Musings on Leadership (3)
‘Authority’ is a Relational Concept
12. It’s correct to say that ‘authority’ is power but it isn’t enough to say that. Authority is a particular expression, exercise or manifestation of power. Authority is power within a certain context and is interpreted or shaped by numerous factors.
13. We can talk about the power or force of the wind, the sea, an atom-bomb or any other physical phenomenon but we wouldn’t speak of their authority. There is no ‘social aspect’ to force (power) but there is to authority. Authority is power exercised within relationships. People are called to ‘obey’ or ‘submit’ to authority or those who have authority. Authority is a ‘relational’ or ‘social’ exercise of power.
‘Authority’, Limiting Factors
14. Because life (moral, social and spiritual) is incredibly complex a woman may be an authority in one area but a novice in a host of others. She may be a brilliant high court judge but incompetent in managing her children. A man may be a brilliant math teacher but ignorant on more complex ethical questions. A Christian may be technically brilliant at exegeting biblical texts but hopeless at congregational organization. This should mean that people are regarded as authorities only in the areas in which they are especially gifted or experienced. It isn’t unusual, of course, to come across people who excel in many life-skills and are therefore highly esteemed in all those areas.
15. In choosing leaders to have authority over them, a community is not confessing that the leader is uniformly capable in all of the life-skills. They fully expect their leaders to be weaker in some areas than in others but their choice of them is made on the basis that:
• They are especially gifted in the areas which are of primary importance to the community as a community;
• They are humble enough to seek counsel from others in the areas of relative weakness and ignorance within the areas of their leadership responsibilities;
• They have an understanding of the limits of their authority so that they won’t conclude they have been granted God-like powers;
• Each of them is part of a leadership structure that will help to supply what is lacking in the individuals as individuals.
16. In choosing men to exercise authority over them, an assembly of Christians is not giving them authority over every aspect of each disciple’s life. However devoted to God and the congregation’s welfare, the leaders are neither all-knowing nor all-wise. It is neither humanly possible nor desirable for leaders to know all the intimacies of the lives of the community so as (let’s say) to ‘give them guidance’. Only God is capable of that task and he says less in specifics than most believers would want him to say to them. This should mean that the church has a clear view of what their leaders are called to do. If they do have a clear understanding about this, where goodwill prevails there will be fewer conflicts between the leaders and the followers; the leaders will be able to give more quality time and energy to the tasks to which they have been called and to which they committed themselves rather than having to judge or superintend every single thing and each disciple will be encouraged to “bear his/her own burden” and make his/her own contribution to the up-building of the congregation.
A Working Definition Of A Leader/‘Authority’
17. By a “leader” I mean one who guides, who shapes the actions and opinions of others. He is one who represents the views and feelings of others. He is someone ‘out in front’ showing the way or embodying the principles he shares with others. He is one who has ‘authority’. The word leader is elastic enough to embrace all these ideas and more like them. Depending on context, leadership stresses one or more aspects of this complex of ideas. Like so many other rich words, leader insists on having a definite meaning but it resists verbal imprisonment.
18. Sometimes a leader leads simply by repeating the mind of the community as a spokesman of the community. At other times he shapes and moulds the vision and practice of that community. In this he is ‘leading’. Characteristically the leader embodies and/or promotes the principles on which a group is founded to a ‘better than average’ degree. He would be acknowledged as a leader precisely because he stands for and lives out those esteemed principles to a marked degree. It’s because we recognize others as more capable or devoted than ourselves that we are pleased to acknowledge them as our leaders. Our convictions are important to us so we want our wisest and most articulate people to lead us in this area. There’s nothing strange or sinister about any of this. As C.H. Dodd put it, “Truly religious people recognize their betters.” (Even truly non-religious people can recognize their betters. Christians have no monopoly on humility and honesty.)
19. These remarks centre on religious leaders and deal mainly with “good” leaders. Bad leadership will, now and then, serve as a backdrop for the discussion of good leaders. Anyone who has thought about it for a moment recognizes that there are good leaders who don’t profess the Christian faith. Being a Christian, however, I’d propose that good leadership is a gift of God to humanity and that wherever or in whoever goodness or giftedness is manifested that it’s the work of God. It’s Christian imperialism in one of its most degenerate forms to claim that God only blesses Christians with moral grandeur, wisdom and insight. It’s also nonsense. But I will be speaking in terms of biblical leadership even when I don’t use that adjective.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.