by what authority?

We've started a process in our church to select a new elder; there's only one now and it is preferred to have two or three. There is no pastor in the church (I like that). That means the elders are considered the leaders, and have more authority than perhaps most churches. Most decisions are made by consensus in the church meetings, but the elders set the agenda for meetings and make some sensitive and crisis decisions. Because of the history here, and strong Christian beliefs, most people are not very comfortable granting or assuming authority. But they seem to feel it is necessary. So the selection of an elder is a rather tense and unwelcome task.

As we began, we looked at a number of biblical passages that refer to elders in the early church, mostly coming from Paul's letters. Thinking of that later, I realized that none of the passages came from the Gospels or contained any guidance from Jesus himself. And when I started looking through the stories of Jesus' life, I found many references to elders, but the elders were always religious authorities that were trying to stand in Jesus' way.

The passage that I think is most helpful in our current situation (in our church, and perhaps in our country right now, too) begins when Jesus is confronted by the elders on the question of authority:

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"

Jesus answered them, "I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?"

And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know."

And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." (Mt 21.23-27)
Jesus' question reveals their understanding of authority, that the authority they wield (and the authority they think Jesus lacks) derives from the support of the people. They cannot answer his question because they are afraid of losing face on one hand, or angering the people on the other. This is the thinking of politicians. Which makes sense because, as officials in social organizations, both elected politicians and religious officials exercise the same power, the power granted by the people that selected them (or that support the legitimacy of their office). Their power, their authority, derives from the power of the group, "We, the People." The chief priests and elders do not want to lose the support of the group, so they do not answer Jesus' question.

So Jesus doesn't answer their question about authority. Because the authority for his words and actions does not come from the people, it is not political authority, it is not the authority that they understand. So he has no answer for them.

More tomorrow...