The Authority of a Servant

What a crazy random happenstance, to come to another culture and realize that you are seeing facets of your own, not so much diminished but magnified in the other. I rather suppose this must be the way Italians view pizza in America, particularly in our universities: “Well goodness, we thought the round disk of goodness tasted swell and everything, but is it really necessary to eat it four times a week for dinner?” “Not to mention,” I would add to this imaginary Italian’s comment, “it seems a pity to wash its magnificence down with Coke Zero instead of with some bottled vintage, deeply tinted.” But before I get too far down this rabbit trail, let me say that this is not today a reflection upon pizza in all of its glory, but on culture in all of its curiosity. And so we come to the area that has piqued my interest this week: that of authority.

I suppose that as Americans we have always had a difficult time understanding and implementing a healthy framework of authority. Whether we were trying to escape medieval serfdom in Europe, or the Church of England and its bishops and prayer books, or (in the end) various taxations without representation, we have often prided ourselves in the United States as being free, independent, self-sufficient, and beholding to no one for our origin, our destination, or anything in between. (I am oversimplifying things, I know.)

As a result, an Old World view of authority has been long discarded among us in the New, and recently at least we have not really seen any need to place it with another. We have a kind of freedom, it is true, but we live now in a culture that is clueless in regards to how genuine authority works: parents struggle to implement their authority with their children, employers struggle to communicate their authority with employees, pastors struggle to assert their authority with their parishioners, and all of us struggle to recognize and obey the authority that exists over us. Few of us know what the centurion who pleaded for Jesus to heal his servant himself knew: what it means to have and to be under authority.

But as I was informed shortly after I arrived in Buenos Aires, the people of Latin America (and Argentines are no exception) struggle equally, if not even more so, with the concept of authority. Here in Argentina, to have authority is to have the power to command, and personal and collective identity tends to be understood in terms both of issuing commands that are obeyed and also of resisting commands that others have made.

To wit, as it was explained to me, each person here desperately wants to have authority, to be the person in charge, but yet each is also terrified and resentful of those who have authority over him or her and will do (if possible) whatever it takes to undermine that authority. This leads to an serious suspicion towards any person or group that tries to exert a modicum of authority, let alone command power and control. To be able to navigate any relationship, personal or professional, it becomes necessary that any sense of one having authority over another, or of one reporting to another, be soft-pedaled or eschewed entirely.

How ought we then as Christians to live and move and have our being in this cultural landscape, regardless of the hemisphere? Obviously, a biblical concept of authority does not begin with the question of “Who commands whom?” but rather of “How do we each serve each other differently in love?” Think about it: the Almighty Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Savior of the world, was given “all authority in heaven and on earth” precisely after he “emptied himself, taking the very form of a servant.”

Love and service. The basis of Jesus’ authority in all of creation consisted in his giving himself up entirely in obedience to the Father whom he loved and on behalf of us sinners whom he loved as well. Nor has he abandoned this love, but he continues to serve his Father and to guide, save, and intercede on our behalf. For this reason, he tells his disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master,” (to clarify, he is the Master, we are the servants), and in another place he adds, “The one who would be great among you must be your servant, and the one who would be first among you must be slave of all.”

Notice, Jesus holds up an extremely high view of authority, but it is a servant’s authority modeled after his own love, not a dictator’s authority modeled after the enslaving forces of sin. Despite all the abuses of authority, despite the pain and suffering that ill-gotten and ill-managed power has wreaked upon this world, as Christians we must stand up and affirm that authority does exist and must be recognized. We are not called to soft-pedal authority, but to re-declare its importance together with the importance of its proper use. What is more, we must acknowledge and submit to every authority when and where it is legitimate, just as Jesus submitted not only to his loving Father but also to callous Pontius Pilate.

But we must also show ourselves to be faithful stewards of the authority given to us; that is to say, when we are given authority, we should not use it for our own interests, or for our own ego, or for our own sense of fulfillment. Instead, when we are entrusted with authority, we must act as stewards of that authority, as servants who will have to give an account to our Lord and Master, the just Judge of all things.

I am still working on figuring out how to live life in light of these discrepant paradigms and realities. Pray for me, as I seek to lead as a servant, and to serve those who are leading me.