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Authority is an issue that occupies a central place in current ecumenical discussion among the churches and it is one of enormous social and political importance as well. Accordingly, while the arguments that follow are directed most particularly to the question of authority in the churches, they have relevance as well, I hope, to analogous concerns in the larger society of which the churches are a part. With respect to church bodies, my premise is that, given our present ecclesial and social circumstances, the issue of authority will serve more to unify the churches than to divide them. I can only hope that history will prove me right.


By way of introduction, allow me to observe that we should not enter this discussion with the assumption that one or another of the churches has no problem while others do. The fact is that, though the churches share what I will call a common tradition about authority, that tradition is in the midst of a severe crisis. The crisis to which I refer has come about because we now exist in circumstances that are unfriendly to our tradition and that steadily weaken it.

What exactly is the common tradition to which I refer? To display adequately its breadth and complexity, we will have to look not at one but at four closely connected notions. Obviously, one of these is authority itself. The others are power, office, and liberty. As used in the common tradition (which has both a political and an ecclesiastical form), each of these ideas is related to the others and each contributes to the meaning of the other.

To begin, what might it mean to say of someone that he or she “has authority”? Within the common tradition, the meaning of the phrase becomes clear if we make a necessary distinction between authority and other forms of social control; in particular, domination, manipulation, and persuasion. Authority is a form of social control, or, if you prefer, a way of ordering the common life of the church or commonwealth, that lies between domination and manipulation on the one hand and persuasion on the other.

It matters not whether we speak of the body of Christ or the body politic, for authority to be authority and not a form of domination or manipulation those who have it cannot in its exercise rely on force and deception in a way that bypasses the liberty of those over whom it is exercised. Neither can it be said in reference either to church or to state that someone has authority if he or she has no right to require obedience from those who may not agree with particular decisions. Authority, be it exercised in the church or the body politic, is not the same thing as persuasion. To have authority, one must enjoy more than suasive power or the respect we attribute to “experts.” People with authority have a right, even in cases of disagreement, to expect compliance with their justifiable commands and to apply sanctions if it is not forthcoming.

In sum, authority, lying as it does between domination and persuasion, is a form of social control that implies both the right to command and the liberty of those to whom commands may be issued. Authority has these characteristics in all realms of its operation—familial, ecclesial, or overtly “political.” If the right to command is not coupled with recognition of liberty, then it is not authority that is being exercised but some form of tyranny.

I believe it will become clear in due course whether or not such a claim escapes nonsense, but first let us place on the table another of the central concepts noted above. Within the common tradition, authority is a notion that is necessarily linked to that of power. This linkage also applies both within the body of the church and within the body politic. The precise nature of the link, however, is far from obvious.

In itself, power is simply the ability to achieve purpose. Authority, however, does not always have the power to achieve its purpose. It is plain, therefore, that though authority and power are linked, they are not identical. The question, of course, is what precisely the nature of their relationship is.

A few basic observations will reveal an answer. We can all imagine a situation in which someone has great power and yet little or no authority. An obvious case is that of a tyrant, a bully, or a domineering spouse. People with power but not authority are known to us all, and they make us all very nervous. What we fear is that the purposes they may pursue are not ones we share.

Situations in which people have power but not authority are well fixed in imagination. Less well fixed are situations in which those with authority have no power. Indeed, such a situation may be both a logical and practical impossibility. It appears to be the case that those with authority may lack sufficient power to achieve their purposes, but that they cannot be without power altogether and retain authority. This is so because authority without power can no longer enforce its rightful commands, and without this ability, authority ceases to be.

Think of Nelson Mandela during the time of his incarceration. His authority was necessarily connected with the power he had among his people. To be sure, his power was limited and could be exercised only indirectly, but it is undeniable that it was real and that it was inseparably connected with the authority he had. Conversely, a total inability to use power would have destroyed his authority. If his authority had decreased, so would have his power. The reverse is also true. This example indicates, I believe, that while they are not identical, authority and power are necessarily linked.

