Leadership vs. Authority

Living in Illinois the past month has given me reason to reflect on the nature of leadership. I’m sure everyone who isn’t living under a rock has heard about the recent… troubles of our governor. Even now the wheels are turning to force him from office and convict him of criminal wrong-doing. People are saying that he is no longer fit to lead, that no one will now follow his leadership, the state is looking for new leadership.

We also hear about leadership within the Church. Sometimes its criticism of the bishops’ leadership or that a new pastor has been brought in the lead the local parish. This is understandable; after all, modern organizational practice seems built on a foundation of charismatic leaders who can inspire others to greater productivity and cooperation. Just look at the many books outlining systems and tips for leadership which have become staples for CEOs and VPs around the country; I’ve even got a small section of shelf space devoted to such titles as Leadership on the Line and Heroic Leadership in my office.

But speaking of leadership in the Church is, I think a misnomer — or, at least, a deviation from the way God has ordered our communal life as the People of God. God does not call people to leadership as such; nowhere, as near as I can tell, does Scripture describe leadership as a role in the Church or a gift of the Holy Spirit. (Even the gift of kubernesis in 1Cor 12:28, sometimes translated as “leadership,” is more akin to administration — it is the root of our word “govern”.)

God does not give us leaders; rather, he grants authority to those he chooses for specific roles in the community. This may seem like a small distinction, but it is, I think, a crucial one. We follow leaders of our own accord, subject the whims and fancies of fallen man. I may like this politician one week and another the next, depending on my mood (to say nothing of the popular consensus). But we are called to obey those with authority, not because we want to but because it is the natural way of things. We are all called to different roles. A foot is a foot and the head is a head; they each have a proper role to play in the body (cf 1 Cor 12:12-20). It would be improper — not to mention disastrous! — if we tried to use our head as a foot and vice versa.

To take a simple example, parents have authority over their children (who are, in turn, commanded to respect their parents). It doesn’t matter how likable a father is or how much charisma a mother has; families are comprised of a natural hierarchy. Parents guide and teach their children to live a good, virtuous life. Their authority is not arbitrary; it has a purpose and an end towards which it is ordered. A child cannot govern a household (a fact that may not be apparent on most television shows these days), and it is a tragedy we all recognize when a child is called upon to act as the adult in a home.

Not don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying the child is less important or less deserving than the parent. Merely that it is not their role to head the household. There may even be exceptions (as in those regrettable circumstances when parents cannot, or will not, run the household in a right and just manner). But those exceptions, by definition, are not normative and should not be seen as equal — either qualitatively or quantitatively — to the norm. We should strive of the ideal, even when we must content ourselves with the actual.

So it is in the Church. We all have our roles; we are not all given the same role or authority. To forget this distorts the natural order and leaves us, in times of crisis, with no stable foundation on which to reside.