Authority can be faked. That's why impersonating a police officer is a crime. Sometimes the outward appearances of authority can be deceiving.
Spiritual authority can also be faked. Sometimes the outward appearances are there—perhaps a person's bearing suggests gravitas, substance, and passion. But that can be merely the way a person carries himself or herself, the result of a natural gift but not necessarily true spiritual authority.
Real spiritual authority has to do with the truth of the actual words being spoken, and the spirit of the person behind the words. Really, authority is about truth, honest-living truth. Words that are true carry weight because they are real. Dallas Willard has a great definition of reality—"Reality is what you can count on."
Authentic spiritual authority is what puts you in touch with reality.
Speaking with Authority
In the Gospels, Jesus taught "as one with authority," which the people noticed and contrasted with the teaching of the Pharisees. Interestingly, the Pharisees were as Scripture-soaked as anyone. But their teaching, while "biblical," lacked the resonance of truth.
At the time of Jesus, the teachers of the law would generally teach by citing precedent, their argument based on what others had previously decided. It was similar to the judicial system of our day. A judge generally does not say, "Judicially, judicially, I say unto you." They go back and cite legal precedents and findings of other courts, and then base their decision on those.
Jesus' teaching was qualitatively different. His words were clearly biblical, but his recurring phrase was "Truly, truly, I say to you." He was embodying the truth. Yes, as God's Son, he had unique authority in that sense.
As a preacher who is fully human, and clearly not divine, I can't speak as Jesus did. But I do seek to speak truth that carries weight and authority. All of us who preach the gospel aspire to speak under the authority of Jesus.
There's an unmistakable connection between the author and authority. Part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that just as God is able to speak and his words carry weight, so our words can also carry weight.
God speaks, and it is so. Every word that comes from heaven does not come in vain. It comes with purpose. In our own little way, even though as humans our words are distorted by sin, we still have the capacity to think and to speak and to have it be so. When our words shape and interpret reality, that's because we were made to carry authority.
The phrasing of the language in Genesis mirrors the language used by kings in ancient Mesopotamian culture. A king could say, "Let there be taxes," and there were taxes. And so when God said, "Let there be light," it is a picture of God as sovereign, as a king. Using words to author something into existence. That's authority.
All of us will sense that in a relationship when there's trust or deference. If a parent says to a child, "Let there be a clean room," if a relationship is right and it's being said in the right way with the right heart, then words can create at least one small part of reality. That's authoring. That's authority.
I make a distinction between a sermon being authoritative and a sermon being effective. Yet the two are related. Two different preachers can read the same words (words that are equally authoritative) yet one's delivery may resonate with readers while the other falls flat. It may be that the unsuccessful speaker lacks communication gifts, or perhaps doesn't even believe what he's saying. So the effectiveness, the capacity of words to penetrate the mind and the heart of the listener, is lost. A sermon may be true, but that does not mean it will have impact.
I once listened to a woman who ran the largest speakers bureau in the world. Somebody asked her, "What's the number one factor that makes an effective speaker?" I thought she would say something about being articulate or intelligent or maybe emotionally intelligent. But her response was fascinating to me. She pointed to passion. The primary determinant of an effective speaker, she said, was whether or not a person is passionate about what they're talking about. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed.
If you think about teachers you had when you were in school, it is true. If you felt that internal sense of passion—and it doesn't mean that they talked loudly, or that they were extroverted, or that they were emotional—you too were moved. You can tell when somebody's soul is gripped by a subject.
Years ago I did a sermon at Willow Creek, and it felt flat. I then sat next to Bill Hybels, and I told him, "I just felt kind of blah." And he said, "You're absolutely right."
Then he said that if you listen to a really good talk, in the first five minutes, the speaker will have answered the question, "Why is it really important that we talk about this subject?" I'd never thought about that before. Of course you can't do this in a formulaic way, every week saying "Let me tell you why it's really important we talk about this." But ever since he said that, I've listened for it, and it really is true. So now when I put a talk together, I ask why it's important that we talk about this subject? If I cannot answer this question, then we shouldn't be talking about it, or I haven't found the right way to talk about it.
Last fall I asked a friend, "What's the main thing I need to be doing for our church to be a place where lives are being transformed?" He said, "Your primary job is to experience deep contentment and joy and confidence in your everyday life with God."
Now I have that on a sign that hangs above the door of my office. It reminds me, before I write sermons or lead meetings or do planning, that my main job at the church is to live in deep contentment, joy, and confidence in my everyday walk with God. And nobody gets to interrupt that. No circumstances, no people. If that really is my primary pursuit, then that sense of passion will faithfully flow out of that. But if that's not the main thing—if it's not mostly being rooted in God, then passion actually becomes a dangerous thing, because then I'll be tempted to try to fake it, to substitute contrived emotion or manipulation for it.
Of course, the abuse of authority is a horrible problem. We live in a day when there's a tremendous suspicion of authority because of the way authority has been abused. Sometimes abused from pulpits.