We may observe on the basis of these comments that though authority requires some degree of power to remain authority, power does not require authority to remain itself. What does this observation suggest? It suggests, I believe, that within the common tradition, authority is understood as a way of making power responsible to a standard that is shared both by one who has authority and by those over whom it is exercised. In short, authority is a way of investing power with moral and religious accountability. It is a way of ordering power within a community in such a way that the power of the community itself is augmented and directed by purposes acceptable to the community as a whole. Authority, therefore, does not separate ruler and subject; it rather links them in a shared bond of fundamental belief and in a common form of life. Power disconnected from authority presupposes no such bond.

How then can these seemingly contradictory conclusions be reconciled? How can it be true both that those with authority have the right to expect compliance and the power to invoke sanctions, and that those over whom they exercise authority continue to enjoy liberty even though they are under authority?

Within the common tradition, the answer lies in the derivation of the word authority itself. In Roman society, an auctor was one who, by virtue of some combination of qualities, was thought to stand closer to the foundational beliefs and forms of life of the Roman people than others and was consequently assigned responsibility for protecting and augmenting those beliefs and ways of living. Hannah Arendt has argued that, within this tradition, the very idea of authority presupposes two other notions for its intelligibility, and these are the ones to which allusion has just been made.

Arendt goes on to argue that it is precisely the absence of these two supporting notions that, in the modern world, makes the notion of authority increasingly problematic. We have both an ecclesial and a political crisis of authority because, for various reasons, our society no longer has widely shared beliefs and forms of life to which common reference can be made. Beliefs and ways of life, save in respect to certain minimal attitudes and practices without which social life could not successfully be carried on, are matters of private rather than public business. Further, because our notions of equality constantly seek to exclude discussion of the personal qualities of excellence that make one a fit person to govern, we permit argument over what ought to be done in and through office but not over the personal qualities that might make one fit to hold it. To focus upon these characterological matters is to court the charge of “elitism,” and so they are relegated to an ever-increasing extent to the realm of private taste and personal preference.

A word must be said immediately about the implications of Arendt’s observations. They suggest that in so far as the churches are concerned, there is a more fundamental issue that lies behind the crisis in authority. The crisis concerns the faith of the church, its forms of life, and the virtue of its leaders. It would appear that the crisis in authority we now face has been caused by the dissolution of a common standard of belief (what used to be called the rule of faith) and a common form of life (what used to be called “the way”). The more profound issue signaled by the crisis in authority has to do with a decay in the communion of saints and a decline in the powers of soul enjoyed by those within that communion to whom authority is entrusted. A crisis in authority suggests the possibility that our churches have lost the will and lack the men and women with those powers of soul required to articulate, promulgate, and defend a rule of faith and a way of life that is indeed common to Christians.

More will be said in a moment about the implications of this situation, but first something more must be said about the argument to this point. It should now be fairly easy to see how, within the common tradition, authority and power are linked. Authority serves to direct power to the service of common purpose. It should also be reasonably clear that authority and liberty are related rather than opposed notions. Authority exists to protect and augment common beliefs and forms of life and so also the liberty of those who hold and follow them. Those who have authority and those who do not inhabit the same spiritual and moral universe. Authority, therefore, does not stand opposed to liberty but is logically linked to it in that authority presupposes its own free recognition on the basis of shared beliefs and forms of life. In ecclesiastical terms, the very notion of authority, as opposed to domination, requires also the notion of a communion of saints who enjoy a sensus fidelium in respect both to belief and ways of living.

Thus, if the commands of one with authority are perceived to lie within what might be called a “circle of permissibility” recognized by the church (or nation), those demands ought not to be considered infringements of liberty even if individuals or entire groups within the church disagree with particular decisions. Those with and those without authority are both accountable to the same tradition, and within that tradition the wise ordering of common life by the judgments of those with authority is believed to enhance rather than diminish the liberty of all. Within the common tradition, therefore, both those with and those without authority must give up some degree of autonomy out of respect for what is common to all and for the promotion of the greater liberty of all. Both those with and those without authority are bound by common restraints on individual opinion, or at least they ought to be.

