“What Kind of Authority?”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Cong’l UCC, Fort Collins
28 January 2024
People my age and younger – and some of you older Baby Boomers, too – have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “authority” …and with good reason. Part of that is a result of the liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s: women’s liberation, gay liberation, black power, and the anti-war movement. It was the era of flower children and the counter-culture. And though there are certainly enduring legacies of that era, the people who populated those movements tended to become yuppies who cared more for their brokerage accounts than for free love, preserving the planet, and working for peace. (And please remember that there is still a lot of work to do in a nation where women still earn 82 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts in the same jobs.) Some things have changed, to be sure, but we are being forced by the political realities in which we live, to look at what ultimately matters most.
Having been sexually harassed by a female superior – in a position of authority – when I worked at Stanford University in my 20s, I can in some ways – though not all – understand what abuse of power and authority looks like. But what about legitimate authority used responsibly? Jesus didn’t have huge rabbinic authority when he went into the synagogue to preach and heal. His sense of authority was not “power to enforce obedience or compliance,” but rather power to influence the beliefs, actions, and lives of people. His hearers afforded him authority because of his abilities, healing, and wisdom.
Even though you may think that one of the hallmarks of the Feminist movement is opposing authority in all its forms, some feminist philosophers are beginning to shift that idea. Rebecca Hanrahan and Louise Antony write, “Feminism is an antiauthoritarian movement that has sought to unmask many traditional ‘authorities’ as ungrounded. Given this, it might seem as if feminists are required to abandon the concept of authority altogether. But…the exercise of authority enables us to coordinate our efforts to achieve larger social goods and, hence, should be preserved. Instead, what is needed and what we provide for here is a way to distinguish legitimate authority from objectionable authoritarianism.” And God knows we are hearing a lot of objectionable authoritarianism — if not downright fascism — from certain corners of the American political arena, fueled in part by Christian Nationalism.
And still, there needs to be a dialogue between freedom and authority. We need to examine to whom or to what in our own lives we give authority to, what we pledge our allegiance to, and whether that is legitimate or not. And if we find that our prior assumptions about the sources of authority miss the mark, we need to make adjustments. We all afford or give over some of our authority to people or forces in this world, and it is time for some deep re-appraisal.
Let me pose an ethical question for you to consider: What is the dominant influence in your decision-making? Is it your political persuasion? Your socio-economic class? Your race? Your gender? Your nationality? Your relative affluence? Your sexual orientation? Your economic self-interest? Your role as a parent or child? Your sense of pleasure? … Or is it your faith?
Let me come at this from a slightly different angle: In whom do you put your ultimate trust? When push comes to shove, where do you assign your trust…if you can trust anyone? Is it to your doctor? Your stockbroker? Your therapist? Your personal trainer? Your spouse or partner? Your employer? Your president? Your minister? When you are on your deathbed, who do you want to be there with you…God or Jerome Powell?
Let me ask the question yet a third way: Whom do you serve? Is it your CitiCard balance? Your kids’ activities and chauffeuring them around town? Your student loan debt? Your employer? Your spouse or partner? Your family? Yourself? Your God?
All of these questions point toward the A-word…authority. Who or what is authoritative in your life? And I know a lot of us could quip, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But there is nothing in this or any economy that is going to help you lead a truly good life and keep you from death and lead you into life beyond death.
If we don’t give authority to God, then we give it to the range of petty deities of our culture. The anti-institutional thrust of the 1960s and 70s taught us to trust no one, especially if they were “over 30” or in a position of authority, and so we find our nation in a state of radical individualism, caring little for the common good or the larger consequences, but I think that’s beginning to change. The pendulum, at least for some of us, has begun to swing in the direction of collective responsibility.
“What is this? A new teaching – with authority!”
You and I have a lot of advantages in considering the questions I’ve posed. We are part of a 400-year-old religious tradition that has diminished the human authority of bishops and popes and kings and put the authority back where it belongs: with God. It isn’t that Marta and I don’t have pastoral authority, we do, and you’ve entrusted that authority to us, never to be abused. But we firmly believe that we are not gatekeepers that come between you and God. (We can, however, coach you from the sidelines.) You have direct access to the source of ultimate authority.
One of the great Christian ethicists of the 20th century, H. Richard Niebuhr, who wrote, “To make our decisions in faith … is to make them in view of the fact that the world of culture – human achievement – exists within the world of grace – God’s kingdom.” That bears repeating: “To make our decisions in faith … is to make them in view of the fact that the world of culture – human achievement – exists within the world of grace – God’s kingdom.”
So, if Niebuhr is correct, everything we do, think, say, act, feel, own, profess, is done within the context of God’s reign. And God’s kingdom is an anti-imperial reign in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where faith the size of a mustard seed will grow to an enormous size, where the rich “shall be sent empty away” because they have had their consolation.
Now, this may scare a few people away from a new members class, but our membership covenant contains these words: “I give myself unreservedly to God’s service.” How many of you have entered that covenant as members? So, when each of us who are members of this particular congregation entered the covenant, we made a solemn vow to place ourselves under the authority of God – with nothing held back. So, how are you doing with that commitment? None of us does it perfectly!
God is ultimately in charge, whether we acknowledge it or not. And when we covenant to give ourselves unreserved to God’s service, we are saying explicitly whose authority we are under.
We find ourselves at the beginning of an election year, as well as in a time of national political crisis, exacerbated by the “gift” of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. And it is precisely at such a time as this, that it is good to have a sense of clarity that we are God’s people, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.
So, here is where the profound dialogue between authority and liberation meet: When we give ourselves fully to God (and only a small handful of human beings I know of have ever done that completely) we free ourselves from every other master: powers and princes and presidents, success, wealth, fame, longevity…and even student loan debt. Aren’t you ready for that kind of liberation?
When we share in Holy Communion, we feast at God’s table. And in a very tangible way, we acknowledge that we are utterly dependent upon God for everything that keeps us alive – body and soul. So, every time we celebrate communion…every time you come forward and receive the elements of bread and wine, I invite you to think carefully about whom you serve, and what ultimate authority you recognize in your life.
May we be grounded in grace and in God’s service.
© 2024 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Rebecca Hanrahan, Louise Antony, “Because I Said So: Toward a Feminist Theory of Authority” in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 2005 20:4, 59-79
 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 256.