Spiritual Authority

I've been thinking a lot about spiritual authority lately. Having decided not to move toward ordination, that realm where you are given "official" spiritual authority, I have wondered what my own spiritual authority might be. In thinking about doing teaching around spiritual topics, I have not felt sure that I had the "right" - not sure that I had the credentials necessary. What is "spiritual authority"? Is it something that you can claim, or is it given to you? Of course Christians have their own perspective of it - and it's quite hierarchical (and patriarchal) in essence. It is authority delegated by God, onto some people. Watchman Nee, who literally wrote the book on spiritual authority said: "If God dares to entrust His authority to man, then we can dare to obey. Whether the one in authority is right or wrong does not concern us. The obedient one needs only to obey. The Lord will not hold us responsible for any mistaken obedience, rather He will hold the delegated authority responsible for his erroneous act." <insert big cringe here> Of course, progressive Christians don't hold to this perspective, and movements like the Emergent Church, where there are flat hierarchies, and many leaders aren't ordained, are repudiations of this perspective. But for many Christians, it is important to obey the delegated authority of God. And there is, for many people of many faiths, the feeling about "obeying" God's will for them - often coming in the form of messages from those with spiritual authority. But that perspective of spiritual authority is, fundamentally, hierarchical, with the perspective that God is "on top" and through a tree of spiritual authority, your average person is underneath, obeying those above (and obeying God). I'm not really down with that perspective (yeah, I know you are surprised.) What would a view of spiritual authority be in a non-hierarchical context? I can't help but think of the Buddha, who basically said "don't just believe what I say - experience it yourself." We all have our own spiritual authority we can claim - in our experiences, and in whatever wisdom we have gained or can tap into. Of course, we also give others authority. A guru would be nothing without followers - a teacher nothing without students. People choose to give other individuals spiritual authority - they feel that person has something useful and important to share with others. I think, optimally, it's a mix - we can give people spiritual authority so that we can learn from them. We can claim spiritual authority, because we have our own experiences, and we have our own inner wisdom. But in both the claiming and the giving, there has to be openness. Being open to understand that we, or the person we are giving authority to, can't be perfect, can't know all of the answers, or hold the truth. In fact, we, or they, may be severely flawed in one way or another. But that openness means that there is always more to learn, more places to find wisdom, both in others, and in ourselves.
Blog Category: 


I really do like the Lutheran take on this -- that ordination/ministry does not exist apart from community. A person is called to a position of leadership by a community for the sake of convenience and good order, not because of some exalted image of their holiness. A direct quote from Luther --" To make it still clearer. If a little group of pious Christian laymen were taken captive and set down in a wilderness, and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree in choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him."

As someone who was once in a group that used this book by Watchman Nee, I can tell you that there's a real potential of abuse with that perspective. If your view is that the person in authority over you is God's deputy authority, then to disobey that person is to disobey God. That kind of authority can lead to control. I saw this happen, with people assuming that the decisions of the leader in our church were automatically the same as God's decisions. If you think, "Right or wrong, it doesn't matter, I'm just going to submit to God's authority," you are ignoring the aspect of living before Christ Himself. The Christian life must include personal contact and fellowship with Jesus Christ.

Leave a comment