Authority and Effecting Change

March 22, 2021
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I’ve recently had a few conversations that have prompted me to think closely about the nature of authority and it’s relationship to personal transformation. How does authority work and what does authority result in? It appears to me that understanding this well is critical if we want to be effective in the kingdom mandate that Jesus gives us.

As I’ve reflected on it, it seems to me there are different types of authority, and those different types of authority unlock different aspects that allow us to speak into different situations. Understanding which type of authority is needed for a given situation is, in my opinion, and important layer of self-awareness for effective discipleship. The types of distinct authority I’ve observed in my time in ministry are:

  1. Positional authority
  2. Cultural authority
  3. Relational authority
  4. Spiritual authority

Each of these are important in given situations, although in general as we make our way down the list, each is a more powerful aspect of authority that at times has the ability to bypass deficiencies in the others. Let’s look at them each in turn.

Positional Authority

Positional authority comes from authority that we have within an organization’s power structure. In terms of ministry we might first think of pastoral authority, but the truth is that many of the positions of volunteer leadership come with a dimension of positional authority as well. Home group leaders and members of the worship team walk in a degree of positional authority, as to people who work in different denominational roles. (There are, of course, many positional authority roles in non-ministry workplaces as well).

Positional authority is helpful when one needs to speak or act on behalf of the whole. A pastor (and to a lessor degree, a home group leader) is able to speak on behalf of not just their beliefs, but the stance of the church as a whole, and as such positional authority acts to define what is, and what is not, the boundaries of the “family” that each organization forms. These roles are able to allocate the resources of the whole to some degree and hence are important for cohesion and effectiveness of the the collective effort.

At times then, positional authority is helpful when the issue at stake is the coordination of the whole somehow. Perhaps someone is inquiring about the community’s stance on say a particular theological stance. It is not particularly well equipped to speaking correctively to an individual, because the underlying dynamic is a discussion about one’s role in the family - and that usually comes across as threatening as belonging is such a fundamental human need.

Cultural Authority

Cultural authority is the authority that we obtain by having a perceivable fit with the rest of society. It is the type of authority that comes from the sense that “they are like us”, and so they probably have something worthwhile to say. Perhaps we can even perceive that someone else is more “with it” than we are, and in that case we often see them as a source of authority since they seem to have their life together better than we do in accordance with the general patterns of culture around us.

When churches express a value for relevance, or create to make an environment that is welcoming for people who are not yet followers of Jesus, they are working to cultivate cultural authority. There are some people in my life who I can tell walk in a high degree of this; I often think of them as having the “spiritual gift of cool”. Do I actually think that is a real thing? No, I’m just being silly - but I am acknowledging there is an anointing to intersect and be well received by mainstream culture that rests upon them.

The sharp edge of cultural authority is that it is a powerful force for connecting with people who are not followers of Jesus. In general unbelievers are blinded to spiritual things:

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians 2:14

Which means that it is hard for unbelievers to perceive spiritual authority. They can at times, but it usually needs to be pretty acute, which means a much easier connection with unbelievers is either cultural or relational authority (they don’t usually care about positional authority within the church). If we already have a relationship, great, but if not, cultural authority may be the most effective tool we have.

It appears to me that the reason the seeker-sensitive church movement was as fruitful as it has been in reaching people for Jesus is that they became very effective at cultivating cultural authority for a particular audience. As culture is ever changing, the embodiement of what cultural authority looks like will change in time, and to me it looks like now the churches with the highest degree of cultural authority don’t look like seeker-sensitive churches anymore, but might look more like Elevation or Hillsong. Either way, the idea is to be very intentional to create a church with a high degree of cultural authority, as that has the potential to be an effective bridge to unbelievers - which has, in my opinion, demonstrated itself as a viable church model.

The weakness to cultural authority is that it doesn’t include the authority for deep formation in Christ. Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), which means that kingdom growth is by definition counter-cultural. As such, cultural authority is valuable for evangelism, but generally will not take you very far with discipleship (something seeker-sensitive churches have on the whole found difficult). 

Relational Authority

Relational authority is a more personal form of authority; it is the trust that we gain as a result of relationship and the permission that someone else grants us to speak into their life. Relational authority is the result of a proven relationship in which the other senses that we do want the best for them and have demonstrated ourselves trustworthy towards that aim. This makes it a much more powerful form of authority because the person has chosen to open up to us and to our input.

Relational authority is the key to navigating effective confrontation. If we are addressing anything specific in someone’s life, in general they will only listen to the extent that they have given us relational authority in their lives. Once we cross the line past the relational authority we have with that person, the walls go up and the input we have will be resisted. Relational authority helps us when the task at hand is for someone to make a choice: we leverage our relational authority with the person by giving input, and that input then factors into the decisions the person makes. The old adage “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is a statement that speaks to relational authority. The book of Proverbs says it this way:

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.  Proverbs 27:6

Much of the work of pastoral ministry works through the currency of relational authority as we help people navigate situations in their lives and make choices the keep them moving towards the things of the kingdom. Whether we are helping someone navigate a crisis, or establish basic patterns of connection with God, our relational authority is the key that unlocks the ability to give input which will be meaningfully considered by the person in their process.

