Can Authority Be Taken Away?

Great conversation, everyone! I think the best place for me to start is with Bronwyn’s question.

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

This is an excellent question, and it gets right at the heart of Wilkin’s piece, I think, and at the heart of much of the struggle in the church with regards to women in ordained leadership. For many, the answer would be “No, you cannot banish the usurper.”

I disagree, and I think we not only can banish the usurper, but that it is our Christian imperative to do so, regardless of our beliefs surrounding the legitimacy of the ordination of women. My reasons for this are both rooted in Hannah A.’s question and in a first century worldview that has continued to impede the church.

Hannah A. asked:

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

And it gets right to the heart of it, but I’d like to take it a step further. Pastoral authority comes neither from one’s gender, nor from one’s office, but ultimately from God. If God has given one authority, no one will be capable of usurping it. “The Usurper” is code language for anxiety about the relationship between men and women in the church, an anxiety rooted in the idea that women are capable of taking authority away from men in office. If we believe that God is the one who gives authority, we will not be afraid that others can take that authority away.

From my perspective, this anxiety is rooted in a first century worldview of “limited goods.” Basically, this worldview contends that there is a limited supply of authority, and if one person is given authority, someone else must have lost authority. I do not think authority is limited in this way since it is given by God, who does not operate within our human limitations.

Graham made an excellent point when he said:

But even if authority comes from the office regardless of gender, a challenge can still be threatening. In egalitarian congregations, laity, or educated/trained but non-ordained persons can still play the role of child, seductress or usurper.

And as Alastair stated in his response, often times there are power dynamics at play in conversations where “the Usurper” is present. But the hope in Wilkin’s piece (if I’m reading her correctly) is that we will not fall prey to the temptation of seeing men and women as enemies who are engaged in a battle for authority. If we believe that authority comes from God and cannot be taken away by others, we will effectively banish the usurper and begin working together as the body of Christ.