Back when I was a police officer, I remember arresting a man for a disturbance in the town centre of Paisley (near Glasgow). He had a tattoo on the back of his neck that read “Only God Can Judge Me”. Apparently, when he was in front of a judge a few days later, he offered to jump over the bench and chew the judge’s neck off. It was clear at this point that he had a problem with authority.
I think this helps us understand why so many people resist all forms of authority, because their impression is that they are ‘judged’ by it. This problem is far worse in the schemes of Scotland and, (I assume) other similar communities around the world.
In the schemes, this is due to a combination of negative experiences with police, social workers, broken families and, sometimes, abusive relationships. Sadly, the problem is even worse among women. When I was quite new here as a pastor in Maryhill, a local woman actually said out loud: “Just remember, I’ve got a problem with authority”. As someone who is trying to lead a church in this environment, this is an important aspect of the culture. Pastors in poor communities should be familiar with this reality.
Suspicion Runs Deep
I can give one more example to illustrate that a negative attitude to authority is most definitely a major problem in our schemes. There was a certain street a short walk from our Police Office in Ferguslie Park in Paisley where there would always be a group of people gathered. I would usually try and talk with the children when walking there, but there was one older male who was the self-proclaimed ‘leader’ who would say to them “I’ve told you not to speak to the police”. None of the children were his, but he felt it was his duty to inform them of the rules. He is now in prison serving a long sentence, but that’s not the point. The lesson here is that many children are taught from a young age to reject certain types of authority. Even those authority figures who would more than likely protect them at any cost.
I think it is helpful for our churches to know that this is the starting point for many people, and if this is new to some reading this, it may explain some situations you have experienced. This is one of the reasons why understanding the culture of the community you work in is vital. While all of us can be caught off guard from time to time, if you are in ministry in a Scottish scheme, you have to be very sensitive in the authority you rely on for your work. If you come across as judgemental or try to exert your authority to let everyone know there’s a new sheriff in town, well . . . I wouldn’t bother unpacking.
The Intent of Authority
There’s a helpful example in Acts 8:19 when a man named Simon sees the apostles ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon said to them: “Give me this authority”. If your desire is to have authority, then can I request that you don’t get involved in Christian ministry. There are certain types of authority that we should all rebel against. Yet, when we understand authority from a biblical perspective, we realise God has given it to us for our benefit.
In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we see something interesting happen when Jesus speaks. “And they were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). So, it wasn’t just what Jesus taught, but how he taught it—namely, the authority His teaching carried—that amazed people. There was something about the way Jesus carried Himself that left His hearers in awe.
From this alone, we know that authority can be a good thing. The kind of authority that amazed people was at least the confidence and wisdom that Jesus spoke with. The lesson for leaders is that, yes—ultimately—authority in the church resides in the Word of God, but the authority we rely on to lead our churches also comes from experience, wisdom, and confidence in God’s Word. If we think that our title alone gives us authority, then we’re in trouble. Especially in the schemes. Authority comes through hard work, time, and gaining people’s trust.
Authority and Servanthood
I often begin our leaders’ meetings with a reminder that we are servants of God and also the church. Yes, we are servants of the church God has called us to lead. Biblical leaders follow Jesus and help others to follow Him. So, if you can’t follow, you can’t lead (at least not in the biblical sense).
The Bible does encourage the body of the church to submit to the authority of the leaders. However, I would suggest that if a leader has to read this verse to convince their church to submit to them, then they have failed. “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” (Heb. 13:17)
Leaders, then, have to create a non-judgemental culture in their church that people are generally happy to submit to for the benefit of the whole body. The culture of the church should ultimately show that we are all followers of Jesus first. If we emphasise this, then we shouldn’t have to convince people to follow us. It will happen as we follow the Great Shepherd together.