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Power and Authority


Everyone is to obey the governing authorities, because there is no authority except from God and so whatever authorities exist have been appointed by God... Pay to each one what is due to each: taxes to the one to whom tax is due, tolls to the one to whom tolls ar due, respect to the one to whom respect is due, honor to the one to whom honor is due. Romans 13:1;7

You know that among the gentiles those they call their rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of man himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:42-44


The passage from Romans above has been used over the centuries by many dictatorial powers to cloth themselves with the authority of God and thereby gain the obedience of the nation over which they seek to rule. On first glance it would seem to greatly contradict the statement of Jesus found in Mark's gospel. Actually, however, the two are quite consistent.

Read carefully, Paul's advise to the Christians in Rome tends to subvert rather than uphold the rulers of the day. The unstated implication of the assertion that authority is given is that it can also be denied or taken away. Such a statement coming from the mouth of one who grants ultimate authority in his life to another human (Jesus) constitutes at least a potential threat to Roman rule.

The Emperor was the official governing authority in Paul's day. He was to be considered as God and maximum obedience was therefore expected. To claim otherwise was to risk punishment, possibly death. Using words that would seem to justify the absolute authority of the Roman government Paul is actually undermining it. To assert as he does that that rulers derive their authority from God is to diminish their claim and could be construed as an act of civil disobedience. Rome saw its Emperor as God. Paul puts another God in his place. Rome saw its Emperor as the human incarnation of God. The Christian assertion that Jesus was God's representative on earth (the "Son of God") challenged the Roman claim and was, therefore, a direct affront to the authority on which their government was built.

Far from being an endorsement of general obedience to Roman authority, Paul's words assert a belief that could, and perhaps did, lead to his death.

Paul's suggestion that Christians pay taxes and tolls to whom they are due and respect and honor to whom they are due would be akin to Martin Luther King telling the carpool leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott, "Now be sure to obey the traffic laws when you are driving our people to work. The police are exercising legitimate authority when they enforce them. And we all know they are looking for every opportunity to discredit us in the eyes of the people and they will arrest you if you are in violation. Keep your eyes on the prize. We must all give the law the respect and honor it deserves."

A Roman ruler reading Paul's letter might well see it as a violation of the law.Seeking to determine how seriously he should take the potential for rebellion inherent in the letter he might well choose to investigate this Jesus. What he would learn would serve to greatly heighten his level of anxiety.

Jesus directly challenged Roman rule, not only in his words but also in his deeds. Indeed, the "authorities" in his time and place had felt it necessary to crucify this leader they saw as a possible pretender to the crown of the Jews. Worse, after killing off the leader, Jesus' followers refused to accept his death as the end of the story and continued the task of organizing the Kingdom of God he had sought to create -- and their community was growing and spreading across the empire.

Jesus saw that authority was a gift of God and his ministry was about the application of that philosophy. God did not give authority to humans so we could possess it. Rather, God gave authority so that we in turn could give it away and that is what Jesus did. What is the logic of this argument that to be first you must be a slave to all? Was this man insane, he even claimed that to be divine you must give your life away for others? He even did it. And if this Paul's letter is any evidence, it seems to be working! More and more people are giving more authority to this Jesus than they are to the Emperor.


The central message of Mark's gospel has to do with the authority of Christ and God. He makes this clear at the start, "at once on the Sabbath he went into the synagogue and began to teach. And his teaching made a deep impression on them, because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority." (1:22) The primary purpose behind the healing stories is to demonstrate that Jesus has indeed been givenauthority by God and that he uses it for the benefit of those in need and to enlarge the Kingdom of God.

"The people were so astonished that they started asking one another what it all meant, saying, 'Here is a teaching that is new, and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.' And his reputation at once spread everywhere, through all the surrounding Galilean countryside." (1:27-28)

It was not long until he demonstrated how others could practice what he preached: "He made a tour round the villages, teaching. Then he summoned the Twelve and began to send them out in pairs, giving them authority over unclean spirits." (6:7-8)

Having given authority to the twelve he began to spread it more widely among the people: "He called the people and his disciples to him and said, 'If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and followme. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." In this view the means of gaining authority and power is reciprocal. Jesus gives it to the disciples; they pass it on to more people who in turn are to give themselves for the Gospel.

The disciples, not unlike the Roman ruler, did not find this message easy to understand. Mark repeats the formula "to be first one must be last" in three separate instances -- 8:35-36; 9:33-37; 10:41-45 -- and then writes the passion narrative as a story implementing the formula.

The entrance into Jerusalem on a colt is a symbolic action representing a humble conception of power shared with others. The take over of the Temple's public space is a concrete action literally seeking to make the first last and the last first. The power relationships are made explicit in the repeated allusions (11:18; 12:12; 14:49) to the priests' and scribes' fear of the people. The priests and scribes directly challenge Jesus on the issue of authority (11:27-33) and he proceeds to declare the purpose of his action with the parable of the wicked tenants: "The stone the builders had rejected has become the cornerstone; this is the Lord's doing." The principle being that God is taking authority away from those who are first and giving it to those who are last -- the Kingdom is at hand.