It is therefore possible to say that, within the common tradition, the notions of authority, power, and liberty are linked by moral as well as logical and practical bonds. What, however, is the case with authority and office? It is this point that I take to be the most thorny one in respect both to ecclesial and political relations. That their connection is problematic can easily be shown by means of a well-known contrast, that between de jure and de facto authority. A person with de jure authority has a right to issue commands, make decisions, and enforce obedience on the basis of certain presupposed legal conventions, rules, and methods of entitlement. On the other hand, persons with de facto but not de jure authority enjoy no such right. Their commands are obeyed and their judgments followed not because of the office they hold but because of their personal qualities on the one hand and the attitudes of belief, respect, fear, and trust they evoke on the other. Compare, if you will, an elected church official and a “charismatic” leader and the point will become immediately clear.

These observations apply to authority and office in both church and society. The same sort of distinction between authority and office can be made in a number of other ways, but in all its guises it is intended to show that authority and office are not identical notions even if they are linked. Countless examples can be found of people who have authority but no office. One can imagine, however, only as an extreme possibility, a person who has office but no authority.

What might serve to bring about this latter possibility is an interesting subject for investigation, but the point of immediate relevance is a different one. Within the common tradition, authority and office are distinguishable, but they are linked in a way that allows the function of authority to be ordered and indeed limited. If, within the common tradition, authority provides limitations upon the acceptable use of power, office provides an order for and a defined and structured limitation upon the exercise of both authority and power. Office licenses the use of authority and power within a circle of procedure and rule.

How then is the link between authority and office to be fruitfully maintained? Within the common tradition there is, despite differences in polity between the churches, a long-recognized obligation enjoined upon all to seek in every way possible to ensure that de facto and de jure authority are combined whenever appointment to office is made. Thus, within the common tradition, moral education is supposed not only to prepare people to rule but to prepare them as well to recognize in their fellows the virtues necessary for the exercise of authority. In short, the common tradition holds that it is as important to give attention to the personal beliefs and qualities those given office ought to manifest as it is to the precise duties of the office they might hold.

Here we arrive at a point where the implications of the comments I have made should be noted. I find it ironical that I come from a tradition which, in its service for the consecration of a Bishop, places great emphasis upon the authority and power invested in the office of Bishop to teach and maintain the church’s rule of faith. Irony is involved because it appears to be the case that the office of Bishop among Episcopalians has become increasingly separated from that authority by which some are given the right and duty to teach and uphold the church’s rule of faith and forms of life. Episcopalians tend to elect for their bishops administrators whose primary aim is to manage an organization and to make room within it for any and all who might want to become a part of it. They accomplish this goal by playing down the need for common beliefs and forms of life and by giving their attention to the maintenance of processes and procedures that allow contradictory beliefs and ways of life to coexist with a minimum of tension within a single polity. Office and authority, understood as the right and means to maintain the common belief and life of the church, are distanced from one another as far as is possible. The purpose of office is not to maintain truth but to maintain a procedural unity that allows for people who are as different from one another as night is from day to coexist.

It is not for me to comment upon how a separation between authority and office may have occurred in other churches. Nevertheless, superficial observation leads me to believe that similar problems exist. My impression is that in all the churches there is a need once more to make effective links between authority and office, and that until this is done, little real progress will be made in ecumenical relations.


The basic outline of the common tradition is now complete. Within that tradition, both in its political and ecclesial expression, authority is a way of ordering power within a community in such a way that, at one and the same time, it supports and augments common beliefs and ways of life and is regularly and harmoniously conjoined with a structure of offices that gives order to the exercise of authority and power within the particular society in question.

These points being made, it is necessary to go on to make an additional one to the importance of which Alasdair MacIntyre has recently alerted us. In all his work, he has been anxious to remind his readers that though tradition unites, it also marks divisions. In fact, tradition gives expression to an extended argument. Tradition is neither static nor uniform. It lives by means of its own tensions. The important thing to remember, however, is that the tensions and arguments take place within a common frame of reference. If you will, tradition marks, over generations, the course of an argument between people who are members of the same family and who sometimes live in the same house.

