Authority pt. 2: two conceptions of order

This entry continues on the theme of authority from the entry of 5 November.

Authoritative vs. authoritarian

In the period of judges, Israel was a community with no fixed ruler other than God. The nation was an amorphous network in which all people were equal in status but not in influence. Authoritative people received esteem granted voluntarily by others. These people carried A2 authority, but not A1.

In contrast, the institution of the monarchy conferred A1 authority to a human. In essence, the Israelites placed a man on God’s throne and created a rigid hierarchy that denied the inherent equality of individuals. A human ruler has to be authoritarian. The better kings may have exhibited authoritativeness periodically, but the point is that authoritarianism was always present.

Network vs. hierarchy

To generalize, a group devoid of A1 is a network, and a group that incorporates A1 is a hierarchy. A2 can exist in both arrangements, so the distinction between networks and hierarchies rests on whether A1 is present.

From a utilitarian perspective, the shortcomings of a network — anarchy — exceed those of a hierarchy. Or, more precisely, people exhibit greater shortcomings in the absence of hierarchical strictures. Yet a hierarchy also has shortcomings that I believe outweigh those of a network.

Order vs. disorder

People sometimes have difficulty turning a critical eye toward deeply held beliefs, especially those that have not been examined previously. The belief in hierarchy and A1 falls into this category. To circumvent natural mental defenses, I want to step away from human interactions and instead make an analogy out of scientific forestry, which James C. Scott depicted in a great essay at Cato Unbound titled “The Trouble with the View from Above,” which relates to our topic here. I recommend reading the whole thing, but I’ll just refer to the section on the invention of scientific forestry. The context is that princely states of Prussia and Saxony in the 1700s derived revenue from logging. To manage efficiently, the states devised methods for measuring the distribution of trees by size in a given area and thus calculating the greatest sustainable timber yield of that area. As Scott wrote:

“It is, however, the next logical step in German scientific forestry that commands our attention. That step was to attempt to create through careful seeding, planting and cutting, a redesigned forest that was easier to count, manipulate, measure, and assess. Thus was born the modern, ‘production’ forest: a mono-cropped (Norway spruce or Scotch pine), same-age, timber-farm planted in straight rows. The very uniformity of the forest vastly simplified its management and exploitation. Forestry crews could follow a few simple rules for clearing the underbrush, trimming and fertilizing; the mature trees of comparable girth and length could be felled into the alleys and marketed as homogeneous units to logging contractors and timber merchants. For nearly a century, during which German scientific forestry as a codified discipline became the world standard, the ‘production forest’ was a resounding success in terms of steady yields at low cost.

“Redesigning the forest as a ‘one-commodity machine,’ however, had, in the long run, catastrophic consequences for forest health and production. The mono-cropped, same-age forest was far more vulnerable to disease, blight, and storm damage. Its simplicity and formal order, together with the elimination of underbrush, deadfalls and litter dramatically reduced the diversity of the flora, insect, mammal, and bird populations so essential to soil building processes. Once the soil capital deposited by the old-growth forest had been depleted, the new forest entered a period of steep decline in growth and production. The term ‘Waldsterben’ entered the vocabulary of modern forestry science and led, in turn, to huge outlays for fertilizers, rodenticides, fungicides and insecticides as well as efforts to artificially reintroduce birds, insects and mammals that had disappeared.”

For the purposes of our discussion here, the key term in the passage above is “formal order.” The natural forest is characterized by anarchy, among other things. The modern conception of the word anarchy often treats it as a synonym for chaos or disorder. This is an egregious abuse of the word, but it reflects the fact that the natural human impulse is to replace anarchy with formal order.

A1 and its attendant hierarchy produce a measure of formal order, which appeals to and comforts many people. And there are benefits to formal order. But formal order is inferior to the natural, spontaneous order that God creates. God’s order is so different from the human conception of order that we view it usually as disorder. (Obviously, though, this does not mean that everything that looks to us like disorder is actually God’s order.)

In the next entry, I will look at some implications of A1 and A2 for those of us who are trying to tread the way to becoming Christians.

Authority pt. 1: two types of authority

The scriptures are rife with examples of people leading and following other people. But they also indicate that each person should follow none but God. Is this not the essence of the first commandment?

