Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where is the Authority?

At a recent event at Seabury-Western. I was asked to address the following question:
What does society's shift from hierarchy to network theory mean for our understanding of authority, scripture and the institutional church?
As a simple explanation of "network theory," think of the way the internet has changed our society. Among other implications, consider the ways that we group ourselves today. Communities, or a sense of community, are now almost completely disconnected from geography. Instead, in today's society. people are grouped along the lines of the following priorities:

1. Hobbies (or special interests, as in "the Anglican Wars")
2. Family
3. Work colleagues

Geography is no longer the primary basis for community. People are now defining communities through leisure activities, work and friendships.

This has an impact on a number of ways in which we have traditionally understood "church." To begin, I want to talk about how this shift has caused us to reconsider our understanding of "authority."

The term "authority," as traditionally used in Christian circles, is derived from the Greek concept of "exousia," which is consistently translated into English as "authority." However, the Greek concept of authority is far more complex in comparison to our normal understanding of the term. We tend to think of "authority" as a tool of domination. But Jesus was clear that is not what he meant; "The Gentiles lord their authority (kata-exousia) over one another, but not so with you!"

If you look at the different ways the term "exousia" is used in scripture, it does indeed sometimes refer to power, strength and control, but also competency, mastery, liberty and freedom. In other words, the one with "exousia" is the one who has "the freedom to act." Jesus, as the Son of God, speaks and acts with authority. As we faithfully follow him, we also receive, to a more limited degree, this same "freedom to act."

So, who has the authority? Who has the freedom to act? Well, in a network society, that depends. If the traditional persons who are considered to have authority refuse to act, the network will function temporarily in its place.

An example of how this works can be seen in my previous story, The Boys of Hall. The crisis was the unexpected death of a member of our cottage in reform school. The institution (the traditional authority) did not act. No memorial service, counseling sessions, etc. were offered. Consequently, the boys took on the limited authority that they had and organized their own memorial service.

As the person that they identified as having the most experience with the bible and Christian prayer, I was asked to lead this service. Note that the authority to function in such a capacity was very limited. It ended when the memorial service we held in the kitchen of Hall Cottage ended. I then returned to the role of just another throw-away kid who had broken various laws of the land, and so had been placed in that institution. After we had grieved the loss of one of our own, I returned to the role of just another of many boys of Hall.

I think such an understanding of "authority" might be helpful for the Church today. If the "institution," for whatever reason, is unable to respond appropriately to the crisis, the local community will respond anyway, with or without the blessing of the institution.

Those appointed to lead this response may be drawn from the ranks of the ordained clergy. But, then again, the one granted that particular authority may just be a fifteen year old convicted car thief and drug addict.

Being too deeply identified with the institution, especially if it is an incompetent institution, is not always a plus. In a network society, the needs will be met, even if it means traveling outside the boundaries of traditional authority structures.

This is not simply my opinion, by the way. This is how things are unfolding in this postmodern world. The time of prince bishops and cardinal rectors has come and gone. Any authority as leaders they continue to express is granted to them, not by the nature of their office, but by the authority of the gathered community. And, if they fail to respond to the needs of the community, alternative authorities will be sought out.

Your thoughts?


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