UP0031: What Is The Nature Of Spiritual Authority and How Is it Open to Abuse?

  • UP0031: What Is The Nature Of Spiritual Authority and How Is it Open to Abuse? 00:00

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.


UP Episodes

UP0001: Why Think About the Incarnation When It Isn’t Christmas? Peter Mead

UP0002: How is Christ Becoming Man Vital for our Salvation? Peter Mead

UP0003 What Does the Incarnation Mean for Me Every Day? Peter Mead

UP0004: Does Emphasising the Incarnation Risk De-emphasising the Cross? Peter Mead

UP0005: Does Understanding the Incarnation Change the Way We Share the Gospel? Peter Mead

UP0006: What is Our Starting Point for a Doctrine of Scripture? Andrew Wilson

UP0007: How Can Jesus Really be the Centre of Scripture? Andrew Wilson

UP0008: Wasn’t the Canon of Scripture Decided Really Late? Andrew Wilson

UP0009: Why Does the Bible Seem so Outdated on Issues like Gender and Sexuality? Andrew Wilson

UP0010: Why Have You Debated Steve Chalke and Rob Bell? Andrew Wilson

UP0011: Does “Read Your Bible Pray Every Day And You’ll Grow” Work in Adult Life? Dane Ortlund

UP0012: How Can I Stop My Daily Devotions Being Legalistic? Dane Ortlund

UP0013: What Should I Expect From My Daily Devotions? Dane Ortlund

UP0014: How Has the Bible Been Important to You? Dane Ortlund

UP0015: What Advice Would You Give to Someone Who Struggles to Read the Bible? Dane Ortlund

UP0016: Luther on the First Commandment 1: What is a god?

UP0017: Luther on the First Commandment 2: True Worship

UP0018: Luther on the First Commandment 3: Receiving from God

UP0019: Luther on the First Commandment 4: A Threat and a Promise

UP0020: Luther on the First Commandment 5: Reflect for Yourself

UP0021: How Should We Talk about the Presence of God? Kyle Strobel

UP0022: What Does it Mean to See God? Kyle Strobel

UP0023: Is God Religious? Kyle Strobel

UP0024: What Is Christian Spirituality All About? Kyle Strobel

UP0025: What Is Missing From Our Prayer Life? Kyle Strobel

UP0026: What Challenges Face Christian Parents? Gloria Furman

UP0027: How Does Becoming a Mother Change Your Spiritual Life? Gloria Furman

UP0028: How Do You Teach Your Children and Stay Spiritually Healthy Yourself? Gloria Furman

UP0029: Why is it Important to Keep Christ at the Centre of Family Life? Gloria Furman

UP0030: How Can We Treasure Christ Each Day in Our Busyness? Gloria Furman

UP0031: What Is The Nature Of Spiritual Authority and How is it Open to Misuse? Mark Stirling

UP0032 What is Power in the Bible and What is it for? Mark Stirling

UP0033: How Does Jesus Teach Us About Power? Mark Stirling

UP0034: Should Christians Avoid Power? Mark Stirling

UP0035: What Can I do if I’ve Exercised my Power Sinfully? Mark Stirling

UP0036: What was Luther’s spiritual background and how did he change? Graham Tomlin

UP0037: What was Luther’s “Theology of the Cross”? Graham Tomlin

UP0038 How Did Luther Understand Law, Gospel, and the Word? Graham Tomlin

UP0039: Are Good Works Important at All? Graham Tomlin

UP0040: What aspect of Luther’s theology do we most need to hear today? Graham Tomlin

UP0041: How did you discover John Newton and how has he blessed you? Tony Reinke

UP0043: How did Newton pastor his people? Tony Reinke

UP0044: What was the central message of Newton’s life and ministry? Tony Reinke

UP0045: What encouragements and challenges might Newton direct towards believers today? Tony Reinke

UP0046: How were Old Testament believers saved? David Murray

UP0047: In what ways is Christ present in the Old Testament? David Murray

UP0048: How can I see more of Christ in the Old Testament? David Murray

UP0049: Is there a difference between happiness and joy? David Murray

UP0050: Why is happiness so important in the Christian life? David Murray

UP0051 Why the Reformation Still Matters Michael Reeves

UP0052: The Ascension of Jesus Gerrit Scott Dawson

UP0053: The Star of Bethlehem Colin Nicholl

UP0054: A New Day Emma Scrivener

UP0055: Escaping Escapism Dave Griffith-Jones

Picture of Mark Stirling

Mark Stirling

Mark Stirling is Director of the Chalmers Institute and part of the leadership of Cornerstone St Andrews. He is a former medical doctor and holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from St Andrews University.
Picture of Mark Stirling

Mark Stirling

Mark Stirling is Director of the Chalmers Institute and part of the leadership of Cornerstone St Andrews. He is a former medical doctor and holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from St Andrews University.