in God. I rejoice that my authority in church is smaller than it was, the sphere minimal and its responsibilities playful. And, most of all, I rejoice that there are those who carry its institutional leadership. For you, I give him thanks.
Authority in relation to is grace, I think. A measured authority. To take responsibility to seek the flourishing of this people in that aspect of life for this season. Not all-encompassing authority. Not an authority which treads on the holy ground which is God’s authority in relation to us, which seeks to assume what is not given. An authority, instead, which knows its proper bounds and which is all service.
An authority which is all service and, therefore, we might wish to say, no power. Except that power is unavoidable. Power always flows and one of its bases is legitimated power. Authority. So the question becomes, as I think it always does for the Christian, not what kind of power but how it is exercised.
And, just as I cannot quite align with authority over, so I cannot quite celebrate power for.
Though I recognise it can be service, I cannot celebrate power for. I cannot celebrate power for and yet I submit to its necessity. Sometimes I must, I think, hold my own vulnerability for the sake of the flourishing of this people in that aspect for this season. Sometimes, power with is an aspiration and power for the reality.
As Crouch suggests, where this people is not yet ready to bear the burden of my vulnerability or to engage fully with their own vulnerability, my power which is authority cannot be fully shared. It cannot be power with. Power for must fill in for power with when those in my care are as-yet immature, not ready to share power directed towards their flourishing. Classically, this is true of parents and their young children. Bonnie Miller-McLemore develops this well in a piece on mutuality as progressive.
Yet it is this which raises my discomfort levels. For, though in one sense in the ecclesial context there are those whose faith maturity is as-yet undeveloped, to engage power for with adults risks paternalism. I would always rather conceive authority as in relation to, and power as with.
And, yet, when one’s authority relates to a whole group, a local church or a smaller group, surely there is a responsibility to the flourishing of the whole which cannot permit greater authority/responsibility to accrue to those in the group who are not yet ready to hold it as directed to the flourishing of the whole. Power cannot yet be power with.
I rail against power for and yet I submit to its necessity. Sometimes. If the duration of the inequality of this power for is limited. If it occurs in relationship, a relationship which desires both mutuality and reduction of the power-distance to zero. In short, if power for always hopes for, and is ready to give way to, power with.
For then, at the ideal, power becomes shared. Then, my authority – which may, even so, remain mine and not be yours – is yet exercised by me in the context of a power that is with. A power that may certainly assume responsibility for the things which it is agreed should not be allowed to trouble you who have your own spheres of authority. And yet a power that operates in the context of mutuality and not paternalism.
Indeed, it is this which so blesses me about authority in this season. My present not-authority in the local church (or not-much-authority – we can argue another time about how much authority a position within the wider church affords me in a local ecclesial context!) allows me to attend to my own responsibilities for others’ flourishing. And I celebrate this present not-authority, and the concomitant freedoms it brings me to attend primarily to flourishing elsewhere.
I celebrate it precisely because those in this church use their authority as power with. I feel free to submit to it because I know that not only is it directed towards my flourishing and that of the wider congregation. It also seeks that flourishing without paternalism. This authority attends to many details of this community’s life so that I don’t have to, but it never excludes me from deeper participation – withness – in the exercise of power for the community’s good.
To submit to such is a joy.
To submit to leadership which is relationship, withness, this is a foretaste of the world to come. And because of that, when submission is hard – when leadership which is relationship is costly and when I feel my friend has betrayed my flourishing – I can yet choose to submit, to believe the best of the one who carries the weighty burden which is authority.
I can choose to submit with joy because, where I can trust that authority is in relation to, that power is with and that mutuality is coupled with a commitment to flourishing, in that place – with all its pains and disappointments, its frustrations and regrets – I will yet always find Kingdom promise.