Mark Stirling looks at the nature of spiritual authority in Christian leadership and challenges us to think about how easily it can be open for abuse.
Welcome once again to UP, the Union Podcast. My name is Dan Hames, and for the next 5 episodes, we’re thinking about the subject of power and authority. We’re speaking about it with Mark Stirling who is the director of the Chalmers Institute and part of the leadership of Cornerstone St. Andrews. Mark, the first question for us to consider is, what is the nature of spiritual authority and how is it open to being misused.
Thank you. And of course the first question is to define some terms. I think when we’re talking about this, the simplest way to think about it is to think about the nature of power. And rather than getting very philosophical about it, and we could argue all day about what it is and what it isn’t, we can say very simply that it’s the capacity to influence other people. And in that sense, everyone has the power to influence others. So that might not look like what we traditionally think it to look like. For example in a small group, how many of us have the experience to know that the most powerful person in the room is the one who sits there and says nothing. So, first of all, to think of power as the ability to influence others.
When we carry that over into the realm of church leadership or Christian leadership, we have natural power, combined perhaps with leadership gifting, combined with a position that’s also given, so the power combined with a position of authority, be that pastor or ministry leader or small group leader, whatever it happens to be, gives an extra weight to the power that that person might normally exercise. People are not just looking to the person but also to the position that person’s in. If that person’s also particularly gifted as a leader, and clearly some people are, they have the capacity to influence others perhaps more than others do, you have natural gifting combined with a position of authority, which has the capacity to influence people, and the capacity to get people to do things, to push people to think things, it can be very persuasive.
So in, for example, church pastors, you’ve got the combination often then of natural leadership abilities, of natural power if you’d like, with then a position of authority, and if that church leader has been through some sort of theological education you’ve also got a degree of sapiential authority, that comes with simply knowing more than the people around them. And that combination of the three can lead to someone really having a great deal of power over others, and in some cases being quite unchallengeable.
So the second part of your question is, how is spiritual authority open to misuse. And I guess it’s important to say at the beginning of any discussion like this, is that power or authority is something that’s a good thing. The misuse of something doesn’t argue against the right use of something. In fact, we can see that the more power that something has to do good, then the more power it has to do harm to people when it is twisted. So what is intended to be something to bless people, spiritual authority is intended to be there bless people, leaders are supposed to bless those that they lead, that would be the Biblical pattern, but it doesn’t need much of a twist, it doesn’t need much of an inward turn, or that lack of self-awareness, or that desire to control others out of insecurity or whatever, it doesn’t take much to take spiritual authority, to turn in slightly, and for it to become something that can then be used to harm people or to use people instead of to bless them or to serve them.
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