Some years ago, just as I was finishing my dissertation, an old friend gave me a friendly warning about a pitfall that I would soon encounter. He said to me, “You know, the problem is, once you are a “Dr.” people think you are an expert in everything.” While he was exaggerating a bit, it is true that the letters Ph.D. behind one’s name lend authority to whatever that person says. And my old friend was mostly right: once I graduated, people frequently responded to the letters behind my name. One day I was a guy who had been in school way too long and the next day I was somebody worth listening to.
What is true authority? Why ought we to listen to and pattern our lives after someone? We all need examples of how to live, and nothing instructs like flesh-and-blood. He who has no model is frequently adrift and unhappy, and he who follows a poor example may not realize that his unhappiness stems from it. What causes us to follow poor examples? Allow me to consider a couple of errant paths that are rooted in limited authority.
Authority is not merely given by conferred status. I may address a priest as “Father,” but according to Jesus, my trash collector may have more real authority. When the Jews challenged Jesus’s authority at the temple, he replied, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” (John 7:16-18) The priest has the “authority” to carry out offices within the church, and as a parishioner, I do have to respect his “official” authority. But Jesus clearly separates true authority from false, and he who pursues his own glory should not be an example, even if he is a priest. Ideally, the conferred authority also has true authority, but frequently the two do not coincide.
A second species of limited authority is not conferred but merely limited to a “particular virtue”. I often read that an athlete has been cut from a team despite his near limitless talent, and the cause is typically a life of vice. Let’s get it through our heads that so many people have all kinds of particular talents with little talent for living. If I want to rebound a basketball like Dennis Rodman, then by all means, I should study his every move. Write a story? Look to Oscar Wilde. Design a house? Imitate Frank Lloyd Wright. But from what I read, I ought to forget everything else about their wayward lives.
Those men were each excellent in their particular way, and the world glorified them for their talent. Jesus’ words in John 7 and his whole life show, however, that he who does the will of God and does not seek his own glory is the one we should take for our authority. Jesus himself was and is the authority, but in so far as some people imitate him, they too are authorities.
I frequently find models in people who have little in the way of worldly glory. My own mother and mother-in-law will not make the headlines, but they have lived well. My former priest has authority in my life, and so does a friend who grew up in inner city Los Angeles. None of these people will go down in history, be rich, or steer large institutions. But they each know how to love God and those around them. They have the right end in view, and their lives are a constant reminder of how I ought to live.