Views of Authority from around the World
Editor’s note: We asked three pastors to reflect on how the people of their nation—Brazil, Great Britain, and China—tend to respond to exercised authority. Their responses are below.
—A Brazilian Perspective, by Tiago J. Santos Filho
—A British Perspective, by Mike Gilbart-Smith
—A Chinese Perspective, by Josh Fang and Ryan Hsu
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A Brazilian Perspective
By Tiago J. Santos Filho
“Authority: without it humans cannot exist, and yet it delivers as many errors as it delivers truths.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This maxim by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is very true in Brazilian culture. In Brazil, we have an ambivalent relationship with the idea of authority, mixing misconceptions with some elements of truth. On one hand, there’s a strong rejection of authority, as instilled by European postmodernism and seen in what French philosopher Michael Foucault called “the battle against relations of power.”
This sentiment has influenced important sectors of both the Brazilian media and the academy, thus jeopardizing legitimate authority figures such as the armed forces and the police, fathers and bosses. On the other hand, there’s a tendency among Brazilian people to celebrate figures who exercise a dominant form of authority, especially those with charismatic and populist personalities. This is commonly seen in politics.
When these distortions are celebrated, it’s clear people aren’t able to distinguish authority used well and authoritarianism. In Brazil, it’s easy to blame our tumultuous political past, marked by dictatorships from 1937–1945 and 1964–1985. Or, more recently, we could look to the Brazil’s embrace of gigantic government. These are just a few explanations for this reliance on strong and authoritarian leaders, while simultaneously depending on the state for almost everything.
AUTHORITY IN THE BRAZILIAN CHURCH
This trend is also very strong in evangelical churches. A lack of understanding regarding the Bible’s teaching on authority leads many Christians to capitulate to these cultural forces and develop a critical and even suspicious attitude toward pastoral and congregational authority. This lack of clarity compromises pastoral work, especially exhortation, leadership, and counseling, and it jeopardizes the community life of the church, especially its commitment to keep each other accountable in the fight against sin.
At the same time, there persists a mistaken admiration of leaders who impose themselves on their congregations as almost absolute powers, as if they’re mediators between men and God. Many of these leaders call themselves apostles or give themselves special titles that make them seem inaccessible to their followers. This tendency may have its roots in a long Roman Catholic heritage marked by the priest as mediator between God and men, giving him a superior status before the laity.
BRAZIL’S ROMAN CATHOLIC HERITAGE
This is also the logic behind the notion of the ex cathedra infallibility of the Pope, who must be obeyed because he is the “Successor of the Apostle Peter, and representative of Christ on earth.” Brazilian theologian Augustus Nicodemus has called this “the Roman Catholic soul of the Brazilian evangelical.” A familiarity with a single priest figure may also explain many Brazilian evangelicals’ resistance to a plurality of elders, especially lay elders.
Certainly, these distortions do great harm to Christians in our country and can only be corrected by the grace of God through faithful preaching and teaching. In order to guide God’s people toward a healthier understanding of authority, three important biblical principles may be highlighted:
1. The affirmation of God’s absolute authority.
Although the word authority doesn’t appear in the account of creation, the idea is entirely there. Few phrases evidence the absolute weight of authority more clearly than Dixitque Deus: Fiat lux. Et facta est lux (And God said, Let there be light and there was light).
The creation of heaven and earth, the formation of man, and the granting of Imago Dei shows the Creator’s supreme authority. God is revealed as the one who has absolute dominion and power over all creation, an emphasis both throughout Scripture and vital to a proper relationship between God and mankind (Exod. 15:18; Job 38–41; Ps. 9:7, 8; 11:4; 29:10; 93:1; 146:10; Jer. 18:6; Is. 40:12–31; Dan. 4:34–37, Rom. 9:21). This major Christian tenet remains the most important teaching regarding authority, for from this teaching will people ultimately understand that authority is both good and inherent to God’s nature.
2. Authority delegated to men.
All human authority, then, is delegated authority. As Creator, God gave man the mandate to exercise dominion over creation by developing culture and technology, forming families, and organizing society (Gen. 2:15–25; Ps. 8). Dutch theologians Herman Dooyeweerd and Abraham Kuyper, both under the influence of John Calvin, taught what was called the sovereignty of the spheres. They argue God created every institution—family, state, vocation, etc.—and each has a specific area of authority.
And the church is one of those institutions. This teaching should help to correct the foolish idea that authority is something essentially evil, something that must always be resisted. In reality, authority is part of God’s created order. In the local church in particular, this reminder should provide meaning, direction, and order to the community of believers (Ex. 18:13–27; Mk. 6:7). What’s more, this principle will help Christians understand the proper exercise of authority in the church is God’s mandate for the good of both the people and those who are in authority and will one day give account to God (Heb, 13:17).
3. The universal priesthood of believers.
One of the most important teachings of Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation was the biblical concept of universal priesthood of believers (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:5,6). In his 1520 work On the Freedom of the Christian, Luther shows that priests and lay people share the same dignity before God because all men have the same access to God through Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).
Luther also showed how all vocations are equally worthy before God, which consequently freed men from their fear of and dependence on priests. Luther reminds us that every Christian is a child of God who has access to the Father through the Son by the Spirit. What’s more, every Christian is a “diakonos” (minister) of God and has the responsibility to serve God with their gifts in the Christian community. No man has absolute power over another in any sphere of creation, let alone in the church. Everything he has is the result of grace.
At the end of the day, the truth is man rejects the authority of God and usurps it for himself. John Milton notes this in his classic work Paradise Lost:
The execrable son! so to aspirate
Above his brethren; to himself assuming
Authority usurped, from God not given.
To fight this universal temptation, we must point people to the Bible, showing them how God established authority in the world before the Fall. Since that day, even those of us who have been redeem struggle to submit to good authority. So we wait for that day when Christ returns and finally establishes his perfect rule across the whole earth.
Tiago J. Santos Filho is one of the pastors of Grace Baptist Church in Sao Jose dos Campos, SP, Brazil, the pastoral director and professor of Christian ethics at Martin Bucer Seminary Brazil, and the editor-in-chief of Fiel Ministries.
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A British Perspective
By Mike Gilbart-Smith
The United Kingdom is a complex society of competing cultures that shape our views of authority.
This can be seen in the political upheavals that have taken place over the past two years: in September 2014 Scotland voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom by a margin of 5.3%. In June 2016 the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union by a margin of 1.9%. In both referenda those who voted to leave often cited issues of sovereignty as their primary motivation. Why should Westminster, or Brussels tell us what to do?
On the other hand, those who voted to remain in both referenda most often cited economic reasons. That we are all stronger and more prosperous is of greater importance than where political power lies.
Such tensions are visible in a British attitude to authority more generally. On the one hand there are many who seem to care little who exercises that authority so long as things are going well, and we are prospering (the experts are proving their expertise). On the other hand, there is a strong feeling that authority is a necessary evil that must therefore only be exercised by those who are closely accountable to, and removable by, those over whom they exercise authority. Those who cannot be removed (like the monarch!) should have very little real power.
Factors that affect the many divergent views on authority would include:
- The complexities and injustices of the British class system.
- Collective guilt over our colonial history.
- A media that is dominated by a postmodern liberal elite who push moral autonomy and toleration of everybody else’s moral autonomy.
Because authority is so often seen as an evil, even within the family, where God has designed for people to learn that lovingly exercised authority is a blessing, people are often nervous of talking about parental authority, and talk only of parental responsibility. My children have visited families where other children do not need to obey their parents, but to obey ‘house rules’ to which the parents are also subject, and have to do their time on the ‘naughty step’ if they break the rules.
Authority within the church has its own very British complexities. As the established church, the Church of England’s 30 most senior bishops are ex officio members of the the upper house in the UK Parliament. The Church of England is therefore seen in some regard as having a moral authority (bishops will often have their views of political and social policy published) but as the established church it has a precarious position: ‘how can an establishment figure in a multicultural society expect us to listen to this biblical nonsense?’ Thus bishops too often sound like politicians espousing ‘British Values’ in their indistinctive banality.
What do these complexities mean in pastoral ministry where the rightness and goodness of lovingly exercised authority is to be taught, exercised and enjoyed?
As an Englishman with a very privileged social and educational background pastoring a multicultural and significantly working class church, I have been very aware of the danger of trying to exercise authority. Too often in Britain people from my background have been perceived as feeling ‘entitled’ to positions of authority. Authority must be understood to be within the context of a loving pastoral relationship rather than ‘pulling rank.’
But I have found that the pervading culture has largely given good opportunities to clarify and attempt to exercise loving authority. There is no univocal view of authority meaning that we can make few assumptions in what people will think about it, other than what the bible already teaches us about all people: they are sinners who would love excuses to preserve their autonomy, but will find salvation only as they come to recognise and enjoy Jesus as Lord.
Pastoral authority comes from the pastoral relationship. If all authority is to be loving authority to picture the loving authority of the Lord, then we cannot adequately exercise authority towards people who have had no experience of our love.
Teaching and loving are therefore the two key elements to the pastoral responsibility of helping people come to love the authorities that the Lord has established in people’s lives.
Membership classes have been very useful in teaching on the authority of and within the local church so that biblical teaching about the shape the church has been given can be received before people then experience it. An apologetic for loving authority is thus taught first and then enjoyed.
This cuts both ways. All of us are both under authority and in authority.
Taking Jesus as the model of being under authority and Jesus as the model of being in authority has been the single most useful pastoral tool in helping people to see the goodness of God’s plan for authority in the family, church and society.
Whenever we exercise authority and whenever we submit to it, we are following Jesus and we should be as happy as he in both those roles.
Mike Gilbart-Smith is the pastor of Twynholm Baptist Church in Fulham, England. You can find him on Twitter at @MGilbartSmith.
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A Chinese Perspective
By Joshua Fang
Early ancient Chinese society was organized according to patriarchs. Community authorities were inherited by blood relationships, and the rules were clear and understandable. In those steady authority structures, people were supposed to submit to patriarchal authority in their private life and obey the political authority in their public life.
But since the time of Confucius, this structure has started to corrupt. After the Qin and Han dynasty (1st century), though the Confucianism was treated as the official political theory, the operation of political powers often slipped into disorder. And since the Yuan dynasty (13th century), Chinese political structure became rigid, relying heavily on violence and military power.
In modern China, because of the influence of the Western world, extreme individualism and anti-authoritarianism has a solid ground among Chinese thinking. People get used to a model in which they openly affirm one form of authority, but in private they resist, deny, and escape any responsibility to that authority (Vaclav Havel described this in his work The Power of the Powerless, though he is talking about the Czech people).
What does this look like in church life? For example, during the membership interview, new members would openly admit they both agree with everything elders teach and are willing to obey the authority of the church. However, in private, in word or in deed, they might demonstrate their disagreement with the church’s teaching or even the church’s confession of faith. They also lack any understanding that they have a responsibility to affirm their church’s authority in both their public and private lives.
This incorrect understanding of church authority brings trouble to church life, especially when members may profess agreement with their mouth but disagree or even resist in their heart. For example, members would agree that church leaders have the authority to decide when and where a congregation meets. But if the decided time or venue was inconvenient or not in their favor, they’ll quickly complain or show up late.
Some would agree that joining an evening service or members’ meeting is their member responsibility to serve and support the church’s ministry. But in deed, they never or rarely come to the afternoon meetings.
How can a pastor shepherd a congregation like this? Here are four efforts we need to make. First, we should teach the gospel. The gospel demonstrates an authority who loves his people, and is willing to die for his people. It’s different from traditional authorities that “exercise authority over them” (Matt. 20:25). When you teach the gospel, people see that the authority is from God and for their good.
Second, pastors need to labor among people and demonstrate what a servant-leadership looks like in both the church and family. When people actually see the difference between exercising authority in the church and the world, their negative view of authority should diminish.
Third, involve the congregation in making biblical decisions like accepting new members, exercising discipline, and affirming leaders. Pastors should teach about authority and lead the congregation to practice authority well.
Finally, in discipleship and private teaching, leaders must try to influence godly people so they can influence the rest. When the body grows together, wrong understandings go away more quickly.
Joshua Fang and Ryan Hsu are pastors in China.
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 In many people’s estimation authority has for too long been exercised by those with privileged upbringings. (19 British Prime ministers attended the same High School!)
Whereas 88% of British schoolchildren attend comprehensive schools only one Prime Minister (has attended such a school in Britain’s history. Shockingly, the first education minister to attend a comprehensive school was appointed 3 weeks ago!
Upwardly mobility is increasing only very slowly. The very way someone speaks and the school you attended still effect the progress of your career. Though some upper and upper middle class traditions and manners are on the wane (how should one cut the cheese, pour the tea, word an invitation or a thank-you letter, wear a suit, shake a hand, laugh, refuse to cry?) more subtle invisible barriers still remain.
 Fewer than half of London’s population are now white British. Over 200 languages are spoken as a first language. If one is to talk about a single British view of authority it would ignore the fact that there are Bristish Muslim, humanist, Seikh, Protestant and Catholic views of authority that often fail to understand one another. The ridicule received by politicians promoting “British Values” was well deserved, because if one wants to find common ground between competing sets of British Values, such values are so unspecific as to be utterly banal, and by no means distinctively British.
 There is a reticence to take up authority exacerbated by a caricatured history of our colonial past that rightly recognises the evils of the establishment of British Empire, whilst failing to acknowledge anything good about how that Empire was managed, or eventually dismantled.