Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Authority (Part 2: What Is It?)
Over the space of several years now, I have come to view authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as something quite different from what I previously assumed it to be. Primarily this is because I started seeing distinct differences between the concept of priesthood and the larger notion of authority. Growing up Mormon, I simply assumed the two were the same, and this perception is quite common in the Church.1 But as I will explore in detail in future posts, priesthood and authority are quite distinct ideas, especially in ancient scripture, with authority being a much broader and more general notion. Authority can be a difficult topic, and inadequately understood authority can be problematic on multiple levels, but the unique Mormon definition of priesthood creates a structure that complicates rather than simplifies matters related to authority. Over the course of several posts in this series, I will address the question of what priesthood is, but first we need to establish a context for understanding priesthood, so let’s step back and look at the nature of authority.
Two Sources of Authority
I hate to do this, and some of you will probably never forgive me for beginning this investigation like a really bad sacrament meeting talk, but let’s look at the dictionary definition of authority. Webster’s includes the following: “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior,” “persons in command,” and “convincing force.” Synonyms include influence and power. These definitions reflect a worldly more than a gospel understanding of the term, but they also suggest two distinct sources of authority or power: individual and institutional. And this is an important point because it is difficult to understand what, exactly, authority is without also understanding how a person gets it. If authority is primarily the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior in other people, how do we get this power? We often assume it can just be given by someone who occupies a higher position in an institutional hierarchy, but I’m not convinced that the power to influence others’ thoughts and opinions is simply a capacity that can be transferred from one person to another like giving a hundred-dollar bill or a shiny badge. I think it’s much more involved than this. So let’s look more closely at the two primary sources of authority.
Individual authority manifests itself in two different ways. Some people, because of their unique attributes, possess a certain power (often referred to as charisma) to influence others. Their words, their bearing, and their ideas project “a convincing force.” This would be a consensual form of authority, granted by those who accept another person’s influence.2 And this sort of power cannot be given through institutional channels. Either you are born with it, or you develop it, but it involves personal qualities, not organizational standing. The opposite of consensual authority, of course, would be authority that an individual claims and maintains by force or manipulation. This type of negative authority may influence other people’s thought and opinion, if they are susceptible to evil or are easily deceived, but it is more liable to influence or control their behavior, often through threat or fear. Between these two poles, however, are various degrees of personal influence, including the confidence some people exude that permits them to be domineering without actually attracting followers or admirers.
Institutional authority is another matter altogether. Some people occupy positions of “command” because of their skill (or perhaps good fortune) in negotiating the paths of organizational hierarchy, thus landing themselves in stations where they are able to use the weight of institutional power to command or at least direct those who occupy lower echelons of the organizational chart. Other persons, who may not possess this sort of skill or luck, are often granted a degree of institutional authority anyway by those who rank above them in the organizational hierarchy. Their success in advancing within the hierarchy, however, is dependent on how well they please (or perhaps deceive) those who have granted them authority.
Organizations themselves are generally the eventual fruit of a charismatic leader’s influence. Once the founder of the institution has moved on or has died, authority in the organization usually becomes routinized and is based either on heredity (in a family business, for instance, or in a patriarchal religion) or on some form of legal and orderly framework (a corporation, for example) that the charismatic leader established before his departure.
This view of authority has significant overlap with the writings of German social and economic theorist Max Weber, who identified three “pure types” of legitimate authority: rational (“resting on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands”), traditional (“resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them”), and charismatic (“resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person”).3 Interestingly, Weber used Joseph Smith as an example of charismatic authority: “Another type [of charismatic leader] is represented by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who may have been a very sophisticated swindler (although this cannot be definitely established).”4 Weber may not have known what to think of Joseph Smith, but he was particularly interested in what happens “with the death or decline of a charismatic leader. Charismatic authority is ‘routinized’ in a number of ways according to Weber: orders are traditionalized, the staff or followers change into legal or ‘estate-like’ (traditional) staff, or the meaning of charisma itself may undergo change.”5 Weber would undoubtedly have been interested in the transition of the LDS Church from a charismatic “new movement” to a unique combination of traditional legitimacy and legal-rational bureaucracy in which charisma plays a sporadic and unpredictable role.
