Healthy vs. Unhealthy Authority
By James A. Karpowitz
Authority is supposed to be a tool for good. You see it in the world when a policeman corrals a speeder or nabs a robbery suspect. You can observe it in a military command structure, keeping an entire army operating as a cohesive unit. In a Christian context, it’s difficult to argue from scripture that authority ought not to exist. God places spiritual leadership in the church. The Bible does say that the husband is the head of the wife. God does have parents exercise authority over their children by setting reasonable parameters and limits for their behavior (no Jason, you can’t attend that unsupervised party or practice your Tae Kwon Do skills on your little sister). I’ve heard much in conservative Christian circles about submission to authority over the years. I would like to see more emphasis on how healthy, functional authority is supposed to operate. Having acknowledged that authority does have its proper place, it is equally important to recognize that authority is not intended to be an end in itself, that it can function in an unhealthy manner and that it can even be falsely assumed. I just finished a bowl of cereal and it occurred to me that authority gone bad is like milk gone sour. It may have started out good but it ended up bad. Unfortunately, authority can turn unhealthy despite the best of intentions. I want to examine a few ways that authority can curdle, so to speak. The primary context for our discussion here will be Christian relationships between parents and adult children, husbands and wives, and pastors and their flock.
1 Tim 6:10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
In and of itself, money is neither good nor evil. Notice that the passage didn’t say, “Money is the root of all evil” (as it is often misquoted as saying). It’s when you love it in a covetous manner that it becomes a root of evil. Authority is a lot like money. It represents the ability to do things that you desire to do, as well as compelling others to do things you want done. Authority can be very potent, perhaps more so than raw power. Dr. Tony Evans astutely contrasted power and authority. He observed that if you watch a football game, you’ll notice how a team of powerful, 300-lb men responds to the authority of small guys in striped shirts with their whistles. A traffic light or a policeman can allow and disallow the movement of hundreds of tons of vehicles. You see, power may represent ability but authority is about control, which makes it so alluring. When authority becomes it own objective or when a person loves authority in a covetous manner, the result will be a root of evil that will pierce not only that person but others as well.
While there is a scriptural concept of authority, the word of God does not permit a Christian believer to exercise it in a self-serving manner; neither is a believer to use it to elevate him/herself to a position of prominence or dominion. In fact, I find the opposite to be true:
Luke 22:24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. 25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. 26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
Jesus Himself makes the point that the “greatest” is not the person who places himself above others but rather is the one who serves others. Authority ought not to be considered a warm up jacket for anyone to be the center of their own universe! I said earlier that you hear a lot in Christian circles about submission to authority but check this out:
1 Peter 5:5 Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. 6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time
How about that? Peter speaks on submission but right on the heels of it he tells all of us to be subject to one another, to clothe ourselves with humility, for God resists the proud. He’s not speaking just to those who may be too proud to submit to authority but to those in authority who may be, themselves, lifted up with pride. It does happen. If you witness authority gone bad, you can be reasonably sure that pride factors in there somewhere. Such is the danger of falling in love with authority as a way of enhancing your own status or position. I see a balance being taught in the scripture that leaves no room for pride or self-centeredness anywhere. I certainly do not see authority being offered as a means to ramrod a personal agenda down anyone’s throat.
Another thing to consider is that nobody has the right to exercise authority they do not legitimately have. The city of Colorado Springs doesn’t get to tell the residents of Boulder what color they can paint their houses! It may or may not surprise you to know that not every claim to authority is authentic. A person may be able to convince others to do his (or her) bidding merely by the force of their personality, because they can leverage some kind of advantage or weakness or because they can pull strings behind the scenes. Merely doing so, however, does not validate what they are doing. So… healthy authority remains within its limitations and when it exceeds them, it does so without the blessings of God. Remember that authority is under authority too. The apostle Paul was about to get whacked (either in the corporal sense or in the Mafia sense – take your pick) and he even appealed to Roman authority, essentially saying, “Guys, is this even legal, seeing as how I’m a Roman?” (see Acts 22:25)
Let’s try a little experiment. Okay all you readers… stop here, drop to the ground and give me 50 pushups… NOW!!!! Hey, what’s going on here? Nobody’s doing their pushups. The drill sergeant approach isn’t working. I’d better kick it up a notch. Look readers, God spoke to me and told me that all of you need to be doing your pushups and if you don’t listen to me, you’re not just ignoring me, you’re ignoring Him!!!! Still no exercising going on here… ::sniff:: ::sob:: ::sob:: (start whiney voice) I just care so much about you and I don’t want to see you become couch potatoes and you’re not listening to me… booooooooo-hooooooooo.. how can you treat me this way? WAAAAAAAAHHHHHH….. Hmm… still nothing. Ahem, turn in your Bibles with me to the book of Pilates chapter 23 and God is going to speak to our hearts on the importance of doing pushups…..