The first / last formula repeats endlessly in Mark's account of holy week. It even applies to Jesus himself as the Last Supper demonstrates. Jesus, identifies himself with the lamb of the Exodus and sacrifices himself: "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many." Yet, having passed on authority to the disciples and through them to the church, the circular pattern of power continues as "you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven" (14:62). The resurrection is the ultimate confirmation of the formula.


Gene Sharp (senior scholar of the Albert Einstein Institute, the major funder of "A Force More Powerful") has written extensively about power and authority. Sharp writes:

"There are two views of the nature of power. One can see the power of government as emitted from the few who stand at the pinnacle of command. Or one can see that power, in all governments, is continually rising from many parts of society. One can also see power as self- perpetuating, durable, not easily or quickly controlled or destroyed. Or political power can be viewed as fragile, always dependent for its strength and existence upon a replenishment of its sources by the cooperation of a multitude of institutions and people -- cooperation which may or may not continue... power wielded by 'rulers' is not intrinsic to them... the exercise of power depends on the consent of the ruled who, by withdrawing that consent can control and even destroy the power of their opponent."

Sharp defines six sources of power, all of them dependent in one way or another on the obedience or "consent of the governed":
  1. Authority -- the right to command and be obeyed by others that is voluntarily accepted by the people. This is the primary source.

  2. Human resources -- the number of people, and their proportion in the population, who grant authority to a 'ruler'.

  3. Skills and knowledge -- the abilities of the people who consent to obey.

  4. Intangible factors -- the habits and attitudes towards obedience and the presence or absence of a common faith, ideology, or sense of mission.

  5. Material resources -- the degree of control over natural and financial resources along with means of communication and transportation.

  6. Sanctions -- the type and extent of methods available for coercing obedience.

This definition of power closely resembles the first / last formula of Mark's gospel -- it sees authority as a gift not a possession. In his three volume study, "The Politics of Nonviolent Action", Sharp exhaustively demonstrates the ways in which power functions according to this principle. It is this view of power that is illustrated in the six segments of "A Force More Powerful".

According to this theory, when trying to alter the policies of a ruler (or to replace the ruler) the key is to get large numbers of people to transfer their consent to an alternative authority and to get sufficient numbers of people who provide the services which enables the ruler to rule to cease or reduce their obedience.

As citizens of the contemporary world's imperial ruler, and also of a nation with considerable institutional support for governing via the "consent of the governed", we have a special opportunity and responsibility to preserve and increase justice in our communities, our nation, and on God's planet.

THE VIDEO: "A FORCE MORE POWERFUL -- A Century of Nonviolent Conflict: Nashville

  1. What are the similarities between the action of the students and that of Jesus and his supporters during Holy Week?

  2. What steps did the students take to garner public consent for their actions?

  3. What steps did the students take to garner public support for their actions?

  4. What steps did the students take to reduce the obedience of citizens providing critical support for the institutions implementing segregation?

  5. Violent action seeks to restrict the numbers of individuals with authority via extreme sanctions on the citizenry and the disruption of civic institutions. Nonviolent action seeks to broaden the distribution of authority and to replace one set of civic institutions or policies with another. Assuming the success of either, which is more likely to have a long lasting impact? Is it possible to effectively implement a mixture of the two approaches?


The washing of the feet is an excellent form of worship evoking the first / last view of authority.

Holy communion, with its demonstration of the first becoming last and thereby empowering the last to become first is perhaps the preeminent Christian worship activity demonstrating the spiritual basis for the functioning of power.

Try devising a worship service built around the "cleansing" of the Temple.


"When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one People... to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes...

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the persuit of happiness -- that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

QUESTION: What are the similarities and differences between the "first / last" conception of power in Mark's Gospel & Paul's letter to the Romans and the conception of power in America's Declaration of Independence?


Jesus' ministry seems to have followed a pattern of gathering smaller groups, preparation for further outreach, sending out to the larger public, and re-gathering (Luke 9:1; 10:1). The Lord's Supper, with it's emphasis on community, gathering, covenant, and sacrifice for the larger community, is evidence of the spiritual nature of politics in the Kingdom of God.

A suggested process for "Spiritual Praxis" of a small group engaging people in a local community:
  • assess
  • worship
  • plan
  • ask (possible questions: what does our community provide that sustains your personal and family life? what are the unmet needs in our community? what does our nation provide that sustains your personal, family, and community life? what are the unmet needs in our nation? what are the unmet needs of the world community?)
  • listen
  • assess
  • worship
  • plan
  • invite those whom you've asked
  • act
  • repeat steps
  • on church letterhead

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