It is important to point out in this context that Joseph Smith established two distinct paths by which authority became routinized after his death: the hereditary patriarchal priesthood and the institutional, hierarchical Melchizedek Priesthood. And the latter was not specifically enough defined, leaving the door open for two competing institutional claims—hence the confusion that reigned in the aftermath of his assassination. He also left sufficient room for a rogue charismatic claim to authority that arose outside these two typical channels.
The Savior’s Authority
In light of the distinctions outlined above between individual (or charismatic) authority and institutional (or routinized) authority, it is interesting to note that the Savior’s authority during his earthly ministry was almost exclusively individual, not institutional, and it was consensual, not claimed by force or threat or deception. He did declare a certain authority as God’s Son—which established a patriarchal line of authorization and perhaps even implied some sort of eternal though undefined organization—and he based his own mandate upon the frequent declaration that he came to do his Father’s will.6 These declarations were important, but people followed him not because of these claims; they followed him primarily because of a personal or charismatic influence. The manner of his teaching, “as one that had authority” (Mark 1:22), and his deeds—healing illnesses, raising the dead, and miraculously controlling physical matter—strengthened people’s perception of the authority he claimed.
It is noteworthy, I believe, that even though Jesus spoke of his own or his Father’s kingdom, and though he may indeed have laid the foundation for the church his followers expanded after his death, the Gospels are strangely silent about any effort on the Savior’s part to establish anything more than a minimal formal organization. Indeed, he insisted that his kingdom was not of this world (see John 18:36), and his recorded actions appear to support this declaration. He went about doing good, preaching a radical new doctrine, healing the sick, and irritating the entrenched and apostate power structure of the Jewish religion, but he did not focus much energy or many resources on establishing a rival organization. He ordained twelve Apostles (or emissaries—those who were sent forth), gave them authority (not ever identified in the Bible as priesthood) to act in his name (primarily to preach and to heal), and commissioned seventy others as missionaries to teach his doctrine, but we read nothing, for instance, of Jesus establishing congregations of believers or erecting any sort of formal power structure.7 Indeed, his instructions to the Apostles recorded in Matthew 20:20–28 (which we will look at in the next post) suggest the exact opposite of a power structure. If he established any sort of formal organization, it should probably be described as a service structure.
Similarly, in the Book of Mormon, when Jesus visited the people at Bountiful, he taught them some fundamental Christian principles, commissioned twelve disciples, gave them authority (once again not identified as priesthood) to baptize and administer the sacrament, but the record does not indicate that he established any sort of formal hierarchical structure. Although Alma1 had established a church among the people at the waters of Mormon and expanded it in the land of Zarahemla and surrounding regions, this church apparently disintegrated in the thirtieth year after Christ’s birth (see 3 Ne. 6:14), and its successor was not organized until after Jesus had ascended into heaven a second time. In 3 Nephi 18, Jesus mentions his church twice, but as a future entity (see vv. 5, 16). It is not until 3 Nephi 26:17–21 that we read of the twelve disciples teaching and baptizing the people, “and they who were baptized in the name of Jesus were called the church of Christ.” This is the first mention of an organized church after the Savior’s initial appearance, but it seems the disciples were unsure what to call this group of baptized believers, so they prayed for this information, which brought another appearance of Jesus, who told them to “call the church in my name” (3 Ne. 27:7). The record does not indicate that Jesus himself organized this church, but that his disciples did this after he had ascended to heaven.
In a similar manner, but with significant differences, the Apostles in the Old World set up not a “church” but “churches” (likely small congregations of believers) in various cities during their post-Pentecostal missionary journeys, but the Apostles apparently did not engage in any sort of intricate or hierarchical institution building.8 Geographical distance, communication limitations, and persecution probably restricted the extent to which they could establish a complex organizational structure. After the Apostles were gone, however, the bishops of the various churches formed regional synods to resolve doctrinal and policy disputes. Eventually, a council of bishops throughout the Roman Empire coalesced, which gave rise to what we now know as the Catholic Church, with its sprawling power structure and transformed sacraments and Hellenistic creeds.9
This institutional structure for Christian authority endured and evolved for centuries, but in the middle of the past millennium the Reformation created several other avenues and definitions of religious authority, most of them rejecting the formal hierarchy and power channels of Catholicism. Since I haven’t spent much time investigating authority in the Catholic or Protestant spheres, I won’t have much to say about them. Authority in Mormonism is quite enough to tackle in this series of posts.
