This concept of authority as something that causes another person to “do what you want him to do” is reflected in most definitions. For instance, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language speaks of authority as “a power or right to direct the actions or thoughts of others. Authority is a power or right, usually because of rank or office, to issue commands and to punish for violations.” Again, the root idea seems to be control or direction of the actions of others.
We see this same idea even in sophisticated examinations of authority. For instance, William Oncken, Jr., in a 1970 Colorado Institute of Technology Journal, gives an analysis of authority that suggests it is composed of four elements, but for the purpose of brevity, we will only include one.
The Authority of Position: This component gives you the right to tell someone, “Do it or else.” It has teeth. “The boss wants it” is a bugle call that can snap many an office or shop into action. -William Oncken, Jr., Colorado Institute of Technology Journal 22, July 1970, p. 273.
The second wall that Luther attacks in his 1520 Letter to the Christian Nobility deals with the issue of authority. In Luther’s words, “The second wall is still more flimsy and worthless. They wish to be the only Masters of The Holy Scriptures, even though in all their lives they learn nothing from them. They assume for themselves sole authority, and with the insolent juggling of words they would persuade us that the pope, whether he is a bad man or a good man, cannot err in matters of faith, and yet they cannot prove a single letter of it.”
Luther’s argument: Quoting from St. Paul in I Corinthians 14:30: “If to anyone something better is revealed, though he be sitting and listening to another in God’s Word, then the first, who is speaking, shall hold his peace and give place.” What would be the use of this commandment if we were only to believe him who does the talking or who has the highest seat? Christ also says in John 6:45 that all Christians shall be taught of God. Thus, it may well happen that the pope and his followers are wicked men, and no true Christians, not taught of God, not having true understanding. On the other hand, an ordinary man may have true understanding; why then should we not follow him? Has not the pope erred many times? Who would help Christendom when the pope errs if we were not to believe another, who had the Scriptures on his side, more than the pope? Therefore, it is a wickedly invented fable, and they cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone.
There is a real and present danger when anyone pastor or church leader believe they are without error. And it is very tempting in life to surround ourselves with people who will agree with our every decision. No one likes conflict, nor naysayers, nor people who refuse to follow our lead, but the danger of not having people around who will correct our errors is that we may lead people right out of the arms of grace and into a life of rules and requirements. Paul expressed that concern in Galatians 3:1-4, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?”
To keep the masses in line a leader will impose man-made rules that lead people away from God’s amazing grace. Leaders need people around them to hold them accountable, not just to do what is right and wrong but to the truth of God’s word. So, to one whom God has given the responsibility to care for His flock, be watchful of the lure of supreme authority. Only God is without error, cling to His Word, and allow the truth of Scripture to be your guide.
Other posts in this series: