9. Leadership and Spiritual Authority

In Christ, as taught through the Bible, there is a strong personal/spiritual dimension to leadership and relationships of authority. That is, leadership is exercised from a foundation of spiritual authority. This is the type of authority that Christ teaches to His disciples.

Loosely adopting Robert Clinton’s typology of authority, one can identify a number of types of authority. There is authority that is coercive, wherein one essentially forces another against their will. There is “induced” authority, which is based upon external reward, payment, or even bribery. There is positional authority, in which one has authority by virtue of having a particular position in society or a family or an organization. None of these three types of authority require a personal relationship; the parties involved need not know one another well or at all.

Other forms of authority involve a deeper relationship between the parties involved. For example, a fourth type of authority is competent authority. One gains this type of authority by virtue of being recognized as having special expertise or competence. Those who recognize this type of authority must have enough of a relationship to be aware of the particular expertise or competence. Sometimes, an educational degree or certification substitutes for the relational knowledge of competence. A fifth type of authority is personal authority. This type of authority comes from personal charisma or personal connections. This type of authority is very dependent upon a relationship through which the authority is gained.

Similarly, a last type of authority, spiritual authority, also depends upon the existence of a relationship through which the authority is gained.
Spiritual authority is gained by virtue of a follower’s perception of spirituality or spiritual maturity in a leader. For example, it is gained as others see a leader living in a Christ-like manner, being guided and used by God to bless and lead others in truth and love, and displaying the fruit of the Spirit. This spiritual authority is what makes for recognition of a leader among God’s people. This is the type of authority that Christ was teaching His followers to depend on in John 13:12-17:

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Other, lesser forms of authority cannot substitute for the spiritual authority upon which legitimate leadership in the church depends. In fact, some forms of authority are generally illegitimate in the context of the church, such as coercive or induced authority. In addition, some forms of authority are inferior to the spiritual authority that Jesus exemplified and taught: positional authority, competent authority, and personal authority fit this category. They are not in essence evil or illegitimate, and may even be extremely helpful God-given gifts for use in ministry, but they do not form the foundation for church leadership.

There is nothing about spiritual authority that is limited by gender. It is not gained by virtue of being one gender or another; neither is it thereby lost. In fact, spiritual authority may be earned and exercised completely outside formal structures and without formal recognition. Therefore, it is available to women on the same terms as it is available to men, though improper formal structures can inhibit the exercise of spiritual authority.

One might argue that if spiritual authority is not dependent upon the formal structure of the church or positional authority granted or recognized by the church that the issue of women being in formal positions of leadership is therefore moot. However, it seems more likely that a healthy church should seek to align its formal structures of leadership to be commensurate with the spiritual authority that those among God’s people have earned and demonstrated. This seems only wise. One certainly could not argue that positional authority can be assigned in ways that demonstrate disrespect of God-given spiritual authority! The teaching of scripture on how to choose elders and other leaders dwells much on matters of spiritual authority.

Secondly, formal authority structures, when not aligned with spiritual authority, can be a hindrance to its exercise. Those in positions of authority may come into conflict with those having spiritual authority; there are many tragic instances of this in the history of the church! There really is nothing we could hope for in our church structure that is better than aligning formal structures of authority with the spiritual authority that come from God.

Spiritual authority cannot be rightly denied or ignored; the nature of spiritual authority makes it impossible to ignore with wisdom, love, or truth.

Next… 10. Blessing the Church

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