In summary, then, authority can be either institutional or individual. Institutional authority can be given from one person to another in the chain of command within a hierarchy (even if it is a hierarchy of just two, such as when God commissioned Abinadi to represent him to the people of King Noah). Individual authority, by contrast, seems largely innate and cannot simply be passed from one person to another. It passes, rather, from the followers to the authority figure and is consensual in nature. Either source of authority, of course, can be used for good or evil ends. Hitler is a quintessential example of how both individual charismatic influence and formal institutional power can result in great harm. The Savior and his church would be an example of the opposite, although even in the Lord’s authorized church, institutional authority becomes a complicated and sometimes troublesome affair if the organization expands into a bureaucratic hierarchy and if those who wield influence within the institution do not understand the doctrinal parameters of their authority. Those doctrinal parameters will be the topic of next week’s post.
1. See, for example, Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” Ensign 44, no. 5 (May 2014): 51: “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be?” The assumption behind this statement is that in the LDS Church priesthood and authority are the same thing.
2. It should be noted that this sort of personal authority can be used for either righteous or evil ends. Lucifer certainly possessed and possesses this sort of influence to shape the thoughts and behavior of others, as have many evil individuals in mortality. But even though Lucifer wields great influence among his followers, his authority is dependent on the will of his followers. Many years ago, when temple presidents sometimes instructed patrons in the temple and answered questions about the ordinances, I sat in such a session in the Provo Temple. Someone raised a question about Lucifer’s claim to possess “power and priesthoods.” The temple president responded that Lucifer does indeed have priesthood, but it is a priesthood granted him by his followers. This principle is not official doctrine, but it rings true. For without followers, any person’s authority would be empty and meaningless.
3. Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischoff and others (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 215.
4. Weber, Economy and Society, 242.
5. Dana Williams, “Max Weber: Traditional, Legal-Rational, and Charismatic Authority,” http://danawilliams2.tripod.com/authority.html.
6. See, for instance, Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; John 5:30; 6:38; 3 Ne. 11:11; 27:13; D&C 19:24.
7. The account in John 21, which describes how the Apostles “go a fishing” at the Sea of Tiberius after the Savior’s death and resurrection, suggests that they assumed their duties in the ministry were completed. There was apparently no formal organizational structure that they felt obligated to assume control over, no official priesthood hierarchy such as Joseph Smith erected in the early 1830s, no network of congregations that demanded their attention—in essence, no “church.” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, taking what he calls “some nonscriptural liberty,” concurs with this basic assumption: “In effect, Peter said to his associates, ‘Brethren, it has been a glorious three years. . . . But that is over. He has finished His work, and He has risen from the tomb. He has worked out His salvation and ours. So you ask, “What do we do now?” I don’t know more to tell you than to return to your former life, rejoicing. I intend to “go a fishing.”’ And at least six of the ten other remaining Apostles said in agreement, ‘We also go with thee.’” Jeffrey R. Holland, “The First Great Commandment,” Ensign 42, no. 11 (2012): 83.
8. A Catholic explanation of the difference between bishop, priest, and deacon provides some interesting detail about how the early “churches” were organized. According to Ignatius of Antioch, writing in about ad 110, every church recognized three offices—bishop (episcopos), priest (presbuteros), and deacon (diakonos)—and without these three offices a group could not be called a church. In the apostolic era, these three terms were somewhat fluid, with Paul, for instance, referring to himself as a deacon (2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph. 3:7) and Peter referring to himself as a “fellow elder” (1 Pet. 5:1), elder being an equivalent name for priest. According to Hyppolytus (ca. ad 215), a deacon was not ordained to the priesthood. “Bishop, Priest, and Deacon,” Catholic Answers, http://www.catholic.com/tracts/bishop-priest-and-deacon.
9. An approximately similar process occurred in the Orthodox Church.