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Authority

April 11, 2011
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In discussions of authority a single question tends to dominate: who has authority? A second question should also be asked: what kind? This question seems often not to be asked because the assumption is that authority is authority plain and simple. However, when people don’t ask this question they often end up granting, taking, or striving for the wrong kind of authority. This can be a mistake with real and terrible consequences.

Two major kinds of authority exist. Command authority is the one that can be granted and which we most often talk about. The basis of command authority is power which motivates others to obey through rewards or punishment. Your boss has command authority gained through the promise of reward (a paycheck and hopefully benefits). A tyrant has command authority gained through the ability to hurt others (although most tyrants also reward people). The limit of command authority is the power by which one can motivate others. Someone who can pay you a million dollars probably has more command authority than someone who can pay you ten dollars.

The second kind of authority is expert authority. Experts are sometimes called authorities (“an authority on the behavior of whales”) and they do, indeed, wield authority. However, their power operates very differently. Experts are authorities because they are knowledgeable and correct about their area of expertise. If an expert engineer tells you to alter your blueprints and you don’t then the thing that you build probably won’t work. Someone with command authority creates rewards and punishments. Someone with expert authority gives instructions such that the universe itself rewards obedience and punishes disobedience. (This is perhaps one reason why experts are often resented less than commanders – experts don’t create situations that force you to act a particular way. Those situations already afflict you and an expert helps you navigate them.) This may sound like a strange way to phrase things but it puts both sorts of authority in the same frame: both motivate through rewards and punishments. Both sorts are limited by the power of these rewards and punishments. An expert in insect behavior has little ability to reward or punish most people as I’ve discovered firsthand. Most people simply don’t care enough about insects to want to be right about them. If someone ever became an expert in anything, able to tell you exactly how to live so that you accomplished everything possible that you wanted, that person would have enormous authority.

This also introduces another important concept when discussing authority: jurisdiction or scope. It is useful not only to know what rank someone might hold with regard to authority but also the scope of that authority. There’s an unfortunate tendency to equate rank and scope perhaps because some of the people with the highest ranks (dictators) also exercise authority in every sphere they are able to influence. However, rank and scope are not the same thing. A police captain outranks me at a crime scene. If the same police captain shows up in my classroom as a student (which would be a very strange occurrence but ignore that for a minute) I outrank him. We both have authority but in separate jurisdictions.

One of the first times I used the term “command authority” on this blog was in the articles on the authority of women in the Old Testament. The reason I chose to focus on command authority was simple: command authority is granted while expert authority can spring into being without anyone’s formal consent. We learn much more about women in the Old Testament by asking what authority women were societally granted than we do by asking what authority women exercised more or less on their own. This is part of the problem command that authority often has with expert authority: expert authority can crop up anywhere. There are some ways to prevent this (for instance, American society banned teaching slaves to read in an attempt to limit their power) but they all require a great deal of control. For most authorities creating rules about who can and cannot be an authority will be problematic. Those rules will be under attack by the mere existence of expert authorities who aren’t allowed to be authorities. For instance, if one makes a rule that Norwegians can never run lumber mills, then one must hope that no Norwegians show up who are experts at running lumber mills because that rule will then become hard to justify.

All of this so far has been theoretical. I won’t apologize for this. The failure to think about the theory behind authority has resulted in some very bad governmental structures within various churches with which I’m familiar (to various degrees). For instance, the failure to think about limits on the scope of authority has helped create a number of cults. The failure to think carefully about the difference between expert authority and command authority can easily result in placing people with expertise in a limited field over a much larger field which they will then manage poorly. However, despite my defense of theory I do not intend to stop there. First, this framework will be important in an upcoming discussion of early church leadership. Second, we should think briefly about how authority should function in the church.

It’s fairly obvious that the church should be led by experts. In fact, expert authority is the kind that consistently makes life better for the people under said authority. Someone who has command authority but no expert authority will occasionally make things better in situations when it is simply important that someone be in charge of making decisions because decisions must be made very fast. For instance, emergency response often requires that someone call the shots even if everyone is equally qualified. However, most of the time command authority that is not merged with expert authority is a problem. Dictators are a good example. Their command authority works quite well for them and quite poorly for everyone else. Sometimes command authority wielded by incompetents simply hurts everyone. Expert authority, though, makes things better. If I attempt to fix the plumbing things will not go well. If I submit to the expert authority of a plumber I will do better even if I just take advice and still do the work myself.

However, expert authority in large groups frequently requires command authority as well. Teaching elementary school is a clear example. Teachers are the experts in their class but they require some level of command authority to enforce order. Now, at a higher level, for instance graduate level classes, command authority is less of a necessity. The people under authority have all chosen to be under said authority and so they will not contest the authority. Hopefully churches are more like graduate classes than first grade and so the relative balance of authority types will be heavily tilted towards expert authority. This does not mean that command authority is always a bad thing. Churches are large organizations and as such normally need some structure to run effectively. However, this brings us to the last question: scope.

Ideally, a church is organized so that the scope of a person’s authority coincides with that person’s expert authority. If someone is in charge of organizing the Sunday School curriculum they should be good at that but they should also be empowered so that they do not need to win that argument with everyone who thinks otherwise to maintain control. The problem of scope is an especially pronounced one in churches. Pastors are frequently expected to master a huge array of different subjects, from counseling to Koine Greek. Ideally a pastor would actually be an expert in all these areas. Practically, though, no one person can do everything. The imbalances created by empowering people where they are not skilled and then demanding that they fix things can be severe. For a morally-deficient pastor it can mean that the pastor harms people by insisting on all sorts of things they do not actually know but about which they are empowered to make authoritative statements. For a morally better pastor it may mean that the congregants are displeased when the pastor cannot do parts of the vast job laid before them.

This is a brief sketch, and, frankly, a hard article to write. Given a specific example it is often clear that, for instance, a particular church has not properly considered whether authority comes from one’s God-given and God-enhanced talents or from the ability to kick people out. In abstract, though, these points are harder to make. However, real problems are caused by a failure to think about some of these basic ideas and so whether or not I have done the subject justice it seems wise to bring it up.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    April 17, 2011 7:33 am

    Good article, O Expert on Insect Behavior! I will try to follow this series on church leadership to see if I can help my church at all on that front. Right now it’s tough to know who has authority there other than the pastor and co-pastor…

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  1. Honor: Kephale and Authority Part 2 « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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