Authority pt. 3: the body of Christ

This is the last installment in a three-part series of posts on authority. See part 1 here and part 2 here.

Disciples of Christ who accept my assertions about A1 vs. A2 and their implications face the question of how to exist as a community if we are not to seek the formal order of hierarchy.

The community of Christians depicted in Acts is analogous to Israel during the period of judges. The community of Christians today is analogous to Israel during its period of monarchy. I won’t get into the controversy of the who, how, and why of this transformation other than to say that many in the community felt it necessary and appropriate to rein in the proliferation of shortcomings that were on display in the network. Priorities had to be set and choices made. A central issue was (and remains) the tension between the desire for maximizing the number of conversions versus maximizing the depth of spiritual maturity in each believer. And there was (and remains) tension between the impulse to live at peace with the state and the society it encompasses versus the inevitable trouble entailed in witnessing for truth among the deceived.

Benjamin Tucker asserts, “Society finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.”

I believe that God dislikes human relations that are based on A1 — authority in the pejorative sense. I also think that most people dislike A1, at least when they don’t wield it. Further, I believe that God wants the catholic church (not the Roman Catholic Church but everyone that Jesus recognizes as a follower of his) to embody his mysterious non-hierarchical order, which confounds the human intellect. I regard this as part of our mandate as his witnesses in the world. However, I do not believe that he wants us just to destroy hierarchy wholesale.

This leads me to two questions. First, why did the Israelites want to exchange an A2 society for an A1 state? Second, how can we become a network that fulfills God’s will and demonstrates his order?

Israel’s apostasy

There were probably several factors in the Israelites’ desire to have a human king, but I believe that chief among them was that they found it too burdensome and terrifying to relate to God directly. Remember that their conception of God differed from the conception of God that most Christians have today. We could do with a lot more of the fear of the lord that they had. On the other hand, they wanted something that we have, and take largely for granted, and probably can’t really imagine lacking — a mediator.

Moses was reluctant to lead and insisted on having a mediator, Aaron, between him and the rest of the Israelites. Similarly, when God called his people to the summit of Mt. Sinai, they refused to go and insisted on having a mediator, Moses, between them and God.

Moses had a fear of people, and the people had a fear of God. But isn’t a fear of God a good thing (e.g., the beginning of wisdom)? Yes, but we might differentiate between reverent and irreverent varieties of fear of God. The Israelites’ refusal to heed God’s call to meet him at the summit of the mountain is an example of an irreverent fear of God — a refusal to trust him, in this case.

Christ mediator

Christian doctrine holds that Jesus Christ took a form both fully human and fully divine. The significance of this for our purposes here is that we can orient toward God in the form of a human who was subject to all the frailties and temptations that we face as humans. This makes the mediation of Jesus Christ a key that unlocks our ability to include A2 in and exclude A1 from our interactions.

Jesus acts as the human, and therefore less-scary-than-God, mediator that we want between God and us, and he does not ask for a mediator — such as Aaron — between him and us. However, Jesus is not merely a human but is God the Son. So Jesus is our mediator in a sense, yet there is actually no mediator since him who would be mediator is in fact God. Being both divine and human, Jesus is the exclusive source and bearer of A1 authority among humans. This paradox of the God–man who is king leaves us with no excuse for mis-assigning A1 authority to humans.

But his authority is not limited to the A1 type as God. He also displayed unmatched A2 during his ministry in human form on the earth. He brings an astounding, incomprehensible order. It is not the formal order that we are familiar with from the innovations conceived by humans. Our factitious order is a counterfeit of God’s artless, spontaneous order. Jesus is the king of kings, but he doesn’t create a hierarchy that we recognize in the delegation of portions of A1 to subordinates.

Jesus doesn’t just mediate between God and humans as God and human; he also mediates between monarchy and anarchy as the monarchal head of an anarchic community. It is as if a network of kings existed as a community in anarchy — yet with one king at the center of, over, and within all. Many people find this too paradoxical to take seriously. My only reply is that I no longer see truth untouched by paradox. (Here I mean eternal truth rather than merely accurate assessments of temporal reality.)


So how can anyone proceed from current circumstances toward the ideal I have sketched? Devising a plan would require employing means that are contrary to the end. I only propose that we stop subscribing to the false religion of formal order. I see no reason to fight with the hierarchy of Christendom. I merely withdraw my support for it. I tolerate it as well as I can, viewing it as a temporary arrangement that must disintegrate eventually. I recognize its flaws and place no faith or hope in it. But I also trust that God is working through it and is preparing us to exit at the right time as Noah and all exited the ark.

Incidentally, my view of the state is equivalent. I see no good case for promoting large-scale, direct conflict with the state. I simply give it no moral support. I pay taxes and make the other token gestures toward obedience without paying it any respect in my heart. This seems enough for now.

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.