It seems on first glance that, within this common frame of reference, the argument between the churches focuses most intensely upon the relation between authority and office (under which I include matters of jurisdiction and polity). To a far lesser degree does it concern the nature of authority itself and its relation to power and liberty. If these observations are accurate, more unites than divides the churches, at least in respect to the nature and function of authority.

I do not mean that I believe that the debate over the relation between authority and office is a trivial one. For that debate to be productive, however, certain other aspects of the common tradition must be brought into focus and made more conscious than now they are. The first of these concerns the justification of authority itself. An answer to the question of why it might be a good thing for one person to rule over another is far from obvious, but again the common tradition provides our churches answers that, in principle, they can share.

At this point, I must make some specific remarks about the Roman Catholic Church. Most of what are sometimes called the “mainline churches” have been shaped in varying degrees by the appropriations of Plato and Aristotle made respectively by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In the Platonic-Augustinian stream, authority is thought to be necessary because of human deficiency and sin. In the Aristotelian-Thomistic stream, authority is justified on the basis of human plenitude as well as human deficiency. Plato and Augustine justify authority as a means of ordering our “unruly wills and affections.” Aristotle and Aquinas know of this need but believe the deeper justification of authority lies in the need to order toward a common good the very superabundance of particular goods possible for human beings. For one stream of thought, the justification of authority rests upon deficiency, and for the other, upon plenitude as well as deficiency.

As a generalization, I believe it can be said that Protestants have tended more to the Augustinian than to the Thomistic view and, for this reason, authority in the church has proved a particularly divisive issue between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Protestants and Catholics tend to look at authority from rather different perspectives, and on the whole I think it fair to say that the version of the common tradition to which Catholics are heir tends to give them a more positive attitude toward the function of authority in the church than that found among Protestants. We all may agree that, because of sin, some form of authority is necessary to ensure the good order of both church and state. Protestants are less apt to agree, however, that authority itself serves the positive function of promoting the plenitude of gifts and blessings ecclesial and political life are supposed to encompass.

It is, I hope, fitting for a Protestant like myself to defend the Catholic version of the common tradition as more adequate than the Protestant one. I do so out of no rejection of the insights of Augustine but rather out of a desire for an even more adequate account of authority’s function. On numerous occasions the Roman Catholic philosopher Yves Simon spoke of the need in our modern world to maintain both the Augustinian and Thomistic streams of the common tradition in the midst of a society that sees in authority only a sign of human failure. On the whole, our society believes that the better we become, the less we need authority. Such views, Simon argued, are the reverse of the truth and tend to give moderns an instinctively hostile attitude toward the very notion of authority and a superficiality in their grasp of the profoundly central place authority occupies in a healthy social life.

This suspicion of authority has seeped into the churches themselves from the cultures that surround them. Nevertheless, the full complexity of this double stream of tradition is still available, and one way ahead in the ecumenical dialogue may be to grasp again the full complexity of the common tradition available to us. If the churches could manage such a reclamation, they might manage as well both to reconstitute their common life and to offer to all a view of authority now increasingly rare in the general life of society. It is a view that takes authority to be a positive good rather than a necessary evil alone and in so doing preserves a truth about human nature and society that stands in danger of loss.

Another point about the common tradition that requires note if we are to make progress toward sorting out the relation between authority and office is that, within it, authority is a term that is applied in a proper sense only to persons, either the divine Persons of the Trinity or human persons who act on God’s behalf. Within the common tradition, both in its political and ecclesial expressions, authority belongs to agents rather than to “things.”

It is important immediately to note that, for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews alike, all authority in heaven and earth belongs to God. For Protestants and Catholics that authority has been given by the Father to the Son and by the Son to those by whom, through the Spirit, it is exercised in the Son’s name. We might argue, and no doubt would, about the way in which the various Persons of the Trinity are involved in these communications of authority, but in no case is authority “impersonal.” God, who is the source of all authority, shares it only with persons. In no case is divine authority located in a thing.

No doubt someone will ask about those “things” we refer to as Holy Scripture, creeds, eucharistic canons, confessions, concords, ecclesial traditions, constitutions, canon law, and judicial precedents. Do they not also have authority? They are frequently spoken of as if they do, but such usage, despite the fact that it will surely continue, I believe to be misleading and in need of qualification. Books, creeds, confessions, canons, constitutions, and traditions cannot issue commands—only persons can. Since authority is defined by its right to command, and since only persons command, only persons have authority in the proper sense of the word.

What then do we do about phrases like “the authority of Scripture” or “the authority of the Constitution”? Such usage can be very misleading. If we must speak of the authority of these “things,” we need also to be conscious that we are using the word “authority” in a derivative sense. Strictly speaking, the Bible has authority only when interpreted in the church by human agents whose authority to do so is in some way recognized. Similar things can be said of the Constitution. It is, therefore, necessary when making reference to “the authority of Scripture,” etc., to be aware that one is saying something different than when one speaks of the authority of a Bishop or indeed of God. What one is saying is that someone with authority or in authority, in giving commands and making judgments, must justify his actions by reference to certain “things” thought to contain or give expression to the will of God and so also to the beliefs and ways of life common to God’s people. The beliefs and ways of life of God’s people rest not on their own authority but upon the authority of God who approves or disapproves of them, establishes or disestablishes them, commands or forbids them. In the case of authority in the church, scripture, creeds, and confessions are, therefore, points to which reference is or ought to be made by those with authority in order to show that their determinations about common belief and life are indeed Christianly apt—are indeed in accord with what God approves, establishes, or commands. Any or all of these “things” may or must be referred to, but they do not “have authority” in the proper sense of the word.

The point of all this is that the very logic of the notion of authority implies that though there is a prima facie obligation to obey the determinations of authority, there is also an obligation on the part of those who have authority to give an account of their judgments by showing that they indeed fall within what God approves, establishes, or commands—within the bounds of permissibility previously mentioned. Authority, in all the churches, must give such an account of itself by reference to those sources that enshrine the heritage of the community and, in like manner, those under authority are required by the inner logic of the common tradition to examine the functioning of the authority and challenge it if, in its use of power, it steps outside the aforementioned “circle of permissibility.” One can say, therefore, that these sources or foundations, to which all members of a commonwealth are responsible, are “authoritative,” but, strictly speaking, it is an incorrect use of words to say that, in and of themselves and apart from interpretation and application by human agents, they have authority. What our churches are arguing over, therefore, is not the authority of Scripture or confessions but over those things to which reference must be made when authority is exercised, over their correct interpretation, and over their relative weight in settling disputes.


It is now time to ask where this formal analysis of the notion of authority leads. It leads directly to a comparison of the common tradition with the notions of authority currently operative in our culture. These notions rest on very different premises, and, as the “novelties” associated with what we might call “the new authority” are described, it will become clear that they have seeped into the mind of the churches to a far greater extent than perhaps we are willing to admit. The fact is that the common tradition stands in danger of being eaten away by another, and to the extent to which this happens in any church, it becomes that much more difficult for that church to remain a church. To the extent that the hostile tradition about authority takes hold, a church becomes not so much a church but a collection of what Robert Bellah has recently called “life-style enclaves.”

What is the nature of the hostile tradition? According to the common tradition, authority is derivative from more basic social agreements. Within it, for authority to remain itself and not be transformed into some other form of social control, those who hold it must reflect, embody, and promote shared beliefs and intentions. The contemporary view makes no such assumption. On the contrary, authority is said to rest upon the very absence of a wide range of shared beliefs and ways of living. Within modern and postmodern cultures, authority functions not to further what is common but to insure a social order within which people can follow differing beliefs and ways of life without in the process doing harm one to another.

