“Says who?” Thoughts about Authority

When I was a kid and there was some kind of heated disagreement between me and my friends, the whole argument sometimes boiled down to this refined philosophical query: “Says who?”

Now to say it right, you’ve got to put a lot of oomph into the “who.” And there has to be an edge of defiance and skepticism in how you say it. So if one guy said, “You can’t do that” or “You can’t go there” or “You have to do this,” and the thing that leapt out of your mouth was “Says who?” you were drawing a line in the sand, digging your heels in, staking your territory, standing your ground.

Behind this little exchange, however, is a looming life issue that every person wrestles with: the age-old question of authority. Under what circumstances and from what source will I accept a definitive influence that may affect my actions? And the truth of the matter is this: Most of us want an authoritative word that rings clear and sharp, but we recoil at authority that impinges on our prerogatives or our intended actions. We want it both ways. We want to find truth, but we want to decide whether or not we do anything about it. This then becomes one of our biggest barriers to belief, because “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32), but (if it really is true) it will also hem you in. The freedom that faith brings means that we break out into reality, but also that we leave behind anything we find that is false. And we do so willingly.

Now when it comes to finding truth, there’s always a “who” involved. Finding truth means finding the personal God who then takes you on a guided tour of a world of truth. We grasp reality—who we are, what is going on in the world, who God is, what God intends to do—by listening to authoritative voices that can be trusted because they are way out ahead of us. They see down the path. Or they can see things we cannot. Sometimes our tour guides for life are trusted friends, spiritual leaders, parents. But we all know, deep in our hearts, that we need to find the authority of the Almighty. And we don’t know until we find it whether we will run with abandon to come under God’s strength and protection or whether we’ll hesitate, stand at a distance and slowly step backward.

Max Weber, the father of modern sociology who wrote in the early twentieth century, knew that authority was one of the most influential dynamics in how societies work. Individuals, groups, organizations and bureaucracies are all-powerful influences that exercise overt and covert influences on us. We may be saying “Says who?” on the inside, but all the while we are consciously or unconsciously being shaped by these forces.

Weber came up with three categories of authority (detailed in several of his books, including The Three Types of Legitimate Rule). Traditional authority is when the customs, culture, habits and lifestyle of a group we count ourselves part of define what is right and wrong and keep us holding to long-standing patterns of thought and behavior because they are, well, traditional. Things have worked this way in the past, so they should do the same today. This is the sanctity of the tradition. Says who? Says the tradition. This is the way we’ve always done things. (Patently untrue, of course. Nothing has ever been done the same way for all time.)

Legal authority is when the boundaries of what we are allowed to do are defined by norms of rationality as set out in legal codes and (especially in the modern industrialized era) in bureaucracy. Legal codes and bureaucracy are different depending on what society you live in—in American society, we generally look to our courts to apply justice. We’re somewhat less assured by the products of bureaucracies because anybody who has had to deal with a bureaucracy knows they often make what they claim they can accomplish far more difficult and complicated than necessary. But they have authority because we often have no choice but to work within them. We all have to stand in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, we all have to pay our taxes, we all have to respond when called up for jury duty, we all have to stay in our lanes on the road (unless you move to Italy), and we all have to fill out forms on clipboards at the hospital emergency room before a doctor will see us, unless we’re cold unconscious or a leg has been cut off and blood is spurting from an artery.

And then, Weber said, there is charismatic authority, perhaps the most interesting of the three types, in which individuals hold sway over others by a personal power and persuasion that goes beyond the rational. Religious authority, not surprisingly, often springs from the charismatic authority exercised by highly visible individuals or the leader of a movement.

Now as a secularist, Weber naturally assumed that all the major religions of the world, and plenty of smaller ones, have sprung up as a reaction to the charismatic power of some human leader. Whether it is Moses or Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha you’re looking at, you understand the movement in the shape of the personality and idiosyncrasies of the founder. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha would have disagreed with Weber, claiming that their authority was not simply the extension of their personal charisma, but was derived—that they were the messengers of a truth beyond themselves. Moses was the prophet of Yahweh, Jesus of God the Father, Muhammad of Allah, Buddha of the universe.

Jesus, at this point, is a special case because while He often pointed to the authority of the Father in heaven, He also claimed to be, in His own person, the foundation of faith. The others said, “You should believe in God” or “You should believe in this truth.” Jesus added, “You should believe in Me.”

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