As I understand it, power has to do with one’s ability and authority has to do with having permission to exercise that power. In other words, you might have knowledge, insight or wisdom to offer me that would I would benefit from but if I don’t heed your words, I have denied you the authority to exercise your power.
Andy Crouch’s presentation at the Q conference was born out of early efforts toward a book on the topic of Power and it landed squarely in an arena of thought I’m currently in myself: The exercise of authority involved in discipleship.
He suggested that there is a general reticence among Christians to assume or claim power; as if claiming power/influence is by nature arrogant and dangerous whereas the denial of power/influence is a sign of character. His suggestion called to mind the oft-quoted warning that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord Acton (real name)
Now, count me among those who have a backlog of negative power-abuse examples in my mind, particularly related to religious history… but if women and men of character automatically compromise that character by assuming positions of power, isn’t the void left to be filled by those who lack character? That seams to be what many among us at least believe to be true about those in authority. In my experience, the very idea of authority is often met with red flags and suspicion.
And yet I wore pants today, as I do so most days.. Of course, I didn’t internally decide that it was good to wear pants. I was told, over years of course, that I ought to and believed that to be true. I find that to be the case in just about all my behavioral patterns: I do what I do because I’ve been taught that I ought to and believed that to be true. In other words, I’m submitted to some power or other. I’ve given authority to someone or something outside myself to determine at least part of how I live. Admittedly, this influence is often benign,.. but not always. The permissibility of slave-labor in order to ensure low prices for American consumers is also a product of the slow but pervasive influence of authoritative voices in the Marketplace.
The initial challenge of discipleship is entering the arena where power is already being wielded; where authority, leadership and life-shaping are already taking place… and risk association with a history of power-abuse. I don’t like the impact the Marketplace has had on people I love. I think I have a better idea of how to live and spend money. I don’t like the impact certain elements of the Political and Religious worlds have had on people I love. I think I have a better idea how to see and treat people. So, will I risk the appearance of arrogance and control in order to “put my two cents in?”
Or is the bigger risk to let whatever cultural forces are most powerful and pervasive do the instructing and shaping of those I love?