By What Authority?


Through April and May, 1989, demonstrators gathered in Tianamin Square in Beijing. They were advocating for democracy and liberalization of the nation. Though the internet was controlled, many people had fax machines and were able to fax details of what was happening to friends around the world. On June 4, 1989, troops and tanks rolled into the square to eliminate the demonstration. 

When the tanks rolled into the square, a remarkable thing happened. A young man stood in front of a line of tanks. Obviously, the tanks had the power to just roll over him, but they didn't. When the tanks tried to turn, he moved to still be directly in their path. They had the power, but he had something more. He had moral authority. 

The problem is that once people have begun to think free thoughts, the thoughts don't stop. Once there has been a taste of freedom, it just doesn't die down. There is an old German song, "Die Gedanken sind frei." (The thoughts are free)

Over the years since 2002, when Dr. Rowan Williams was named Archbishop of Canterbury, he has repeatedly said that he did not have the authority to act in the theological crisis in the Anglican Communion. Setting aside for a moment that he thought he had sufficient authority to take sweeping actions to overturn the clear decisions of the Primates of the Communion on many occasions, what about the lack of authority that he spoke about? My comment to him was, there was no authority for the man pictured below to stand in front of the tanks in Tianamin Square.

There was no constitutional authority for the Anglican Communion to speak out against apartheid. Those things were done with an authority other than constitutional authority. The Bible speaks of authority that rises from truth. The Greek word is ex-ousia, which means "out of being," or "out of essence." One could argue rightly that genuine authority rises "out of truth." It does not rise from temporal authority. 

I remember as a boy going to my Grandfather's house. He had retired from the US Army as a general and often retreated to his workshop in the garage. He had a vast array of tools, each one carefully placed on the wall in a spot that was labeled with the silhouette of a hammer, a wrench, a screwdriver, or a file, etc. My favorite activity was to sit on a three-legged stool and watch him sharpen all kinds of things. I can still remember the smell of the oil and the shower of sparks that flew off the rapidly spinning grinding wheel. 

One day while he was grinding the edge of a pair of hedge clippers, he stopped for a moment--still watching the grinding wheel turn--and then looked at me and said, "All authority comes from God." 

Nodding thoughtfully, clearly pleased with himself for what he had said, he went back to grinding an edge on the clippers. More sparks flew, but something more was kindled in me. It was one of those forming incidents that come to us. Through the years, I've held that comment close to my heart, and it has served me well through Air Force combat and the even more challenging battles in the church. 

When we know what God's will is, obeying is much clearer. In order to help us so we are not left to our own devices, He has given us His Son and the Holy Spirit. To further aid our journey, He gives us the Scriptures. The Bible lays out unchanging truth and supplies guidance for every area of life. Those who have departed from Scriptural authority have put themselves in a terrible position. Without the protection and boundaries that the Bible provides, we are subject to cope with harsh assaults of life in this fallen world in our own strength. When we live under Scriptural authority, it is possible to speak and act with strength beyond our own and with redemptive clarity. 

There is a gathering of revisionists taking place this week. Some are holding their breath, waiting to see what will happen. No need to hold your breath. It is going to be a train wreck. When people are left to their own devices and reject the boundaries that Scripture has provided, the result is certain to be ugly.  

Next week, I'm going to write about how to know what the limits of spiritual authority are in the church, and what we are called to do about it when those limits are breeched.