Within Christianity, the idea of authority is spoken about feeely and often: authority in the church, authority at home, spiritual authority. Heirarchy, authority of one person over another person. But what does any of it even mean?
I have heard it said that women cannot be pastors/leaders/teachers, because then these women would be in a position of authority over men. Those who hold this belief tend to quote 1 Timothy 2:12 and other verses in support of this doctrine.
The translation of the word “authority” in any passage is something that has been discussed in detail, and many people would like to take it at face value. If that’s the case, I would like to look at what this authority is and what it entails within Christianity.
I have questions:
When someone says that a pastor is in a position of authority, what does that mean?
In what way does someone standing behind a pulpit preaching a sermon give them authority?
How is this authority different than if someone listens to that exact same sermon online or reads it as a blog post?
If two well respected pastors have two different viewpoints about something, does one have more authority than the other?
Some might say that each pastor has authority over their own congregation. To that, I ask this question: what does this authority allow each pastor to do?
Does it mean they are allowed to choose when to replace the carpets? Does it mean they can tell people how to dress? Does it mean they can dictate which Christian authors you can or cannot study in small groups? Or within the walls of your own home?
Let’s look at what the Bible says.
Hebrews 13:17 is one Bible verse used by many Christians “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
There are a few key words in this verse that sound black and white. “Obey your leaders” sounds pretty straightforward. However, when one digs deeper into the text itself, into the Greek, they will find that this verse is describing more of a relationship than a hierarchy.
There appears to be a great deal of interpretation in this passage by translators. For example, the word “authority” doesn’t even exist in this verse in the original text. In some translations, there was also a second “obey” inserted that was not in the Greek. The word “obey” in this instance also doesn’t mean the same thing in Greek as it does in English.
There are other verses like this, the verses used over and over again like broken records, thrown like grenades at those who question authority at all. The nerve. Heathens.
So, what about authority in the home?
Some say that men have authority over women. Some say that a husband has authority over a wife. What does this authority allow him to do?
Does it allow him to decide if or when the family should move?
Does it mean that he can decide whether or not his wife works outside the home?
If his wife is dressed in a way he thinks is too revealing, does he have the authority to make her change her clothes? If she is wearing a blue dress and he would rather she wear pink, does he have the authority to insist she wear his preferred colour?
Does he have the final say about discipline of the children? If the answer is yes, would this also apply in blended families, where each parent has their own child(ren)?
Does he get to decide how many kids they will have, and when to have them?
Can he tell his wife who to vote for? How about in the AGM (annual general meeting) at church? Does he essentially get two votes, his wife’s and his own?
Can he tell her how much time she is allowed to spend with family and friends? Can he choose her friends?
Can he decide which books she is allowed to read, what she is allowed to watch on TV?
Does a husband have the authority to decide which doctrine his wife follows?
Can anyone determine the convictions of another person’s heart?
I have heard the idea that the husband is the leader no matter what, even if he doesn’t feel like a leader, even if his wife is “resisting” his leadership. That is the position God has placed him in, and that is all that matters.
This belief is concerning to me on many levels. What does a husband have the authority to do in order to enforce this leadership if his wife resists it?
I have heard the term “equal in value, different in roles.” But when the roles place some people under the spiritual authority, in a position of obedience to others simply because of their gender, the “equal in value” part of the equation is a lie.
The truth is that as soon as we start placing Christians in a hierarchy, we are doing a couple of things:
- We are misunderstanding God’s kingdom – His upside down kingdom, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. We are attempting to reorder it in a legalistic way.
- We are placing some people closer to God than others.
When a person or organization claims that God gives one person or gender spiritual authority over another, we take away the choice of the one who is supposedly under this authority. The choice in this case is the one of submission, because authority by its very nature requires obedience.
The reason this is important and can be so dangerous – even abusive – is that so many Christians, especially women, have been taught that by obeying those who have this supposed spiritual authority, they are somehow pleasing God, closer to God, even honoured by God if they suffer as a result of this obedience.
Even if this suffering is at the hands of their husbands.
People tend to equate the idea of submission with obedience, but they aren’t the same thing. Submission is an attitude someone chooses to have, obedience means “do what you’re told.” .We’ve blurred the lines and confused meanings here.
We as Christians should submit and show respect to one another. We should be considerate. We should treat each other with dignity, with love.
But in the end, we are each individually responsible for our own actions and beliefs. We don’t get a pass because our pastor or or spouse told us to do or think something and so we went along with it. We don’t get to claim innocence because “they were in charge.” We are constantly choosing; even our indecisiveness is a choice.
God is our final authority on everything. And since that’s the case, there is no need for any one person – a pastor, a spouse, or anyone else – to have spiritual authority over any other person here on earth.