It is often the custom when discussing the meaning of words to begin by going to a large dictionary and then reproducing the definitions that are given there. I want to talk about the meaning of the two words in our title without boring the reader with a series of definitions. I would suggest that we can go a long way in understanding whether churches control their members appropriately or not by looking at these two words. To anticipate my argument I am going to indicate that one is good and desirable while the other, while not necessarily all bad, is open to problems and sometimes abusive practice.
Both words in our title come from a common root, the word ‘authority’. Authority is virtually synonymous with power, but it implies that the power has been given to someone through some legal or hierarchical process. Police and politicians are accorded power and authority and so are, in a different way, religious leaders. Power and authority enables individuals to change things because they have the means to compel others to do what they want. Sometimes it is said that this power is used well with the consent of those over whom authority is held. Other times the person in charge, possessing the power, does what he wants with little consultation with those who have to suffer the consequences of the power. It is when we have the sense that power has been used without consultation or consent that we are led to describe it as authoritarian.
Before we return to our second word, I want us to think about the first – authoritative. This word implies that an individual has obtained a level of power, not because he/she has been awarded it by an institution, but because there is an observable a level of expertise, knowledge or experience in the individual for them to have earned respect and influence. I suppose the best example of this contrast between institutional authority and the other kind is found in the gospels. There Jesus is compared with the authorities, because ‘he taught with authority and not as the Scribes’. From this passage we pick up a sense of a self-authenticating authority and power which in no way depended on an institution to give it strength.
The quality that we refer to as ‘authoritative’ can of course be faked in the short term, but over a longer period, the genuine man or woman who possesses those qualities of expertise, knowledge and experience, will continue to hold their position of trust in the hearts and minds of their followers. When that position of trust has been justly earned, then that person can become a reliable leader, whether as a politician or church leader. People feel able to look up to them and rely on them and also trust what they say. While it is not impossible for that position of trust to be corrupted in some way by human power-seeking, the hope is that the leader and user of power will continue to hold their integrity for the rest of their lives. People deserve to be able to trust those people to whom they have made themselves vulnerable by accepting them as their leaders and guides.
From what I have said so far, it is not difficult for us to imagine the opposite qualities contained or implied in the word authoritarian. Authority that is awarded by an institution is not necessarily awarded justly or appropriately, as we all know. The actual moment when the authority becomes ‘authoritarian’ is when the exercise of power shifts firmly to the interest of the one holding it, rather to anyone else. Unfortunately, as we have discussed before in other posts, people who come under authoritarian leadership don’t always realise that there is anything wrong. I gave a poignant example of this when I described the experience of the humiliated schoolboy at Trinity Brentwood. His treatment before the whole school fitted into what he thought was normal Christian behaviour. No doubt he had an image of an authoritarian God whose means of control and punish was to belittle and humiliate those that displeased him. The culture of the authoritarian church will be very familiar with the passages of the Bible that are all about punishment and sit lightly on those passages that want to suggest that the Christian path is one towards human flourishing.
There is a lot more I could say about the contrast of meaning between the two words of our title. I think the reader knows enough to realise that I do not feel that an ‘authoritarian’ Church adequately reflects the style of an ‘authoritative’ Jesus. Jesus’ style was to invite, never force. He invited individuals to come to follow a God who wanted us all to live richly and generously. The authoritarian God, who can of course be read out of the Bible, seemed much interested in destruction and control of his people, and he seems to have had little attraction to Jesus. In the last resort the question of which kind of God do we feel Jesus is pointing us to, has to be left to the individual. Do we focus on a God of punishment and control, or do we glimpse through Jesus a God of overwhelming generosity and goodness?