To illustrate, chapters 8 and 12 of 1 Samuel reveal that the Israelites’ desire for a human king signified a rejection of and rebellion against God, who is the source and only legitimate possessor of authority. The idolatry of the human monarchy was the root of subsequent trouble and suffering.

And in Matthew 20:25–28, Jesus affirms that authority should not shape people’s interactions. He doesn’t bother with an explanation, but it seems plain to me that all people must share equal status because God created us in his image. There are two basic problems with injecting authority into human relations. First, it creates unequal power dynamics that are arbitrary and contrary to God’s perfect will. Second, it implies idolatry because a human must take a place that rightfully belongs to God.

His rejection of authority is jarring on its own, but Jesus doesn’t stop or even pause there. Instead, he points straight at a radically different and unnatural ideal to guide interpersonal relations: voluntary servanthood.

But I should step back and clarify what I mean by his rejection of authority because some would understandably dispute that authority is rejected here and elsewhere in scripture. First, passages such as Romans 13:1–6, Titus 3:1–2 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 definitely affirm authority in the sense that they instruct us not to rebel against civil government and other forms of institutional authority merely for the sake of making a point. We should seek to live peaceably as far as reasonably possible.

But there are circumstances in which opposing institutional authority is not only acceptable but also necessary, as illustrated in scriptures such as 2 Kings 9, Daniel 3, and Acts 4 among others. Determining when to defy requires the exercise of wisdom and discernment in each case individually rather than the application of any rule or formula to all cases uniformly. That said, I think that it is appropriate to distinguish between two broad types of authority and that the distinction makes the question of when to reject authority less daunting.

On one hand we have constituted authority, which is an obtained status that entails a right to decide matters in a certain scope and to command and expect obedience. I think of this as authority in the pejorative sense, which I will abbreviate as A1. I believe that the Bible acknowledges God alone as the rightful bearer of A1 with regard to humans.

God delegated freely to people a measure of A1 over the natural environment of the earth, but there is no legitimate basis for any human to assert A1 over any other human. A1 among humans is necessarily institutional, hierarchical, and legalistic in nature. Ecclesiastes 5:7–8:

If in a province you see the poor oppressed, right and justice violated, do not be surprised. You will be told that officials are under the supervision of superiors, who are supervised in turn; you will hear talk of “the common good” and the “service of the king.”

On the other hand is immanent authority, which is a capacity to elucidate and to motivate people. I will abbreviate this type of authority as A2.

I believe the Bible signals that God rejects human-to-human A1 and endows certain people with A2. A1 is based on status, A2 on competence. A1 benefits primarily the bearer, A2 the others. I associate A1 with authoritarian leadership, A2 with authoritative leadership.

The 300-year period of the judges in the history of Israel is an example of a nation characterized by an absence of A1 and the presence of A2. As an aside, this is essentially what I mean when I refer to anarchy (αναρχος — anarchos). The word means literally no ruler, but I think of it more specifically as no fixed seats of power that are handed from human to human.

The period of the judges was one in which each person did what was right in his own eyes and followed others not under compulsion, but only voluntarily when a person demonstrated A2. The spirit of God would assign a certain function to a particular individual for a certain time and empower that person to execute the assignment. The label judge, which might be roughly equivalent to apostle in New Testament nomenclature — was applied to people who demonstrated A2 and earned the esteem of cohorts.

The spirit-enabled person had to choose whether to rise to the task, and failure was always possible due to temptation, distraction, opposition, and failure of others in the community to recognize the person’s God-given authority (A2). And this means that the other members of the community had to choose individually whether to follow a particular person to achieve an objective. They had to discern whether a person was a fraud or was really chosen by and filled with the spirit of God for a particular purpose.

Jesus affirmed that one who recognizes and welcomes a prophet, qua prophet, receives a prophet’s reward. This means essentially that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and relationship with God. There seem to be many people who feel that such an arrangement isolates individuals and leaves them vulnerable. This risk exists, but the arrangement also has the potential to liberate people to relate to each other while maintaining a constant orientation toward God. It allows God to direct and coordinate social interactions. The alternative is for this role to be usurped by humans and their institutions, which are really designed by and for the benefit of spiritual powers, authorities, principalities and dominions.