When the two point in opposite directions, relational authority usually trumps cultural authority. This is why the has-to-be-cool high-schooler still has a soft spot in their heart for grandma and will hang out with her if grandma asks to have her come over and bake cookies, (even if the high-schooler has to overlook her anti-coolness the whole time). Felt relational connection overrides the lack of cultural authority. We don’t care if the people we are truly friends with are cool or not. Cool is fun for acquaintances, but we don’t care much about it when it comes to friends.

So relational authority is valuable in helping people in their choices. Said another way, relational authority is powerful in helping people as they step into the things that are right in front of them, stashed behind the doors of their present options. What relational authority will not do transform people directly. Relational authority will help people transform themselves, but if what the person needs for transformation is not within the power of their own choice, relational authority will feel like it isn’t getting very far. The person will continue to spin their wheels and won’t grow or change through time, and that is because the change they need is something that needs to be given to them, not something they can pick up for themselves. Relational authority cannot give a spiritual deposit.

Spiritual Authority

Spiritual authority is the authority to effect dynamics in the spiritual realm. It is when our words and actions change not only things on the natural level, but the spiritual level. Jesus walked in this kind of authority:

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. Matthew 7:28-29

Notice the language here: as Jesus taught, the crowds were astonished because of the authority it carried. This is what spiritual authority does: it unlocks kingdom dynamics that transcend the natural rules of this world. When spiritual authority is active, we tend to find ourselves in a place of awe or wonder. We sense “whatever is happening right now isn’t normal” and we experience a sense of heaven drawing near. Sometimes it feels like time stops. Sometimes it feels like the rest of the world fades away. Sometimes it almost feels like we are holding our breath because we don’t want this transcendent moment to end.

I believe this is what Jesus’ disciples are reflecting on after the Road to Emmaus incident:

They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" Luke 24:32

Their reflection is on the quality of their experience: something non-normal happened as Jesus shared with them. Their hearts burned; this was their body’s response to experiencing the spiritual shift that Jesus’ spiritual authority introduced. (The other common occurrence around this spiritual authority in the Scriptures is demons manifesting as they respond to the changes in the spiritual environment.)

It is this otherworldly quality that allows spiritual authority to bypass the rules of cultural authority or relational authority at times. When God is moving in a moment, a lot of the normal rules go out the window and people jump in because their spirit in them senses God and is drawn to his presence and activity.

Spiritual authority produces spiritual shifts: there is a grace present in the process that leaves the person with something in the spiritual realm they did not have before. We often think of the term impartation as having to do with prayer ministry gifts (which it does), but Paul seems to see the term more broadly:

For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you- Romans 1:11

Paul believes the impartation will result in strength: a new capacity. This is what spiritual authority does; it ministers grace to people to give them new capacities. Sometimes people are stuck because they don’t have the grace they need to get out of the rut they are in, or to do what God is calling them to do next. It isn’t a matter of their choice; it is a matter of the grace they have access to walk in. Gaining access to grace in new ways empowers us to live our Christian lives with new capacities. Sure, sometimes that looks like the ability to pray or prophesy, but it can also look like the ability to love more deeply even when we’ve been wronged, or to be patient with our children when before they would have gotten under our skin. The grace of God is for empowering every aspect and every facet of our lives, and because spiritual authority unlocks access to that grace, it has a transformative power that the other types of authority do not.

Putting it all Together

These are my current thoughts; as with everything, they are in process and subject to change as I continue to learn and grow. If you find them helpful, here are a few thoughts as to how this indexing of types of authority may be helpful in the context of the kingdom work Jesus calls us to:

Learn to recognize the different types of authority

Part of what I find helpful about this framework is it helps me to understand different people around me. Take some time and consider some of the other people you do the kingdom life with: who is walking in a higher level of positional authority? Cultural authority? Relational? Spiritual? Take some time and reflect on that and get a sense of what it is like to be around each of these types of authority. What do they feel like? Where have you seen them be effective in working change? Where have you seen them be ineffective? Take some time and turn over these types of authority in your life and experience and familiarize yourself with them.

Evaluate how much of these types of authority you presently walk in

Once you’ve developed a capacity to recognize these types of authority, take some time and consider your life. What order would you rank these in terms of the highest-to-lowest degree in your life? What do you feel God has given you a degree of authority in, and where do you see yourself as not particularly strong? For those strengths, how can you continue to lean in and develop them? For the weaknesses, are those areas you should shore up, or is that not part of your assignment?

Identify where we may have tried to use the wrong type of authority in the past

It is also worth taking some reflection time to think about times we’ve tried to use the wrong type of authority for the task at hand. Each type of authority works most effectively in a specific context, but if we’re not tracking with that reality, we tend to try and use whatever type of authority we feel most comfortable with to effect every type of change. Looking back at it, I can see plenty of times I’ve leaned into the wrong type of authority for a given situation and it hasn’t been effective. These types of authority usually aren’t good substitutes for each other; how can we be more purposeful in the future?

Determine where God is leading you to invest in growing right now

Each of these types of authority is good, and God will bring us through seasons in growth and development in different ones. Which type of authority is God working to cultivate in your life right now? How can you partner with God to grow in that type of authority? When we are intentional about partnering with God for our growth, we always make a lot more progress a lot more quickly.

Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication and journeying towards the future God has for the church and the world.

Putty founded the School of Kingdom Ministry and spent eleven years as a pastor on the staff team of The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. He is the author of two books, and lives with his wife and three children in Champaign, IL.

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