Okay, had enough? I’m sure a few of you are ready to slug me at this point and I trust that none of you actually did the pushups! Our little experiment was an illustration of what illegitimate authority might sound like in action. I have no right to compel any of you to exercise. None of you recognize me as any sort of fitness guru (shall I submit a photo to confirm this?) so why would you even want to listen to anything I might say on the subject? So here I am, trying to exercise authority I don’t have by brute force, by religious compulsion and by emotional manipulation. All of you who looked at your computer real strangely and said, “No way buddy” have a pretty good idea of how to spot and avoid illegitimate authority. Those who actually did the pushups, well, your arms should feel better in a few days! Something tells me that the example may have echoed some things that you’ve heard within your family or your church.
The problem with authority gone amok is that it can create real havoc in the mind of a person who truly wants to do the right thing, who wants to follow and obey God. Maybe you find yourself frustrated, confused and wondering if there’s really something wrong with you. After all, you probably didn’t wake up this morning thinking, “How can I rebel today?” May I propose that if this is the position in which you find yourself, perhaps you are not the problem? As I write this, I cannot know every situation and potential issue you readers might be facing but here are a few questions to ponder.
Are you are constantly trying to please a person who is in love with his or her own ability to be in control? Are you are being pressed into a position in life that you know you are not supposed to be? Are you trying to find your footing on a constantly shifting landscape of unwritten rules? Do find yourself with natural abilities or gifts and yet being told that developing those gifts is somehow vain, conceited or “unspiritual”? Are you being pushed in the complete opposite direction of the way you are basically wired? Are you doing things out of guilt, shame or manipulation? Do you feel like a person is attempting to occupy the position of God in your life and be a conduit to the Almighty on your behalf? Are you finding yourself reaching adulthood or well into adulthood and yet not being recognized as or allowed to function as an adult?
A “yes” to any of the above might signal a possible authority issue in the sense that someone is attempting to unjustly influence or control you outside of the true scope of their authority. I’m not attempting to offer all the answers here. My main purpose in writing this essay is a first step toward world domination (just threw that in to see if you were paying attention!) Seriously, I just want to offer you a few ideas to consider, to take back to the scriptures and ponder. Authority is a legitimate scriptural concept, but it can be corrupted by self-interest, and not every claim to authority is necessarily legitimate. Your mileage may vary as to how exactly this all pans out in your individual situations but if you get a good handle on what healthy, functional authority looks like, the unhealthy, dysfunctional stuff becomes fairly easy to spot.
_____________________________________________Jim Karpowitz, 44, became a Christian on the heels of the of the early 70’s Jesus Movement. Having lived through periods of unhealthy church dynamics, the aftermath of alcoholism in his family and the premature loss of his father, he is grateful that Jesus Christ brings healing and restoration. Jim and his wife Sue have been married for 16 years and spent several years in children’s and youth ministries. Presently they home school their two children and are strongly committed to developing healthy marriage, family, church and interpersonal relationships. Jim earns his keep as the last surviving full time avionics bench repair technician in the state of Wisconsin. He also enjoys writing, ministering as a singer, songwriter and worship leader and he has more hobbies than free time these days. Sue has a BSN degree but hung up her stethoscope to become a full time mom. She is also a gifted public speaker, an avid runner and best friend to her husband. The Karpowitz’s live in Wisconsin and can be contacted at Karpman@aol.com.