Authority not authoritarianism

I was scrolling through twitter and came across this interesting tweet:

Katharine Birbalsingh is the headteacher at Michaela Community School in Wembley. She is something of a marmite figure. People either seem to love her approach to education or hate it with the heat of a thousand suns. She came to prominence having given a speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2010 and praised their then education policies.

Whatever one personally thinks about her, or her approach to education, I thought her tweet was worth considering. It rings true not just for education in general, but in deprived and working class communities like mine. Ours are not a people known for their regard for authority structures.

This is equally true in the church. Many of us naturally baulk at the idea of submission to authority. But it is hard to avoid the idea in scripture. Everyone is to submit to Christ, who submitted himself to the Father. Wives are to submit to their husbands leadership whilst husbands are to submit themselves to the needs of their wives. Children are to submit to their parents’ authority. Church members are to submit to the authority of their elders whilst the elders submit themselves to rule by the wider church. The church is called to be subject to the governing authorities who, themselves, are to be subject to God. Employees are to submit to their bosses, slaves are to joyfully submit to their masters. Everybody, somewhere or other, is expected to submit to someone.

So why do we naturally rankle at that idea? I suspect Katharine Birbalsingh is right: we confuse authority with authoritarianism. We believe authority is about the restriction of freedom and submission is about weakness and loss of liberty. We hear ‘authority’ and we think authoritarian.

But authority rightly exercised is not authoritarian at all. Husbands are to exercise their authority in the interests of their wives to whose needs they submit. Elders are to exercise their authority in the interests of the church to whose rule they ultimately submit. Just as Jesus exercises his authority as head of the church in the interests of those who submit to him, so those whose authority is recognised in scripture are not to exercise it as authoritarians out of self-interest, but selflessly as those continually preferring the needs of others above their own.

What we often fail to realise is that the opposite of authority is not necessarily freedom, just a different form of rule. If there are no authority structures there are no means of providing order nor any way of addressing injustice. Whilst authority wielded wrongly is hardly excellent, anarchy fares little better. Mob rule doesn’t create the ability to enjoy our freedom any more than strict authoritarianism. As Birbalsingh rightly points out, ‘In rejecting order & authority, they refuse to protect the weak and create an environment where every man is for himself.’

Submitting ourselves to the authority of Christ is not to subject ourselves to the authoritarian rule of a tyrant, it is to have life and receive it to the full (cf. John 10:10). Just as in a marriage we give up some of our apparent freedom in order to gain something altogether greater, so submitting to Christ is a giving up of our apparent freedom to receive true freedom. Likewise, submitting to the authority of a church that exercises its authority in the interests of its members is not authoritarian tyranny but is the giving up of apparent freedom so that we can experience genuine freedom.

As Tim Keller helpfully put it in Every Good Endeavour:

Modern people like to see freedom as the complete absence of any constraints. But think of a fish. Because a fish absorbs oxygen from water, not air, it is free only if it is restricted to water. If a fish is ‘freed’ from the river and put on the grass to explore, its freedom to move and soon even to live is destroyed. The fish is not more free, but less free, if it cannot honor the reality of its nature. The same is true with airplanes and birds. If they violate the laws of aerodynamics, they will crash into the ground. But if they follow them, they will ascend and soar. The same is true in many areas of life: Freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, those that fit with the realities of our own nature and those of the world