“Take thou authority.”
It’s been almost fourteen years since Bishop Huie first gave me and my class of new United Methodist pastors this charge at our ordination ceremony. The directive to take authority for the ordering and spiritual life of our congregations was the primary point of her sermon, or at least what I remember of it. To tell the truth, I haven’t thought much about it in a number of years.
This weekend, however, I kept bumping into these words. “Take thou authority.” I officiated a wedding in the auditorium where that ordination service was held. Back at my family’s church on Sunday morning, our senior pastor said those words more than once as he talked about our associate pastor’s move to a new congregation.
So I’m thinking about authority again. And—no surprise here—I’m also taking issue with it.
Most American denominations (mine included) are obsessed with power and leadership. We pastors are praised for being capable executives, able to manage a staff and a budget and competing interests within our congregations. Doing so requires decisiveness and organization. The buck stops with us.
I won’t criticize this idea of leadership in its entirety. Management stills matter, and we have a responsibility to order the life of the church—especially through seasons of conflict.
What I’m questioning today is not the need for authority, but the source of it. Many would-be leaders derive their authority from the nameplates on their doors. Pastors are no different. We are in a position of leadership, and we expect people to respond to us accordingly.
But that never works, even for Jesus.
When he began his public ministry in Luke, he read from Isaiah and told the people that he had come to fulfill that prophecy. That sermon almost got him stoned to death. Rather than impose his authority on them, Jesus simply moved on.
Contrast that with his encounter with the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus makes claims about his identity, but he does so in conversation, not proclamation. She believes him because he knows her and communicates compassion toward her. Not only that, she brings Jesus into her Samaritan village, where many others believe also.
Jesus, it seems, would not exercise authority where authority was not given. While Christians hope for his authority to reign over all when he returns, all we have for now is Jesus’ example. And he does not obtain power by virtue of position. He earns it by virtue of person, and exercises it with love and fairness when it is afforded him.
Perhaps my issue with the ordination language is just a matter of semantics, but experience tells me otherwise. When I teach at our conference’s local pastor licensing school, I always remind students to begin their ministry with firm resolve, but also with humility. If they want to have authority following Jesus example, they will have to live in such a way that it is given to them, not taken by them.
We Christian leaders might do better if we took that to heart. Taking authority may be our right. But earning authority through love is our heritage.