I confess that I've abused my authority at times. There have been times when I'm writing a sermon, and I'm mad at someone in the congregation. (Of course, I've never done that in my current church, but in past churches …) I might be talking about gossip, and in my mind I'm thinking about somebody who gossips, maybe somebody who gossips about me. I will be careful not to say it in a way that would identify a specific person. But deep inside I'm feeling "I hope you know exactly who I'm talking about right here." And of course when I do that, I am misusing my authority.
Often that abuse comes out as just a little too much intensity. Too much octane. Too much emotion. Or language that has too much judgmentalism or self-righteousness.
Another way authority can be misused: by using the pretext of teaching the gospel to try to manipulate people to do what I want them to do. So, I want them to volunteer for a church activity because that will make me feel good about having a successful church. So I say, more or less, "I understand that you have to work in jobs for paychecks, so go ahead and do that. But if you really want to come to God—if you really want to serve God—come to our church and volunteer." What I'm really doing there is neglecting, theologically and spiritually, the whole notion that our work is an act of service to God, and I'm kind of playing off an artificial sacred/ secular divide in order to motivate people to do something that I want them to do because it will gratify my ego.
Yet another abuse is artificially produced emotion. Deliberately, consciously trying to manufacture emotion. At times I hear other preachers—and I have no doubt that it happens in me, sometimes when I'm not fully aware of it—and there will come a point in the sermon where it ought to sound like we're feeling deep emotion. And so, maybe without even thinking or intending it, there's this little pause, this little catch in the throat, this little tremor in the voice to make it sound like "oh, my heart is so tender toward God right now." And it's artificial. And if somebody's really good at it, it may be that nobody else even knows. But that's a manipulation of communication devices to try to capture authority.
Other preachers aren't tempted to produce false emotions, but they may be tempted to win arguments, usually theological or political arguments, from the pulpit. They want to settle scores. So they'll speak with artificial certainty. They will misrepresent opposing viewpoints or make fun of people who take other positions. They will use logic to reach conclusions that are not loving, kind, or completely true.
Authority also usually involves addressing the deeper human longings. This goes back to the old reformed framework of creation, fall, and redemption. We were made to long, and God loves to fulfill desires. Psalms 103:5 reads, "God satisfies their desires with good things." Before we were corrupted by the fall, desires were one of the primary indicators of God's will for a creature. Fish gotta swim! Birds gotta fly! God makes creatures a certain way, and places within them the desire to do certain things. But because sinful desires can lead us so badly astray, we Christians sometimes mistrust any desires and fail to recognize their importance.
Yes, sin has corrupted our desires. Even when I'm preaching, I have this mix of competing desires. I want to say "Thus saith the Lord," to declare God's Word—but I also want people to think that I'm a really good preacher so that I can feel good about myself. It's a mixture of ego, sin, and holy desires to serve God. I will wrestle with this as long as I live. But death to self is not death to all desire. We often fail to understand that death to self is actually the door to the liberation of the self God wants us to be.
What I don't want to do is try to manipulate people of longings or make false promises about longings being satisfied in ways that they will not be. I want use genuine authority to stir genuine desire for nobler things. Jesus did this: "Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." That promise is so inviting, so refreshing. If you linger over the Sermon on the Mount and imagine yourself hearing those words, you will realize how deeply Jesus spoke to human longings.
Actually, the essential themes of the gospel teach us about speaking to longings. We learn that desire, if it is fully submitted to God and broken through the process of repentance, will be reborn as something so magnificent and noble that we cannot now even imagine it.
Using Desire Properly
Sometimes you'll listen to communicators who are really effective because they're great at playing on longings and producing emotional responses in people. And that can make a talk really successful, and it can make a communicator really popular. But it can actually damage the spiritual formation because people become dependent on a story or a lofty experience during a sermon to have deep emotions about God. And then when they're removed from that setting, they find themselves not feeling much about God. And part of what spiritual formation involves is the reformation of my desire so that I am freed from desires that lead me away from God, and I am increasingly motivated by desires that lead me toward God and the life God wants me to live.
For us as communicators, that means we have to submit our natural tendency to speak to human longings and desires to the greater purpose of having Christ formed in the people we're speaking to. What that means is that I may come to a story and instead of telling it in a way that would evoke emotion or pity in the moment, I need to teach that in a way that helps explain to people: how do you arrange your life so that your desires get reordered?
The 12 Steps are really about the reordering of desire and becoming freed from desires that enslave me so that I can be moved by healthier desires. Often when I'm teaching, I will need to teach people how to do that rather than teaching in such a way that they actually become wrongly dependent on emotional experiences interminably.
I remember Richard Foster telling a story about a father who was really frustrated with his son in the grocery store. Nothing worked to change the son's behavior. So finally the father just started to sing a silly song to his son: "I love you. I'm glad you're my son, and I'm glad I get to be your dad." He sang it all the way out to the car, and he put the kid in the car seat, and his son just stretched his arms out and said, "Sing it to me again, Daddy. Sing it to me again."
To tell that story to a congregation, and then to say there is a God who wants to sing that song to you, to be your Father, to say, "You are precious in my sight and I love you"—that speaks to a longing deep inside the human heart. And you can feel, when you're preaching, just a kind of melting around that. But it's not manipulation. It's because the heart was made to be loved by God.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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