Let's Talk About Authority
by Eileen Slattery Berglund
The other day, someone close to me asked me if I believe that I have authority over other people. My answer was “no”. That surprised her. She knows I am a leader in the church and she didn’t understand how I could lead without believing that I have authority over others. Thus, we began a discussion about authority, what it means, how it plays out in real life, leadership, and more.
First off, let me say that this conversation took place in the context of “spiritual authority” and adults. As I was quite certain we both actually did share the same belief, we asked each other to expound on our thoughts. This gave us ample opportunity to hear where the other person was coming from, and how we may be using or responding to the same word in different ways.
One approach saw “spiritual authority” as more of a noun. A person. Someone in your life that you listen to, you honor their input, you respect them and trust them. Therefore, when they share something with you that maybe goes against your own thoughts, you actually listen carefully and likely choose to defer (submit) your own thoughts to theirs.
The other approach saw “spiritual authority” as more of a verb. An action. Someone “has authority over you”. Therefore, when they share something with you that maybe goes against your own thoughts, you must obey them. It doesn’t really matter if you feel confirmation from the Holy Spirit living in you. No, they have “spiritual authority” so that means they know better than you and you must obey (not submit to) what they say.
As you can see these are wildly different interpretations of the same term. And there would be wildly different consequences based on the application and adherence to those interpretations.
The first interpretation is really great. However, the problem came when that was then translated into a question about church leadership. “Do you believe you have authority over other people?” I answered “no” based on the second interpretation. However, once I understood her actual definition, I changed my answer to “of course!” I do believe that God has positioned me to speak into other’s lives. Through my years He has taught me much, and I have wisdom and life experience to impart to others, which I do so for them to consider and then make their own choices. But I wouldn’t call that authority. I would call that influence. I have no final say over their choices. Sure, I speak with authority given to me by Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t give me authority over people. They do not have to obey me. That is absurd! The Bible tells us “there is one mediator between God and man and that is Christ Jesus.”(1 Tim 2:5)
Factoring into this discussion, and probably contributing to the difference in interpretation, was something that happened back in the early 70’s. Back then, a few prominent well-intentioned Christian leaders got together and began something called the Shepherding Movement. Like many things it began with good motives but it wasn’t long before it grew into a very destructive and non-biblical practice in many churches. What began as a healthy desire for accountability warped into an unhealthy system of hierarchy and control. So many people were deeply wounded by this practice and unfortunately some of it still remains in some churches today. A lot of people, especially young people, are not aware that this even took place. However, many others who were part of the global church at that time, remember it well, or are still stuck in it. They came into Christianity because of Jesus and who He is, and because of what His death and resurrection brought to us, and they unknowingly got sucked into an environment of control that was never part of God’s plan.
What the Shepherding movement did was to teach that each believer needed an “upline” of sorts. They needed a seasoned (though not always) believer to oversee them, to shepherd them, to make sure they didn’t make any wrong decisions. This shepherd then held the power for the final say. The young Christian didn’t make any decisions until garnering the approval of their “shepherd”. In effect, this earthly “shepherd” became a substitute for Holy Spirit and people were no longer concerned with learning to obey God but rather this other person. This is where the whole idea of a “spiritual covering” came from. Christ’s blood covering was not enough, Holy Spirit was not quite good enough either, another human was needed to complement and finish the work of the cross.
As I said earlier, this was never the intention of these men, but it was the outcome. Many other leaders began to rise up and speak against this diversion and perversion of God’s word. Most of the original leaders of the movement even publicly apologized and repented, but not all. Regardless, the movement had been set in motion and even today you will see remnants or full-blown practice of it. Many church leaders speak about needing a covering or will ask you “who is your covering?” I remember someone asking me that years ago when I was traveling to foreign countries to minister God’s word. (Sidenote: women get this a lot, but it’s not limited to women) I simply replied “Well, since I don’t believe in the idea of needing a human covering, it hasn’t been a problem for me.” Their mouth dropped open, shocked at my answer. As I explained that Jesus is my covering and expounded on that with several scriptures, suddenly their shock turned a bit more to admiration. I wasn’t looking for admiration, but I was glad that I had been bold enough that day to speak what so many were afraid to say.
God does give us leaders. God does give us “authority figures”. He gives us pastors, teachers, evangelists, apostles, prophets. He also gives us mentors, and parents, and brothers and sisters, and authors and more. But unless you are a child, you are never instructed to obey any of these leaders. Children are commanded in scripture to obey their parents, but that’s it. Congregations are never commanded to obey their spiritual leaders. Wives are never commanded to obey their husbands. Husbands are never commanded to obey their wives. That is a different word- that is submission. And healthy submission is entirely different than obedience.
So, when you follow or when you lead, be careful to understand what is meant by “spiritual authority.” Make sure you have a healthy and biblical definition that both parties are working with. At the end of our conversation we did in fact realize that indeed we had agreed with each other all along. We just had attached different meaning to the same phrase based on our age, our own experiences, and even our own personality.
In the days we live in, it is vitally important to define your terms. So much division exists in all areas of life. As the Church, we have a call to live in unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to also reflect a true image of God to the whole world. So much that divides us can be resolved with humble and honest conversations. Not all will be resolved, but when we keep Jesus at the center of it all, we stand the best chance of driving out division. So be compassionate toward one another and go that extra mile to hear where someone else is coming from, to understand their journey to where they are today. I promise you it will be rewarding for all involved.
If you’d like to read more about the Shepherding Movement, Wikipedia has a pretty decent write up on it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shepherding_Movement