empowered by God

Some practical implications from the thoughts on Jesus' authority in the last entry (in a series from two years ago)...

It seems to me that voting someone into office directly reflects the understanding that the power and authority of a leader derives from the strength of the people. In our church meeting, someone even said that: "The elders have authority because we have chosen them." This is the basis of every human authority and power (it's a little different if the leader is appointed by someone in a higher office, but even then the whole authority structure depends on the people accepting it, participating in it, submitting to it—if they don't, there's no power there). Jesus was not chosen, not "empowered," in this way. Neither was Paul. And the earliest church didn't have an official authority structure by which leaders were chosen and their leadership enforced. Paul had to keep writing and preaching and offering his strong example to keep the Christians in the various churches following his teaching; and it's clear from some of his letters that not everyone saw his word as authoritative. But, like Jesus, he didn't have an office to appeal to, he just had to keep speaking the truth to them. With both of them, it was always clear that God (not some group of people) had chosen and empowered them.

Because of the reality of God empowering those he chooses to lead his people, there doesn't seem to be the need for granting them any human authority or backing up their decisions with human force. As I said before, Jesus led without these. And he taught his disciples not to rule over each other, that they had one Father and they were all brothers and sisters. When someone has been given special abilities or wisdom from God, we naturally follow them as "authorities" because we see they have what is good, what is from God. There is no need of human force to make us obey. If we choose not to obey, then our efforts flounder or fail and we suffer the consequences of our foolishness. God backs up the authority of those who he has chosen.

So, in the church at least, it seems to me that we should set aside human authority, offices of power, and the enforcement of leadership decisions through force or threats of force (social ostracism being also a form of force, by cutting people off from the support they need to survive). Set aside the human power that causes resentments and dissension, and tempts leaders to abuses. From situation to situation, let each one lead according to their gifts and abilities from God. Seek out those gifts in ourselves in others, because we need them as a church.

One of the main areas that leaders are often called into, and sometimes feel the need to exercise the authority to resolve, is the settling of disputes between arguing members. This is not easy. But Jesus gave specific practical advice about how to handle such situations (in Mt 18), and no "elder" or other human authority appears in his instructions. Our church here is already committed to following those instructions in resolving conflicts. I'd like to see us do this better.

Of course this kind of decentralized leadership requires a lot more of each member of the church. But aren't we called to live this way, to be strikingly different from the world, to stand out like lights? I believe we would also experience greater unity and sense of being all brothers and sisters, each of us empowered by the Father of us all.

I probably should add a disclaimer, though. I'm not at all sure that the authority and leadership style of Jesus can be applied well when we start involving property. With many groups (including churches and Christian communal organizations), decisions about the use of property are the most problematic and divisive, and human authority is often appealed to. I'm not sure Jesus gives us good advice about this problem. Because he did not face it. He counseled his followers to give away all and not gather up treasures and not resist those who would beg or steal from them. But if we don't follow Jesus' counsel in regarding the gathering and holding of property, I think we probably won't be able to follow Jesus' counsel very well in our attempts to manage our property and resolve conflicts over it. All of Jesus' teaching holds together. We cannot just follow part of it.