Jeffrey Stout and Alasdair MacIntyre have both pointed out that this view of authority was born of the inability of Roman Catholics and Protestants to reach agreement on the basic beliefs that were to inform public life. The contemporary view of authority was born from the religious wars that followed the Reformation and remains, despite its limitations and dangers, a necessary political notion within a “pluralistic” social order. Nevertheless, when this notion seeps without critical assessment from the political arena into the foundations of the church, the edifice of the latter begins to crumble, and it is to call attention to the extent of the decay that this essay has been given the somewhat dramatic subtitle, “Excavations Among the Ruins.”

What is the “socio-logic” of the contemporary view of authority? According to this view, authority is justified not by what is common, but by irreconcilable differences in what people believe and in the ways in which they choose to live their lives. If, therefore, one is to have authority across the spectrum of society and not within a small group or “life-style enclave” alone, one must aspire to office. It is office rather than authority per se that gives access to power over a diversity of people. In our brave new world and in our bureaucratically organized churches, office functions according to agreed-upon procedures on the basis of which strangers may relate one to another within a common organization. The authority of office is not one based in common belief and life but in “agreements” and “rights” on the basis of which buffer zones are placed between persons who are not civic friends or brothers and sisters in the Lord but adversaries with differing interests.

In both church and state, the extent of the authority one enjoys as an officeholder is not delimited by beliefs shared with the people over whom authority is exercised. It is rather defined by policies and rules of procedure attached to the office in question. These policies and procedures are not designed to augment common belief and ways of living but to insure that individuals have maximum opportunity to make their own choices about these matters. Consent or liberty are thus defined not in relation to what is common (though not necessarily uniform), but in relation to what will promote private interest or public utility.

If the justification of authority has changed, so also have the qualifications for its possession. No longer is it necessary to stand close to a common court or exhibit virtues prized by all. What is necessary is to have the skills of a manager and the knowledge of a technician. People are not to be led, but managed in such a way that their various desires and “life plans” can be satisfied within the bounds of a reasonable amount of social harmony. Authority, therefore, is not to protect and promote what is common but rather to insure that everyone is “included” in the distribution of social benefits.

“Inclusivity,” which in the context of the new authority is interpreted as the amalgamation of people with vastly different beliefs and ways of life, thus becomes not only the method but also the end of authority’s exercise. An ecclesial and political version of art for art’s sake, inclusion for the sake of inclusion becomes the going wisdom of the day and from this wisdom the notion of sharing and serving a common good is steadily evacuated. The exercise of authority is not located socially within a commonwealth but within a society of strangers who define themselves in opposition one to another by rights, possessions, and differing “life styles.” Within the amalgam, people increasingly define themselves by what they demand. Voluntarism defines religious as well as political communities. Within all social institutions interest groups multiply like amoebas.

The contrasts drawn between these two views of authority have been made as stark as possible in order to highlight the differences between them. In real life, both within general social life and within the life of the churches, the two notions mix and mingle incessantly. Perhaps it is fair to say that they contend one with another for possession of our souls. The state of the battle varies from church to church, but it is the same battle that is raging in each case. In this battle, a view which presupposes that it is not only impossible but wrong for authority to protect and further common beliefs and ways of life gains increasing control of our imagination, and as it does it erodes the foundations necessary for a church to remain a church.

Reactions to these social processes vary from church to church. Within liberal circles the reaction is to blend more adequately with the surrounding culture by adapting “the new authority” to ecclesial purposes. In more conservative quarters, the reaction is often quite reactionary and authoritarian. Neither “liberalism” nor “reaction” will do, however. Neither has the strength to maintain a church that is indeed, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” Such an outcome depends, I believe, upon the reclamation of what I have dared term “the common tradition.” It may be, as T. S. Eliot said, that the conditions for such a reclamation seem “unpropitious.” It is nonetheless true to say that, in each of the churches, the work of the next generation is just such a reclamation project. It is my belief that this very project will serve to display the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church across our denominational boundaries, and, in so doing, promote the sort of unity God has in mind for us. It may also display the common tradition about authority to a society increasingly in need of its resources and thereby make a contribution to the health of society that is as welcome as it is unexpected.

Philip Turner is Professor of Christian Ethics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. This essay is based on the 1990 Arthur Carl Piepkorn lecture given at Gettysburg Theological Seminary.

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